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Carroll Shelby’s Secret Sports Car

Updated April 12, 2015

Before Carroll Shelby came along, the AC Ace was one of many indistinguishable English sports cars produced by small volume makers. The Ace itself has been in production since 1953 and the loss of it engine supplier, Bristol, and its 130 horsepower six cylinder engine prompted discussions between AC owner Charles Hurlock and Shelby about installing a small-block Ford V-8 in the Ace and renaming it the Cobra. They have literally captured lightening in a bottle.

Pink Tiger1965 Playboy Playmate of the Year Jo Collins was given this pink Sunbeam Tiger as part of the prizes awarded her for the annual honor.

The British Rootes Group sold its Sunbeam Alpine sports car, primarily with a 1.6L four cylinder engine, in reasonable volumes in the United States, but Rootes management was looking for something more exciting to appeal to the burgeoning American youth and performance market, as well as cast a more favorable glow on its other vehicles.

507911-1000-0Andy Rooney, the late CBS “60 Minutes” commentator owned this Sunbeam Tiger from new. After his passing the family had the car restored to new condition.  Rooney wrote of the Tiger a few years before his death “I like having it today as much as I did the day I bought it.”

The Shelby Cobra of 1962 was the inspiration for Sunbeam’s West Coast Director Ian Garrad to approve the construction of two prototypes using Alpine shells, one by Carroll Shelby and the other by race driver Ken Miles. Miles’ version had the engine mounted further forward than Shelby’s and he fitted an automatic transmission rather than the four speed manual, as Shelby would. As a result Shelby’s was the most finished and developed version and was utilized for testing and evaluation. After a test drive by company chairman himself, the project greenlighted.

SAC

Shelby had intended that the Alpines become Tigers in his Venice, CA facilities, alongside the GT-350 Mustangs and Shelby Cobras.

Shelby had proposed that the Tigers would be shipped to California and their engines fitted in Shelby’s shops (like the Cobras) but the Rootes Group declined. Instead Jensen Motors was awarded the contract for assembling the cars (who had until recently been building P1800 sports cars for Volvo), and Shelby was paid a royalty for every Tiger sold, the total equaling $250K in today’s money. He also appeared in Tiger ads.

Tiger17Carroll Shelby posing in one of several ads in which he endorsed the Ford V-8 powered Sunbeam Tiger. Shelby also sold Tigers in his dealership.

Unlike the Cobra, the Tiger used the 164-hp version of the Ford 260  small block, and while performance increases were relatively mild it was enough to overstress the chassis and braking of the Alpine.

A mild update was implemented after Jensen had manufactured about  3,700 cars. Changes included squarer doors, a vinyl convertible boot, and added cabin ventilation. These cars are now known as Tiger Mk IAs, and just over 2,700 were built.

mortonseptimage1-94Shelby Team Manager & Driver Lew Spencer prepares for a race in Tuscon, AZ. Chatting with him is 22 year old Shelby mechanic John Morton, who would go to win the 2.5 Trans-Am Championship in the BRE Datsun 510, and a successful career in Can-Am, IMSA, and Indy Cars.

Chrysler’s purchase of Rootes spelled the end for the Tiger. Before the end came, the most exciting Tiger was released for 1967. The Mk II at last had Ford’s 289 V-8 along with a few styling upgrades to differentiate from the lesser model. Fewer than 800 Tiger IIs were built, making them the most desirable of all the street model Tigers.

Tiger IIs in peak condition now fetch around $130,000.

 

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Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. GearHeads.org gives me a chance to give something back to the automobile community.

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