Sunbeam Rapier

Andrew Roberts looks back at a sporty soft-top that owed its success to rallying - and Cary Grant
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This year will see motoring journals celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the usual classic car subjects - the MGA, the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and the Citroën DS to name just three. But there were other interesting debutants in 1955: in Czechoslovakia for example, a grateful secret police took delivery of its first Tatra 603s and Peugeot launched the 403, the car that sealed the company's post-War success. Meanwhile, back in Britain, that select breed of suburbanite known as "cravat wearers" rushed to pay the first instalments on the all-new Sunbeam Rapier. Their ideal car had finally arrived.

This year will see motoring journals celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the usual classic car subjects - the MGA, the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and the Citroën DS to name just three. But there were other interesting debutants in 1955: in Czechoslovakia for example, a grateful secret police took delivery of its first Tatra 603s and Peugeot launched the 403, the car that sealed the company's post-War success. Meanwhile, back in Britain, that select breed of suburbanite known as "cravat wearers" rushed to pay the first instalments on the all-new Sunbeam Rapier. Their ideal car had finally arrived.

The origins of the Rapier lay in the brilliant marketing strategy of the Rootes group, the business empire that encompassed Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam-Talbot and Commer.

In the early 1950s the Sunbeam-Talbot marque was associated with the 90 saloon and Alpine sports, both essentially very well-developed late-1930s relics. When Rootes came to phase out the medium-sized Hillman Minx range, the two-tone coupe model known as the Californian was rebadged as the Sunbeam Rapier, instantly imbuing this solid and unexciting car with all the glamour of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch A Thief.

The motoring press enthused over the Series I, especially such clever devices as the air vent in the driver's foot well. But in their gentlemanly way they could not help but notice that the 1,390cc engine was just a Minx unit with a raised compression ratio, a Stromberg DIF 36 carburretor and revised inlet and exhaust manifolds.

Even with these modifications, its 0 to 60 time of 21.7 seconds and top speed of 85mph were not especially sporting, even by 1955 standards. So the Rootes Group embarked on an annual round of modifications. The Series II of 1958 gained tailfins, a radiator grille that disguised its Minx origins, and the option of a convertible body.

When the 1,592cc Rapier Convertible was introduced in 1961, its walnut dashboard, whitewall tyres and dual-tone paint-job instantly made it one of the smartest cars in the golf club car park. The same money would have bought a Cresta or a Zodiac, but the Rapier man got a car with a rally pedigree. Famous owners included Peter Cook and Peter Sellers.

It was the Rapier's competition record that helped raise its image. As early as 1955 a brace of Rapiers were first and second in their class at the Mille Miglia. The Rapier could never be described as a fast car - even in highly tuned form it never produced more than 100 bhp - but it made up for its lack of pace with sheer doggedness.

In 1961, for example, factory-entered cars won the Circuit of Ireland and claimed a class win in the East African Safari. In the early 1960s, no visit to your local Odeon would have been complete without a Pathé Newsreel announcer extolling the virtues of manly Britishness over images of Raymond Baxter's Rapier skidding through Tanganyika.

Between 1961 and 1963 the Rapier was as much a part of saloon-car racing as the Riley 1.5, but stiff competition from Lotus-Cortinas and Mini Coopers saw Rootes turn its attention to the Tiger and Imp. Rootes was already planning to replace the two-door bodyshell with a version of the Hillman Superminx saloon, but at the last moment the Sunbeam Rapier IV gained quad headlamps and became the Humber Sceptre.

The Series V was released in 1964, but although it had more equipment it lost the dashing convertible option. The Rapier was now firmly in the "old car" category, and not even the new 1,725cc seven-bearin engine could boost sales.

The Rootes Group's devoted aping of American styling was now working against the Rapier, for while Detroit tended to change its overall body shapes almost annually, Rootes only seemed to do so once a decade. The net result was that the 1967 number-plate on the final Rapier VIs looked incongruous on a car with tailfins and a starting-handle bracket.

Rootes had started work on the Rapier's replacement in 1964, the year that Chrysler took a large minority share in the company. The decline from one of Europe's major manufacturers in 1960 to "Chrysler UK" just four years later is yet another depressing chapter in the story of the British motor industry.

When the new Arrow-Series Rapier debuted in 1967, Chrysler was acquiring a majority share in the company. The model was in production for nine years, but the public never really took it to heart.

A shift in production from Ryton to Linwood had such an adverse effect on reliability that production of the Rapier finally ceased in 1976with Chrysler hoping that the new Alpine hatchback, would tempt customers. Ironically the Rapier Fastback's parent car, the Arrow-Series Hillman Hunter, is still produced today in the guise of Iran's own Peykan.

Today the Rapier has a thriving international owners' club with more than 500 members. The car deserves its place in British motoring history of how race-led developments could transform the most mundane car to a genuine world-beater. The 1961 Rapier remains one of the most entertaining classic cars on our roads - even if cravat-wearing ceased with the demise of Alan Clark.

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