It was the first car to enter Saint Mark’s Square. Where else but Venice could you launch a car named after Italy’s city of canals? A gondola would transport the Sunbeam Venezia Superleggera to its destination, where it would be greeted by the mayor of the city and the British Ambassador. Press photos show a Venezia passing under the Bridge of Sighs and along the Grand Canal, but it was far from plain sailing for the Anglo-Italian beauty. Somebody forgot to apply the handbrake, so the Sunbeam came close to meeting a watery end. This wasn’t the last time events would conspire to put the brakes on the project.
The Sunbeam Venezia was born 170 miles west of Venice at Carrozzeria Touring in Milan. An unmistakably Italian car with the underpinnings of the very British Humber Sceptre, it wasn’t the Rootes Group’s first collaboration with the famous coachbuilders. Indeed, Touring was responsible for improving the Sunbeam Alpine, as well as modifying cars for the local Rootes agent in Milan. In 1961, Touring and Rootes had signed an agreement to assemble the Hillman Super Minx and Alpine for the Italian market, and it was from these, ahem, roots that the idea of a sporting saloon grew.
George Carless was the boss of the Rootes Italian HQ from 1960 until 1965, and in spring 1960 he presented a proposal to Brian Rootes, the export sales director. Greeted with a favourable response, Carless then approached Touring, where he was met with a similar level of enthusiasm. It’s no coincidence that the 1:10 scale model shared many hallmarks with Touring’s other creations of the period, most notably the GT, GTL and Convertible versions of the Lancia Flaminia and the Maserati 5000 GT. Twin headlights, wraparound windscreens and similar rear wings are some of the shared characteristics. Touring’s ‘discography’ of the era reads like a list of smash hits of the 1960s: Aston Martin DB4, DB5, DB6, Lagonda Rapide, Alfa Romeo Giulia GTC, Lamborghini 350 GT and 400 GT and Jensen Interceptor, to name just a few. Now that’s what I call an impressive portfolio.
Lord Rootes was suitably impressed with the scale model and authorised the production of a prototype. A Hillman Super Minx chassis – almost identical to the forthcoming Humber Sceptre – was sent to Milan, where a right-hand drive prototype was produced. Parts from the Rootes Group bin included a radiator grille from the Sunbeam Rapier and instruments fitted to other Rootes cars. Touring reshaped the backs of the front seats to improve legroom for rear-seat passengers but there was, at this point, no engine. In summer 1962, the prototype was shipped to England, where a contract was signed for the manufacture of 300 cars. The Venezia would use the chassis and a 1592cc engine from the Sceptre, albeit with power increased from 80bhp to 88bhp. Back in Italy, the Venezia was treated to more modifications, which are detailed on the excellent Sunbeam Venezia website.
In a press release dated 10 September 1963, the Rootes Group said, “this glamorous new model blends Italian styling flair with British engineering skill”. Although designed and built for the Italian market, exports to other European countries were planned, but the company ruled out sales in the UK, “where import duties and purchase tax would make it uneconomic to market the car at a competitive price”. In Italy, it retailed for 2.5 million lire (£1440), while In the UK, a Humber Sceptre cost around £1000 including purchase tax, so the Venezia wouldn’t have stood a chance in a market where you could buy a Jaguar Mk II 2.4-litre for a similar price. The extravagant price was also a barrier in Italy, where domestic buyers stayed fiercely loyal to cars built by Alfa Romeo and Lancia. The Venezia may have been coachbuilt using Touring’s famed Superleggera technique, but this mattered little to the Italians, who had access to an array of beautiful and significantly cheaper cars.
With such a low production run, Touring had little hope of reducing the unit cost, which became even more of an issue when the order had been cut to 250. Sales limped to a reported 203, with the Rootes Group sending just 145 Sceptre chassis to Milan. It’s likely that the remaining cars were built using the underpinnings of Italian Super Minxes. Strikes in both Britain and Italy, a change to Italian vehicle purchase tax and performance that couldn’t match the car’s undoubted elegance were other factors working against the Venezia.
The handbrake incident on the Grand Canal was like a warning from history; the Venezia was destined to sink without a trace. (Insert something about being in Venice without a paddle.) There was talk of a V8 version, but this came to nothing. An eight-cylinder engine brought the Tiger out of the Alpine, so one can only imagine what a Venezia V8 would have been like. There are rumours that Brian Rootes owned a Venezia with a Ford V8 under the bonnet.
Fewer than 30 cars are thought to have survive, so it’s not often that a Venezia comes up for sale. It’s even rarer in the UK, where only a handful examples are believed to reside, which is why this auction car has piqued our interest. Sold new in Switzerland, it was discovered and imported by a Rootes enthusiast in 2014 and looked destined to be stripped for spares. Fortunately, it escaped mutilation, and is now being offered as a rolling restoration project. A specialist Rootes restorer has taken it to the point where it runs and drives, so it’s now awaiting cosmetic attention.
Or is it? Even in it’s current ‘lived in’ appearance, the Sunbeam’s elegance and beauty shines through, so aside from some light tickling, wouldn’t it be nice to retain the car’s wonderful patina? Even the ‘CH’ country identifier should stay; you could imagine it parked alongside a certain Aston Martin on the Furka Pass. Who are we trying to kid? As the auction description points out, “parts of the bodywork have deteriorated badly and will require extensive restoration”.
How much you decide to sink into the project is up to you, but at the time of writing bidding had reached just £1000. You will stand out at a classic car show; just remember to apply the handbrake.