Monday February 6, 2017
Written by Andy Roberts
Last year I wrote about how, back in the summer of 1977, Petula Clark advised all ITV viewers to put a Chrysler Sunbeam in their lives.
Such is the sheer unabashed cheesiness of this commercial – I would personally rate it as ‘Prime Stilton’ - that the achievement of the actual subject is sometimes overlooked. The Sunbeam was devised at a time when Chrysler was considering closing its UK operations and its success would be essential to both keep the Linwood factory open and to provide a viable alternative to the likes of the Vauxhall Chevette.
The Sunbeam project was first mooted in January 1976 and just 18 months later it was formally launched as the car that would ‘put a smile on your face’. The floorpan was derived from the Avenger and the engines were the familiar 1.3 and 1.6 litre units, with the cheaper models powered by a 928cc plant derived from the Hillman Imp. These tried and tested components were clad in a body that looked as smart and contemporary as Atari TV Tennis, while the flagship 1.6S was very well appointed and altogether the perfect transport for the sort of young executive who sported a Dennis Waterman haircut and a gold Casio digital watch.
In fact, the Sunbeam’s major sales challenge was that it was RWD – that was not so much of a marketing issue in Britain of the late 1970s – but that it joined a line-up of models that was best described as ‘chaotic’. In 1977, a showroom might contain several older designs, the Avenger and the Hunter plus the Simcas 1000 and 1100, alongside more recent offerings such as the Alpine. Then there was the highly distinctive Matra Rancho and the 2-Litre (a not conspicuously successful Granada rival) in addition to preparations for the soon to debut Horizon. Under such circumstances, any salesman would be forgiven for defecting to British Leyland.
However, Chrysler tried to ensure a niche for the Sunbeam; the two-door Avenger was dropped to prevent any possible clash and the fact that it was a three-door RWD saloon obviously differentiated it from the similarly sized five door FWD Horizon. Adverts claimed that the new model was ‘one of the most exiting happenings in small family cars today’ but although in the UK 40 years ago, the threshold for ‘excitement’ could be set fairly low (trust me, I was there), the Sunbeam was really targeting those potential buyers who wanted a mechanically straightforward hatchback.
1978 saw the launch of the Sunbeam aimed at all red-blooded boy racers who liked to dream that they were the King of the B3051. The 1.6Ti was powered by the Avenger Tiger engine and boasted a top speed of 111 mph plus a distinctive paint finish but more was yet to come. The success of the Chevette 2300HS and the Ford Escort RS2000 Mk. II had not gone un-noted by Chrysler, and their answer was genius in its simplicity. The Sunbeam was given enhanced suspension before being despatched to the Lotus works to receive a 150bhp 16V 2.3 litre engine and five-speed ZF transmission.
The resulting Sunbeam-Lotus made its bow in April 1979 when it instantly became an object of desire for all would-be Roger Clarks who drove the 1.0 LS. The alloy wheels and a black and silver paint finish added distinction, without any Flash Harry overtones, and the top speed was a blistering 121 mph. £7,000 may have been a great deal of money for a small three door car but as Motor observed ‘there is precious little at the price to give you so much’. A dissenting note was struck by the great L J K Setrght, who grumbled, James Robertson-Justice fashion, that the gearbox had apparently been influenced by ‘a blundering nincompoop’.
The Lotus debuted at a time of corporate change; it initially wore a Pentastar badge but, following the sale of Chrysler’s European operations to Peugeot, the first road-going examples were sold as Talbots. The new regime meant that the Sunbeam’s lifespan was inevitably limited and production ceased in 1981, the same year that the Lotus gained Talbot the Manufacturer’s Championship. It was an appropriately high note to end the career of a ‘stop-gap’ model of considerable achievements given the circumstances of its launch. As Petula promised, the Sunbeam really was the car that ‘gives you a glow’.