Sunbeam Rapier Series I to V
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4
Before the Rapier, the Rootes Group factory in England had been producing the Sunbeam Talbot 90 saloon. (The Talbot part was soon dropped.) It then took over the old Sunbeam Company
and continued to make a car with sporting credentials. This car earned itself a unique record in the rally world and made wide sales to discerning people who knew the difference between a motor car and a four-wheeled bucket.
To take a standard, run-of-the-mill production car and bestow it with the features necessary to bring it up to "90" specifications of handling, performance and general roadworthiness allied with comfort would not have been easy. Yet Rootes not only did it, they did it well. The quality was first class, the fittings designed for maximum comfort, not to look good, and they really did their job.
Deep, moulded bucket seats supported the occupants in the front after they entered through two wide-opening, nicely-closing doors. A good driving position, an excellent array of instruments and controls that begged to be used welcomed the driver and made either long or short journeys a delight. Seriosuly, if you are lucky enough to find one at a car show, don't simply walk past, but look inside - you will be seriously impressed.
The first Sunbeam Rapier was a good looking car which, in general, was well received by the motoring press. It boasted steering column gear change, leather trim and an overdrive as standard fittings. Vinyl trim was an option in the UK and standard in certain export countries. Essentially the Rapier was a Hillman Minx body but was of two-door design. Rapier bodies were built by Pressed Steel, shipped to Thrupp & Maberly in north London where they were painted and trimmed, then shipped again to the Rootes
assembly plant at Ryton-on-Dunsmore near Coventry where the engines, transmission and running gear were fitted. This complex situation persisted until late 1963
when the Series IV was introduced.
The engine fitted to the Series I Rapier was a 1390cc unit, essentially the same as that fitted to the Hillman Minx
but with a raised compression ratio (8:1 instead of 7:1), a Zenith DIF 36 carburettor and revised inlet and exhaust
manifolds. In this form it developed 62.5 bhp (46.6 kW) at 5000 rpm. The car was finished in an attractive duo-colour styling with wheel trims. The window area was generous while the radiator grille gave an impression of power and speed. From cold the engine was, according to some reviewers from the Northern Hemisphere, a little lethargic, but warming up was rapid and smooth gear changes could be made immediately. For weekends away the Rapier provided a wide, flat-floored cavern of considerable dimensions for suitcases and the like.
Behind The Wheel
The deep subdued power hum of the exhaust
was one of the best of the era, and owners past and present will tell you it forms part of the character of the car. On the road performance was brisk, but it was really in the 50-80 m.p.h. speed range that this car made its presence felt. With free use of the gears and an occasional flick of the finger on the overdrive control toggle it was possible to put a good sixty miles into the hour even over hilly and winding roads. The ride was firm by the standards of the day, but waswell damped while the driver could select their own steering characteristics.
Hard cornering produced only moderate tyre
scream and tyre
adhesion was always top notch. Rough roads produced some vibration through the steering column while foot control pedals could be a little heavy. Rear seat passengers were well catered for, but many motoring journalists noted there was a slight draught evident on the Series I and Series II models - although no such mention is made on road tests of later models so we will assume Rootes had this sorted from the Series III onward.
The Rapier encouraged spirited driving, with a well-placed tachometer, and the ability to produce wheel-spin in second gear on a dry road and attain, under suitable conditions, a top speed of just under 90 m.p.h. Fuel consumption when driven on the limit would be around 24 m.p.g. On the other hand the family motorist was able to enjoy an engine that remained unstrained at 65 m.p.h. on country trips and would return upwards of 32 m.p.g. The Rapier could seat five in comfort and the engine would enjoy turning over at low revs in third gear and its overdrive for city motoring. This flexibility extended also to overdrive top but it was is not recommended to drive under 40 m.p.h. in this ratio. The brakes
had a high resistance to fade.
It Deserves More Power
Although the Rapier's performance was lively by the standards of its time, and its handling was considered to be excellent, motoring journalists were claiming that the chassis deserved more power. From October 1956, directly as a result of experience gained in international rallying by Rootes'
competition department, the Rapier was fitted with the updated R67 engine on which the Stromberg carburettor was replaced by twin Zenith 36 WIP carburettors on a new inlet manifold.
This engine produced 67.5 bhp (50.3 kW) at 5000 rpm, the effect of which was to reduce the Rapier's 0-60 mph time by almost 1 second and increase its top speed by 3 mph (4.8 km/h). The British magazine "The Motor" tested a Series I twin carburettor saloon in 1957, recording a top speed of 85.7 mph (137.9 km/h) and acceleration from 0–60 mph (97 km/h) in 20.9 seconds and a fuel consumption of 30.5 miles per imperial gallon (9.26 L/100 km; 25.4 mpg-US). The test car cost £1043 including taxes of £348. In competition, a Rapier driven by Peter Harper finished in fifth place in the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally. 7477 Rapier Series I's were produced until its discontinuation in 1958, when the Series II version was released.
The Rapier Series II
The Sunbeam Rapier Series II was announced on 6 February 1958, available in hardtop and convertible forms, and was fitted with a tuned version of the Rootes 1.5 litre square engine while chassis details were identical except for the following items; Higher gear ratios plus an overdrive unit which operated on 2nd, 3rd and top gears. Larger, specially finned brake drums and detailed modifications to the suspension.
As a publicity stunt, Rootes arranged for nine of the new cars to be in Monte Carlo for the press to try at the end of the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally. The traditional Sunbeam radiator grille was reintroduced, albeit shortened and widened and the spaces at its sides were filled with horizontal side grilles. The two-tone lower body scheme of the Series I was discontinued in favour of a broad full length flash in the same colour as the roof, but the most obvious change was the appearance on the rear wings of pronounced fins.
Although the changes originated in the Rootes
styling department, they reinforced the link to the Loewy-designed Studebakers; the Series II looked very similar to the Studebaker Golden Hawk, only it was a little shorter. The interior of the Series II was little changed from that of the Series I, except that a floor gear change replaced the column change. This modification, developed on the works Series I rally cars, was an immediate success. To keep costs down, the leather upholstery, standard on the Series I, was discontinued in favour of vinyl and overdrive became an extra cost option.
The Rallymaster Engine
The biggest improvement in the Series II, though, was its new engine. Referred to as the Rallymaster, it had an increased capacity of 1494 cc. The capacity increase combined with a higher compression ratio of 8.5:1 and larger inlet and exhaust valves
to raise the power output to 73 bhp (54 kW) at 5200 rpm. Autocar quoted the top speed as 91 mph (146 km/h) with a 0-60 mph time of 20.2 seconds. Also as a direct result of competition experience, the Series II was fitted with larger front brakes
and a recirculating ball steering box instead of the rather vague worm and nut box of the Series I. The Series II was discontinued in favour of the Series III in 1959 after 15151 units (hardtop and convertible) had been built.
The Rapier Series III
The Rapier Series III was introduced in September 1959. Rootes made subtle changes to the car's body which individually were insignificant but when combined, considerably altered its appearance. For example, the number of horizontal bars in each of the side grilles was increased from three to four and the boot lid acquired an oblong number plate recess and surround in place of the square one of the earlier cars. The most striking change was the redesigned side flash, now narrower and lower down the side of the car with the Rapier script on its rear end. The most subtle change, however, was a reduction in thickness of the windscreen pillars and a lowering of the scuttle line to give a 20% increase in windscreen area.
Inside the Series III the changes were more evident. Rootes stylists completely redesigned the seats and interior panels and specified that they be trimmed in single colour vinyl with contrasting piping. For the first time, deep pile carpets were fitted as standard in the foot-wells (previous versions had rubber mats). The steering wheel, control knobs and switches were in black plastic instead of beige. The dashboard, instead of being as in the earlier cars padded metal and plastic, was covered in burr walnut veneer surmounted by a padded crash roll fitted with black-faced British Jaeger instruments.
Mechanically, the Series III benefited from the design of the Sunbeam Alpine sports car with which it shared its engine. Although the engine's displacement was still 1494 cc, it was fitted with a new eight-port aluminium cylinder head
with an increased compression ratio and redesigned valves
, and used a new, sportier camshaft. The twin Zenith carburettors from the Series II remained but were mounted on a new water heated inlet manifold. The result of these changes was a power increase of 5 bhp (4 kW) to 78 bhp (58 kW) at 5400 rpm.
Gearbox changes included higher second, third and top gear ratios, and a reduced angle of gear lever
movement to make for shorter lever travel and snappier changes. New front disc brakes
significantly improved the Rapier's braking capability and widened its front track to give greater stability and improved road-holding. A saloon with overdrive was tested by the British magazine The Motor in 1960 and had a top speed of 91.7 mph (147.6 km/h) and could accelerate from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 16.6 seconds. A fuel consumption of 29.5 miles per imperial gallon (9.58 L/100 km; 24.6 mpg-US) was recorded. The test car cost £1045 including taxes. The Series III, of which 15,368 units were built (hardtop and convertible) gave way to the Series IIIA in April 1961.
The Rapier Series IIIA
On 20 April 1961 the Series IIIA was announced with the Series II Sunbeam Alpine 1592cc engine. Internally and externally the Series IIIA was identical to the Series III. The improvements were directed solely at improving the durability of the car. To this end, engine capacity was increased to 1592cc and a stiffer crankshaft fitted. To increase reliability, the crankshaft incorporated larger diameter connecting rod bearings which called for modifications to the connecting rods and gudgeon pins. Modified oil and water pumps completed the engine changes. As a result, power output increased from 78 bhp (58 kW) to 80.25 bhp (59.84 kW) at 5100 rpm and torque increased from 84 lb·ft (114 N·m) at 3500 rpm to 88.2 ft·lbf (119.6 N·m) at 3900 rpm.
In addition, the Series IIIA included many detail changes such as an increased diameter front anti-roll bar
which greatly improved roadholding, a redesigned clutch bell housing, a revised clutch assembly with 9 pressure springs instead of 6 and a redesigned air cleaner assembly. Inside the car a fresh-air heater, hitherto available only at extra cost, became a standard fitting. All of these changes combined to make the Series IIIA subtly different from its predecessor and to give the Sunbeam Rapier a new lease of life in the showroom. Maximum speed for the Series IIIA was lower than the Series III at 90 mph (140 km/h). It also took longer than the Series III to get to 60 mph (19.3 seconds) but its engine was far more durable. In mid 1963, the Series IIIA convertible was discontinued but the hardtop soldiered on until October 1963 when it was replaced by the Series IV. When production of the Series IIIA ceased, 17,354 units had been built.
The Rapier Series IV
Late in 1963, Rootes were set to drop the Rapier. It was no longer the mainstay of the competitions department because Rootes had directed its competitive effort towards the Hillman Imp and the Sunbeam Tiger
. In fact a totally new Series IV Rapier had been designed, prototypes built and testing completed, and then the Rootes Group changed its mind! The new Series IV Rapier became the Mark I Humber Sceptre and the old Series IIIA Rapier was redesigned, hopefully to give it a new lease of life as a touring saloon rather than a sports coupé. The most obvious difference was the change to 13-inch (330 mm) road wheels in common with the rest of Rootes' Light Car range. This meant that the magnificent but wayward stainless steel wheel trims of earlier Rapiers were replaced by Rootes corporate hub caps and rim finishers.
At the front, the car was completely and cleverly redesigned to make it look more up-to-date. A new bonnet made the front look lower and flatter and the front wings were modified to accept extensions housing alloy side grilles and sidelights with amber turn indicators. The traditional Sunbeam grille, already heavily stylised for the Series II, was further modified to give a lower, more square shape with a pronounced convex profile. New headlamp rims were fitted, in fact Sunbeam Alpine items but chromed for the Rapier, and a new front bumper using the same shape and profile as the rest of the Light Car range. At the back, a new full width number plate plinth appeared with a new Light Car range bumper. To give a more open look from the side, the frames were removed from the side windows. Finally, small badges fitted at the bottom of each front wing and on the boot lid proclaimed each car to be a "Series IV".
Inside, a new dash, still in walnut veneer, but with the glove box raised into the dash itself allowed the inclusion of a proper storage shelf on each side of the car. Instrumentation and controls were much as before except that the heater switches and ashtray were now housed in a console in front of the gear lever
. To aid driver comfort, an adjustable steering column was fitted along with new front seats which allowed more fore and aft adjustment and for the first time, included backrest adjustment.In common with the rest of the Light Car range, the Rapier's front suspension was re-engineered to replace the half king pin on each side of the car with a sealed for life ball joint. All other suspension joints became either sealed for life or were rubber bushed thereby eliminating every grease point on the car.
Gearing was adjusted overall to compensate for the smaller wheels and the front brake discs were reduced in size so that they would fit inside the wheels. A brake servo became standard and the spring and damper settings were adjusted to give a softer ride. A new diaphragm clutch and new clutch master cylinder brought lighter and more progressive clutch operation. The 1592cc engine from the Series IIIA was unchanged but the twin Zenith carburettors finally gave way to a single twin-choke Solex 32PAIA in the interests of serviceability. The effect of the new carburettor was to increase power to 84 bhp (63 kW) and torque to 91 lb·ft (123 N·m) at 3500 rpm. In October 1964, along with the rest of the Light Car range, the Series IV received the new Rootes all synchromesh gearbox, a change which coincided with the introduction of a new computerised chassis numbering system. The Motor road test of April 1964 gave the Series IV Rapier's maximum speed as 91 mph (146 km/h) and its 0-60 mph time as 17 seconds. When production of the Series IV ceased in 1965, 9700 units had been built.
The Rapier Series V
Pending completion of the new Fastback Rapier, Rootes decided to have one more go at updating the well-liked old Sunbeam Rapier. In September 1965 they introduced the Series V version which looked exactly like the Series IV inside and out except for badges on wings and boot which now said "1725", revealing the presence of an important new engine. Rootes had extensively redesigned their old four cylinder engine to increase its capacity to 1725cc. Along the way it had acquired a new crankshaft with five main bearings, making the unit stronger and smoother. This was the strong engine that would power the Series V Rapier and be developed for many subsequent models. To further update the car, they changed its polarity from positive to negative earth and fitted an alternator in place of the dynamo. They also devised a new twin pipe exhaust
system so that the new engine could breathe more easily.
The effect of these changes was to increase the Rapier's maximum speed to 95 mph (153 km/h) and reduce its time from rest to 60 mph (97 km/h) to 14.1 seconds. Unfortunately, for all its good features, the Series V just didn't sell. By the time it was discontinued in June 1967, only 3759 units had been built, making it the rarest of all the "Series" Sunbeam Rapiers. By 1967 Rootes's "Arrow" range was ready. As well as the Hillman Hunter, the range also included a new generation of Sunbeam Rapiers, with fastback coupé bodies and a sporty image. Like the series models, it was a 2-door pillarless hardtop.
The Rapier's price was not low by any means, but because of its attention to detail, performance and general roadworthiness, it was at the time very much a car above the ordinary. In factors of safety, handling and performance the Rapier appealed to those who admired the Gran Turismo type of vehicle while for the average motorist it was is a car which had appeal because of its overall running economy, ease of maintenance and comfortable family car dimensions. In its own particular class the Sunbeam Rapier was alone seemed to have no competition, and that is perhaps why it appealed so much, then and now. See if you can find a better British car from the era, that offered the joys of motoring, could handle a family and represented a genuine day-to-day driving proposition. We doubt you will find better.