Car Restoration Projects

Sunbeam Venezia Superleggera

 

In May 2024, international auctioneers, London-based Car & Classic, sold an ultra-rare Sunbeam Venezia coupé – one of only 200 believed to have been built.

 

 

At Historic Vehicles we’re constantly surprised by the number of rare models that we come across, including this 1964 limited-production Italian body-build exercise on a Rootes base. 

This Anglo-Italian car was the result of a collaboration between the Rootes Group and Carrozzeria Touring and the Venezia was one of the last cars to come off the production line of the Milanese coachbuilder before it went bankrupt in 1966. 

The exact number of Venezias produced is unknown, as is the case with many other models designed and built by Touring, due to the fact that all of the company’s papers were lost to fire in 1966.

 

 

Patented by Carrozzeria Touring in 1936, the superleggera system consists of a structural framework of small-diameter steel tubes covered by thin alloy body panels. The lightweight tubes do not constitute a space frame and are strong enough to support only the bodywork, on top of a tubular or ladder-frame chassis that bears the weight of the powertrain and absorbs driveline and suspension loads.

In 1936, Carrozzeria Touring’s Felice Bianchi Anderloni patented the Superleggera bodywork design. It was developed in conjunction with Touring-licensed Charles Weymann’s system of lightweight frames that he’d adapted from fabric-covered aircraft fuselage bodywork to suit fabric-bodied passenger cars.

Instead of supporting the shape of fabric bodies, Weymann’s tube design was employed by Touring in conjunction with thin aluminium panels. Virtually any body shape was possible, because the thin steel tubes were easily bent; as was the aluminium sheeting.

The superleggera tubes were brazed into position on a jig and the shaped panels were then fitted over the tube assembly. However, aluminium panels attached to steel frames would promote radical galvanic reaction, so the panels were only attached at their edges. Along the lengths of the tubes, corrosion was avoided by wrapping the tubes in rubber or fabric, so there was no metal-to-metal contact.

Obviously, when cars needed to comply with collision impact legislation, superleggera construction ended.

 

 

The Rootes-Touring collaboration

Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni was a talented stylist-cum-entrepreneur who took over the helm of the family business when his father died in 1948. Carrozzeria Touring was founded in 1926 and went on to produce myriad masterpieces of design for the most renowned brands in the world. 

By the time the Sunbeam Venezia project began in 1962, this project was the third stage of a 1961 agreement between Touring and Rootes. The second stage had been the restyling and construction of the Sunbeam Alpine Spider; after which the Venezia was the next step. 

Initially, Touring had set up a special construction line for Italian-built Hillman Super Minx models within its new headquarters in Milan. This cutting-edge factory was one of the largest in Europe and was purchased precisely to fulfil contracts to supply vehicles across the Channel. 

The Sunbeam Venezia went into production in 1962, following a sensational launch, with the car exhibited in the famed Piazza San Marco in Venice (‘Venezia’), following transportation of the car over the Lagoon, on a Serenissima cargo boat. It was the first car to arrive in St Mark’s Square in Venice.

This bold advertising idea gave the model’s launch wide press coverage.

Unfortunately, Lord ‘Billy’ Rootes, who was the driving force behind Routes’ international ventures, including the Touring collaboration, died suddenly in December 1964, only six months after signing a joint venture deal with Chrysler USA. 

The new Routes management terminatied the contract with Touring and production of the Venezia ceased almost immediately. Only two years later, Carrozzeria Touring moved towards bankruptcy.

 

 

The Sunbeam Venezia RI-40

 

 

The Sunbeam Venezia was a well-finished, generously sized two-door that could comfortably accommodate four people. Badged ‘Sunbeam’ but based on the Hillman Super Minx, the Venezia featured a grille and twin headlights set into oval cuts in the upper part of the fenders, recalling the front of the Lancia Flaminia GT models that were also produced by Touring. 

The rear fins with vertical lights evoked the rear of the Sunbeam Alpine Spider and the instrumentation, steering wheel with horn ring and elegant leather upholstery came from the Alpine. 

The mechanicals came from the Humber Sceptre, but the Venezia had a more powerful version of the 1592cc, in-line four-cylinder engine. It was mated to a four-speed gearbox with overdrive on third and fourth gears. With a claimed 88bhp on tap, the Venezia had a top speed more than 100mph (160km/h). 

 

 

Hand-built, superleggera bodywork isn’t intrinsically long-lived and accident repair is notoriously difficult, so it’s not surprising that the Venezia attrition rate has been high. Today few remain, but thanks to a strong community of admirers the International Touring Superleggera Registry counts some 40 surviving cars.

Because of the almost total loss of company records in the disastrous fire of 1966 it’s difficult to know what the future of the Venezia and other Rootes-Touring projects might have been, had Lord Rootes not died in 1964. For instance, it’s not known if RHD, British and Commonwealth markets might have been targeted.

The featured C&C auction 1964 Sunbeam Venezia Superleggera RI-40 – chassis #490007 – was originally retailed in Florence and was recently restored. It has been registered with the Automotoclub Storico Italiano (ASI) and is included in the International Touring Superleggera Register.

This car had been carefully maintained by its two previous owners: one of whom had been a BMW workshop owner. An in-frame overhaul of the engine included new piston rings. 

All documentation was present and up to date, except for the maintenance manual, a photocopy of which was available with all technical data.

The Venezia had been repainted from white to a deep blue, while the original Vivi radio and red interior was retained, but with new carpet. Its speedo showed 07,667km on a five-barrel odometer and the car was in very good shape, with light signs of wear and tear, some damage on the badges and some chrome patina in places. Alignment of the body panels was correct.

Launched in 2005, Car & Classic is Europe’s major classic and specialist vehicle website, with some 25 million searches monthly and more than 42,000 cars listed.

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