THE SUNBEAM LOTUS – The 1970s Wolf is Sheep’s clothing

Let’s imagine for one moment that you’re restricted in your car buying. Let’s say that you’re allowed one classic but that it must do duty as transport for four, be able to take luggage in the accepted sense of the word and that it will be tractable enough to allow the missus to potter down to Tesco of a Sunday. In terms of style, let’s make that car something that wouldn’t attract a second glance, let alone a first. And now let’s make the equation really tough – this car has got to have the wherewithal to frighten a Ferrari.

Oh, I nearly forgot, just one more thing: it musn’t cost more than £5,000.

No, I’ve not thrown all my marbles out of the window. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Sunbeam Lotus, a car with which you can fulfil all the above criteria though a car in which, it has to be said, you’ll have trouble keeping those triplets off your licence…

The prefix Q was first applied to innocent-looking tramp steamers during World War Two which served as bait to Germany’s U-boats. Lured by the soft targets, the submarines would approach unsuspectingly only to discover, too late, that their prey packed a punch, usually in the shape of depth charges and guns.

In later years the prefix was adopted by the car world and in this context it has come to mean a car that is outwardly bland or understated yet one that will see off more obviously styled, so-called sports cars. Back in the late sixties and early seventies there were car magazines aplenty that gave you the lowdown on how to go about dropping a V6 into your Wolseley Hornet and preserving its looks (as well as your sanity) or how to beef up your Beetle and take on Mini Coopers. But there were many mis-marriages of engines and running gear and bodies and, ultimately, it was the professional car manufacturers who were the real source of harmoniously-matched componentry.

So it was when Chrysler/Talbot decided to go motor racing, or more precisely, rallying. With Avengers still about and the Talbot fairly new and striving hard to gain market share at the expense of Ford’s Escort, Chrysler had little to write home about – that was until the company’s head of Motorsport, one Des O’Dell, decided to have a stab at seriously competing in Group 4 rallying.

In 1979, therefore, Lotus was approached as a possible engine source and since the company had spare twin-cams in the wake of the demise of the Jensen-Healey, it was happy to help. Some production work later resulted in one Sunbeam Talbot with a strengthened rear axle and a 907 series engine under its bonnet.

So successful was it in its first showing that it paved the way for a run of 400 to achieve proper homologation. The car actually won the championship in 1981, bearing out O’Dell’s faith in the hybrid. In fact there were plans for quite a few Sunbeam Lotus but in the event just under 3,000 were built in all, and roughly half of these were left hand drive. Launched at the Swiss Motor Show in 1979 in Geneva, the model was marked up at £7,000, a hefty price tag which did little to attract Joe Public into the showroom. And when I attended this year’s Lotus Festival at Donington, I am sure that nine out of ten visitors would not have known what this little car was capable of – and far fewer would have ever had the good fortune to have driven one.

Let’s put it into another light: what we have here is the ultimate Q-car. Externally it’s a boxy saloon, right down to the sober black paintwork and standard Talbot fittings. This car, which belongs to Howard Emes, is actually a Series One model though it is fitted with a Series Two grille and front lights, these latter being more chunky than the rather delicate earlier lamps. On the front grille there is the innocuous capital T; the tail gate carries the word “Sunbeam” and the twin exhaust might just have been added for show.

So, having established that there’s nothing externally exciting other than deep silver decals on the flanks which carry the famous CBAC logo, any car spotter isn’t going to wait around an make an entry in his little black book. Open the bonnet, though, and you’ll see the glorious Lotus 2.2 twin-cam which is stuffed into the space available. In all, 150bhp is on tap from this 911 version which equated to an extra 30bhp above Ford’s best rival at the time.

So, now we have a boxy hatch with a big engine: what else? Well, there’s the five speed gearbox which easily copes with huge quantities of torque and there’s (reassuringly) an uprated rear axle. There’s a trick suspension with harder shock absorbers and a thicker anti-roll bar; there are heftier disc brakes and its 6″ handsome silver and grey wheels, peculiar to the car, are shod with grippy 185/70 rubber. Flared arches are nothing new today – but they marked out this Sunbeam back in the late seventies as something a little out of the ordinary.

Actually I’m guilty of understatement here. Just looking at the pictures of the car which are printed here does nothing to quicken the pulse. So let’s take a look inside, shall we?

The interior of the Sunbeam doesn’t give a great deal away, really. Seats are well bolstered and covered in a whitish fabric but have enough side support so as to attract attention. The steering wheel is black with a plain boss. Black and grey plastic predominate although this vinyl environment is alleviated by a white perforated roof. The dash itself is pretty simple-looking too: a rectangular box houses two big dials, the speedo and rev counter, whilst on either side sit a vertical stack of two minor gauges. Believe it or not (and I didn’t until I had seen a brochure), this dash set-up is shared with the wedge-shaped Lotus Elite 501. A central spine contains the clock and minor controls with a cubby hole for good measure. It’s all very basic and no-frills in its approach although the rev counter is red-lined at 6,500 to 7,500rpm.


I twist the key a click. There’s a ticking as the fuel makes its way to prime the D’ellorto carburettors. I brush the throttle and turn the key fully. The engine momentarily wakes up but doesn’t quite catch. I pause and recommence the sequence, avoiding the accelerator. This time, with a mighty woofle and snort, the 2.2 litres decides to play. The shed, in which the car is garaged, reverberates to the bellow, dust dislodging itself from the rafters. I grin. I have a presentiment that this is going to be fun.

A word of warning at this juncture. With seatbelt on and your eyes glued to the road ahead, there’s one thing that you don’t want, and that’s a cold. I swear to you, sneeze and the engine note will rise, so light is that throttle pedal. Tickover is rough, though, the engine idling at around 850rpm.

Select first gear. Here it’s a bit of a problem if you are unfamiliar with the Sunbeam in its rally guise. The cars are fitted with the excellent ZF gearbox which most in the know will tell you is bulletproof and should be able to cater for more than the stock 150bhp that is put through it. Nothing awry there except that it has the dog-leg first, which will catch out the unwary. So across the box to the left and back, just like a Ferrari, but without the bonus of a visible gate to help you. The clutch, in keeping with the rest of the controls, is light in action too and once you’ve started to release you can soon apply the power. And what power there is here! It’s hard to believe that the throttle is attached to the rest of the car by anything so mundane as wire, so direct is the response. With commendably little effort the car shoots off the mark and urges you to take second. Concentration whilst the box is cold helps the situation and I slot it up into what would be the “first” position on a conventional box. No sooner is this done and the revs increased than it’s after a further change.

To be perfectly frank, it’s extremely difficult to drive this car slowly. It’s not cammy, like many a tweaked engine but instead is ever so smooth in its performance curve and the engine spins unexpectedly easily. It matters not one whit whether you change up sooner or later on – there’s so much torque here that any gaps or shortfalls are immediately filled. Your aunt Edna could drive this car quite happily, once someone had explained the gearbox layout to her. Similarly, anyone looking for an exciting and rewarding drive wouldn’t get out of the car disappointed.

Out on the open road, the car behaves itself impeccably, betraying its Lotus origins in the handling department. The Sunbeam simply laps up every task it is asked to do: throw it into a corner and it sticks like glue, tyres and suspension working in complete harmony to ensure there is no drama. Steering is spot-on in this little hatch; the quick rack tells you what is happening at ground-level and it is precise and nicely-weighted, all of which contributes to the overall enjoyment. After a few miles you begin to see the benefits of that well-cushioned seat which hugs you reassuringly on the fast corners. Then there’s the constant woofle and snort of an engine eager to be pushed. And the lightness of the controls, from gearbox to steering to pedals, only serve to heighten your enjoyment. In short, this is a vice-free car and one that is easy to exploit.

Its most impressive characteristics are revealed once you’re amongst other traffic. Although the gearlever does require a confident operation from the driver, snicking down from fifth to fourth endows the car with much more power than you’d expect and on the motorway you’ll find that this one change will have the Sunbeam galloping on past slower traffic and reeling in the horizon. Similarly, take the car on to A or B roads and then you can play with third too: sometimes it seems to make little difference what gear you’re in, there’s always a response on hand. That power surge is never strained or thrashy and it always delivers the goods; the magic spell is weaved once 3,000rpm shows up. Were you to carry on, ultimately there’s 120mph to be had from this hatch.

Best of all has to be the look on the faces of those whom are passed in a whoosh of acceleration. Most cannot believe that a hatch which hasn’t got the acronym GTI stamped on its rumpcan perform like this. Early road testers posted a 0-60mph time of 6.8 seconds and even that can be improved upon with a little tweaking. Ultimately you have to face up to it: here is a small car with an Esprit engine under its bonnet and yet a car with an overall weight of some 3.6cwt less than that self-same Esprit. It might not have the looks of the latter but it’ll guarantee you an awful lot of enjoyment, some of it legal.

Above 70mph there is a degree of squeaking and rattling although most of this can be traced to trim. That bugbear of the hatchback, the tailgate, does make it presence known and I’ve come across this before in other cars. But these are minor trade-offs for what you get in the performance package. It’s not a delicate car, like a Lotus – remember this was built to go rallying in.

The car here is virtually a one-owner vehicle, the original family having sorted out the areas where the Sunbeam Lotus can be problematical. That means that tops of the wings and the rear wheel arches have had attention as these are notorious weak spots. Sills have been repaired too. Other areas to check on these cars are the jacking points and the suspension mount for the rear spring.

Howard Emes’s car is also in tip-top mechanical fettle, having had its Lotus power rebuilt by one of the recognised authorities, Skip Brown. And herein lies the reason why so many of these vehicles have tumbled to silly prices: a neglected engine will cost several thousand pounds to rectify, money that cannot be recouped in the car’s resale. In comparison, the bodywork poses less of a problem and most panels can be found. Interior trim items, though, can be more difficult if you’re trying to keep the car original.

If you decide to go for a Sunbeam Lotus, there is a finite but buoyant market with vehicles often sitting around the £3,000 mark. One thing, though, is that unlike virtually every other car, you’re very restricted in the colour schemes when it comes to this Sunbeam. Early cars, such as the model featured, were all black and silver and only later did the Moonstone metallic blue come into the market. Rarest of all are the 150 Ladbroke Avon-trimmed cars which ended the run in 1983.

If you’ve never seen one on the roads, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Many were used in competition, whether on tarmac or in rallies, and they were a popular car in the club scene for a while. Maintenance costs, though, ultimately proved the model’s downfall in this respect as the Lotus unit in competition specification does need constant care.

As a road car, however, it’s a tough act to follow, offering as it does something for everyone. Can this be the most desirable and overlooked classic of the seventies?


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