The Sunbeam Lotus project was conceived and directed by Des O’Dell who was Head of Motor Sport for Chrysler Europe. It was his aim to replace the Avenger (sold as the Plymouth Cricket in the USA) with a car that could beat the Ford RS Escorts and Vauxhall HS Chevettes in international rallying. O’Dell was confident that the Sunbeam had the chassis to do so but he did not have the engine. This was where an old connection was to prove useful.
Wynne Mitchell, O’Dell’s assistant, had been at college in Coventry with Mike Kimberley, now the Managing Director at Lotus Cars in Norfolk. Lotus had been supplying their own 2 litre DOHC engine in quantity for the Jensen Healey sports car, but as Jensen Motors had ceased trading in 1976 Lotus were actively attempting to sell their engine. Lotus readily agreed to supply a basic 2 litre type 907 engine (as used in the Elite and Eclat) plus a rally tuned engine for competition use. This subsequently turned into a 2.2 litre unit designated type 911 of the following specification:
* 4 cylinder
* twin overhead camshafts
* twin 45mm Dellorto carburettors
* 16 valve cylinder head – all alloy
* 155bhp for road use
* 9.4:1 compression ratio
The competition engine was uprated to 234bhp and featured 48mm carburettors and a compression ratio of 11:1. To enable these to compete, however, 400 cars had to be produced to satisfy homologation rules. In fact, Chrysler’s marketing department decided that they could do much better than that and the deal signed with Lotus mentioned no fewer than 4500 engines.
Lotus were fully involved in the development and production, not only designing and manufacturing the engine but developing the suspension and exhaust systems as well. As a result, the rolling chassis built alongside all other Sunbeams at Linwood near Glasgow were delivered by transporter to Lotus in Norfolk. Here they were fitted with the engine mated to a 5-speed ZF gearbox. The work included modifications to the bodyshell, fitting a larger radiator and alloy road wheels, and so a satellite operation was mounted at Ludham airfield some 20 miles from the Hethel base. 16 employees were drafted here by Lotus and work began at the end of 1978 to build the first pre-production cars. Once assembly was completed the cars were transported to Chrysler in Coventry for final checking before delivery to the dealers. This method of production continued at a considerable rate until the Summer of 1981.
The Chrysler Sunbeam Lotus was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1979, but deliveries did not start until summer of that year. By this time, Chrysler UK had been sold to the French Peugeot concern who changed the name to the Talbot Motor Company. With the exception of the very first pre-production models, all road cars were officially known as Talbots.
Originally the cars were only available in Embassy black with broad silver side stripes and grey interior, and the very early cars also boasted twin exit exhaust pipes. For the 1981 model year, however, a black and grey “Piccadilly” trim was introduced and these new Series 2 cars were further distinguished by larger headlamps, a new corporate grille, new door mirrors and engine modifications which produced a small increase in power and torque figures. The following year, with a number of cars still in stock and sales slow, moonstone blue paintwork became the only available colour, although customers were offered a choice of silver or black stripes.
Even so, some cars remained unsold through the winter of 1982/3, and a batch of 150 were reserved for Avon Coachworks of Warwick to produce a limited edition “Avon” model. These were to be retrimmed internally with a change of exterior colour scheme and the addition of original green & yellow Lotus badges on the flanks, plus each was to be registered within the series DDU 1Y to DDU 150Y with a limited edition serial number corresponding to the registration. In total, though, only 58 cars were converted, and some of these missed out on the DDU number plate although they were still numbered sporadically up to no.150.
The final batch of cars, including the balance of the 150 originally destined for Avon Coachworks, were sold through a single dealer in Nuneaton at reduced prices. Again, these cars were all registered in sequence bearing the marks DAC 2Y to approximately DAC 150Y. A handful of cars did still remain unsold at dealers until the “A” prefix was introduced in August 1983, and at least one car even went unsold until the “C” arrived. Overall, Lotus claim to have built 2298 cars (1150 right-hand-drive) while Talbot claim a total of 2308. This discrepancy may be due to the building of several pre-production cars by Chrysler themselves at Coventry in early 1979.
The Avenger and Sunbeam Owners Club (ASOC) was set up to cater for the Sunbeam Lotus in 1989. We have many honourary members who worked on the project at all levels.