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.