Sunbeam Tiger: Shelby’s Other V8 British Roadster

This Sunbeam Tiger puts a distinctly British spin on Shelby’s formula of lightweight roadster plus big V8 power.

Small Car, Big Power

Name a British roadster Carroll Shelby put an American V8 into. We’ll wait.

If you said the AC Ace, which resulted in the AC Cobra, you’d be right. However, if you instead named the Sunbeam Alpine, which then resulted in the Sunbeam Tiger, you’d still be correct. What’s that? A second British roadster with the thundering heart of an American V8 cooked up by the imitable Carroll Shelby? That’s right, the Sunbeam Tiger is exactly that and more; no need to call it the poor man’s Cobra.

We know from the Cobra and countless Miata LS swaps that there’s really nothing like a big V8 in a small, lightweight sports car. But where the AC Cobra was charmingly, defiantly unrefined and unruly, the Sunbeam Tiger retained its buttoned-down Britishness, albeit accompanied by a raucous V8 soundtrack whenever you stomped the throttle.

The Sunbeam Tiger might be obscure, but not so much so that we couldn’t track one down on Carforsale.com. We found a fully restored 1964 Sunbeam Tiger with its original 260 Ford V8 all in sterling condition. It’s a perfect example to illustrate what makes the Sunbeam Tiger a seductive combination of sophistication and raw power.

Making the Alpine into a Tiger

1964 Sunbeam Tiger Under The Hood - carsforsale.com
1964 Sunbeam Tiger Under The Hood - carsforsale.com

How is it that Carroll Shelby helped create the Sunbeam Tiger? Unsurprisingly, it has a lot to do with the AC Cobra. Back in the early 1960s, British carmaker Rootes Group had the semi-successful Sunbeam Alpine, a properly diminutive roadster with sharp looks and an upscale interior. The Alpine’s one deficiency was its powerplant, an anemic 1700-cc four-cylinder. The lack of power meant the Alpine compared poorly with the MGs and Triumphs it competed against, both in the showroom and on the racetrack. And while the Alpine could make money on its refinement in the UK, over in the States, West Coast Manager Ian Garrard felt the car needed more power to appeal to American car buyers.

Thankfully, Garrard had the perfect working example of what he was looking for in the recent phenomenon of the AC Cobra. Shelby’s Cobra was about as gutsy as it gets. His great insight was to combine the lightness of a British sports car, like those he’d raced for Aston Martin and others, with an unreasonable amount of American horsepower. With a Ford V8 under the hood, the sedate AC Ace transformed into the whip-cracking AC Cobra.

With that template in mind, Garrard rang up … Ferrari, whose small but powerful engines might have had an easier time fitting in the Alpine’s engine bay. Ferrari declined the work which led Garrard to approach Shelby. Never one to spurn a potentially lucrative business deal, Shelby agreed, signing on to engineer a V8 version of the Alpine to the tune of $10,000.

Shelby’s Thunderbolt Prototype

1964 Sunbeam Tiger Front Exterior - carsforsale.com
1964 Sunbeam Tiger Front Exterior - carsforsale.com

Since Garrard didn’t have official sanction for the project from HQ in England, that is Lord William Roote himself, he commissioned Ken Miles, Shelby’s frequent collaborator, to create a proof-of-concept prototype to test the viability of stuffing Ford’s new 260 V8 into the Alpine’s engine bay. Miles took the work for just $800 and indeed managed to get the V8 to fit properly.

With the aid of his Shelby American crew, Carroll Shelby was also able to get the Ford V8 into the Alpine. To do so a few key modifications were implemented including re-routing the exhaust through the frame rails, replacing the reticulating ball steering with a rack-and-pinion set up, adding a new cooling system (which still proved inadequate), and adopting a Dana 44 differential. The V8 Alpine prototype, dubbed the Thunderbolt, was sorted.

The time had come for the coconspirators Garrard, John Panks (head of Rootes in North American), and Brian Rootes to come clean to Lord Rootes about their little project. Though displeased with the subterfuge, once Lord Rootes got a drive in the prototype, he was more than convinced (despite reportedly having the hand brake on the entire time). So enthused was Lord Rootes with the additional power he personally rang up Ford and placed an order for 3,000 of the 260 V8s, then the largest single engine order Ford had ever received.

The Sunbeam Tiger by the Numbers

1964 Sunbeam Tiger Side Exterior - carsforsale.com
1964 Sunbeam Tiger Side Exterior - carsforsale.com

The new car debuted in 1964 at the New York Motor Show as the Sunbeam Tiger, taking the name of Sunbeam’s 1925 land-speed record-breaking car. The 260 Ford V8 made an initial 164 horsepower in the Tiger. I say initial because Shelby developed an entire catalogue of upgradeable parts, the LAT or Los Angeles Tiger that covered everything from suspension parts and a limited-slip diff to engine and exhaust components.

The Sunbeam Tiger was a sales success for Rootes. The hopes for a more competitive racecar were also realized as the added power was a boon for the new Sunbeam on the European rally circuit. In its final year of production, 1967, the Tiger got an even larger 289 Ford V8 in place of the 260. The Mustang-sourced upgrade allowed the Mark II Tiger to make a zero to sixty sprint of 7.5 seconds.

Despite the Tiger’s commercial and competitive successes, when Chrysler bought out Rootes, they nixed the Tiger neither wanting to use a Ford engine nor find another that could fit the small car. Today, the Sunbeam Tiger is a relative rarity. Some 6,500 Mk I cars were built between 1964 and ’66 and another 534 Mk II cars were built for a total of 7,085 Tigers.

This 1964 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I

1964 Sunbeam Tiger Interior - carsforsale.com
1964 Sunbeam Tiger Interior - carsforsale.com

Our featured listing is a frame-off restoration of a 1964 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I finished in a proper roadster Carnival Red paint job with paint matching hub caps. The seller notes that this car has been inspected by two members of the Sunbeam Tiger Owners Association for authenticity, noting details that point to this being one of the first fifty cars built. The interior has been expertly restored with black leather upholstery and wood dash emphasizing the car’s sophistication. The original 260 V8 has been rebuilt with an Edelbrock intake, four-barrel carb, and original air cleaner.

The price of $125,000 is average for Tigers in this condition and a steal compared to million-dollar AC Cobras. The Sunbeam Tiger is no “poor man’s Cobra.” Rather, the Tiger is a distinct take on the lightweight roadster plus V8 formula Shelby is remembered for, a proper GT car retaining more of its original Britishness than the AC Ace ever did.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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