For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
But he vividly remembers realising the game was up. “I was on the startline of a gravel rally stage and Michèle Mouton started just in front of us,” explains the ’81 Rally Argentina winner. “At that moment I knew that two-wheel drive was over.”
Mouton’s car, of course, was the Audi quattro, with a powerful five-cylinder turbocharged engine and an all-wheel-drive system that dug into that loose surface where the Sunbeam would slither and slide.
By the end of 1982, it would bring Audi the manufacturers’ crown of the World Rally Championship.
So the two homologation machines we’re driving today, four decades on, represent a pivotal changing of the guard in rally history, as all-wheel drive handed rear-wheel drive its P45.
Contemporaries they are, but few would guess it from the way they look or the way they drive.
The Sunbeam story is one of pragmatism and the kind of nimble-footed decision-making only achieved with a small team.
The base car’s development began in early 1976, as Rootes Group owner Chrysler Europe struggled to stay on an equal footing.
While rivals were selling or developing all-new hatchbacks on bespoke front-wheel-drive platforms, the Sunbeam used a shortened rear-drive Hillman Avenger for its underpinnings, and would take just 19 months to go from inception to public announcement.
Standard versions peaked with just 1.6 litres and 69bhp, but Sunbeam development neatly coincided with Mike Kimberley ’s promotion to managing director of Lotus Cars.
He was already planning to kick-start Lotus as an engineering consultancy when the phone rang.
“I was called by Wynne Mitchell, an old college friend and the competitions manager at Chrysler UK, asking if I was interested in supplying engines for a potential rally car,” explains Kimberley.
The bones of the deal were fleshed out at Hethel, with Chrysler Europe motorsport director Des O’Dell accompanying Mitchell, and Kimberley flanked by Graham Atkin, his powertrain general manager.
“Des wanted two engines, one standard 2-litre 155bhp Type 907 16-valve engine and one tuned for rallying with more power and torque,” recalls Kimberley.
“We quoted a reasonable cost and Des snatched our hands off. It took us six weeks to build his rally-tuned [2.2-litre Type 911] 240bhp engine.They built it into a car and Des let his director drive it hard. The decision was made then to rally and build the homologation production cars.”
The Sunbeam we’re driving today is one of the first 50 production cars off the line with a spring 1979 build date, still wearing a Chrysler pentastar on its nose, but now officially a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus owing to PSA’s takeover.
Like all Sunbeams, this car’s life began in Linwood, near Glasgow, thanks to government incentives to prop up ailing local industry.
From there it was delivered to Ludham airfield near the Lotus headquarters in Hethel on slave wheels and tyres.
Here it was fitted with a 2.2-litre engine (the Type 907 unit wasn’t used), a ZF five-speed gearbox, 13in alloys, plus suspension and exhaust upgrades from Lotus.
Kevin Malcolm has owned this lovely example since 1987. A friend had put it into a ditch on a hillclimb near John O’Groats when Malcolm bought and repaired it.
He commuted between Perth and Thurso in the car for a while, before treating it to a full respray in original Embassy Black with silver stripes (as all early cars were) in 1996.
It then sat in storage until around 2012 and has been used sparingly since 2014, which explains why it’s in such excellent order and has covered a relatively lowly 74,548 miles.
A refreshed interior certainly helps, this one having recently been reupholstered in new fabric commissioned by the Sunbeam Lotus Owners’ Club, with the trimming handled by Tolman Motorsport.
Nonetheless, this is a sparse environment with black only enlivened by grey. There are window winders, slider controls for the heater, a fan, a radio and, well, that’s about it.
You sit vertiginously high on velour seats that soak up weight like water in a sponge, and you have to splay your knees to turn the large wheel.
Vision is excellent over the thin strip of dash and through the gently curved ’screen.
The slant-four twin-cam settles to a gruff if purposeful idle and, with first gear on a dog-leg down and to the left, you ease up the clutch to a high biting point.
The gearshift has a relatively long if nicely fluid and precise movement forwards and the gearing is short, so you’re perhaps one gear higher than you expect everywhere, the effect amplified by the Sunbeam weighing in at only 960kg.
Given that there’s a 2.2-litre twin-cam with 150bhp under the bonnet, even early impressions suggest this is a peppy, energetic machine.
Speed eases some of the initial brittleness from the suspension and low-speed stodge from the unassisted steering, and, while the helm is pretty vague around the straight-ahead, it is light and user-friendly enough to suggest you’d easily jab in a steering correction should things go awry.
With the fluids warmed, work the Sunbeam harder and the throttle tingles with response.
There is a lovely rasp from the twin 45mm Dell’Orto carbs and power builds in one gorgeously linear sweep around the tacho, the rortiness rising tunefully.
The Type 911 relishes high revs and still feels free and easy around to 5750rpm, where peak power is produced.
It’s every bit as charismatic as the BDA in an Escort RS 1800, and Kimberley still has original Lotus test data proving that even a heavier, Avenger-based mule could hit 60mph from rest in 6.6 secs, almost 2 secs quicker than the Escort.
On greasy roads it certainly feels lively, struggling to cleanly transfer power to its modest 13in tyres in second gear when leaving junctions.
In low- to mid-speed corners the stakes are higher, and it feels as if you’re treading a fine line between getting the most from the front-end grip and having the rear swing round when you back off the throttle because the wheelbase is so short.
Even works driver Fréquelin remembers the Talbot being somewhat overpowered: “The Sunbeam was quite easy to drive – it was agile and had a great engine but a chassis that struggled to keep up, and an obvious lack of traction.”
The Sunbeam would win only two WRC rounds – Henri Toivonen’s famous Rally GB victory in 1980, and Fréquelin in Argentina in ’81 – but seven podium finishes brought Talbot a convincing manufacturers’ title in 1981.
Nonetheless, the new PSA bosses decided that 1982 would be the Sunbeam’s final year of WRC action as attention switched to Peugeot and, eventually, the 205 Turbo 16 Group B machine.
Production of the Sunbeam ended at a lower-than-planned 2308 units.
If the Sunbeam is invigoratingly raw, almost the entire point of the quattro was to showcase dowdy Audi as a technological tour de force.
Along with the Porsche 917 and Bugatti Veyron, it represents one of Ferdinand Piëch’s defining high-performance projects, yet it grew from the humble origins of the Iltis military off-roader, a commission from the German government.
Roland Gumpert joined Audi as a test engineer in 1969 and explained the eureka moment when I interviewed him a few years ago.
“During a test in Scandinavia we had about 30 front-wheel-drive Audis, but I was in the off-roader with no roof,” remembered the man who would go on to produce the Gumpert Apollo supercar.
“On the straights I found it difficult to keep up, but on the twisty sections it was easy. I convinced my boss, Jörg Bensinger, that we should make a four-wheel-drive production car. Then he went to his boss and convinced him.
“In the meantime, the Iltis got approved so I moved to pre-production, and Walter Treser took my job in pre-development to work on the road quattro.”
Early road cars were assessed in November 1977 and in January 1978 Volkswagen board members watched a quattro climb the Turracher Höhe Pass, a particularly steep and icy climb in the Austrian Alps.
They gave the project the green light shortly after, though some thought that the 400 units required for Group 4 rally homologation might be a stretch.
The quattro was based on the Audi Coupé, itself derived from the 80 saloon, but featured new independent suspension front and rear, four-wheel drive and a five-cylinder turbo engine.
Young designer Martin Smith had the tricky brief of taking the largely finished Audi Coupé and making it look more technical in order to emphasise that the quattro was the first all-wheel-drive performance car – without breaking the bank.
His pragmatic solution was to create the quattro’s iconic flared wheelarches, which added 41mm more muscle, while new bumpers brought 55mm extra length.
This 1981 example is from Audi UK’s heritage fleet. Like all the very earliest quattros, it’s left-hand drive despite being sold new into Scotland, simply because demand was high and right-hand drive only came on stream in October 1982.
If the Sunbeam interior gives a glimpse of 1970s British austerity, the quattro oozes ’80s excess.
Open the door and it is so much more luxurious, modern and substantial-feeling – as you’d hope of a machine that retailed at £14,500, double the price of the Sunbeam… and any other Audi for that matter.
Upholstery on the seats and doorcards could double as a velour tracksuit and the driving position is far more comfortable and sporting than the Sunbeam’s.
You sit lower on plush seats that are canted back slightly, leaving your knees a little higher than your backside. And while the bolsters are supportive, you sink comfortably into the forgiving centres, too.
Both the advanced mechanical specification and high level of equipment are showcased: there’s a ‘turbo’ insignia on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, a graphic ahead of the gearstick to illustrate when the centre or rear diffs are locked (activated by tugging knobs below the handbrake), plus there are electric windows, a digital cassette radio, and even toasty heated seats
Being 174mm longer than the Talbot, this is a far more spacious car, too.
The quattro feels the heavier, more cushioned and more relaxing machine to potter about in, its air of detachment underlined by leisurely steering and slightly ponderous gearshifts that crunch as they slot home.
But it offers clear advantages over the Sunbeam, notably in putting down its power so cleanly, even if you lay into the throttle in slippery conditions, and by riding less skittishly and stopping more promptly.
While throttle response is dulled by forced induction, there’s a lovely phlegmy gurgle from the five-cylinder engine and a strong surge of acceleration when the boost eventually does kick in at around 3000rpm, though it is unpleasantly gritty at high revs.
At this stage, the five-cylinder engine had a capacity of 2144cc and produced 197bhp at 5500rpm, and while that sounds a useful gain over the Sunbeam, it’s entirely neutralised by the quattro’s 1290kg bulk – the little Lotus easily keeps pace in a straight line.
There’s no question that the immediacy and excitement of the Sunbeam are lacking in the Audi – the twitchiness replaced by neutrality and understeer through these greasy twists and turns, thanks to both the all-wheel drive and the entire engine sitting ahead of the front axle line.
That’s quite a feat given it’s longitudinally mounted with five cylinders – fully 60% of this car’s mass is biased towards the front.
Hannu Mikkola, ’83 World Rally Champion, helped develop the competition car, and got his first experience with a drive in the road car in 1979.
“There was only one prototype, and I was quite negative about it at first,” he told me. “The quattro was large compared with the Escort… and the first engines were quite terrible with nothing under 4000rpm.
“It took us six or seven months to get the car going round bends precisely. We tried it with a limited-slip differential in the front but it was too nervous, so it was my idea to try a Ferguson open front diff, which was smoother and worked better.
“Things developed quickly – Piëch used to say he would get answers from Audi Sport in half the time it would take the road car divisions.”
The first sign that the quattro would transform rallying for ever came when Mikkola made a guest appearance at a 1980 Portuguese rally and finished 30 minutes clear of the rear-drive opposition, no matter that he was at that stage ineligible for points.
Early mistakes from the team – assembled from Audi employees, not poached from expert rivals – were compounded by mechanical problems in 1981, but Audi won the manufacturers’ title in ’82 and ’84, while Mikkola took the drivers’ title in 1983, Stig Blomqvist in ’84.
Along the way, quattro rally cars evolved from long-wheelbase Group 4 machines to the S1 E2 Group B cars with their wild wings and truncated wheelbases.
The road cars evolved, too, and the truth is I’ve driven sharper-feeling examples than this.
The last was a 1988 model year: its steering felt more precise and the handling more incisive. The engine was also stronger, and by that time capacity had increased to 2226cc, a smaller and faster-spooling turbo was fitted and the delivery was smoother, even if performance remained the same.
There was also a new Torsen centre diff to replace ‘our’ car’s manual centre diff lock, which could put up to 75% of torque to the rear.
I drove that car for two days around a wintry Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, convinced that it was the ultimate everyday classic.
It had grip and performance, distinctive looks and soundtrack, and a compelling blend of practicality and mod-cons.
No doubt the 20-valve models sold from 1989 until the end of production would be more desirable still. Ultimately, the quattro would live through to 1991 and sell more than 11,500 units.
And while Audi’s short rally history ended with the demise of Group B in 1986, the Group A category that replaced it was filled with four-wheel drive and turbocharged machines such as the Lancia Delta Integrale, Ford Escort RS Cosworth and Toyota Celica GT-Four.
None of them would have existed had the quattro not left the Sunbeam and its rear-drive contemporaries for dead a decade before.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Talbot Sunbeam Lotus
- Sold/number built 1979-’81/2308
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 2174cc 16v slant-four, two Dell’Orto DHLA 45E twin-choke carbs
- Max power 150bhp @ 5750rpm
- Max torque 150lb ft @ 4500rpm
- Transmission ZF five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs/drums
- Length 12ft 5in (3830mm)
- Width 5ft 3in (1603mm)
- Height 4ft 6in (1405mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 9in (2413mm)
- Weight 2116lb (960kg)
- 0-60mph 6.6 secs
- Top speed 122mph
- Mpg 30.1
- Price new £7130
- Price now £25k*
- Sold/number built 1980-’91/11,452
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 2144cc 10v ‘five’, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and KKK turbocharger with intercooler
- Max power 197bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 210lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, integral centre diff, 4WD
- Suspension MacPherson struts, anti-roll bars (front only from 1982)
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 5¼in (4404mm)
- Width 5ft 7¾in (1780mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3¼in (2524mm)
- Weight 2844lb (1290kg)
- 0-60mph 6.5 secs
- Top speed 138mph
- Mpg 19.9
- Price new £24,204
- Price now £25-50,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication