1966 Sunbeam Tiger. Photo Courtesy: David LaChance.
If you’re among the many who got to know Andy Rooney through his weekly commentaries on 60 Minutes, you might describe him as irascible. Fellow CBS newsman Morley Safer fondly called him “America’s grouch-in-chief.” Author and news anchor Tom Brokaw once wrote, “Our mutual friends confirmed that off the air he was equally iconoclastic, an impish curmudgeon.” Many were the things that he loved to complain about, from cotton in pill bottles to modern public art to gifts from fans. “Being liked is nice, but it’s not my intent,” he said in his final broadcast on October 2, 2011.
His on-screen persona was anything but sentimental. But away from the camera, it was a different story. “He was one of the most nostalgic people you’ll ever meet in your life,” recalls his daughter Emily. “Everything about him was sentimental and nostalgic. He couldn’t sell anything, he couldn’t give anything away. He just couldn’t bear to get rid of anything.”
Photo Courtesy: Emily Rooney.
That certainly applied to his 1966 Sunbeam Tiger, a car he’d bought new. Rooney didn’t show much of his gearhead side in his columns and commentaries, but he loved fast drives in his Tiger, and, Emily says, could recite the specifications of its 260-cu.in. Ford V-8. He did mention the car in print at least once, in a 1998 column:
“It’s a sad fact of life that gratification is usually the death of desire. Once you have the object of desire you don’t want it anymore.
“For years I wanted a little sports car with lots of power. That was slow coming, too. In 1966, I finally got what I wanted, a Sunbeam Tiger, British racing green, with a Ford V-8 engine under its bonnet. I still own it, and it weakens my theory about gratification and desire because I like having it today as much as I did the day I bought it.”
Emily Rooney in her father’s now-restored Tiger. Photo Courtesy: David LaChance.
Like so many GIs before him, Rooney came to learn about British sports cars during his service in World War II. (Military service also launched his lifelong journalistic career, when he became a correspondent for The Stars and Stripes.) The Tiger was not his first British car; Emily remembers a TR4 that preceded it in the early 1960s. “He only kept it a few years, and he had his sights on this one [the Tiger] because the engine was so much bigger and the car was much more powerful.”
He bought the Tiger from Felix F. Callari, the president of Continental Motors in Stamford, Connecticut. Rooney kept his correspondence from Callari, including a 1979 letter in which the dealer gently prodded his famous customer about buying another car. Rooney responded, “I still drive, maintain and enjoy the Sunbeam Tiger you sold me in 1966-’67 for about $3,600. Anytime you have a car that can come anywhere near matching its performance, let me know.”
Photo Courtesy: David LaChance.
“He did like to drive fast,” recalls Emily, who has built her own career in journalism, currently serving as the host, executive editor and creator of Greater Boston and Beat the Press on WGBH TV in Boston. “He was a very aggressive driver–taxicab-style. He didn’t take cabs, he only drove, even in New York City, even when he was old. He drove to restaurants, he parked outside, he drove to work every day; he hassled with finding a parking space.
“He used it as his station car,” she adds. “He left it at the station–and he had this rule about keys: You had to leave the keys in the ignition at all times.” The Tiger was usually parked on the family driveway at night, and yet somehow never got stolen, though this policy once cost Rooney a Ford Thunderbird.
Photo Courtesy: David LaChance.
When Emily and her twin sister, Martha, learned to drive, the Tiger was the car they learned in. “He bought it the year I turned 16. He would just hand us the keys and say, ‘Don’t grind the gears,'” she laughs. “We didn’t know what we were doing. I didn’t know what a clutch was. We lived on a hill, and I can remember trying to start that thing on a hill, rolling 60 miles an hour backwards, thinking, ‘What are you supposed to do here?'” Her dad apparently subscribed to the sink-or-swim theory of driver education. “He would just hand us the keys. He wouldn’t even get in the car with us!”
Martha, Emily and the Tiger all survived the experience, though the roadster had no pampered life in Rooney’s care. He could be an impatient driver, and once accidentally rammed another car on an onramp to the New York State Thruway because he assumed the other driver was merging into traffic. “I remember him saying, ‘The other guy didn’t know how to merge,'” Emily laughs.
Maintenance was on the infrequent side; oil changes he apparently considered some sort of a rip-off. “He’d say, ‘They tell you to change the oil, you don’t need to put oil in the car,'” she says, doing a pretty credible Andy Rooney impression. “Let me be clear: He was extremely generous,” she continues. “None of his friends ever paid for dinner. He was very generous. But he had this penurious side that was the opposite of his generosity.”
Photo Courtesy: David LaChance.
Concerned about its soundness, Rooney had the car overhauled when it was about 12 years old. “I don’t want the car ‘restored’ in the classic sense. I don’t show it, I drive it,” he wrote to Patchen’s Auto Body, the Norwalk, Connecticut, shop that did the work. For the last 20 years of his life, he kept the car garaged in Rensselaerville, New York, where his wife’s family had property. It had been sitting for two years when Emily and a friend went out to get the car running in 2009, only to discover that “It had all kind of problems. It was undriveable. He didn’t realize that; he said there was nothing wrong with it.
“I didn’t realize the extent of the disrepair. I could see that the animals had eaten the covers away; he kept it in an unheated garage with the top down. So every kind of animal was in there–raccoons, mice, squirrels, everything.”
Emily got an idea: She would have the car restored, and surprise her father with it. But she had never dealt with automotive restoration before, and didn’t know how involved it could be. “My thought was to get it back to him, so that he would have it. I didn’t know anything about this. I thought that it would be a couple of months,” she says.
On the advice of her friend Craig Carlson, who was knowledgeable about such things, she decided to approach Whitehall Auto Restorations in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, about the work. Craig “had to really convince them. They didn’t want to do it. First of all, it’s not their specialty, and secondly, they’re really busy. They kind of did it as a favor. For a while there, I was kind of riding them, and then I realized, wait a second, they’re helping me out here; I’m just going to chill and go with it. When I went out there and I saw that they had taken the car apart, down to the bolts and nuts, I thought, ‘Oh, we’re in for it here.'”
Ken Wilcox, of Whitehall, remembers examining the car in Rensselaerville. “Everything seemed to work, just not well. Everything was worn out,” he says. Whitehall agreed to take the car on, and Ken agreed with owner Tom White’s suggestion that he do the work in the shop at his home, bringing it back to Whitehall as needed. “Sometimes, if a car comes in that’s a little bit outside of what we do here at 34 Spring Street, we can still get it done. It’s something that Tom’s comfortable with,” Ken says. “Tom is so willing to try anything, he’s an amazing guy. He’ll do anything, he’ll try anything. I kind of like that attitude. It gets a little infectious.”
Restoration Photos Courtesy: Whitehall Auto Restorations.
Early in the process, Ken got in touch with Norm Miller, the keeper of the Tiger registry, who confirmed that the engine, gearbox and differential were all original to the car. The Whitehall team–Ken, Tom, and Tom’s sons Chris and Larry–consulted with Emily and Craig, and agreed on the parameters of the job: “Let’s make it nice, without going for points at the show,” Ken says. “It needed to be driveable and look good.”
Two determinations helped to save time and money. The paint that had been applied back in 1978 was still in good condition, and could be brought back to a good gloss with buffing. The only real damage was a small dent in a rear quarter, which Ken could repair and refinish, blending the new paint into the old. And the major mechanical bits, the engine, gearbox and differential, were in good enough condition that rebuilds were unnecessary. These would be cleaned, resealed, and cosmetically restored.
Underneath, Ken found a few spots in the unit-body that had corroded, and needed new metal welded in. Beyond that, “there was no significant rust, no rot,” he says. Suspension components were disassembled, media-blasted and refinished, either powdercoated or sprayed with PPG Concept single-stage urethane. He was surprised to find that some components, such as the driveshaft and rear leaf springs, were virtually as new, although he knew they were originals.
All of the soft parts of the interior needed replacement. Justin Zuffante of Seamless Custom in Leicester, Massachusetts, spec’d, ordered and installed an upholstery kit from Sunbeam Specialties of Campbell, California, the specialist that supplied most of the parts used in the restoration. “It ended up being a very, very nice kit,” Ken says. “The cockpit is spectacular.” Justin ordered and installed a new folding top as well.
The car was not finished in time for Rooney to see it; he died in early November 2011, less than five weeks after his last appearance on 60 Minutes. He was 92. “While Dad never got to see his Tiger in its newly restored pristine state, he did get a final ride,” Emily relates in a scrapbook she produced about her father and his car. “In June of 2012 we perched the Tiger Maple urn containing his ashes on the back seat where the dogs and grandkids used to sit and drove him to his burial ground in Rensselaerville, New York. We revved the engine a few times and left him a nip of Maker’s Mark.
“He would have liked that.”
This article originally appeared in the January, 2014 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.