Hillman Hunter : Sunbeam Rapier

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

In design

Roy Axe’s designs feature heavily on this website, and it was his Sunbeam Rapier that saw him rise to prominence…

April 1964

Quarter scale model of the first proposal, as penned by Roy Axe. As can be seen, the previous Rapier's roof line and D-Pillar appear to have been adopted at this early stage (August 7th 1964)
Quarter scale model of the first proposal, as penned by Roy Axe.
As can be seen, the previous Rapier's roof line and D-Pillar appear to have been adopted at this early stage (August 7th 1964)
As can be seen, the previous Rapier’s roof line and D-Pillar appear to have been adopted at this early stage (August 7th 1964)

May 1964

A month later, the design had been refined; the D-Pillar had been made much more crisp and incorporated a much more flowing roofline.
A month later, the design had been refined; the D-Pillar had been made much more crisp and incorporated a much more flowing roofline.

Full size clay, January 1965

In order to inject some more character into the design, a kicked-up shoulder line is incorporated into the design. This early model uses a rather fussy glass arrangement
In order to inject some more character into the design, a kicked-up shoulder line is incorporated into the design. This early model uses a rather fussy glass arrangement

Refinement, March 1965

On the left: At this point in time, all body panels were unique to the Rapier, apart from the front wings and bonnet. This forced the use of a raised waist feature line... making it overtly similar to the Arrow saloon, upon which it is based. On the right: The decision was taken to remove this feature line, which meant that all body panels would now be unique to the coupe. The smoother sides were a vast improvement, and the management approved this car for production on the 29th March 1965.
On the left: At this point in time, all body panels were unique to the Rapier, apart from the front wings and bonnet. This forced the use of a raised waist feature line… making it overtly similar to the Arrow saloon, upon which it is based. On the right: The decision was taken to remove this feature line, which meant that all body panels would now be unique to the coupe. The smoother sides were a vast improvement, and the management approved this car for production on the 29th March 1965.

Production version

Roy Axe’s coupe makes an appearance at the 1968 London motor show, and immediately proves popular, even if comparisons are drawn between this and the Plymouth Barracuda…

1969 Sunbeam H120
1969 Sunbeam H120
1975 Sunbeam Rapier... spot the difference!
1975 Sunbeam Rapier… spot the difference!

24 Comments

  1. The same Rapier body was also utilised as the last incarnation of the Sunbeam Alpine after production of the 2 seater Alpine Convertible ended.

  2. I just about remember the H120 sporty version of the Rapier. Not sure if it had twin carbs? Also what did the letter H stand for?

    • Holbay who tuned the heads. Yes it had twin carbs and a twin exhaust, the carbs were buggers to keep balanced. But my father’s Alpine version (single carb with Gazelle wooden dash) had a single carb, could lunch on a Capri 2 litre at the A45 Canley traffic light GP. But that and the other Arrows he had would eat so many water pumps my father could not be bothered to book them in and changed them himself, I saw so many being changed by my father, that I think today I could still do a water pump change on a roots 1725 engine.

      • Thanks Graham, Yes, now I remember the name Holbay (I thought it was Holby!). Those Rapier’s & Alpine’s were nice looking cars back in the day. A family friend had a Rapier for a while.

    • That’s correct Graham. I was just making a play on the name from the TV prog “HOLBY CITY” as opposed to HOLBAY CITY! Thanks for reminding me

  3. Almost forgotten now, but were a worthy competitor to a 2 litre Capri for a time and looked very distinctive. It’s a shame how the last generation of Sunbeams rarely get mentioned compared with the cars that preceded them.

  4. I remember seeing photos of the Rapier when it first appeared in 1968 and thought they looked incredibly futuristic. If I’d been able to own a car back then (I was about 11) it would’ve been my first choice. They stood out a mile compared to anything else on the road at the time.

  5. The Alpine with its alloy headed single carb 1725 could show a clean pair of heels to a Capri 2000, but the Rapier was actually in the sort of price and performance range of your Rover / Triumph 2000.

    My father had an Alpine as par of the Chrysler management car scheme in August 73 and in Coventry only other Alpine we ever saw was pastel blue one, ours was dark blue. You saw lot more Rapiers, but much to my 8 year old annoyance my decided not to have one because of issues of getting them to run right with the twin carbs and Holbay engined ones were I understand both thirsty and prone to various rough running issues if not given plenty of stick.

    I think their scarcity was due to lack of promotion, a result of I imagine of them losing money on each one produced once they moved Arrow production to Linwood, as the bodies were built by PSF in Oxford (next to the Rolls Royce bodies I believe, or may be my Dad just told my mum that to justify hving a two door car) as had all the unitary bodied Roots cars before they got their own pressing facility at Linwood. It probably was viable when they were built at Ryton, but the shipping costs to Linwood must have been significant.

    The issue should of course had been addressed, but the Arrow was for Chrysler a “sunset” product until they pulled their UK investment plans in 1970, and then in an era of minimal investment and so many other issues at Linwood, their was neither money or motivation to take it to Linwood I guess.

    • It was relative given that the Hunter was the measure, so a little less of not very much in the first place and any of the 4 pot Capri Mk1 were equally poor. The 70s company car world was a grim and somewhat backward place in the UK.

      • Hardly an accurate summary of the position , I’m afraid. The Rapier had very acceptable performance for its time and engine size ( 0-50 8.6 secs , standing 1/4 18.5 secs ) and along with all the Arrow cars was amongst the most refined of 4 cylinder cars at the time. The Capri 1.6 was slightly behind ( 8.8 and 18.8 respectively ) but the Capri 2000 was significantly faster ( 7.9 and 18.0 respectively ) . The Fords, however, had no pretensions to quality and it showed , but there was nothing grim or backward about any of these cars

        • I would say that in 1970, when cars were launched such as the Alfasud and GS along with let us remember BMC ADO16 that had been around for nearly a decade, these “Rep” car with their leaf springs and poor packaging were backward.

          • If you take it an immutable truth that IRS ( which the Sud did not have incidentally ) is always superior to Live axle , then your argument is supportable. Unfortunately, however, there were numerous examples of designs where IRS was dangerous at best and lethal at worst. The example closest in time to this era was the Zodiac Mark IV, but the Simca 1000, ( which really was lethal ) the Ponton Mercedes , the Herald , Renault R8 , Porsche 911 and before it the 356, Skoda 110 , all were cars whose dangers required real skill to avoid, and this list is by no means exhaustive

          • Where did I say that IRS always was superior to a live axle? and I am well aware of how the Alfasud was engineered.

            What I am talking about is that in an age that manufacturers were bringing well packaged cars ie the Citroen GS and Alfasud both launched in 1970, with their well engineered and set up chassis, the British “Rep” car had barely progressed from the product offer of the 50s.

            Noting that the Arrow (which like the Marina / Ital soldiered on well past its sell by date), carried over its power train and rear suspension from the preceding Minx series with its live axle controlled by nothing more than its leaf springs.

          • Whilst it is literally true that the 1725 had been used ( for about 18 months ) in the preceding Minx range, it was at that point a completely new engine with for the first time a 5 bearing crank, and had presumably been designed with the Arrow range in mind . I would hardly have described either the GS or the Sud as well-packaged and ingenious though both of them were, they were each in fact a blind alley with no derivative successors in either case

          • It was hardly a completely new engine, whilst it had 5 bearings over the preceding 1600, it was nothing but an evolution of the 3 bearing engine being built using much of the existing tooling, so restricted and hindered by the same basic architecture.

            Also I would note that the Alfasud led to the Sprint and Alfa 33 as well (25 years of production in total) and the GS led to to the BX and then the Xantia etc to the C5 (47 years of production) of hydro pneumatic sprung family cars.

            I am criticizing the Arrow, it did sterling service but the market forces in the UK that gave us a “rep car” in the 70s, I am talking of particularly the Capri, Escort Mk1&2, Hunter and Marina all of which did not run to even coil springs at the rear and yet blighted our lives through out the 70s. They could and should have been so much better.

      • @ Graham, you can have any car you like, so long as it’s a Ford. Mind you, when the Cavalier arrived and was shown to be a good driver’s car and didn’t rust like previous Vauxhalls, some fleets switched over, particularly when British assembly started in 1977.
        I’d be loath to criticise the Hunter, though, which was popular as a taxi in Newcastle during its 11 year life. The 1725 engine was a durable and reliable unit, top models were refined and powerful, and it didn’t seem to rust badly. Also thousands lived on well into the eighties as cheap family transport.

        • Glenn, I remember the many Hunter taxis in Newcastle which were all yellow and operated by Slater’s (I think). They did a lot of Airport runs too. As you say, the Rootes 1725 engine appeared in so many of their models across all badge versions.

  6. Interested to know more about internal memos inquiring whether the 1725cc engine could be enlarged to about 1.9-litres as well as what happened to the 1250-1750cc Coventry Climax based engines from the Swallow project and why the latter was never carried over to the Arrow / Hunster / Rapier?

  7. I would expect that the 1250-1750cc Coventry Climax engine stayed exactly that, the switch to the Arrow was one in the face of mounting loses from the IMP and Linwood, to reskin the Minx / Super Minx mechanicals, there simply was not money to tool up for a new engine and least of all an expensive to make all alloy engine (which would have been casted in Linwood and then shipped to Stoke for machining as with the Imp engine). This is reflected that when Chrysler gave them all the money they needed (and in reality too much) they developed the all iron high cam engine for the Avenger.

  8. Costs and logistics aside the 1250-1750cc Swallow engines would have been a significant improvement over the old Minx engines (notwithstanding questions over whether the latter could have been enlarged to around 1.9-litres and produce more power with tuning by Holbay) with possible scope for enlargement to 2-litres, especially when considering the basis of the Swallow engine was to be the 75-105 hp 1216cc Coventry Climax FWE used in the Lotus Elite.

    Was consideration given to using 1600-2000cc Avenger engines in the Arrow, apart from non-Western Iranian Paykan variants in 1600cc form let alone other engines to replace the old Minx units?

    • Yes it would have been a much more modern unit, but at the time the Arrow with its 1500 and 1725 engine was not out of place in terms of the market, the 2 litre market was Rover P6 territory. So sizing up was not a priority on what was considered at the time a stop gap car.

      I doubt much thought went into using the 1600 Avenger engine other than for Iran (which was engineered in the UK to avoid the need to replace tooling rather than improve the product), the 1600 sector was covered by the Avenger, the Arrow since its launch had been pitched above in market until the “big Avenger” arrived as the UK version of the 180/2Litre. After 1970 there was just no money available to anything as radical as tooling up in the UK for the Brazilian block engine to kick life into a sunset product like the Arrow and focus switched to what became the Alpine.

      • While the 2-litre market was Rover P6 territory, surely the Super Minx-based or Arrow-based Humber Sceptre models could have made use of a 2-litre engine?

        Along with the proposed enlargement of the Minx engine to 1.9-litres Rootes were apparently looking a 2-litre 4-cylinder based off of the 3-litre Armstrong-Siddeley derived 6-cylinder used in the Humber Super Snipe for the Sunbeam Alpine, with either engine fitted to a Humber Sceptre potentially being competitive with the likes of the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000.

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