The Talbot Sunbeam Lotus’s 40th Anniversary

The Rootes Group owned some of the outstanding names in British motor sport heritage, Sunbeam and Talbot in particular. Like most British manufactures in the 1960s, 70s and 80s the Rootes brothers and their successor, Chrysler U.K., saw the benefit of motor sport competition in keeping the Company’s stable of names in front of the car buying public. In the 1950s there was the rallying successes of the Sunbeam Talbot 90 and Alpine (the latter named after Stirling Moss’s sucess in the 1952 Alpine Rally driving a ’90’ Mk.II saloon – he was equally successful in 1953 and 1954 driving an Alpine). The Sunbeam Alpine two seater sports car (1959-68) also enjoyed sporting success mainly in club circuit racing and U.K. National events, the latter in the hands of Bernard Unett who also had success with the Sunbeam Tiger (Ford V8 engine)

The Hillman Imp was also very successful in saloon car racing in the hands of  Bill McGovern, Ray Calcutt, Bernard Unett and numerous others. The Imp was also popular and successful in club rallying.

Painting, Rootes calendar ’67.  Text on the calendar with this picture: Record-Breaking Imp, Easter, 1966, at Britain’s Brands Hatch circuit when Bernard Unett of the Alan Fraser Racing Team, set a lap record of 59.8 secs. and Imp thus became the first ever in its class to lap Brands in under the minute.

 But with all this club and ‘National’ success, neither Rootes or Chrysler U.K. had a car that could compete successfully at ‘World’ level. Read on –

In its quest to develop a rally car to challenge Ford’s Escort, Des O’dell, Wynne Mitchell and the small team employed in Chrysler U.K.s  Competition Department, followed the tried and tested formula and installed a relatively large engine in a compact, lightweight bodyshell to create the ‘Sunbeam Lotus’. Development had started in 1977 before Chrysler sold its European interests to Peugeot and continued under the latter’s ownership. Peugeot revived the moribund Talbot brand for its UK-built models. A ‘homologation special’ the Sunbeam-Lotus used the Colin Chapman inspired 2.2-litre, 16-valve twin-cam engine, coupled to a ZF five-speed gearbox. Around 150bhp was claimed in road trim with up to 240 horsepower available in Group 2 specification. Prototypes first appeared in competition in 1978, Tony Pond scoring the first major success with 2nd place in the Mille Pistes rally, a result he repeated in 1979. A more ambitious campaign was undertaken in 1980 when two cars were fielded for drivers Henri Toivonen and Guy Frequelin, the highlight of which was Toivonen’s victory in the RAC Rally. Toivonen and Frequelin were retained for 1981, their one outright win and five 2nd places being good enough to earn Talbot the World Championship for Makes. Despite these successes Peugeot then scaled down the Sunbeam Lotus effort, preferring to concentrate on developing the new four-wheel drive Peugeot 205 Turbo 16. Only 2,308 Sunbeam Lotus models were made before production came to an end in 1981, of which 1,184 were right-hand drive.

The road car, available through Talbot dealers, was officially launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1979 and it is that launch that is being recognised in the 40th Anniversary celebrations. **

These road-going Talbot Sunbeam Lotus ‘homologation specials’ were more than just fast, they certainly looked the part as well. Initially, they were offered only in Embassy Black with Silver stripes and sported a brace of Marchal spotlights and bespoke ‘double four-spoke’ cast alloy wheels.

For the 1981 model year 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 was 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 56 cars were officially converted (plus a handful of cars returned from dealers for conversion), 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 DAC 141Y.

It should have been a roaring success, but the ongoing fuel crisis hit demand for all large-engined cars and, despite a projected production run of 4100, time was called on the Sunbeam Lotus after 2308 were made.

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.

Poster from 1979 Geneva Motor Show

 

Talbot Sunbeam Lotus Rally car in the Competitions Department, Humber Road, Coventry. Des O’Dell, Competitions Dept. Manager and Colin Cook, PR Director, behind open car door. Bernard Unett is at the back of the car l.h.s. “striking a pose”.

The Team responsible for final preparation of the Sunbeam Lotus cars at Chrysler’s Humber Road Plant, Stoke, Coventry.            Photo copyright held by Rootes Archive Trust

** Chrysler’s press release announcing the company’s intention to launch two sporty versions of its Sunbeam model (the 1.6. Ti and the Lotus) was dated 26th February 1979. It was that date that the Sunbeam Lotus Owners’ Club decided to celebrate the Sunbeam Lotus’s 40th Anniversary. The celebration was held in the car’s home city of Coventry in front of that city’s outstanding Transport Museum. Graeme Lawton, the club’s archevist kindly invited me along via the Rootes Group Archive Trust which was also supporting the event. Here are some photos that I took –

A Mk. 1 making a statement!

An Impressive assembly

A replica of Stig Blomqvist’s Rally Car

A rare Avon version

Where the power comes from!

We started with a Mk1 and end with another very nice example. An interesting question – the Sunbeam Lotus started its life as a Chrysler but when Peugeot took over they reintroduced the Talbot name – so why is there still a ‘Pentastar’ in the centre of the grille? The Mk 2 cars had a more appropriate ‘T’.

There will be other 40th anniversary events during the year, most notably at Santa Pod Raceway on Sunday 16th June.

Many congratulations to the Sunbeam Lotus Owners’ Club for organising this enjoyable and notable event. The weather was very kind too.

Before I go here are a couple of examples of the breed which I saw at Race Retro at the week-end –

This is the actual Henri Toivonen/Paul White car that won the 1980 RAC Rally. Now owned by Stephen Rimmer.

 

Nick

Acknowledgements to the Sunbeam Lotus Owners Club, Motor Sport Magazine and ‘The Imp Site’.

 

Watch the video – https://youtu.be/3V9-dikIcJs

 

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