Chrysler Sunbeam

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Chrysler Sunbeam

1975 - 1980
4 cylinder
1598 cc
69 bhp
4 spd. M / 3 spd. A
Top Speed:
Number Built:
1 star
Chrysler Sunbeam
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1


There were serious problems with the British motor industry during the reign of the Chrysler Sunbeam. We have already written (arguably too much) on this subject, and besides, we really do like so much of British sheet metal. So writing this review will test our mettle, can we get to the end without bemoaning everthing that went pear shaped during the 1970's?

At least the Chrysler Sunbeam had the potential to be reliable, being based on the alreay tried Chrysler Avenger engine and transmission, and reasonable performance in 1.6 litre guise. The challenge was to screw it togther well and bless the car with longevity that would last at least until you covered a few thousand miles.

The Sunbeam 1.6 GL produced 69 bhp from its 1,598 c.c. four-cylinder engine - which represented the most performance offered at the cars launch, however Chrysler soon released a better equipped S version which became a GLS with 80 bhp available.

All That Was Good On The Sunbeam

The Sunbeam was, to an extent, versatile and economical, even if it was not very exciting to drive. It started easily, thanks to the electronic ignition, and proved quite nippy in traffic - and it was In traffic that the Sunbeam would return fuel consumption of around 32 mpg. On a long run 35 mpg was easy to achieve.

The Sunbeam's stowage space was particularly good, with two deep door pockets and centre console stowage for odds and ends as well as the usual parcel shelf. The split rear seat arrangement allowed one half to be folded flat to give increased luggage space while still carrying a rear seat passenger - a good feature for the time - and better yet it was easy to operate. The height of the sill was an issue when loading heavy items, but this criticism could be levelled at even some of the Japanese cars of the time - but the tailgate did use gas struts so at least you could load up with both hands.

As this part of the review is about the "good", we will not mention the fact that luggage accommodation lacked a cover to hide personal belongings from view, and it was necessary to remove all luggage to gain access to the spare wheel - after all, this complaint could be levelled at many of the competitors. But once you did get to the spare, you would find a scissor type jack and substantial wheel spanner - items that were far superior to some of the rubbish being supplied by other manufacturers where they figured what was out of sight was out of mind.

Behind the wheel the Sunbeam offered very good all-round visibility thanks to the large glass area. When reversing there was very little protruding beyond the bottom of the tailgate glass, which made it easy to negotiate supermarket car parks. Inside, the Sunbeam facia layout was simple and stylish, with clear instrumentation, enough warning lights to let you know what was going on (or wrong), and the wipers/washers were on stalks, common at the time but there were still some that persisted with dash mounted controls.

HVAC came courtesy of a water-valve heater which delivered plenty of heat and, although the temperature control was far from an accurate measuring instrument, it was still possible to obtain settings of hot, slightly hot and warm as well as cold. The three heated settings had quite big lever movements between them which made finding them in the dark relatively easy. The tailgate glass could be kept clean via a wash /wipe, although unfortunately this only came as an option. Thankfully the heated rear window worked well.

All That Was Wrong With The Sunbeam

Faults? Well we may be nitpicking, but reading the car reviews of the time, we will keep the list as short as possible. Mis-aligned tailgate. Sticking throttle. Fascia rattles. Stiff or non-opening doors. Electrics with a mind of their own. Substantial oil leaks, with water leaks not far behind. Leaking windows. Inoperative choke, inoperative cigarette lighter, inoperative radio. Burnt out ignition coils, sometimes caused by reversed polarity during installation. Given these were evident in cars with only a few miles on the clock, it was obvious why many British buyers were turning Japanese.

It would be a reasonable conclusion to state that the Linwood build quality was poor, very poor. You also have to question the pre-delivery checks being carried out by the dealers, but maybe they had thrown in the towel too. Owner reports indicate that getting things sorted was no easy task either, and more often than not a problem would remain unfixed, or at best be repaired in a manner designed to get any new Sunbeam to the end of its warranty period.

Just when you thought it could'nt get any worse, getting the Sunbeam serviced and repaired was equally nightmarish. Rolling industrial disputes would sometimes mean that owners were without their new "motor" for days, and in some cases weeks, after taking their car in for the first service and "fault rectification". On the up-side, you could option your Sunbeam with electronic ignition. Problem was, a shortage of the electronic ignition units meant that dealers were "retro-fitting" cars when possible, determined by supplies. That was probably not such a big inconvenience, as you would be taking it back to the dealer regularly enough for any number of reasons, including to see if they could attend to the incredibly noisy tappets (caused by the connecting rod little end bearings) that would fool some into thinking there was little to no oil in the engine.

The tappet noise could be remedied, without dealer intervention, by driving on an uneven or pot-holed road. The rear suspension would creak and squeak to such an extent that it was easy to drown out the noise of the engine completely. This would also assist by making the gauges jump about a little, which would disguise their horrid inaccuracy. If you could trust the speedo, and dared to take the Sunbeam to 70 mph, you would be rewarded with an engine vibration that neared the sensation derived from pleasure beads, or so we have been told.

Somewhere between the 5,000 and 10,000 mile mark there would be other problems to attend to. A common one was the clutch judder, as were more substantial oil leaks from the engine. The wheel balance would often need attention, and while many dealers seemed to think this could be rectified by simply adjusting the hub bearings, many owners reported that the alignment problem would quickly return. Eventually Chrysler admitted the steering vibration was caused, at least to some extent, by the Dunlop tyres that were being fitted. There may be some truth to this claim, as we have found an Austin Allegro review from the time that notes the problem, these being fitted with the very same tyre.

If your Sunbeam made it to around the 15,000 mile mark, the dreaded exhaust rattle would surface. This would usually occur when the engine was pulling in top at about 30 mph and when starting off from rest. Owners would discover a common fault, the end of the tail pipe would easily and frequently foul on the body. At around the 15,000 mile mark, the electrics would start to show their darker side. First to go was often the screenwash pump motor - enough to be annoying but not indicative of the troublesome electrical problems that would follow. Broken earth connections were commonplace, and in the case of the screenwash motor, it being situated under the nearside front wing where it was bombarded with road filth and was inaccessible probably made this the first of the electrics to give up. We believe Chrsler fitted a rubber boot to protect this on later models - although we have no evidence to suggest this was particularly effective.

Driving the Sunbeam

The Sunbeam's ride was good on smooth surfaces but the suspension was unable to cope adequately with poor surfaces and single bumps. The steering was on the heavy side even at highway speeds and while steering wander was acceptable, the noise level combined with the poor seats made the Sunbeam a tiring car to drive over long distances at speed. The Sunbeam was also succeptable to cross-winds, which could deflect the car from its line quite noticeably. Quite a bit of body roll on cornering combined with the soft and rather springy seats can be unpleasant for passengers if the car was driven at all fast.

Under braking, it was far more common for the car to pull to one side or that other rather than stay true. New brake pads helped, but again the problem would re-surface all too quickly. The brakes were on the average side - pressures for normal gentle stops were light enough but a really quick stop of nearly 1g would call for pedal pressures of around 100lb - which even by the standards of the day was on the heavy side. One advantage however, and we are not sure if this was by design or accident, was that the heavy brake pressure needed made it difficult to over brake and lock the wheels - in an era long before ABS was the norm - and something that was very easy to do with an over-servoed system.

In colder climates (which were the main markets for the Sunbeam) there was the added disadvantage that the screenwash reservoir, though of enormous capacity, was away from the engine's heat and would not work because it would freeze seemingly despite copious quantities of additive being used by several car testers. In many respects the Chrysler Sunbeam could have been a Japanese car in the way it felt to drive, and in saying that we are giving credit to the engineers who had sorted the chassis and suspension to at least be the equal of the nation that had set the standard for small car handling. And one thing about a Sunbeam that you didn't get with a Nipponese car was the traditional Rootes solid feel which had been a hallmark of the cars engineered at Coventry - which in spite of the quality problems still left you with a feeling of security and longevity.

Probably the worst feature of the Sunbeam was the seating. In the showroom at leat, the seats apparently seemed soft and comfortable, but after a short while many owners reported that there was no proper support for either the small of the back or the thighs. Taller drivers who moved the seats backwards would leave very little legroom for a passenger sitting behind. The seating was best described by one scribe as being "somewhat cramped" for a fourth passenger.

The question remains - was the Sunbeam any good? Maybe that question is best answered by those who have had past ownership experience. But given the litany of problems evident in service records we have viewed, anyone that gives the Sunbeam a better than average rating would be one lucky owner, or seriously delusional.

Chrysler Sunbeam Quick Specifications:

Overview: The smallest engine used in the range was a 930cc development of the free-revving alloy overhead cam unit used in the Sunbeam's predecessor, the Imp, and giving the new car a very similar performance. The 1.3 and 1.6-litre versions used the Avenger floorpan, gearbox and engine with drive to the rear wheels via an Avenger live rear axle. Despite its seeming lack of sophistication, the Sunbeam 1.6S was reasonably comfortable for a compact car, thanks to good seats and soft springing which detracted little from the safe and precise handling. Rack and pinion steering, a smooth gearbox and excellent servo-assited brakes made it an ok drive, despite the somewhat unrefined feel of the 1.6-litre overhead valve engine. The high lip under the large self-raising (on gas filled struts) tailgate was a drawback, as was the luggage capacity, limited because of the space taken up by the live axle transmission layout.
Engine: Front-mounted, water-cooled in-line four cylinder. 87.35 mm (3.44 in) bore x 66.67mm (2.62 in) stroke 1598 cc (97.5 cu in). Maximum power (DIN) 69bhp at 4800rpm; maximum torque (DIN) 91 lb. ft. at 2900rpm; cast-iron cylinder head and block. Compression ratio 8.8:1. 5 main bearings. 2 valves per cylinder operated via pushrods by single camshaft. One Zenith CD3 150 carburettor.
Transmission: Single dry-plate clutch and four speed manual gearbox. Ratios: 1st 3.538, 2nd 2.165, 3rd 1.387, 4th 1.000, rev 3.680. Hypoid bevel final drive. Ratio 3.545:1.
Suspension: Front - independent by MacPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar; Rear - live axle with swinging longitudinal trailing arms, upper torque arms, and coil springs.
Steering: Rack and pinion. Turns from lock to lock 3.66.
Brakes: Discs front and drums rear. Dual circuit system with vacuum servo assistance.
Wheels: 4½J x 13.
Tyres: 155 x 13 steel braced radials.
Body/chassis: 3 doors, 4 seats. Integral.
Dimensions and weights: Wheelbase 95.0 in; track- front 51.8 in, rear 51.3 in; length 150.7 in; width 63.1 in; height 54.9 in; ground clearance 6.5 in; dry weight 19091b; turning circle between kerbs 31.6ft; fuel tank capacity 9.0 gallons.
Performance: Maximum speed 95 mph; acceleration 0-60 mph 13.6 secs; fuel consumption approximately 30 mpg.
Chrysler Sunbeam

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The History of Chrysler (USA Edition)
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