The Sunbeam Alpine introduced in 1960, a year before Triumph's TR-4 and nearly 3 years before the MGB, brought civilized touches like roll-up windows and detachable hardtops to the world of mainstream British roadsters. With styling credited to Loewy Associates recalling a pared down 2 passenger T-Bird with sheer flanks and bold tail fins, it was a modest success for awhile in the States. In Italy, the parent Rootes Group, in an attempt to expand sales in Europe, got the respected coach builders at Superleggera Touring to improve the cars with dual fuel tanks allowing more luggage space, wood dash panels (odd that it took Italians to suggest this to the Brits) and matching steering wheels. Soon enough Touring reworked the aggressive line of the tail fins, too, trimming the rear fender profiles to something closer to their Aston DB4 and Lancia Flaminia GT. These ideas were successful enough that the twin tanks were adopted on the Series III Alpine in 1963, and the trimmer fins on the Series IV in 1964.
Sunbeam Alpine Series I, 1959-60
The success of Touring's Alpine tweaks encouraged the head of Rootes' Italian operations, George Carless, to ask for a Superleggera design for a 4-seater along Alpine lines. This was in 1961, around the time production contracts for the Alfa Romeo 2600 spider (at left below) and Lancia Flaminia GT (at right) prompted the firm to plan a larger production facility aimed at the kind of assembly-line production which had appeared at Pininfarina. The new Sunbeam 2 + 2, christened the Venezia, appeared in 1963, and is the center car below.
The Venezia shares its peaked front fenders with the Flaminia GT, along with then-fashionable quad headlights. As on the Lancia, this detail is perhaps the least well-resolved on the car, with odd air intakes occupying the leftover space between the Sunbeam's headlight units and the fender peak. The effect is that someone has tried to graft tail fins onto the front of the car. The Venezia was literally launched in September 1963, riding down the Grand Canal on a gondola, and nearly plunged into the drink when attendants forgot to apply the emergency brake...
Sunbeam Venezia on Grand Canal, 1963
This near-disaster foreshadowed a real one, when Chrysler acquired a 30 percent stake in the makers of Hillman, Singer*, Sunbeam and Humber in 1964. With 3 members now on the Rootes board of directors, they cancelled the Venezia project.
Sunbeam Venezia, 1964-65
While the Venezia was a tidy little car, it is unlikely that it would have found the desired market in Europe, where customers had the choice of Alfa Romeos, Lancias and Fiat OSCAs with more power, and of course, similar Italian styling for the same money or less. Cancellation of the Venezia rendered much of the Touring's production facility redundant, and was one of the factors which led to the fine old coach builder's closing in 1966. Approximately 200 Venezias were built in 1964 and '65.
Sunbeam Venezia, 1964-65
Meanwhile, in 1963, Rootes Motors would introduce the Hillman Imp, the first mass-produced British car with a rear engine, in this case an aluminum 875 cc water-cooled inline four. Like the Venezia saga, the Imp story involved a new factory, this one in Scotland. And like the Venezia, the Imp contributed to the ultimate fate of its maker. Developed in the last years of a forgotten rear-engined vogue that included Simcas, Fiats and the Corvair, the Imp suffered initial teething problems with its Coventry Climax-based engine. And though it was eventually offered in sporty coupe versions by Sunbeam and Singer*, and had some rally success, it took 13 years to sell just over 440,000 cars. For perspective, Ford sold roughly that many Mustangs in its first year. Still, with its modern, Corvair-inspired lines and a 998 cc engine option, the Imp was a tempting package for tuners and specialists.
Hillman Imp (1967 model shown)
One of those specialists was Zagato in Italy. Like Touring had been, they were keen to expand their customer base by building a car with more mass appeal. Soon after the Imp's 1963 introduction, Zagato produced 3 alloy-bodied prototypes. Ercole Spada's glassy coupe design simplified the Imp's belt line crease (which dipped between the headlights as on the Corvair) into a sharp, encircling break line encircling the entire car...
As with the Venezia, the Rootes Group's cost studies led to the conclusion that production costs would have led to a price too high to permit the desired production market penetration. So those 3 Hillman "Zimp" prototypes would remain the sole examples of the species.
Designer Trevor Fiore and specialist maker TVR made a final attempt to get Rootes interested in a mass-market sports car aimed at the Spitfire, Sprite and Fiat 850 spider and coupe. This was the TVR Tina, using the Imp's engine and transaxle, with the prototype roadster and coupe bodies built in Italy by Fissore. The prototypes were in metal, while the plans were to produce the customer cars in fiberglass as on TVR's other efforts. Two different headlight schemes were tried on the roadster design; the top one shown below is oddly predictive of the small, projector beam headlights that would appear decades later...TVR Tina, 1966-67
The coupe appeared at the Paris Show in 1967, and Jensen, which assembled the V8-powered Sunbeam Tigers, was approached about production plans. Again, Rootes and Chrysler were unconvinced that potential sales in America would justify tooling up for this appealing little car, and it turned out that the Sunbeam Alpine Series V which finished its run the next year would be the last 2-seater from Chrysler Rootes.
TVR Tina, 1966-67
*Footnote: For a brief history of another independent British make which had a brief fling with European design before being absorbed by Rootes and then Chrylser, see our post on the Singer Le Mans, 1500 and HRG Twin-Cam from March 28, 2018.
2nd + 3nd from top: sunbeamvenezia.com
4rd thru 8th from top: wikimedia
9th thru bottom: imps4ever.info