Andy Rooney's Sunbeam Tiger comes home
STAMFORD — If you were a commuter in the mid- to late-1960s and ’70s you may have caught a glimpse of a British racing green Sunbeam Tiger owned by Andy Rooney at the Rowayton or Darien railroad stations.
If you had gotten there early enough — many of his days began by catching a 5:30 a.m. train to Grand Central Terminal — you might have seen the “60 Minutes” commentator running to the train, with his car keys left dangling in the ignition until his return.
This weekend, the station car, now 47 years old, will make a triumphant return to southwest Connecticut — following a two-year, ground-up restoration — as one of five “hybrid” cars displayed on both days of the 18th Greenwich Concours d’Elegance, beginning 10 a.m. Saturday at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park in Greenwich.
The car now belongs to Rooney’s daughter Emily, 63, who years ago learned to drive in the stick shift Tiger and now hosts a nightly news and public affairs program on WGBH, “Greater Boston with Emily Rooney.”
Rooney said as a child she fell in love with the Tiger — called a hybrid because it has a small-block Ford V-8 engine bolted into an English sports car body — and decided in summer 2009 to save it from moldering away in a garage at the family’s summer home in Rensselaerville, N.Y. There were just over 7,000 Tigers made, with only a relative few having the powerful 289 cubic-inch motor that Rooney’s car has.
“There was something sad about it,” she said last week, during a telephone interview from her Boston office about the ragtop family legend becoming a home to a host of animals and bugs. “I knew if we did not do it then, it would have been a tow-away, a heap.”
Rooney remembers that even though her father dearly loved the car he bought in 1966, he would let the children — Emily, her twin sister Martha, brother Brian and older sister Ellen — use the car, with only one admonition.
“He handed us the keys. We didn’t have a license or anything. He would just hand us the keys and say, ’Don’t grind the gears,’ ” she said.
But living near the top of a very steep hill at the western end of Hunt Street at Rowayton Avenue, in Norwalk, there were times Rooney would miss a gear and be stranded in neutral before rolling backward while trying to claw back up the hill and into her gravel driveway without damaging the transmission.
The keys were always kept in the ignition. “He had a rule of thumb,” Rooney said of her father. “That all keys to all cars must be left in the ignition at all times.”
Only once did that rule backfire. Someone stole the Rooney’s Thunderbird out of the driveway one night in the late 1960s or early ’70s.
When it was returned, following a police shootout with the thieves, it was riddled with bullet holes, Rooney said.
“He didn’t think anything of it,” Rooney said about leaving the keys in the Tiger’s dash, even though it was one of the nicer cars parked at the station.
Even though the floor boards were rusted out and a tremendous amount of work lay ahead to bring the languishing Tiger back to life, she hoped that Whitehall Auto Restorations in Hopkington, Mass., would be able to return it in six months. But it took more than two years and about 10 times the Tiger’s original sales price of $3,600 before the work was complete.
Rooney said her father knew the Tiger had been towed away, asked where it was a few times and even demanded she bring it back.
Although she tried, she could not get the restoration done before he died on Nov. 4, 2011, at age 92. The car was delivered later that month nearly done and looking brand new.
“I was trying to rush it along before he passed on, but it was not to be,” she said.
The following June, she took her father’s ashes to the cemetery in the fully restored Tiger and after a few loud revs of its throaty engine, he was laid to rest.
In his life, Rooney had a lot of things to say about that car.
In a Chicago Tribune column he wrote 32 years after he bought it from Felix F. Callari at Continental Motors in Stamford, he said the little sports car with a lot of power poked a hole in his idea that obtaining something quenched one’s desire for it.
“I still own it,” he said of the Tiger. “And it weakens my theory about gratification and desire because I like having it as much today as I did the day I bought it.”
As a matter of fact, while Rooney may not have responded to letters about his more famous pet peeves, such as companies slashing the amount of coffee in a can or the proliferation of tote bags and backpacks, words came easy in reply to letters that were about his car, Emily Rooney said.
When Callari wrote Rooney on July 23, 1979, to ask when he would see him again for the purchase of a new car, Rooney wrote back the next day.
“Dear Felix, with customers like me you’d have to stay home. I still drive, maintain and enjoy the Sunbeam Tiger you sold me in 1966-67 for about $3,600. Any time you have a car that can come anywhere near matching its performance, let me know.”
Rooney was direct with a Rowayton man, Tim Oei, who wrote him in late 1977 or early 1978 to say he spied the Sunbeam in the driveway and parked in Rooney’s garage on Hunt Street and wondered if he would sell it.
First, he admonished the writer, telling him Tiger owners were usually insulted when someone called them Sunbeams.
“I will put you on a list of the people interested in buying it, but I have to warn you that it includes everyone under 30 pumping gas at any station I stop at,” he wrote back.
Oei, now 70, who still lives on Rowayton Avenue near Rooney’s old house, said he remembered writing Rooney 35 years ago and even talked to him from time to time after their exchange of letters.
He used to watch Rooney drive the car and did not begrudge him for not letting him buy the Tiger.
“He drove it when he was here all the time,” said Oei, a retired industrial designer who owned a 1952 Jaguar XK120 coupe at the time. “He loved that damned thing. He was so attached to it.”
“If you wrote to him about the Tiger, he got back to you more so than if it was about a television thing,” Emily Rooney said.
After the restoration, Rooney said she made a few changes to the car. Although her father didn’t mind stretching his feet way out to reach the clutch, brake and accelerator pedals, she had the restorers move the seat forward and put a cushion behind her back. Gone is the original side view mirror that required a screwdriver to adjust.
Although her father said he had the car up to 140 mph, Rooney said she has only put the pedal to the metal once and got it up to 90. “It is fast,” she said.
She is apprehensive about driving it very far because of concerns about repairs.
Greenwich Concours founder Bruce Wennerstrom said he was happy to invite Rooney and her Tiger when he heard the restoration was finished.
He said he has a special place in his car-loving heart for hybrids because he has owned them and found the American engines in European car bodies can be fixed easily.
Despite the early morning drives Rooney had to make to the station, Wennerstrom figures Rooney was thoroughly entertained zooming over roads that were little more than paved cow paths he had to take before pulling the handbrake and running to the train.
“One of the fun things about doing the Concours is finding out the history of the cars,” Wennerstrom said of the Tiger. “At some point in every car’s life, it was nothing more than a used car. And then, after a while, they are recognized for good design or interesting engineering or whatever.”
That Emily Rooney thought enough about the car to restore it is a real treat. “That shows great respect for her father and what was important to him,” Wennerstrom said.
Tickets to the Concours d’Elegance are $30 per day, or $45 for both days; ticket sales help benefit AmeriCares, the private, nonprofit relief and humanitarian aid organization based in Stamford.
While 242 cars will be put on display throughout the weekend, the Greenwich Concours consists of two separate events. On Saturday pre- and post-World War II domestic vehicles will be on display, while Sunday’s Concours Europa will feature European sports, touring and competition cars.