When it comes to modifying cars, or almost any project for that matter, the question is: where do you start?
For masters of procrastination, of which I am a skilled practitioner, that question can help you delay projects for years. The answer, regardless of the assignment, is always the same: anywhere, just start.
The truly difficult question to answer is where to stop. It’s a question that Tolman Engineering, as well as Phil Shaw who commissioned them to build this car, had to grapple with when they collaborated on building the ultimate Talbot Lotus Sunbeam. With deep pockets, impressive facilities and world-class expertise at their disposal they could have gone bonkers. The result could easily have been some incredibly modern lightweight space-frame chassis with a vaguely Sunbeam-shaped body plonked on top. But that it wouldn’t really be a Lotus Sunbeam now, would it?
What Tolman and Shaw have done is respectfully push the Lotus Sunbeam to its limit. Which, in many respects is very much the Lotus Sunbeam attitude, because the car is already a modest Talbot Sunbeam that someone manhandled a 2.2-litre Lotus twin-cam engine into forcibly and thrust it down a rally stage.
To begin with, the shell – an original Lotus one not just any old Sunbeam – was strengthened and caged for it to comply with UK Group 2 regulations, should anyone want to use it in competition in the future. That means that suspension mounting points haven’t been changed and it’s still predominantly made from steel; only the bonnet skin and arches are in aluminium. It’d still be recognisable by the guys over in Coventry who built the original competition versions of the Sunbeam in the early ’80s.
The shell, that is. The gearbox, a 6-speed sequential by Drenth with paddles operating a pneumatic change, would be totally alien to them, too. The 3-way adjustable Nitron dampers, far more sophisticated than they would be used to. The GT3-spec floor-mounted pedal box, a piece of art not something to operate a car with. And they might not even notice the individual throttle bodies with twin injectors because they’d be trying to get their head around the coil-on-plug ignition.
Yet the astoundingly complicated digital dash would ring some bells. It might be a TFT screen with many readouts and multiple pages to scroll through, but find the readout with the dials on it and you’ll see they look exactly like the ones in the binnacle of a factory-fresh Lotus Sunbeam. The thin white crosshairs of the originals are there, the font is exactly the same, and even the texture of the black faces has been replicated on screen.
That sort of attention to detail is what elevates this car from just any track day-type build, even though track days and fun are exactly what it has designed for. But scratch even deeper, view the car through the prism of a true Lotus Sunbeam nerd – a role I find very easy to adopt – and you’ll appreciate even more aspects of this car.
The two exhaust pipes either side at the rear, just like the original works rally cars had, is a clue to this car’s technical inspiration. The 260bhp dry-sumped engine uses the same over-the-inlet water bypass as those works cars, too. And that’s no surpriser, as the entire engine was built by Phil Davison, the man who did the engines for, you guessed it, the original works rally cars.
This ‘Ultimate Lotus Sunbeam’ hasn’t just been created by people who think Sunbeams are just a bit cool. Nope, the blood that runs through everyone involved, Shaw and the guys at Tolman, is blue. Moonstone Blue, an original Lotus Sunbeam colour. And I wouldn’t surprised if there weren’t a few Lotus stripes tattooed around their arms…
This car shows respect to the Sunbeam competition cars, but it’s not simply a tribute or pastiche, there are far too many custom parts for that. Like the Corbeau carbon fibre seats that have been retrimmed with matching yellow stitching, and the polycarbonate cover for the rear fluid storage area that shows off the neatly arranged fuel cell and dry sump oil tank. It also helps that Shaw owns a sheet metal fabrication company, so when a bespoke air box was required, or seat brackets need to be cut and folded, he has the tools and ability to create exactly what the engineers at Tolman conjure up.
All of the rally car inspiration and the quest to turn this into a fast track day Sunbeam has made it very brutal as a road car. Chris Tolman, the owner of Tolman Engineering and self-confessed die-hard Sunbeam fan, wanted me to experience just how intense it is on the street. The engine idles nicely and the ride isn’t too harsh, but, oh my, nothing else could be described as habitable. The noise inside is all whines and chunters as it reluctantly potters around slowly and fuel and exhaust fumes waft in through the small sliding acrylic windows. Open roads allow it a hint of what it is designed for and it leaps forward when Chris opens the throttle. The gearbox and diff noises escalate as the speed increases, but are almost entirely drowned out by the howling and barking from the throttle bodies upfront. Conversation is impossible. Even trying to hear yourself think is tricky, but who cares? Who would want to mask that noise?
Then there are the gearshifts. The hardiest of drivers, ones willing to put up with all manner of antisocial behaviours on the road will find the gearshift shocking. They’re fast and effective – as you’d expect from a motorsport gearbox – but they are delivered with a vicious thud on your back and a violent whip-crack from the shifter as it moves of its own accord whenever the column-mounted paddles are used. Chris changes gears with the stick, and without the eerily self-propelled lever twanging backwards, I’m less intimidated. But only marginally.
Sadly the drivers of the dawdling traffic don’t sense the car’s aggression and they don’t scurry out of the way in fear. That means we have to make do with tame, on-the-way-to-the-garden-centre type speeds. Still, sticking to the speed limit would frustrate this car. A clear tarmac rally stage or open track are the only things that would satisfy its incessant need devour whatever road is in front of it.
Photography by Jordan Butters