1 October 2021

More than an old car #179: Sunbeam Rapier

Car events now seem to be a lifetime ago as a result of current restrictions, and I am sure many of us are raring for a time where we can enjoy looking at many cars again without any fear. As a little throwback to when we were oblivious to the situation today, I felt it was a good moment to introduce this little obscurity of a 1956 Sunbeam Rapier!

The Rapier was launched by the Rootes Group in 1955, where it was based off the Hillman Minx. Curiously, the Hillman Minx itself debuted later in 1956 instead. Its styling, undertaken by Raymond Lowey Associates, was heavily influenced by the titular designer's Studebaker Starliner. Car bodies were built by Pressed Steel, shipped to Thrupp & Maberly in London where they were painted, then sent to the Rootes assembly plant where their engines were installed. Overall, the fractured nature of car production back then was an unwieldy beast that had fortunately died out. 

The car was equipped with a steering column gear change, leather trim and a Laycock de Normanville overdrive system. Typical of the period, cars were available in two-tone paint schemes like the above unit. The overdrive system was given praise by the late Sir Stirling Moss, who noted that the car could perform like a 2-litre engine car instead of a 1.3 litre one. Reviews also praised the instrument panel for showing important information at a glance, the wide view from the windscreen and seat comfort. Minor gripes included sluggish brakes and unnecessary clicking sounds when the wipers were in operation.

Despite being a 2-door car, it was able to fit 6 adults decently. Interestingly, the Rapier was also used in competition despite looking anything but sporty: it won the Special Touring Class up to 1600 cc in the 1956 Mille Miglia, and emerged 5th place at the 1958 Monte Carlo rally which were significant achievements. The Rapier was powered by a 1390 cc overhead valve straight-4 engine, allowing it to reach a top speed of 85 mph with an acceleration of 21.7 seconds [0-60 mph]. It was 4070 mm long and had a fuel consumption rate of 9.3 litres / 100 km.

Production of the Series 1 Rapiers ended in 1958 with only 7,477 units made, where it was replaced by the Series 2. Rapiers were sold in Malaya (ie before Singapore became independent) by Lyons Motors Ltd in 1956, where they retailed at $7,180. While some units had been registered here in Singapore, none have survived till today: this unit was from Malaysia which had been here for an event. As with most 50s cars, not many remain partly due to scarcity of parts and knowledge to maintain these machines. With just 20 remaining in the UK, it would be reasonable to approximate around 100 remaining worldwide...

Although cars from your grandparents' era tend to be overlooked, they are veritable time machines that carry a nostalgia for a simpler period of history. The styling cues that appeared pioneered the way for car designs later on and are duly recognised as a significant part of what makes a car, a car. I was fortunate to be able to see this unique rarity, although I lamented not being able to take proper pictures due to the lack of access. While you probably won't see this anytime soon on the roads, I hope this has been fruitful in letting you know about its existence!

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