Sunbeam Tiger vs Lotus Elan: brains or brawn?

| 7 Jan 2020
It’s Lotus Elan in the red corner, Sunbeam Tiger in the white corner

More than any other of Colin Chapman’s roadgoing creations, the Lotus Elan inspires a kind of devotional fervour that borders on the religious.

Once the cult has taken hold, few seem to return to the world of ‘normal’ sports cars.

It’s not hard to see why: the Elan had giant-slaying urge combined with the cerebral driver appeal of a deftly wielded surgeon’s scalpel, making most of its rivals look like butchers’ cleavers.

Considered to be the quickest point-to-point means of land travel available in the ’60s, and still among the finest-handling cars ever, it was a vehicle stripped of all that might be considered extraneous to raw driver appeal, yet sufficiently civilised to have a wider audience than its beautiful but troublesome predecessor.

Behind the wheel of this red Lotus Elan

From 1962-’73 the Elan put Lotus on the map as a serious builder of sports cars, and Colin Chapman did great business with them both as kits and fully built ‘production’ cars, his entrepreneurial skills being second only to his engineering genius.

But if the Elan was the work of pure vision, it was also the sort of car one might have expected from Chapman after his inspired but flawed Elite: agile, fast and full of ingenious features designed to save weight (and money) in the quest for a sports car with fewer frailties, broader appeal and higher profit margins.

It was already into its Series 2 phase when the first Sunbeam Tigers began to appear on British roads in 1965, priced within £10 of the Lotus.

Launched at the New York Auto Show in 1964 and initially for the US market only, the Tiger was the last thing anyone expected from Rootes: the Alpine it was based on was the most stately of two-seaters, and Rootes had always specialised in solid family saloons not road-burners.

Its stodgy output was as far from Chapman’s modern, exciting ‘add lightness’ ethos as it was possible to be. 

Driving the Sunbeam Tiger

Hence, at first glance, the Elan and Tiger make a rum-looking duo as back-to-back fodder.

At 13ft and 2500lb, the steel-bodied Sunbeam was a foot longer and more than 1000lb heavier than the glassfibre-shelled, backbone-chassis Lotus, as well as being 50bhp stronger.

Yet as disparate approaches to exhilarating British open-topped motoring they make for a comparison that is as compelling as it is unlikely.

The Elan was as much a car for the Emma Peels of this world as it was for the Jim Clarks: an inspired combination of engineering virtuosity and carefully chosen and adapted off-the-shelf components, mostly courtesy of Ford.

Harry Mundy designed its twin-cam cylinder head, but the bottom end was the 116E five-main-bearing unit from the Consul Classic, running 40DCOE Webers but with as many standard Blue Oval bits as possible lower down.

The dohc 1558cc four-cylinder engine of the Lotus Elan

The link between the Elan and the Tiger is Ford, which courted Lotus as part of its 1960s ‘Total Performance’ offensive and was doubtless equally happy to sign a contract with Rootes for an initial batch of 3000 260cu in (4.3-litre) V8 engines.

This smallblock V8 (from its Fairlane sedan) was lighter than it looked and was the only such unit that would physically fit into the former Alpine engine bay, bestowing an extra 100bhp on the effete Rootes two-seater – in the process almost halving the 0-60mph time, yet adding only 20% to the overall weight.

The resulting 120mph grand tourer delivered similar performance to the featherweight Elan, but in a more effortless way across a much wider powerband.

It was a true ‘poor man’s Cobra’ that worked much better than it had any right to on its mostly standard brakes and suspension.

The Lotus Elan’s cabin is more luxurious than you might expect

Rack-and-pinion steering was the biggest change, more in the name of making space for the engine than improving the handling.

Tiger suspension tweaks were limited to a stiffer front end and a Panhard rod for the live rear, Rootes’ West Coast manager Ian Garrad having proved the concept with an Alpine hastily converted by Ken Miles and further refined by Carroll Shelby, who took a royalty on every Tiger built.

Subcontractor Jensen modified the bodies at the rate of 300 a month, taking trimmed and painted Alpine shells from Pressed Steel and making the necessary changes before fitting the engine and drivetrain.

The battery moved to the boot, the engine bay required some tin-bashing to accommodate the big Ford dynamo and there was a new, bigger transmission tunnel to take the four-speed ’box – from Borg-Warner at first, but later a Mustang transmission.

Subtle Tiger script on Sunbeam

Had the politics of Chrysler’s 1967 Rootes takeover not killed off the Tiger in ’68, it might have built more than 7000 of them, although the novelty was probably wearing thin by then.

Not so the Elan: Lotus built nearly 8000 of the first three series and some 3000 S4s (with servo brakes, wide arches and rocker switches), before finishing off with the big-valve Sprints.

If proof were needed that Elan ownership tends to be a vocation rather than a fact of simple possession, look no further than John Crook.

Formerly of Paul Matty Sports Cars, where he worked for almost 40 years, Crook bought his S3 from a mate for £400 in 1977 and has owned it ever since.

“It was gold then and mechanically tired,” he explains. “I used it as an everyday car for 20 years, then for sprints and hillclimbs, and just kept it maintained. Eight years ago I totally rebuilt it, uprating the engine with Sprint valves and fast-road cams; it’s done well over 100,000 miles and never, ever broken down on the road.”

In the cabin of the Sunbeam Tiger with its US-inspired chrome horn ring

Like most sports cars that go through a ‘cheap and cheerful’ period, the Tiger always attracted improvers, which is why mathematician John Ockenden’s almost entirely original 1965 car is now a reference source for those who want to put modified Tigers back to standard.

He acquired it in 1969 and can thus probably claim the longest period of continuous UK ownership.

“I bought it when it was four years old,” says Ockenden, “it was in a showroom in Edinburgh for its first two. I was looking for something to replace our Jaguar XK150, which I couldn’t really afford to run. We wanted something more reliable but still with good performance.

“I’ve hardly done anything to it – it’s had the cylinder heads off once – and it was our everyday car until the mid-’70s when we got a MkII MG Magnette. We were among the first members of the club: in those days they were all fitting wider wheels, but now they are going back to standard.”

The Sunbeam Tiger’s ohv 4261cc V8

Ockenden is particularly proud of the tiny original sticker on the speedometer, warning drivers of the maximum speeds in each gear.

The Tiger inherited the Alpine’s good looks and the slightly upscale fixtures and fittings that were the hallmark of Rootes Group output: the veneered, Humber-like dashboard; sill-to-sill carpeting; a lockable centre cubby; and a full-sized boot.

There is enough room behind the rear seats for small children – or a sideways-mounted cot, which is how Ockenden and wife Hilary used it 40-plus years ago.

The cabin has a very particular – but hard to describe – smell that is typically Rootes, while the neat metal hood cover adds a touch of visual refinement.

A triangulated section inside the door apertures and braces in the tightly packed engine bay show where the shell was beefed up to take the weight and power of the bigger engine.

Cornering in a Sunbeam Tiger

They do their job because the car feels solid on the road, with minimal rattles. The brakes have good feel and the hefty steering, sensibly geared at 3.2 turns, sheds its weight over 5mph, after which its only real vice is a surfeit of lock for manoeuvring and a certain amount of kickback.

There is delight to be had in how few revs and gearchanges you need to make rapid progress: 3000rpm is usually more than enough for energetic thrust, with appropriately lusty noises from the dual exhausts.

The Tiger will throttle down to almost nothing in top for creeping past horses and pedestrians in near silence, before accelerating away again in one delicious surge.

Gearchanging is optional but that is no reflection of the light, accurate, quiet action of the ’box, which is a pleasure to use with its well-planned ratios and medium-weight clutch.

Driving the Sunbeam Tiger

The Sunbeam’s ultimate performance is limited by restricted top-end breathing, but you do wonder if all those tweaked and tuned Tigers are really any nicer to live with than the laid-back original.

It benefits from all that soft low- and mid-range torque and narrow tyres, upon which it rides firmly but pleasantly, far less affected by bumpy surfaces than its leaf-sprung live rear axle might suggest.

With its weight distributed closer to 50:50 than even the Alpine, the Tiger is a well-balanced, forgiving car that moves progressively from modest understeer to predictable, controllable oversteer that is entirely at the discretion of the driver’s right foot.

In some respects the Tiger has no business driving as well as it does, whereas you fully expect to be casting around for superlatives in describing a good Elan.

On the road in the Lotus Elan

This one lives up to them all. It is a tiny jewel of a car, toy-like in some respects, but its size is at the heart of its capabilities.

The flyweight bonnet can be removed in seconds for better access to the neat twin-cam, with its big dynamo hung off the left-hand side and a pair of Webers to the right.

It is not the easiest car to get into in a dignified fashion with the hood erected, but snug once you are ensconced. You would, however, trade some of the generous leg space for a little more right elbow room, your left resting naturally on the centre console padding.

The pleasingly laid out polished-wood dashboard is a mix of Ford, BMC and Triumph parts, but the S3 Elan upstages the Tiger in having electric windows (still very much a rarity in the late ’60s) rather than the sliding windows of the S1, a conceptual hangover from Chapman’s early thoughts of producing a budget Healey Sprite rival.

The Elan’s famous headlamps

The twin-cam fires at once, its clunky-sounding starter reviving memories of Ford Anglias, and settles to a throbbing idle.

You manipulate dinky pedals in a narrow footwell, the clutch light and smooth but with short movement and the brakes potent but a bit over-boosted until you get used to the response.

On its 155-section tyres and firmly damped but softly sprung suspension, the Elan has an amazingly supple ride that would put some modern saloons to shame.

Even big potholes make little impact and it feels solid and of-a-piece. The aggressive throttle response means it’s not the smoothest at low speeds, but there is strong torque from 2000rpm and the twin-cam will sing sweetly around to a full-throated 7000rpm, so just two gearchanges get you well on the way to 100mph.

The stubby, ideally placed lever finds its slots with a marvellously light, short-throw precision that must put it near the top of the all-time slickest gearboxes listing, if such a thing existed. From 35mph in top the Elan is pulling like a donkey as you search for a fifth that isn’t there.

Lotus Elan wheel

Driving the Elan quickly is just a matter of instinct for anyone half interested, remembering that there is a lot of power for the weight and that there are limits to what its skinny tyres will achieve on wet roundabouts and the like.

The high-geared steering is sublimely accurate, so the front wheels do your bidding as a sort of thought process uncorrupted by understeer or kickback.

As the cornering power pushes you up against the well-bolstered seat, you realise this car has a lot more grip than you can ever use, yet the feel through your fingers, toes and the seat of your pants tells you it would be both forgiving and controllable in a tight spot.

Sitting low, almost wearing the car, it occurs that the biggest danger for the 21st-century Elan owner is simply being seen by other traffic, although its combination of urge, agility and diminutive size must still give a good margin of active safety.

Lotus Elan rear detail

These two go about their business so differently, yet equally entertainingly, that I’m going to take the coward’s way out and have them both rather than pick a winner.

How could I, when to settle for one would only leave me pining for the other?

Rather than a work of single-minded vision, the Tiger is a cheerfully ephemeral car, a fortunate collection of parts that somehow adds up to a much greater sum total.

It was, and is, a hugely seductive vehicle in both sound and image, its effortless big-banger character more throwback vintage than ’60s modern.

As a design, the Elan is one of the most important sports cars of all, second only to the E-type in the way it made competition-car performance and behaviour practical for road use.

It was a truly modern sporting car, which set standards that remained a benchmark for decades. There was nothing like it – but then there was nothing quite like the Sunbeam Tiger, either.

Images: Will Williams

Thanks to The Sunbeam Tiger Owners’ Club; Paul Matty Sports Cars


Sunbeam Tiger vs Lotus Elan

Sunbeam Tiger Mk1

  • Sold/number built 1964-’67/6495
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 4261cc V8, with two-barrel carburettor
  • Max power 164bhp @ 4400rpm
  • Max torque 258lb ft @ 2200rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes 9⅞in (250mm) discs front, 9in (229mm) drums rear, with servo
  • Length 13ft 3¾in (4057mm)
  • Width 5ft ¾in (1543mm)
  • Height 4ft 3¾in (1315mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 2½in (2200mm)
  • Weight 2587lb (1176kg)
  • 0-60mph 7.8 secs
  • Top speed 117mph
  • Mpg 18
  • Price new £1471 (1966)
  • Price now £40-70,000

Lotus Elan S3

  • Sold/number built 1965-’68/2650
  • Construction folded steel backbone chassis, glassfibre body
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1558cc ‘four’, twin Weber/Stromberg/Dell’Orto carbs
  • Max power 115bhp @ 6000rpm
  • Max torque 108lb ft @ 4000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear lower wishbones, spring/damper struts
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes 9½in (241mm) front, 10in (254mm) inboard rear discs
  • Length 12ft 1in (3683mm)
  • Width 4ft 8in (1422mm)
  • Height 3ft 9in (1143mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft (2134mm)
  • Weight 1520lb (689kg)
  • 0-60mph 6.7 secs
  • Top speed 121mph
  • Mpg 25
  • Price new £1461 (1966)
  • Price now £25-50,000


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