These charismatic cars offer charm and Stateside styling for sensible money. DAVID SIMISTER is your guide
Classic Sunbeam Rapier Review
You’d be forgiven for thinking this be-finned Sunbeam looks like a shrunken Studebaker. Indeed it shares some resemblance to the US firm’s 1953 range, thanks to both being styled by designer Raymond Loewy. Thanks to its generous helpings of fins and chrome, it’s a glamorous classic with room for four, and if you buy carefully, it shouldn’t cost a fortune to run either.
Sunbeam Rapier Series IIIA
Top speed 90mph
Gearbox 4-spd manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Like many of the Rootes Group’s offerings from this era, rust is a major Rapier bug-bear. It didn’t come with inner wheel arches so the area behind the wheels should be one of your first places to check. Ideally, a well looked after car will have been treated with oil here by its previous owners. Mechanical parts are cheap and plentiful. But with body and trim items the challenge is finding the right ones for a given car, as the chrome in particular changed as the range evolved. The SIII also had a bigger windscreen than its predecessors.
The Rapier received a series of engines throughout its life, ranging from 1390cc-1725cc. They’re durable, but engines after the Series IIIA used alloy rather than steel heads, and are more likely to suffer head gasket problems. The Series IIIA had a larger engine than previous models, and the additional torque helped give it durability. Poor hot starting/stalling could be down to a poor quality NOS rotor arm, while high ethanol content in modern petrol can strip the paint from inside the fuel tank and allow it to contaminate the fuel pump and lines.
The only real issue concerns the dynamo fitted to the earlier models, which often needs replacing, especially on cars fitted with better headlights.
A worn or damaged synchro hub or baulk ring will result in an unpleasantly crunchy gearbox, while oil will seep from the seal-less timing cover if it isn’t fitted dead-centre on the pulley shaft.
The good news is that many of the Rapier’s mechanical components are shared with its siblings from across the Rootes Group – the Sunbeam Alpine and Hillman Minx, in particular – which helps keep prices of spares down. Suspension, steering and braking systems were gradually improved as the Rapier evolved, but they are generally free of any particularly problems if they’ve been looked after. Push down firmly on all four corners of the car and listen for any unusual creaking or clunking noises, which may indicate worn suspension components. Failed overdrives (they were standard fitment) can usually be sorted by replacing the operating switch or its wiring, or the solenoid on the side of the overdrive unit itself.
On convertibles, check the hood for scratches or tears, and look for evidence of water ingress. Parts for the Rapier’s interior can prove tricky to track down if they’re missing or damaged, so it’s worth joining the owners club. The design (and therefore part number) for the control knob on the demister levers, for instance, changed eight times throughout the Rapier’s life!
If you fancy something with a bit of 1950s glitz but find the fuel bills associated with American classics hard to stomach then the Rapier stacks up as more than just a stylish alternative. Not only does it look the part, but it’s practical enough to use as a family-friendly classic. True, it’s rarer and less obvious than Triumph’s rival Herald. Best advice is to join the club and make use of friendships there to give support and help you avoid any major headaches.