12 Oct 2013

Spotted - Sunbeam Venezia by Touring Superleggera

Graham King finds a little gem in the classifieds - this week, a rare Anglo/Italian hybrid you have probably never heard of.

Sunbeam Venezia by Touring Superleggera

Car: Sunbeam Venezia by Touring Superleggera Price: £25,950 Seller: http://www.sussexsportscars.co.uk

Built: 1963-1966 Engine: 1592cc, 4-cyliner Power: 94bhp (claimed) Top speed: 105mph (claimed) Transmission: 4-speed manual Weight: 1074kg

British motoring history is littered with strange collaborations and missed opportunities. The Sunbeam Venezia was the product of the former and victim of the latter.

The very British Rootes Group didn’t produce the most exciting of cars as the Fifties became the Sixties. The Group built cars under the Hillman, Humber, Singer and Sunbeam marques, all respectably middle-class, but all frankly rather dull.

Enter Italian coachbuilder Touring of Milan. Rootes contracted them to carry out some restyling work for the Sunbeam Alpine sportscar. Around this time Rootes Italia’s boss George Carless (no, really) hit upon the idea of producing a small, two-door sports saloon for the Italian market. He took the idea to Touring and despite some resistance from the UK, the project got going.

The Venezia, as it was eventually called, was classic early-Sixties Touring. The clean lines and wrap-around windscreen were the carrozzeria’s hallmarks and from some angles the Venezia bore a striking resemblance to Touring’s Lancia Flaminia coupe. But at the front, the radiator grille and quad headlamps were clearly related to the Humber Sceptre on which the Venezia was based. The end result was certainly very attractive, but maybe a couple of shades away from being truly pretty.

Naturally the Venezia was built using Touring’s signature Superleggera system of a tubular steel frame clothed in aluminium panels. With its Sceptre underpinnings the chassis wasn’t particularly advanced - independent coil-spring suspension at the front, live-axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear - but it was least tough and dependable. Mechanically it was unchanged too, which makes the claims about its power and top speed suspect - the Sceptre was rated at 80bhp and around 90mph flat out. The Venezia was at least about 50kg lighter, so acceleration might have been a bit keener.

The Venezia was unveiled in Venice in September 1963, becoming the first car to enter St Mark’s Square in the process. It had been floated there on gondolas but almost didn’t make it as the handbrake had been left off, then it started rolling forward when someone leant on the back.

The press at least liked what they saw, but the Italian public was less keen when the price was announced. It was only slightly less expensive than the V8-engined Sunbeam Tiger and more than a 2.4-litre Jaguar. So it only sold in penny numbers. It later went on sale in the rest of Europe (though not the UK), but it didn’t help matters.

By the middle of the Sixties, both Rootes and Touring were in deep trouble. Mounting losses saw Touring go partly into receivership in 1963, before it finally closed its doors at the end of 1966. Rootes was bought-out by Chrysler in 1969.

Through all this, the Venezia was largely forgotten. It never received the 1725cc engine that became standard across the Rootes range in 1965, so it started to look a bit old-hat. Expensive old-hat at that. Perhaps if it had been cheaper and better developed, it could have taken on the best European sports saloons, but we’ll never know. By the time production ended, around 200 had been built. Only 26 are still known to exist.

The example Sussex Sports Cars is selling looks gorgeous with its blue exterior and blue leather interior. Apparently it sat in a Rootes warehouse in Belgium until it was bought in 1969 and imported to Britain. It is completely original with just 16,000 miles and a huge history file.

Twenty-six grand might sound like a lot for a car no-one has heard of, but for something so rare and genuinely different in such good condition, I’d say it’s something of a bargain.

Article by Graham King