The Sunbeam Rapier Series I is a four-seater coupe produced from 1955 to 1958.
The Rapier Series I boasted two-door ‘hardtop coupe’ coachwork with a 1.4-litre S4 OHV engine, worm-and-nut steering and 4-speed transmission. The front suspension was by independent coil and wishbone suspension with rear semi-elliptic leaf springs and a live axle and there were drum brakes fore and aft. It was regarded as both the eventual replacement to the Sunbeam Mk. III and the successor to the Hillman Californian.
The Rapier was launched in October 1955 as the first of the ‘Audax’ series of medium sized Rootes Group cars - a clever marketing decision that would lend the Hillman ‘New Minx’ of 1956 glamour by proxy. The engine had a Stromberg DIF 36 carburettor, which helped to produce a top speed of 85mph and achieve 0-60 in around 22 seconds. At £1,043 17s the Sunbeam was not a cheap car but a major aspect of its appeal was in its pillarless styling reminiscent of the 1953 Studebaker Starliner. The standard equipment included a cigarette lighter, overdrive, leather seats and (naturally) two-tone paint with extras including a heater, clock, tachometer and windscreen washers.
One complaint from Rapier owners was that the car lacked urge, so in October 1956 Sunbeam replaced the Stromberg carburettor with twin Zenith 36 WIPs, which raised the top speed to the 88mph mark. A Motor test of 1957 mused that ‘the new owner is probably one who appreciates an attractive and well-finished two-door saloon’ and noted ‘the attention to detail in comfort, trim, and silence’. The Sunbeam’s appeal was further enhanced when a Rapier won the Special Touring Class up to 1600cc in the 1956 Mille Miglia and achieved a class victory in the 1957 Tulip Rally. Peter Harper also drove a works-prepared Series I to fifth place in the 1958 Monte Carlo rally.
The Series I was replaced by the Series II in February 1958.
Power for the Rapier was from a 1,390cc S4 OHV engine and the 4-speed transmission had synchromesh on the top three ratios and was controlled by a steering column lever. The Laycock-de-Normanville overdrive functioned on third and fourth gears.
As long as you do not expect blistering performance from the Series I, or try to hurry the column change, it is a delightful touring car. And the pillarless construction comes into its own in warm weather.
Areas to look for on a Series I Sunbeam Rapier are floor and sills for corrosions, while the dynamo may need replacing. It is well worth joining the owners’ club as some interior trim and body panels can be very hard to source.
The original Sunbeam Rapier is a fascinating example of American design tropes scaled down for the British suburban motorist, and as such has an appeal all of its own. In short, it is a car that is positively made for a world of white-wall tyres, Brylcreem and films starring Diana Dors.
Competitors for the Rapier Series I ranged from the MG Magnette ZB to the Simca Aronde Grand Large.