This Sunbeam Rapier, retrospectively called the Series I when the Series II was announced, was the first of the Rootes Group's new Audax range of light cars. Announced at the Motor Show in October 1955, it preceded its Hillman Minx and Singer Gazelle counterparts by several months.
The Series I was a four seat, two door hardtop coupe, completely different to the Sunbeam Mark III, the car it was eventually to replace. Although designed "in house" by the Rootes Group, it was inspired, via the Raymond Loewy design organisation, by the new-generation Studebaker coupes of 1953. This inspiration was to become even more apparent with the Series II Rapier.
The Series I was a pretty car which in general, was well received by the motoring press. Available in a range of attractive two-tone colour schemes typical of the period, it boasted steering column gear change, leather trim and an overdrive as standard fittings. Vinyl trim was an option in the UK and standard in certain export territories. Rapier bodies were built by Pressed Steel, shipped to Thrupp and Maberley in north London where they were painted and trimmed, then shipped again to the Rootes assembly plant at Ryton-on-Dunsmore where the engines, transmission and running gear were fitted! This complex situation persisted until late 1963 and the introduction of the Series IV model.
The 1390 cc engine of the Series I was essentially the same as that fitted to the Hillman Minx but with a raised compression ratio (8:1 instead of 7:1), a Stromberg DIF 36 carburettor and revised inlet and exhaust manifolds. In this form it developed 62.5 bhp at 5000 rpm, could reach 60 mph in 21.7 seconds and had a top speed of 85 mph.
Although the Series I Rapier's performance was lively by the standards of its time, and its handling was considered to be excellent, it soon became clear that it just wasn't powerful enough. From October 1956, it was fitted with the R67 engine on which the Stromberg carburettor was replaced by twin Zenith 36 WIP carburettors on a new inlet manifold. This engine produced 67.5 bhp at 5000 rpm, the effect of which was to reduce the Rapier's 0-60 mph time by almost 1 second and increase its top speed by 3 mph.
The Series I, of which only 7477 units were produced, was discontinued in 1958 in favour of the much improved Series II. The price of a Series 1 Rapier in March 1957 was £1043-17s-0d (£1043.85) including purchase tax.
Announced on 6th February 1958, the Series II was a great improvement on the Series I. In a move indicative of today's new vehicle launches, Rootes arranged for nine of the new Sunbeam Rapiers to be in Monte Carlo for the press to try at the end of the Monte Carlo Rally (in which Peter Harper came 5th overall in a works-prepared Series I). The Series II, for which there was also a convertible option, heralded the now-famous Rapier shape.
With the Series II, the appearance of the Sunbeam Rapier changed dramatically. Although the changes originated in the Rootes styling department, they reinforced the link to the Loewy-designed Studebakers. The Series II looked remarkably like a shortened Studebaker Golden Hawk!
The Series II returned to a traditional Sunbeam radiator grille, albeit shortened and widened. It was impossible to disguise the fact that that the car had originally been designed with a horizontal grille, so the space left by the adoption of the Sunbeam grille was filled with horizontal side grilles. The two-tone lower body scheme of the Series I was discontinued in favour of a broad full length flash in the same colour as the roof, but the most startling change was the appearance on the rear wings of pronounced fins.
The interior of the Series II was similar to that of the Series I, except that a floor gear change replaced the unpopular column change. This modification, developed on the works Series I rally cars, was an immediate success. To keep costs down, the leather upholstery, standard on the Series I, was discontinued in favour of vinyl and overdrive became an extra cost option.
The greatest improvement in the Series II though, was its new engine. Referred to for obvious reasons as the Rallymaster, it had an increased capacity of 1494 cc. The capacity increase combined with a higher compression ratio of 8.5:1 and larger inlet and exhaust valves to raise the power output to 73 bhp at 5200 rpm. Autocar quoted the top speed as 91 mph with a 0-60 mph time of 20.2 seconds. As a direct result of competition experience, the Series II was fitted with larger front brakes and a recirculating ball steering box instead of the rather vague worm and nut box of the Series I.
In 1958 you could buy a Series II Rapier hardtop coupe for exactly the same price as you would have paid for a Series I in 1957 (£1043-17s-0d including purchase tax) but a convertible would have cost you £1103-17s-0d (£1103.85). If you wanted overdrive, you would have had to find another £63-15s-0d (£63.75).
The Series II was discontinued in favour of the Series III in 1959 after 15151 units (hardtop and convertible) had been built.
Regarded by many as the definitive Sunbeam Rapier, the Series III was introduced in September 1959. Rootes made subtle changes to the Rapier's body which individually may have gone unnoticed but when combined, considerably altered the car's appearance.
For example, the number of horizontal bars in each of the side grilles was increased from two to four. The boot lid acquired an oblong number plate recess and surround in place of the square ones of earlier cars. The most striking change was the redesigned side flash, now narrower and lower down the side of the car with the Rapier script on its rear end. The most subtle change, however, was a reduction in thickness of the windscreen pillars and a lowering of the scuttle line to give a 20 per cent increase in windscreen area.
On the inside of the Series III the changes were most noticeable. Rootes stylists completely redesigned the seats and interior panels and specified that they be trimmed in single colour, high quality vinyl with contrasting piping. For the first time, deep pile carpets were fitted as standard in the footwells. The steering wheel, knobs and switches were in black plastic instead of beige. The most striking change, however, was to the dashboard. Instead of padded metal and plastic as in earlier cars, the dash was burr walnut veneer surmounted by a padded crash roll, and held a full complement of black-faced British Jaeger instruments.
Mechanically, the Series III benefited from the design of the Sunbeam Alpine sports car because they both used the same 1494 cc engine. Although the cylinder block was inherited from the Series II Rapier, the new eight port aluminium cylinder head had an increased compression ratio and redesigned valves, and used a new, sportier camshaft. The twin Zenith carburetters from the Series II remained but were mounted on a new water heated inlet manifold. The result of these changes was a power increase of 5 bhp to 78 bhp at 5400 rpm.
Gearbox changes included higher second, third and top gear ratios, and a reduced angle of gear lever movement to make for shorter lever travel and snappier changes. New front disc brakes significantly improved the Rapier's braking capability and widened its front track to give greater stability and improved roadholding.
According to Autocar, the Series III had a top speed of 93 mph and reached 60 mph from rest in 16.5 seconds, a significant improvement over the Series II.
You would have paid less for a Series III than for a Series II because of a reduction in the rate a purchase tax. The hardtop sold for £986 and the convertible for £1042-7s-6d (£1042.37).
The Series III, of which 15,368 units were built gave way to the Series IIIA in April 1961.
In 1961 the Series III Rapier was at the height of its competition success and was the front line rally car of the Rootes Group competitions department. It was inevitable therefore, that when the Series II Sunbeam Alpine was announced with a 1592 cc engine, it wouldn't be long before a similarly powered Rapier appeared. Sure enough, on 20th April 1961 the Series IIIa Rapier was announced.
Externally and internally the Series IIIa was identical to the Series III. The improvements were directed solely at improving the durability of the car. To this end, engine capacity was increased to 1592 cc and a stiffer crankshaft fitted. To increase reliability, the crankshaft incorporated larger diameter connecting rod bearings which called for modifications to the connecting rods and gudgeon pins. Modified oil and water pumps completed the engine changes. As a result, power output increased from 78 bhp to 80.25 bhp at 5100 rpm and torque increased from 84 lb/ft at 3500 rpm to 88.2 lb/ft at 3900 rpm.
In addition, the Series IIIa included many detail changes such as an increased diameter front anti-roll bar which greatly improved roadholding, a redesigned clutch bellhousing, a revised clutch assembly with 9 pressure springs instead of 6 and a redesigned air cleaner assembly. All of these changes combined to make the Series IIIa subtly different from its predecessor and to give the Sunbeam Rapier a new lease of life in the showroom.
Maximum speed for the Series IIIa was lower than the Series III at 90 mph. It also took longer than the Series III to get to 60 mph (19.3 seconds) but its engine was far more durable.
In 1963, a Series IIIa hardtop would have cost you £852-8s-9d (£852.44) against £900-15s-6d (£900.77) for a convertible. The Series IIIa convertible was discontinued in mid 1963 but the hardtop soldiered on until October 1963 when it was replaced by the Series IV. When production of the Series IIIa ceased, 17,354 units had been built.
Late in 1963, Rootes were set to drop the old Rapier. It was no longer the mainstay of the competitions department and Rootes had decided to direct its competitive efforts toward the Hillman Imp and the Sunbeam Tiger. In fact a new Series IV Rapier had been designed, prototypes built and testing completed, and then the Rootes Group changed its mind! The new Series IV Rapier became the Mark I Humber Sceptre and the old Series IIIa was redesigned, hopefully to give it a new lease of life as a touring saloon rather than a sports coupe.
Coincidentally, around this time, Rootes rationalised their Light Car range and the Rapier was rationalised along with the others. It had been in production for eight years and hitherto had not been radically changed. The changes introduced on the Series IV were pretty extensive and although the basic structure was the same, it looked very different.
The most obvious difference was the change to 13 inch road wheels in common with the rest of the Light Car range. The magnificent but wayward stainless steel wheel trims of earlier Rapiers were replaced by Rootes corporate hub caps and rim finishers. At the front, the car was completely and cleverly redesigned to make it look more up-to-date. A new bonnet made the front look lower and flatter and the front wings were modified to accept extensions housing alloy side grilles and sidelights with amber turn indicators. The traditional Sunbeam grille, already heavily stylised for the Series II, was further stylised to give a lower, more square shape with a pronounced convex profile. New headlamp rims were fitted, in fact Sunbeam Alpine items but chromed for the Rapier, and a new front bumper using the same shape and profile as the rest of the Light Car range. At the back, a new full width number plate plinth appeared with a new Light Car range bumper. To give a more open look from the side, the frames were removed from the side windows. Finally, small badges fitted at the bottom of each front wing and on the boot lid proclaimed each car to be a "Series IV".
Inside, a new dash, still in walnut veneer, but with the glove box raised into the dash itself allowed the inclusion of a proper storage shelf on each side of the car. Instrumentation and controls were much as before except that the heater switches and ashtray were now housed in a console in front of the gear lever. To aid driver comfort, an adjustable steering column was fitted along with new front seats which allowed more fore and aft adjustment and for the first time, included backrest adjustment.
In common with the rest of the Light Car range, the Rapier's front suspension was re-engineered to replace the half king pin on each side of the car with a sealed for life ball joint. All other suspension joints became either sealed for life or were rubber bushed thereby eliminating every grease point on the car. Gearing was adjusted overall to compensate for the smaller wheels and the front brake discs were reduced in size so that they would fit inside the wheels. A brake servo became standard and the spring and damper settings were adjusted to give a softer ride. A new diaphragm clutch and new clutch master cylinder brought lighter and more progressive clutch operation.
The 1592 cc engine from the Series IIIa was unchanged but the twin Zenith carburetters finally gave way to a single twin-choke Solex 32PAIA in the interests of serviceability. The effect of the new carburetter was to increase power to 84 bhp and torque to 91 lb/ft at 3500 rpm.
In October 1964, along with the rest of the Light Car range, the Series IV received the new Rootes all synchromesh gearbox, a change which coincided with the introduction of a new computerised chassis numbering system.
The Motor road test of April 1964 gave the Series IV Rapier's maximum speed as 91 mph and its 0-60 mph time as 17 seconds. You could buy a Series IV in 1964 for £876-12s-1d (£876.60) or for £928-9s-2d (£928.46) with overdrive. There was no convertible option. When production of the Series IV ceased in 1965, 9700 units had been built.
Ten years after the launch of the original Sunbeam Rapier, the Series IV Rapier was still beautiful but obsolete. Rootes decided to have one more go at updating the well-liked old car, probably because the new Fastback Rapier wasn't quite ready. In September 1965 they introduced the Series V Sunbeam Rapier. It looked exactly like a Series IV inside and out except for badges on wings and boot which now said "1725", and thereby hangs the tale.
Rootes had extensively redesigned their famous old four cylinder engine to increase its capacity to 1725 cc. Along the way it had acquired a new crankshaft with five main bearings, making for a stronger and smoother engine. They decided that this engine would power the Series V Rapier.
To further update the car, they changed its polarity from positive to negative earth and fitted an alternator in place of the dynamo. They also devised a new twin pipe exhaust system so that the engine could breathe more easily.
The effect of these changes was to increase the Rapier's maximum speed to 95 mph and reduce its time from rest to 60 mph to 14.1 seconds. Unfortunately, despite being a superb motor car, the Series V just didn't sell. By the time it was discontinued in June 1967, only 3759 units had been built, making the Series V the rarest of all Sunbeam Rapiers.
By the mid-1960s, Rootes was ready to drop the old Audax range of cars. The Arrow range was to take its place and central to this strategy was a new generation of Sunbeam Rapiers.
The Arrow Rapier (or Fastback, as it came to be known), launched in 1967, was a smart four-seat coupe based on the underpan and chassis of the Hillman Hunter Estate. It was said to have borne a resemblance to the current Plymouth Barracuda, but Rapier stylist Roy Axe insists that this was not the case. Although the Rapier used the tail lamps and rear valance from the Hunter Estate, the rest of its superstructure was unique.
It used Rootes four cylinder, 5 bearing 1725 cc engine, which like the rest of the cars in the Arrow range, was tilted slightly to the right. With its twin Stromberg 150CD carburetters the engine produced a creditable 88 bhp (net) at 5200 rpm. Overdrive was standard with the manual gearbox, and Borg-Warner automatic transmission was an optional extra.
The Fastback Rapier continued almost unchanged until 1976, when it was discontinued and not replaced. It formed the basis for the more powerful Rapier H120, and for the down-market Alpine of the period. Its running gear was also used in the Humber Sceptre, Hillman GT and Hillman Hunter GT models from the Arrow range.
The Rapier and its variants were built at Ryton-on-Dunsmore between 1967 and 1969 and at Linwood in Scotland from 1969 until its demise in 1976. In all, 46,204 units were built (Rapier, H120 and Alpine).
Maximum speed of the Rapier was 103 mph and it could reach 60 mph from rest in 12.8 seconds. It was marketed in the United States as the Sunbeam Alpine GT.
Introduced in 1970, was essentially a Rapier with a simplified specification, developed to plug a gap in the Arrow range above the Singer Vogue. It used the same 1725 cc engine as the Hillman Hunter which, fitted with a single Stromberg 150CD carburetter, developed 74 bhp (net) at 5500 rpm. Overdrive was an option on cars with a manual gearbox or you could have Borg-Warner automatic transmission.
The Alpine, though well equipped, was less lavish than the Rapier. It had a simpler dash with fewer instruments, different wheel trims, no aluminium sill finishers and no vinyl trim on its C pillars. Above all, it was significantly cheaper than the Rapier.
Maximum speed of the Alpine was 94 mph and it could reach 60 mph from rest in 14.6 seconds.
The Fastback Alpine was discontinued in 1975, before the Rapier and H120
To produce an even faster car than the Fastback Rapier, Rootes developed the H120. Based on the Rapier, the H120 had a more powerful version of the 1725 cc engine specially developed by Holbay Racing Engines. It developed 108 bhp (gross) at 5200 rpm and was fitted with a special cylinder head, high lift camshaft, tuned length four-branch exhaust manifold, special distributor and twin Weber 40DCOE carburetters. To enhance the driving experience, the H120 had a close ratio gearbox, a heavy duty overdrive and a high ratio rear axle. Automatic transmission was not an option.
To add to its sporty image, the H120 was given wider Rostyle wheels, broad side flashes, a matt black radiator grille and a new boot lid incorporating a neat spoiler. To complete the package, H120 badges appeared on the front wings and in the centre of the grille.
Maximum speed of the H120 was 109 mph and it could reach 60 mph from standstill in a shade over 10 seconds.
The H120 was discontinued with the Fastback Rapier in 1976.