Sunbeam Venezia

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Ah Venice, Italy! City of cars…well, not exactly. One of the world's cultural (and tourist) landmarks, it was built on a series of islands overlooking the Northern portion of the Adriatic Sea, directly opposite Slovenia and Croatia.

Venice, more than nearly any other populated cultural landmark on earth, lives and dies by the ocean. Its canals have been photographed, painted, and drawn by millions.

Conquests shaped the city, but nowhere like in its main square, Piazza San Marco. Decorated from the spoils of war—notably of Constantinople—it was also a particularly loved conquest of Napoleon, who added a few buildings of his own on the west side.

On September 12, 1963—a Thursday—another conquerer would sail down the canals to Piazza San Marco to present itself to the world. Even the British Ambassador and mayor of Venice were on hand to witness a historic event: the introduction of the 1964 Sunbeam Venezia, the first car to ever reach Piazza San Marco.

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Known in those days for the Alpine, a two-seat sports car that—with a  few tweaks—some inside Sunbeam believed it could compete with the very best European roadsters. The problem? The Rootes Group: Hillman, Humber, Singer, Talbot, Commer, Karrier, and Sunbeam had a design studio that was more at home with badge engineering than design.

The lead Alpine engineer, Alec Caine, noticed that Italians were taking their cars to the likes of Touring, in Milan, to modify their cars to taste—moving pedals, changing interior trim, and fitting different wheels was a relatively common practice.

He was authorized to give Touring an Alpine, to see if they could address some of the car's shortcomings, with interior space and trunk space the two most requested improvements. Touring did so, and added a few design touches of their own that were later incorporated into, especially, Series III and Series IV cars.

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This collaboration offered a starting point when George Carless, head of Rootes' Italian subsidiary, convinced the company it was a great idea to produce their own sports coupe, to be sold only in Continental Europe.

From Humber Sceptre sedan chassis (itself a tarted-up Hillman Super Minx), Touring began work on the contract for 300 vehicles. Built using the company's Superleggera bodywork—a process by which thin aluminum alloy panels sat atop a nest of thin tubular steel frames—the car began to take shape and by 1962 was signed off by Lord Rootes himself. 

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The Sunbeam Venice, er, Venezia, had three small problems. First, it was to be sold only in Italy. Second, it was fitted with a Rootes 1592cc engine with 62 horsepower. Third, coachbuilding doesn't come cheap.

These shortcomings were well-known by Sunbeam who, according to the excellent owner (and enthusiast) website sunbeamvenezia.com, attempted to twist the truth a bit in promotional material for the car. Its engine horsepower was quoted at 30 more than measured and its top speed was rated at 170 km/h (105 mph), more than the car was capable of.

Why? It cost more than a Jaguar Mark 2 and across the Sunbeam showroom a Tiger V8 was only slightly more expensive. It was a tough sell in Italy and, soon after launch, the car was exported to other European countries for sale.

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With little more than 200 produced in total—built from only 145 chassis sent from England—it is believed that Touring completed a number of cars using floor plans from the Hillman Super Minx, which the company was building for the Italian market.

Similar to the Hudson Italia a decade earlier, this time the collaboration marked the end of two companies, largely crippled by outdated thinking and labour disputes: Touring was dead by the end of 1966 and the Rootes Group was swallowed up by Chrysler Europe by 1970.

With only 22 believed to be in running order—and similar Touring designs now selling for six digits—now you have an answer for the next time someone asks you, "What will be a collectable classic in 10 years?"

Tomorrow: something from Russia…do you need to know more than that?

Sources / Recommended reading