UK’s rarest cars: 1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1.6S Automatic, one of only two left on British roads

·4-min read
1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic
1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic

The Sunbeam made no claims to innovation in its heyday, for its raison d’être was straightforward but good-looking transport at a modest cost. It was also the last wholly British-designed car to emerge from Chrysler’s troubled European operations, as well as being the star of a truly unforgettable TV advertisement.

Its debut was on 23 July 1977, only 19 months after the Government announced it would give US firm Chrysler a “state grant” of £162.5 million to maintain its British operations. These funds resulted in the company devising a new three-door hatchback, albeit made from very familiar components.

At that time, the average Chrysler showroom line-up was about as coherent as the plot of an average episode of Crossroads. First, there was the rear-engined Simca 1000 and the front-wheel-drive Simca 1100, neither of which were in the first flush of youth. Then there was the Avenger and the venerable Hunter Chrysler inherited from the former Rootes Group, the latter now imported from Ireland.

In addition, Chrysler’s Ryton plant to the south of Coventry had recently commenced production of the Alpine hatchback, while topping the range was the Spanish-built 2 Litre, a model that appealed to very few “executive” drivers. Under such circumstances, Chrysler UK sorely needed a competitive entry-level car, and the development of the Sunbeam took a mere 19 months, with a floorpan sourced from the Avenger.

1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic
1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic

So, on 16 October 1977, Petula Clark urged ITV viewers to “Put a Chrysler Sunbeam in your life”. Such an elaborate presentation was certainly a marked contrast to rival British Leyland’s “Help: We Are Desperate” commercials of that period. In addition, the marketing department issued dealers a 7-inch Flexidisc of the song to further assist the launch.

The motoring press tended to regard the latest Chrysler as an agreeable stopgap model. When Richard Hudson Evans tested the Sunbeam for Thames TV’s Drive In he found it roomy and practical. Autocar similarly remarked: “The Sunbeam may not be the world’s most advanced or imaginative small car, but it has its share of good points.”

1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic
1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic

Roy Axe’s neat styling was one significant sales point, while the old-fashioned rear-wheel drive layout was not especially notable in 1977; the rival Ford Escort, Vauxhall Chevette and Toyota Corolla Liftback all eschewed the increasingly ubiquitous front-wheel drive.

Chrysler offered the buyer a choice of LS, GL and S trim levels. The flagship 1.6S featured tinted glass, a cigar lighter, a clock, halogen headlights and even “brushed nylon cloth” upholstery, all for a mere £3,017.14. Following Chrysler Europe’s sale to Peugeot, the Sunbeam was rebadged as a Talbot in August 1979 (as were the Avenger and Alpine).

1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic
1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic

Production ended in 1981 with the closure of the Linwood factory to the west of Glasgow. Today, only 42 of all types remain in use, and Roy Hedger owns one of only two 1.6S Automatics still on the road. It is also the sole survivor fitted with a Webasto sunroof, while the transmission is the rarely specified four-speed Borg Warner 45 ’box.

Hedger notes that a further problem concerning the survival rate of the Sunbeam is its attraction to historic rally fans. He said: “This is a double-edged sword really, as the original cars are being lost, but interior trim spares are available from these stripped-out rally cars.” During the 1990s and 2000s, many owners also converted Sunbeams into high-performance Ti or Lotus replicas, in addition to those numerous works replica rally cars.

1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic
1978 Chrysler Sunbeam 1. 6S Automatic

Today, Hedger observes that while the Sunbeam is now much rarer than a Ford Escort, “they are not valued as much by most classic fans. Maybe because there were just not as many sold”. He regards his S as “a touch of nostalgia as a Sunbeam was my first car after I passed my test at 17”.

When new, the Sunbeam virtually prided itself on its innocuous appearance, but Hedger finds his example to be “a head-turner. As hardly any remain on the road, everyone comments on how they haven’t seen one in decades”.

And some were instantly reminded of the small Chrysler with the power, according to Petula Clark, to “put a smile on your face”.

Thanks to: Roy Hedger and the Avenger and Sunbeam Owners’ Club

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