History of the Sunbeam Lotus

The Chrysler Sunbeam first appeared with three engine variants, 930cc, 1300cc and 1600cc; the former derived from a Hillman Imp engine (itself based on a Coventry Climax fire pump!) and the larger sizes from the Avenger range. The sporty end of the market was soon catered for with the 1600cc Ti model (“Twin Induction”), which boasted alloy wheels, sports seats (with tartan trim), side stripes and front & rear spoilers (although these were more for show than for function). 100bhp and 0-60mph in under 10 seconds was very respectable in the late seventies, but Competitions Manager Des O’Dell knew from his experience with Avengers that this was insufficient to mount a serious challenge in the rallying world – he was desperate to build a machine capable of beating the Ford RS Escorts and Vauxhall HS Chevettes.

Des had already spotted the potential of the Sunbeam but was on the lookout for serious power. Nothing in the Chrysler range was likely to prove adequate and he had already dabbled with outside help from BRM without the success that he craved. Suddenly an obvious solution presented itself; Lotus had been supplying 2 litre engines to Jensen Healey, who had recently ceased trading. Des’s deputy, Wynne Mitchell, contacted his old college friend Mike Kimberely at Lotus and Des was straight in to seal a deal. Initially he returned to Coventry with two engines – a standard 160bhp 2 litre and a modified version producing over 230bhp. The former went into the only vehicle at his disposal, a red Avenger, for testing and showing off to the management before finally being fitted to a Sunbeam, while the race version found its way into a rally-prepared Sunbeam, WRW 30S. Testing began in earnest and the car competed in several events where homologation was not required. Andrew Cowan did the competitive driving while Bernard Unett carried out development testing.

Lotus subsequently developed their engine into a 2.2 litre unit designated type 911 of the following specification:-

4 cylinder

2172cc

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 initially uprated to 234bhp (later increasing further) and featured 48mm carburettors and a compression ratio of 11:1. In fact, once Talbot took delivery of this they set about re-building it with components of their own chosing (Cosworth pistons, for example). To enable these to compete, however, 400 cars had to be produced to satisfy homologation rules. Chrysler’s ambitions were for a run of 4500 engines, and homologation was achieved for April 1 1979 on the basis of 32 pre-production cars converted by the Competitions Department – these filled the factory’s service workshops and gave the right impression of progress to the FIA delegates at a time when production cars were not quite ready to roll off the lines.

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 and 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 where the engines were built. Once assembly was completed the cars were transported to Coventry for final checking before delivery to the dealers.

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, a much-needed larger fuel tank 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 1982/83, 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 officially 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 (DAC 1Y was reserved for the dealer’s own new Sunbeam Lotus but this car has remained unregistered and the mark was assigned to a different vehicle!). 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 “B” arrived.

Overall, Lotus claim to have built 2298 cars (1150 right-hand-drive) while Talbot claim a total of 2308. This difference is accounted for by the building of ten ‘works’ rally cars from bare bodyshells at the Humber Road Competitions Department between 1980 and 1982.

Delivery statistics were as follows:-

Country 1979 1980 1981 Total
UK 423 304 457 1184
Austria 14 1 0 15
Belgium 36 39 14 89
France 235 125 28 388
West Germany 52 121 31 204
Holland 20 10 0 30
Italy 32 291 68 391
Switzerland 4 0 0 4
Others 0 3 0 3
Totals 816 894 598 2308

The Talbot Sunbeam Lotus took part in international rallying from 1979 to 1982 and won the World Championship for Talbot in 1981. Its most famous achievement was at the 1980 Lombard-RAC rally, Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship, where Henri Toivonen became the event’s youngest ever winner and Sunbeam Lotus cars finished 1st, 3rd and 4th – the last time a two-wheel drive car won the RAC. Des O’Dell was presented afterwards with a Sunbeam Lotus road car bearing the registration RAC 134W!

In fact, Talbot’s Sunbeam Lotus won their class (Group 2) on the RAC for three years in succession, culminating in 1982 with the last ever win in this class before the FIA rules changed to Groups A, B, etc.

Sunbeam Lotus works drivers included the late Henri Toivonen, Guy Fréquelin (co-driven by Jean Todt) who narrowly missed out on being the Driver’s World Champion in 1981, Stig Blomqvist, Tony Pond, Andrew Cowan and Jean-Pierre Nicolas. Russell Brookes also competed in a works-built car, privately sponsored by Andrews Heat for Hire.

At the end of the 1982 season many of the Talbot team transferred to Paris where their experience contributed to the success of Peugeot-Talbot’s new rally contender, the 205 T16. A closer successor to the Sunbeam, though, would have been the mid-engined “Lotus” Horizon, of which only one example was built before attention was switched to the 205.

Join the Original Club for the Sunbeam Lotus at www.asoc.co.uk

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One response to “History of the Sunbeam Lotus

  1. Pingback: Austria » Blog Archives » History of the Sunbeam Lotus

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