If you went looking for the true father of the Sunbeam Tiger, you might surmise that American Carroll Shelby would be the one. And while Shelby did a great deal of the development on the car, the initial idea to put an American V8 engine into the British built Sunbeam Alpine came from celebrated Australian racecar driver and F1 campion, Jack Brabham. Frustrated by the lack of power from its small four-cylinder engine, Parent company Rootes Group had even considered working with Ferrari to develop a more powerful in-line four-cylinder engine to suit their needs. With no results spawning from that hopeful Anglo-Italian union, Brabham contacted Norman Garrad at Rootes, with the idea of dropping a Ford V8 engine into the Alpine. Garrad’s son Ian was conveniently located in California, operating as the West Coast Sales Manager for Rootes, not far from the Shelby headquarters. Shelby and his team had already made considerable inroads with the V8 conversion of the AC Ace, which would eventually become the Cobra, so it made sense that much of that learning could be applied to the Alpine.
With both size and weight advantages, the potent Ford 260 V8 was a near perfect fit, requiring some engineering modifications to the chassis and suspension, but yielding a very potent and cost-effective sports car that could be easily converted in volume production.
Upon release, sales were brisk and surprisingly robust, causing Rootes to pull away from Shelby as the manufacturing source for the cars, instead giving the duties to Jensen in the UK, capable of building 300 cars per month, a figure that Shelby would have struggled to achieve even if he had the capacity. Ultimately, more than 7,000 Tigers were built, making it one of the most successful volume-built sports cars offered from an essentially cottage manufacturer. Production might very well have continued, as sales were still strong, when Chrysler took a controlling interest in Rootes Group. Flummoxed by the Ford engine in a car that was now sold by Chrysler, Mother Mopar searched eagerly for an engine in their lineup that might fit, finding all potential contenders to be too wide to fit the engine bay without significant modifications. Chrysler had no choice but to cease production. The last Tiger departed the assembly line in 1967, still powered by the updated Ford 289 engine, but with all Tigers curiously wearing the gold Chrysler Pentastar emblem on its lower left front fender.
The Tiger was not only a refined and cleverly manufactured sports car, it proved to be highly capable in racing trim including three Tigers constructed specifically for Le Mans racing, an endless series of successful rally cars competing all over the world and often finishing in the winner’s circle. Popularized in 1960s television, the Tiger was a feature of the TV show “Get Smart”, occasionally featured with sophisticated James Bond-like features despite Maxwell Smart’s ongoing spy bumblings.