The Unlikely Lad

Author’s Note: I recently had the privilege of being permitted to sit in on a lecture presented in a rather unique fashion by Milton Finesilver, headmaster of the independent Invercockaleekie School For Refined Young Gentlemen Of Means, to class 5A (Upper) on aspects of the British Motor Industry.

So, without further ado, here’s what Milton had to say:

Contrary to what some modern media types would have you believe, the 1970s wasn’t a decade mired in brown suede coats, chintzy curtains and a pervading sense of gloom.

Yes, the inhabitants of 1970s Britain had to endure strikes, power cuts and Des O’Connor, but it wasn’t all bad. You could fly to New York in half the time that it takes now, sporting stars still had more than a tangential connection to the man on the Clapham omnibus, the television channels (all three of them) were awash with quality dramas and thrillers, and the likes of Ronnie Barker, Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill kept the nation laughing.

That’s all good and well, of course, but we’re here to talk about cars. Some of you brighter chaps – no, not you, Smithers – will know that the 1970s gave us some fantastic cars like the Alfasud, the Ferrari 308 GTB, the Lotus Esprit, the Renault 5, the Range Rover, the Lancia Beta, the Saab 99 Turbo and the Austin Allegro. No sniggering at the back of the class.

But we’re not going to talk about any of those cars. Not today. Rather, we’re going to discuss a car that went against the flow; a motoring urchin, an unlikely lad….

What is it? All will be revealed in due course. The journey, gentlemen, is often more important than the destination.

Of course, we’re not going to sit here in this stuffy old room and talk about it. I think we can do a little bit better than that.

I say, Tupper, would you pull those dust sheets back? Thanks awfully. Feast your eyes on this beauty, chaps. Our very own time machine, specially built for us by some rather splendid types who used to work on the Austin Princess assembly line. So we needn’t have any concerns over reliability. Marvellous.

Alright, alright. Settle down at the back. Aren’t these velour seats lovely? Everybody in and seated comfortably? Good. I’ll just tweak the controls and we’ll be off in a jiffy. Next stop: 1975.

Everybody arrive in one piece? Smashing. Now if you’d care to open the document in front of you, you’ll see that it concerns the future of British Leyland. Not looking too rosy, is it? Still, the government hope that the cash injection they’ve just announced will turn things around. Best not tell them, eh? Mum’s the word.

Careful with that switch, boy! You don’t want us to end up in pre-war Berlin, do you? What’s that, Smithers? I’d keep that to yourself if I were you.

Now, let’s have a good look at this building. It’s the UK headquarters of Chrysler and there’s a board meeting going on. Let’s listen in.

Did you all get that? The Imp’s not selling well and it’s the only small car that Chrysler produces in the UK. There’s a lot of capacity at Linwood that’s not being used, but there’s not enough money available to develop a new car.

That’s a fair point, Tomkins. Why don’t they integrate their UK and European operations? Well, they’ve only had 8 years to do that…

Let’s listen in some more. Oh, come now. Don’t pretend to be shocked. Everybody plays hardball with the government. It’s the 1970s, remember?

Right. Let’s jump forward a few months. Quiet, please. I think there’s an important announcement going to be made. Well, well, well, they’ve got their money from the government, and now they’re off to design a new car to replace the Imp. Anyone care to guess what they’re going to call it? No, Smithers, it is not going to be called the Titanic. You stupid boy.

Climb back aboard, chaps. 1977 beckons. No, Smithers, we can’t go and see Abba in concert. Will Petula Clark do instead?

Hmmm. Not her finest number, I’m afraid. Still, we got to see the car, didn’t we? And as you’ll have noticed, they called it ‘Sunbeam’. A little nod to the past there, methinks. Did someone mention engines? Well, there’s a choice of three: a 930cc Imp-derived unit and 1295cc and 1598cc units from the Avenger.

I agree, Tomkins: it does look a little like an Avenger from the front. It’s like a shortened Avenger under the skin, too. And, yes, that does mean that it’s rear wheel drive. I know that all the other small European cars are front wheel drive or soon will be, but they’ve had to rush the Sunbeam into production.

True, they could have used the Simca 1100 drivetrain, but that would have meant having to do even more work in such a short time. And let’s not forget that the Simca drivetrains are French. Chrysler couldn’t very well use British taxpayers money to keep French workers in jobs, could they?

No more questions? Now if you’ll just pick up the dossier in front of you, you’ll see some road tests of the Sunbeam.

Finished reading? Capital. The press weren’t too hard on the Sunbeam, were they? Competent but a little stodgy probably sums it up quite nicely. Yes, Tomkins, the 930cc version really did take 22 seconds to reach 60. It’s nearly as slow as Smithers, what !

Still, I’m sure they can do better than that, given time. Let’s visit 1979 and see how they’re getting on.

sunbeam ti

Ah, that’s markedly better. The new Sunbeam Ti has a has good turn of pace. It looks fine too, don’t you think? If only it was a bit more civilised; it’s just a bit too rorty for refined chaps like us. Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and perhaps Peugeot’s take-over of Chrysler Europe will give the Sunbeam a boost.

Come on, chaps. Back into the time machine. Oh, don’t worry about that, Smithers. Trim used to fall off all the time on my old Princess. No, I’m sure it’s nothing vital. Just get in and stop grumbling.

And here we are: Norfolk. Yes, cloth ears, Norfolk. Let’s just look into that building over there. See that: several Sunbeams having Lotus engines fitted to them. What do you mean: why? Isn’t it obvious, boy? They’re homologating the car for rallying.

You think I’m joking? Oh, very well. Take us to 1981, Tupper. There’s a good fellow.

Sunbeam lotus

Didn’t they do well? Winning the World Rally Championship has to be good for sales. I bet you that the Sunbeam will really start to fly out of the showrooms now.

Of course, there’s only one way to find out. Setting the controls for 1983. Hang on, chaps. Here we go…

Image copyright holder unknown.

This can’t be the right place. Where are all the cars, the assembly lines, the workers, the roof? Let’s ask this chap, shall we? Thorpe, your governess is Scottish, isn’t she? Can you translate for us? Good man.

Oh dear. It seems that Peugeot closed the factory and ended Sunbeam production at the end of 1981. According to that chap, they built about 200,000 of them. That’s actually not too bad for a stop-gap model that was hastily committed to the market and drove the wrong wheels.

Right, gentlemen, all aboard the Skylark. Time to head back to 2015. Sorry, Tupper, what did you just say? The starter motor’s packed up? And it’s Sunday; Halfords won’t be open until tomorrow. Damn! Oh well, anyone for charades?