The cars : Talbot Sunbeam Lotus development story

The Talbot 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.

Talbot Sunbeam Lotus: hot hatch royalty

The Talbot Sunbeam Lotus was borne out of Chrysler UK’s desire to inject some drama into its battle-torn image. In 1977, when Chrysler UK Competitions Manager, Des O’Dell, began to look around for a replacements for the Tiger and BRM versions of the Avenger, he could not fail to notice that the once-dominant Ford Escort RS was beginning to see some serious competition in the shape of the Vauxhall Chevette HS. That car’s recipe for success was clear for all to see: a 2.3-litre 16-valve engine, mated to a short, stiff three-door body and rear-wheel drive.

The Avenger Tiger’s replacement was the Sunbeam ti, while the BRM would be more difficult to replace but, in the end, he hit upon the idea of approaching Lotus for its slant-four 16-valve engine. So, its replacement for the Hillman Avenger Tiger was based on its new Sunbeam supermini. Lotus was happy to supply engines and assist in the development of Chrysler’s new rally weapon and, in 1978, the first 2.0-litre prototype appeared – to be raced competitively by Tony Pond. No great shakes in terms of reliability, it was nevertheless fast and agile. Lotus supplied an enlarged version of its engine for use in the Sunbeam (which later appeared in its own models), and the reliability followed.

Launched in 1979 amid turbulent times

An agreement was made to put the Sunbeam Lotus into limited production (in order to satisfy FIA homologation regulations) and, at the Geneva Motor Show in April 1979 – and amid talk of a post-Peugeot takeover crisis – it was unveiled to the public. Resplendent in its black-with-silver-stripe colour scheme and Lotus alloy wheels, it looked fabulous – and understated compared with the former sporting flagship, the Sunbeam ti. One does wonder if the product planners mixed up the exterior schemes of the extrovert ti and subtle Lotus, though…

These road-going Talbot Sunbeam Lotus ‘homologation specials’ would prove to be more than just fast, they would certainly look 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. The new model should have been a roaring success, but the ongoing fuel crisis hit demand for all larger-engined cars and, despite a projected production run of 4500, time was called on the Sunbeam Lotus after 2308 were made.

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 Lotus name received particular prominence over the Chrysler pentastar. However, within weeks of launch, that was replaced by the Talbot ‘T’ as Chrysler Europe was rebranded by PSA (Peugeot) into Talbot. 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.

Hundreds of miles without driving…

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..

The Sunbeam Lotus’s production process was an interesting one, and it is obvious why so few were made. Each car started life at Linwood as a 1.6GLS, but received stiffer springing and damping, along with a 10 per cent larger anti-roll bar, stiffer suspension mounts and tougher gearbox casings at the factory. The cars were then shipped to Lotus at Hethel in Norfolk for the installation of its engine and ZF gearbox, before being shipped to the Stoke works in Coventry for final pre-delivery inspections.

It may have been a convoluted production process, but the end result was a stunning road car.

What the testers said

Performance was rapid; Autocar magazine tested the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus (which ironically carried Chrysler and Talbot badges) in the autumn of 1979 and could not stop themselves from raving about it: ‘of course, for its size, the Sunbeam isn’t a space-efficient miniature car, but one doesn’t associate the magnificent amount and spread of sheer brute urge with anything smaller than the now dying tweaky American V8s. Once it’s warm – that doesn’t take too long after the unusually easy start using the usual Weber acelerator pump technique (three sharp prods of the throttle pedal) – the way the engine delivers from comparatively low speeds is pure, rude satisfaction.’

The results spoke for themselves: 0-60mph in 7.4 seconds, 0-100mph in 20.4 seconds (easily bettered by rivals at Motor, who scored 6.8 and 19.8 seconds) although the economy was not brilliant (17.4mpg at Autocar and 21.9mpg at Motor). Still Autocar magazine loved the Sunbeam Lotus, concluding that, ‘for pure performance, it is hard to deny the Talbot its crown; it does go extraordinarily well, but is let down by its curious handling behaviour. You pay for that performance in an arguably high price in petrol, and it is also not a refined car.’

Motor could not fault the performance either, but had similar reservations: ‘When all is said and done, it is still a Sunbeam and while that may be no bad thing if you seriously want to go rallying there are better ways of spending £7000 on a road car. But if performance is what you want and you are prepared to make sacrifices in other areas, then there is precious little else at the price that will give you so much.’

However, 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
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  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.

    • The Vauxhall Chevette (which had the HS & HSR hot versions) & Toyota Starlet were RWD hatchbacks.

      • And in my part of the world, those old RWD Starlets became very popular as rally cars and are still used for that purpose to this day.

  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!

  6. Legend has it that when Lotus did its ride and drive around the “hills of Hethel”, all the journalists came back and dutifully handed in their keys at the end of the drive. However, no one bothered to count the cars until a farmer down the road called over to Lotus. It seems his property abutted a part of the road that contained what Finnish rally drivers might call a “yump”, and one of the test cars had left the road and landed in the branches of one of his trees! The journalist in question calmly climbed out of the car once the tree had stopped swaying, and walked back to Lotus. It wasn’t until the farmer called to see if Lotus was going to retrieve its car that anyone noticed it was missing.

  7. Interesting really in that I’ve always considered this car to be a (better prepared) copy of the Chevette HS (The Lotus engine was based on the Vauxhall slant 4, and for a while, the rally HS’s even ran with a Lotus cylinder head fitted until the scrutineers cottoned on to it!)
    A great car and the last of the line in that kind of thing.

  8. The Lotus Sunbeam was the last Chrysler/ Talbot product to use mostly British components, as other models were mostly assembled from French parts after 1981.

  9. While renowned as a Hot Hatch benchmark and rally car legend, wonder how a Lotus (instead of BRM) tuned 2-litre Brazilian block Avenger engine would have compared with the 2.2 Lotus 911 engine used in the Lotus Sunbeam.

    • @ Nate, I wonder if Chrysler would have been willing to supply the Brazlilan block engine and Lotus to tune it, as supplying a drivetrain to Talbot would be more profitable for Lotus. Mind you, the Sunbeam would have still been a powerful hot hatch with the Brazilian engine.
      I reckon the Sunbeam is an unsung hero of a dark period for the British car industry as it was designed on a shoestring, looked modern and was decent to drive, kept Linwood alive for another 4 years and the Lotus was one of the original hot hatches.

  10. If anyyone is brave enough to try, there’s a Lotus 2.0 16v on Ebay for under £500. A Jensen alloy block, close enough?
    I worked on a couple in the mid eighties. Both sold used, I did the pre sale service & inspection on them.
    Both cars had fared well and were a good buy. To drive, a good 205 1.9 GTi wiped the floor with it,though. But once used and neglected the 205 was a real dog…

  11. As the owner of DAC 40Y I liked the car despite
    Hard suspension
    Weird gear change
    No roadholding

    Amazing fun tho

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