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Who What Where When Why How  7.2. I Have a Sunbeam

Some words, from you, about the vehicle you have and why you have it. Tell Me your story.

Tiger - Ken Mandell - Utah
I sold these when they were new - I never thought that I'd wind up owning one for 20+ years! I sold a Ferrari because it was too expensive to repair and insure - that was the best decision that I ever made. I can work on the Tiger and it provides us with all the excitement that we need (at an affordable cost).

Tiger - unknown - unknown
Ever since I was a kid, I've always had an interest in automobiles and Rootes cars in particular. My Dad was a Rootes dealer in Paris, France, back in the 60s. He taught me how to drive in a Hillman Husky, the chassis of which was the basis for the Sunbeam Alpine. I discovered the C.A.T. newsletter while contemplating the purchase of a Tiger, years back. Then I got really busy with my daytime job and put the Sunbeam dream aside. But it came back, haunting, with the call of the V8, the walnut dash or the Smith tachometer, I can't remember. Probably all. But here is how it all began for me...

For five years running and almost every evening around dinner time, my brothers and I waited anxiously for a singular British sounding horn outside our living room. Outside, in any of the Rootes car ot the year or the month for that matter my Dad returning from a long days work, waited to see one of his three sons scurry down the driveway to swing the gates wide open. Between 1959 and 1964, every weekday, Dad would drive home with an astonishing variety of Rootes cars. He was employed by the Rootes Group, 6 Rond-Point des Champs Elysées, in Paris, France, as a general sales manager. Made responsible for sales to non-residents, his job was to help the car maker promote its entire line of automobiles to the American GIs stationed in France, until DeGaulle ousted them once and for all.

The soldiers had a chance to buy these truly unusual automobiles duty-free and drive them throughout Europe. At the end of their term, they'd pay the custom fees on the value of the used car and Uncle Sam would help ship them back to the States along with their other accumulated European goods.

As a kid, I was really, really into cars. I had been brought up hovering between my grandfather's garage he ran several bus lines and leased 18- wheelers to the French gas company Total - and between my Dad's jobs with Ford, selling Crown Victorias to the wealthy French and then with the little- known Rootes Group. I can say that I drove (while under age) all the Hillmans, Rapiers, Humbers, Imps, Commers and just about everything that the Group would dare push onto the American market. Those years were great fun for my brothers and I, and apart from the occasional fights we'd have as to whose turn it was to open the garage gates, the dual horns meant a different version of the preceding night's car, or a totally new model fresh from the showroom floor. As soon as the car was stopped and in for the night, we'd hop into the driver's seat and pretend-drive until we had exhausted the use of all the controls and buttons on those peculiar British dashboards.

Wishing to become an automotive designer in my teens, I can remember the oddness of the Rootes styling. Almost every model in the late 50s - early 60s attempting to duplicate the wrapping windshields, toothy front grilles and curvy fender fins found on American cars of the times. I would always draw them in my textbook margins to the great dismay of my french teachers.

Then, one evening in 59, an uncommon sound alerted us to the gates. We rushed out and saw Dad, proudly waiting at the wheel of a little red convertible. Without a doubt, a sporty looking roadster. It was the very first Sunbeam ever to hit the narrow roads of France. Flawless, with its simple lines, smooth, with a low pointed snout like an Irish setter on the stalk, its tails proudly pointing upward. Dad had finally brought home the pick of the litter. We all took turns for a drive or a ride around the neighborhood. What a thrill to hear the sound of the 78 horsepower engine through its enchanting exhaust. It felt so powerful back then. A true Brit sports car, with its generous white-walled tires and chromed hubcaps, obviously fitted to lure American buyers.

From then on we were privy to a veritable parade of Alpines with different color configurations, options, and finally the good looking wire wheels with appropriate all black tires. We had very different looking Sunbeams at home every night and we were absolutely delighted. The happiest kids on the block. At the beginning of the Sunbeam Alpine era, my Dad had been asked to show the car on most of the American army bases around the Paris region.

So he had decided to participate in some of the time trials and short races held on the airfields. He raced the GIs who'd compete at the wheel of their Healeys, Volvos P18s, Sprites, TRs, AC Bristols and whatever they thought would be fun at the time. We'd take to the roads on weekends, Dad's Alpines well prepped by Rootes of course, Mom following in a Humber SuperSnipe with us kids tossed in the back. Dad was an excellent smooth driver with plenty of style, and got plenty of trophies to prove it. My brothers and I loved it but Mom didn't care to see her husband race cars in front of the kids every week. The fun time trials, as exciting as they were, were short-lived.

My father's other hobby was building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes. With healthy frequency, Sundays generally, the equipment got tightly packed in the small flat trunk and we'd head out to the airfield. We'd give Dad a hand with his planes by holding down the tail by the elevator, engine running full-throttle, wooden prop blasting ice-cold fuel on our already frigid hands till he reached the transmitter and signaled us to let go. Once the model had gathered sufficient airspeed and the pilot was concentrating on perfecting his loops, himmelmans and upside down flying skills, my brother and I would muster enough courage to ask him for the car keys. We soon learned how to handle the little Brit as we heel-and- toed our way around abandoned runways and surrounding country roads at breakneck speeds. Couple of teenagers Top down No seat belts No license Company car Flat-out thrills.

Back at home, Dad had pointed out that an Italian coachbuilder had been commissioned to redesign a Sunbeam for Rootes. We got really excited and began conjuring images of ourselves driving Maserati-inspired Sunbeams. Several weeks later, when he pulled up in the satiny Venezia, we were quite disappointed. We walked around it, enumerating how many Sunbeam and Humber Sceptre features the so-called coachbuilder had made use of. Even I could draw cars that were far more inspiring in high school. The Harrington though was a fantastic automobile. Dad had one for just a few days. Red, superb, swift fastback with a British flair and its little round tail lights that were later to reappear on the Imp. I remember the exquisite finish inside. It was a Le Mans. I wonder where it is now.

A few years past and we're introduced to the Sunbeam Tiger. That was around the end of Dad's tenure at Rootes. So sadly we didn't get to see the later models. But I can remember one Sunday morning being outside with my brothers and suddenly noticing a plume of smoke billowing from nearby Orly airport. It could only be the cause of a major plane crash. I knew planes too well, even at a young age. So my older brother and I hoped in the Tiger as my Dad rushed to the scene. It was an exhilarating ride. Both for the dashing speed at which my father drove, and the way he was handling the powerful car but also because of the excitement of the catastrophe at hand. My younger brother who had stayed home very disappointed, later told me that it had felt like it had been the longest wait of his life.

On weekdays as Dad left for work, hed give us a lift to school and we would giggle as the Tiger tore up the steep hill we'd have so much trouble climbing with our bikes.

Soon after, he was put in charge of selling the little Hillman Imp which Rootes wanted to get out to the public. It seemed to be the perfect car for us teens. Just the right size and the right amount of coolness. We'd always get up early, go start the car - as if a favor to Dad - but instead we'd try to make the front wheels pop off the ground in first gear. If it hadn't been for the gravel on the sidewalk, Im sure we would've managed.

Dad left Rootes after the fall of 64. His last and favorite Sunbeam - was a Series V, midnight blue with an automatic transmission. Not as much fun for us to cruise the airstrips with but as a novelty we made a point of adding a fair amount of miles to its Smith odometer. Dad did have a very short stint with Fiat then left the auto world to open his very own hobby store. My brother went to the Army, spent a year in Vietnam and I wandered in and out of school. All I wanted to do was draw cars. When my brother returned to France after three years, we both set out to build and sell Dune Buggies. We'd buy old VeeDubs, remove their bodies, cut and weld their chassis back together and plop them on a custom-made fiberglass body. Our business thrived for a couple of years until the French government told us about their interest in seeing our buggies perform the notorious crash test. That wrapped our promising car-building career as abruptly as the impact would have been on the official crash.

I then moved to the States. I took up graphic design retaining a strong interest in car styling. But I was unable to afford the tuition at the Art Center College of Design in LA - the world's best automotive design school. I'd drive by often and envy the students pencil-sketching Lamborghinis on the front lawn of the campus. But I did well within my chosen field, got involved in film graphics and started a business designing printed props for the movies. All those newspapers, non-brand beer labels and the like that actors handle during their performances. But Rootes remained in the back of my mind as I recall how it all came back to me. A friend of mine had told me that on his way home he had pulled up next to a cool convertible sports car he had never heard of before. It was called a Sunbeam. At that moment, memories of my Dad's cars came flooding back. It took me all these years and my friend's attraction to this mystery car to spark a renewed interest in acquiring one of my own.

Sure, I had the desire all along, but the funds were never there at the same time. Not being a mechanic, I did not want a money pit, or even a fixer- upper. Last year, I was finally ready to make a move for that hard-to-find- drivable, decent looking Tiger that would require so little or no work at all! After an intense search through C.A.T., the Internet and other venues, I found what I believed what I was looking for. A handsome, square- shouldered healthy-looking, 1966 Tiger Mk1A with all matching numbers. This one looked good sitting on a set of 15 Panasports and low profile Dunlops. After numerous calls to the seller, I decided that it was time to make a move. I bought the car in January of 2002, in Vancouver, Canada. An emotional purchase for me in more ways than one. The owner asked if I would drive it back to Los Angeles but I preferred to have it trucked. And I'm glad I did. For one, Canadian license tags are removed upon the transaction. But moreover, the car was in no shape.

I paid $20,000 for it so the seller got $31,000 Canadian dollars. I guess we both made good on the deal. I had the front end redone, the timing, the brakes, the exhaust system replaced from the manifold out with club headers installed by a courageous mechanic, a brand new cloth top and tonneau cover. It has a Holley Carb mounted on an Edelbrock manifold replaced also with a better matched set. An MSD distributor was installed and I finally had some plating work done on many engine parts. All in all, I've spent an additional $15,000 on my non-fixer-upper. I don't regret any bit of it. I drive it as often as I can although the shops seem to have it more than I do at times. Often enough though its ready for the great summer drives on the glorious coastal roads of Southern California.

I love the car for the very fond memories it evokes. The particular sound of the dash switches alone remind me of my Dad. And just like him forty years ago, I get a kick waltzing it out of tight turns.

I've rejoined C.A.T again and eventually volunteered to publish the newsletter which I did for one year. I'm always interested in sharing my experiences with other Sunbeam owners and I'm intrigued by others who have discovered, driven and fallen in love with this scarcely exotic automobile that has such a significant historical background. I'm now in the process of designing and marketing fine Sunbeam and Rootes gifts and apparel which I have never been able to find elsewhere. It gives me the opportunity to apply my design skills to one of my favorite hobbies and hopefully to share the joy with other Rootes enthusiasts.

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JOY/DLN/CMNY/1.5 - April 13, 2004