From Rootes Review: Vol 3, No. 1 January/February 1978

Jan Eyerman

The Rootes brothers were aware by the early fifties that a replacement for the “90” would be necessary. Both the engine and the chassis were becoming obsolete. The engine was a long stroke four that had been converted from side valves to overhead valves and the chassis was a separate body and frame design that was heavy and provided a cramped interior for rather large interior dimensions. Rootes began the engine development first, the new engine was to an almost universal engine that would be used in both Hillman and Sunbeam cars and Commer light trucks. Work also began on two new large engines; a four and a six. All three engines were to be overhead valve designs from the start and the two big engines were to power the Humbers and the larger Commer trucks. The new big four, of 2,267 cc (exactly the same size as the earlier Sunbeam four), was introduced in the “90” range as the Mark III and is still being used in some Commer trucks (the Karrier Bantam, Commer KC 25, 30).

In the early fifties there was a good deal of controversy over the advantages of the then new, short stroke engines over the long stroke design. By definition, a short stroke engine has a bore that is greater than the stroke, while a long stroke engine has a stroke greater than the bore. Good arguments can be made for both designs. The long stroke engine develops more torque, requires lower octane fuel for a given compression ratio and often gives better gas mileage, but the long stroke results in high piston speeds which produce short piston ring life and does not allow high engine RPM’s (which in turn limits horsepower). The short stroke engine allows higher engine RPM’s, thus producing more power but pays a penalty in lower torque, poorer gas mileage and high combustion chamber temperatures (resulting in over heating). Rootes skirted this issue by going right down the middle-a square engine-with a bore and stroke exactly the same size, three inches. This produced 1390 cc’s (85 cubic inches). The new engine had three main bearings, overhead valves and represented the state of the art of mass produced engines of the time. Initially when equipped with a single Zenith carb (with no accelerator pump) this engine produced all of forty-three horsepower or about one horsepower for every two cubic inches. This did not cause anybody at Ferrari to worry very much. The engine was road tested in Europe for over 1,000,000 miles-everywhere from Sweden to Turkey. The unit was then introduced in the Hillman Minx Mark VIII.

While the engine development was going on, Raymond Loewy Associates was called in to design a new body to go around the new engine. In the interests of economy, the new design was to be shared by Sunbeam and Hillman. Rootes had long realized that as far as mass produced cars were concerned, the best design work was done in the U.S. Therefore one of the best independent U.S. designers was contracted. Raymond Loewy had a string of styling successes, the 147 Studebaker (a trend setter of the time) and the beautiful ’53 Studebaker (the Hawk models are now considered postwar Milestones). The ’53 Studebakers had won designs awards throughout Europe and had greatly impressed Lord Rootes, If you look at the late fifties Minx and Rapier you will see much of the 1953 Studebaker in the design.

The first car of the new Rootes’ line to be introduced was the 1956 Sunbeam Rapier Series I (in October of 1955). For its time it was a striking car. The Rapier came almost completely equipped; with full instrumentation by AC, a Laycock deNormanville overdrive and many luxury features (such as a center arm rest, safety padding on the dash)- The car had a unit body and with smaller dimension of the outside actually provided more room on the inside than the”90″ it replaced. The engine was the 1,390 cc overhead valve unit originally introduced in the Minx but upped to 62 horsepower by adoption of a different carb. The year of 1965 was basically a year of sorting out the new can, Although a few class wins were registered in International rallying, some old problems reappeared. Stiff steering and unpredictable handling were two of them, as was the clumsy column shift, The fact that some famous British racing car drivers owned Sunbeams was stressed in Sunbeam advertising, Stirling Moss being one. The fact that these drivers also drove for the Rootes Rally team may have been a factor in their ownership!

Although the Rapier was Rootes prestige car, the sales of the Rapier in the U.S. were still under 1000 per year, it was the Hillman Minx that was the big money maker. So, in May of 1955 the new Hillman Minx was introduced, it used almost all of the components of the Rapier. The Minx was available as a four door sedan, a station wagon and a convertible. This was a little odd as the Rapier was only available as a hardtop, if you wanted a convertible you had to buy a Minx. A rather strange situation for the sporting car of the company.

Early in 1956, Rootes took control of Singer Motors. Singer had been building a line of four door sedans and four passenger roadsters since the late forties. Both models were powered by an overhead cam, four cylinder engine of 1496 cc’s. As both designs were obsolete, Rootes stopped production and sold off the remaining cars at bargain prices. The Singer overhead cam engine was then installed in the Minx-Rapier body and the result was called the Singer Gazelle. The Gazelle was really a deluxe Minx without the performance of the Rapier.
For 1957 the Rapier was given twin carbs. The engine was still 1390 cc’s but now developed 67 horsepower. The problems of the year before were being worked out and the Rapier was now winning rallies of international calibre. The Alpine and Monte Carlo rallies were entered and as usual, the Rapiers won their class and brought home the team prize. Rootes’ involvement in rallying was at its peak, with even Humber and Hillmans being entered in such events as the East Africa Safari. One major improvement found only on the Rapier rally cars was a remote control floor shift.

A little digression is necessary here. In 1954 Hillman introduced a small station wagon called the Hillman Husky. This car used the Minx engine and transmission. It was equipped with a direct acting floor shift. This was a long, long lever that came up from the floor almost at the firewall and then snaked up from under the dashboard to a position in front of and above the front seat. The lever was so long that several inches of spring were apparent in the lever itself. Needless to say, shifts were very slow and deliberate. This same floor shift was offered in the Hillman Minx in lieu of the equally bad column shift. To complete the situation, the column shift had a reversed pattern, first and second gears were where you’d expect to find third and fourth and third and fourth were up close to the steering wheel. Third gear was particularly bad, being almost up against the windshield.’ The short lever, short throw remote control gearshift was an improvement of the first magnitude. All of these variations were due to the fact that the basic Rootes transmission was a top loader (the transmission cover and shifter rails were on top.)

The year 1958 brought the Series II Rapier, an odd vehicle in that improvements were made in some areas and some distinct retrogressions were made in other areas. The body was revised by Raymond Loewy and a new, good looking imitation radiator grill replaced the previous “mouth”. The gain in the front, however, was offset by the addition of little tilted tail fins at the rear. The same thing happened mechanically, the engine was bored out 3.11 inches (1494 cc’s) with horsepower raised to seventy-three (the engine was now called the “Rallymaster”), but a very poor choice of transmission gear ratios actually increased the zero to sixty time! Continuing this almost self defeating policy, the remote control floor shift from the rally cars was now standard but the overdrive, was an extra cost option. Three major improvements were larger brakes with finned drums (but no disc brakes yet), a vastly improved recirculating ball steering box and, finally, a convertible. Prices for the new Rapier were $2,499 for the hardtop and $2,649 for the convertible (East Coast P.O.E.), both cars offered a good value for the money. At a time when there were increasing complaints about the sloppy assembly of American cars (doors not fitting right, pieces of trim left off, misalignment of body panels, etc.) the Sunbeam cars were considered jewels of perfect fits. Every piece fit and aligned perfectly, the entire car projected as air of quality. And well it could because unlike Chevrolet’s production run of 1,255,935 cars, only about 1200 Rapiers were sold in the U.S. in 1958, to put it another way, Chevrolet sold about eight times as I many Corvettes as Rootes sold Sunbeams.

In 1959 the Series III Rapier recorded a milestone of sorts, it was the first small imported car to offer air conditioning. A hang-on system was available, with the major components located in the trunk and the cold air being blown through the car from vents in the rear deck. The system cost $259.50 and was also offered on the Hillman Minx. The system was extremely rare, in the eighteen years since it was offered, I have only seen one equipped with an air conditioner (it was in a junkyard in Brooklyn in the early sixties).

Other than the air conditioner, the Series III Rapier was a vast improvement over the previous models, the transmission gears were sorted out, the engine output was increased again (to 78 horsepower), disc brakes were now standard and the interior was changed. Overshadowing the new Rapier was its smaller brother, the new Alpine Sports car. Both the Rapier Series III and the Alpine Series I were introduced in October of 1959.

With the end of the fifties and the introduction of the Alpine, I will end this article. The next article (Part V) will cover the Alpine.

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