Sunbeam Venezia: Shoulda read rejected

Had you been in Venice, Italy, on Thursday, September, 12, 1963, you would have seen a 2+2 sports coupe being taken by gondola to the Piazza San Marco via the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge.

There to celebrate its arrival was a gaggle of glitterati and dignitaries, including the Mayor of Venice, Giovanni Fisca and the British Ambassador, His Excellency, Sir John Guthrie Ward.

The good and the great were out in full force because the car in question was British by way of Italy.

It was the Sunbeam Venezia Superleggera.

Its two makers, the Rootes company, headquartered in Mayfair, London, and Carrozzeria Touring, located in Milan, had high hopes for the car’s success in the Italian market.

Here’s what the media release boasted:

“The Sunbeam Venezia Superleggera — an entirely new and luxuriously equipped sports saloon designed for the Italian market. 

True to its name, this glamorous new model blends Italian styling with British engineering.” 

The idea for the Venezia was hatched by the manager of Rootes’ Italian subsidiary, the ironically named George Carless and the company’s chairman, Billy Rootes in late 1960.

Carrozzeria Touring in Milan was chosen to style and make the car. 

It would need hand-made panels attached to a superleggera frame.

Rootes would provide the chassis, engine, gearbox and running gear. 

They expected to sell at least 300 Venezias a year. 

So far, all good.

Then the trouble started and by the time the car was launched in September 1963, it was already a problematic proposition for both companies.

The bravado of the Venezia hid the underlying financial issues at both companies.

In 1962, Ford unveiled their keenly priced Cortina and BMC debuted the 1100, both of which took sales from other Rootes products, such as the Hillman Minx and Super Minx.

Roote’s cash flow and profits began to shrink, quickly.

At the same time, Rootes endured a succession of crippling strikes which had a massive financial impact.

The next financial blow came via its unsuccessful foray into the small car segment with the rear-engined Imp. 

Touring’s troubles came in the form of strikes and slowing sales for its bespoke cars.

Because the Venezia was a hand built, high cost and low volume, it was just the sort of project which was easy to curtail when money was tight. 

In August, 1963 Rootes cut the car’s production to 250 per year. 

In 1964, Billy Rootes died, and the company’s priorities shifted quickly into survival mode.

If the financial problems were not enough, the Venezia itself did not live up to its PR promise of “fast trans-continental travel”, “swift acceleration” and “effortless way it maintains high speed cruising speeds”.

The Rootes 1.6-litre four cylinder engine, delivering 94bhp/70kW and linked to a four-speed transmission, did not have enough power to allow spirited driving on Italy’s twisting mountain roads and high-speed autostradas. 

And, it was priced higher than comparable automobiles offered by Fiat and Alfa Romeo. 

What was the attraction in that?

But there’s more! 

The media release admitted that the car was too expensive to be sold in the UK. 

When sales tax and import duties were added, it started to reach into Jaguar territory.

Not surprisingly, the Venezia sold in very small numbers.

Only 200 were built by the time production ceased when Touring closed in 1966.

In essence, the Venezia was a misguided vanity project, based on no hard evidence, which ought never to have gone beyond a one minute discussion in the Rootes’ boardroom and a note in the minutes which said “rejected”. 

Beginning in 1964, the financially failing Rootes was progressively absorbed by Chrysler. 

And as for Touring? 

Although its operations ceased in 1966 the trademark was retained. 

In 2006 the rights for the Touring Superleggera brand were acquired by the Zeta Europe BV group.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos


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