A British marque with wanderlust, an Italian design house with a strong tradition for creating beauty, and a generous amount of motorsport success. These were just some of the ingredients when a distinctive new GT with a delightful name was introduced to the world in 1963. The result? Nothing less than a thundering fiasco!
The first – and thus far only – time I’ve encountered this odd creation in the flesh was during my visit to the Auto e Motor d’epoca exhibition in Padua in 2013. I was only recently sifting through old pictures in the search for something entirely different, when I came across these pictures which reminded me of just how much of an impression this oddity had left on me back then. I the rows of classic cars for sale by private vendors, I had come across this somewhat battered old classic with a rather awkward front end. Above the dual headlamps were a pair of large and very distinct air intakes – triangular and totally new to me.
A closer inspection was naturally required and the badge on the nose revealed its roots (pardon the pun): Sunbeam. Admitted, my knowledge about Sunbeam and the whole Rootes Group as such was – and still is – limited, as was perfectly demonstrated by this sixties coupé. Camera in hand I attempted the capture the cars patina, which is when I spotted the discreet, but ever so famous, badge on the bonnet. To me, this little badge is invariably linked with all that is beautiful and elegant – it is practically the very essence of traditional Italian automotive design: The Touring badge with those pronounced wings. And just below it, the remains of the equally legendary metal badge spelling out ‘Superleggera’. We of course all know what that means! Delicate and lightweight aluminium bodywork cladding an exotic tubular chassis. Normally, Superleggera equates to the rarest and most coveted collector cars only attainable by the very well-off.
Despite the veryheavy patina (it was essentially a project car requiring a full restoration), the white Sunbeam still managed to look proud. But not so much that it in any way bragged about this most exquisite DNA. I was struggling to combine the bizarre design of the rather clumsy nose with the otherwise so accomplished work of Touring.
I must have clearly resembled one big question mark as I stood there taking in all the obscurity of this Sunbeam. A bypassing enthusiast came to my rescue: “Sunbeam Venezia” he exclaimed without further explanation. I acknowledged the man with a approving nod and a short “Si”, while trying my hardest to look like the well-informed enthusiast to whom that information was obviously mere trivia.
Sunbeam Venezia – it certainly has an appealing clang to it. As soon as the helpful Italian enthusiast had turned his back, I was straight onto the internet for more details. I quickly found the website: www.sunbeamvenezia.com which answered all my questions and curiosity. The first thing I noted was that the Venezia was introduced in September 1963, and was thus at the time celebrating its 50th anniversary – sadly though, without much of a party.
Sunbeam had of course experienced significant success during the fifties. Especially in European rallying where their Alpine model proved a sturdy and effective package. It was the resulting popularity and respect for the model which brought the Alpine all the way to Milano, which in turn led to Sunbeam’s contact with Carrozzeria Touring.
Talks between the British car manufacturer and the Italian coachbuilder eventually resulted in the development of a new car, which the Rootes Group believed would appeal to the Italian car buyer and thereby create their entry ticket onto this market. The Rootes management was truly excited about the prospect of expanding their market in the south of Europe. After the usual challenges and obstructions, the Venezia was finally ready for its official launch on the 9th of September 1963. This was not to be missed by anyone, so the marketing department at Rootes rolled out the red carpet and got the fireworks ready!
Only three days later, on the 12th of September, press from far and wide were invited to the grand introduction where the new Sunbeam would be carried through the charming canals of Venice perched on top of a gondola-resembling boat. Their worst nightmare would of course have seen their new coupé submerged in a Venetian canal somewhere, and the story goes that it very nearly happened too. No one had pulled the handbrake on the gleaming new Sunbeam, so as a man on the boat made the gondola rock a little, the car started to roll backwards. Luckily tragedy was avoided, the handbrake was pulled and the rest of the waterborne journey proceeded according to plan.
At first the Sunbeam Venezia was well received – both in Venice and in subsequent motoring reports. There was an expectation that the Italians would be interested in foreign cars as it would be perceived as a thing of status. But the Italian middleclass clearly didn’t agree and they instead stuck with their local Alfa Romeo’s and Lancia’s, which were both cheaper and a more driver-orientated and engaging drive. Sales just never took off, and not even 200 cars had been produced when the decision was taken to can the whole Venezia project.
The Venezia was equipped with the Rootes 1.6-litre OHV engine pushing out a relatively modest 80hp. While it was enough for adequate performance, it certainly didn’t live up to what was suggested by the handsome coupé lines. Despite the saved weight from the aluminium body, it just wasn’t enough to bring the Venezia alive out on the twisty backroads. Such a shame really, and clearly a missed opportunity. Even with the unforgivable design of the front, the Venezia is still on the whole a handsome and elegant coupé which deserves a place in the history of the GT car.