The cars : Talbot Sunbeam Lotus development story

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

The Talbot (nee Chrysler) Sunbeam-Lotus was one of the most exciting hot hatchbacks to emerge from the 1970s, and we have motor sport to thank for that. It originally came about because Chrysler commissioned Lotus to produce an effective entrant for international Group 4 rallying – to beat the dominant Ford Escort RSs at their own game.

Launched in 1979 amid turbulent times

Lotus took a 1.6GLS shell, and installed a 2.2-litre Type 911 version of the Lotus 16-valve four-cylinder engine and a five-speed ZF gearbox. The Sunbeam-Lotus was launched in 1979 with the Lotus name receiving particular prominence over the Chrysler pentastar. However, within weeks of launch, that was replaced by the Talbot ‘T’ as Chrysler Europe was sold to PSA (Peugeot) for a nominal one dollar. Still, the Sunbeam was great. Its 2174cc Lotus twin-cam engine breathed through two twin-choke Dell’Orto carburettors, developed 150bhp and delivered excellent performance.

Homologation rules at the time dictated that for a new car to be eligible to compete internationally, it would also have to be offered to the general public and sold in a specified minimum number. In order to comply with this requirement, Talbot set up a separate production line at its Linwood factory in Scotland to fabricate the body shells which would then be shipped directly to Ludham Airfield where Lotus would fit the engine, suspension and gearbox etc.

Hundreds of miles without driving…

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.

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 4500, time was called on the Sunbeam-Lotus after 2308 were made.

But it had already proved effective in rallying, winning the challenging 1980 Lombard-RAC event. The roadgoing version proved quick and balanced, although it was priced higher than the comparable Vauxhall Chevette HS or Escort RS2000.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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11 Comments

  1. Although I didn’t really care for the Chrysler Sunbeam in any form, this Lotus variant certainly delivered good performance for those days. it looks pretty sporty too – though this photo of an elegantly dressed lady getting into the Sunbeam Lotus, helped by a commissionaire looks a bit odd.

    These days you would expect to see her climbing into an Audi, BMW or JLR vehicle?

  2. Amazing what they did with what was basically a hacked about Avenger.

    From memory the lesser Sunbeams like the Ti weren’t too shabby with bold black spoilers.

    This is the hot hatch people forgot despite the Lotus oily bits. Really a car out of its time and had those pesky Germans not come up with the Quattro who knows what legendary status the Sunbeam Lotus would have now?

    At the time RWD hatches with North-South engines were on their way out. Perhaps the Mazda 323 was the only other hatch with this layout. The vogue was FWD and transverse engines.

    Nowadays the thought of a lively RWD hatch is very tempting.

    I’m not a huge fan of facelifts but to my eyes the updated Sunbeam Lotus pictured here looked great with what look like Horizon headlights replacing the sunken Avenger lights.

    Pick of the bunch for me would be one of the last blue Avon editions. Didn’t they all come with a midlands Reg? DAC***Y?

    • Normally I would agree about the lights but, in the photos above, the original sealed beam units and chrome trim look classier.

  3. A car that was killed too soon as unusual for a Talbot, it was a car people actually lusted after. Surely when Linwood was closed, it would have made more sense for Lotus to have continued with the assembly of the Sunbeam as demand was still high.

    • I heard the last Lotus ones were registered in 1983, so maybe some bodyshells were put in storage until they could be used.

      • It’s likely the last bodyshells were shipped from Linwood when it was closing in the autumn of 1981 and the Lotus Sunbeam was possibly being fitted with Lotus engines and transmissions for a few months after the Talbot car was killed off. Just a shame the relationship couldn’t continue, but there was nothing else really suitable in the range for Lotus.

  4. i had s 1,6 Ti, a nice little ragger, drove it when I was in the Dutch military service, it made quite a lot of noise, everybody wanted to see under the bonnet, the nice2 carbs… switched the ignitin key of with a flame and bang from the rear… traded it for a mg metro turbo… should not have done that… 😉

  5. One of my claims to fame was the design of the steering wheel for the Sunbeam Lotus! Sometime round 1978, in the later part of a drawing office contract with Clifford Covering Company in Tyseley Birmingham, I prepared the steel pressing and moulding drawings for the steering wheel. But more importantly, I developed and prototyped the energy absorbing assembly behind it. Not the most high tech devices by today’s standards, but I hope a few people benefited from it in the event of a disaster!

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