Some further notes on the racing Sunbeams

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[In the December, 1940, issue J. L. Wyer gave some extremely interesting and hitherto unpublished information about the Sunbeam racing cars of the 1919-27 period, which resulted in a letter from the well-known racing driver, T. A. S. O. Mathieson. We publish some further remarks by Mr. Wyer in the form of an article.— Ed.]

HAVING spent the past two weeks in bed with influenza, I find myself in the rare position of being able to reply immediately to Mr. T. A. S. O. Mathieson, to whom I am grateful for his kind remarks anent my recent article. Firstly, regarding the so-called 1917 Indianapolis Sunbeams, I can only imagine they were designated 1917 as the major part of the construction was undertaken in that year. As to how and why it was possible to build racing cars at such a time, there is a most interesting story.

By 1917, of course, the Sunbeam Motor Car Co. were fully engaged upon the manufacture of aircraft engines, and were virtually under Government control, but the presence in the factory of a handful of A.I.D. officials was quite inadequate to damp the racing ardour of Louis Coatalen. Accordingly, screens and barricades were erected in one corner of the jig and tool shop, and construction of the “Indianapolis” cars was commenced. The curiosity of the A.I.D. officials never seems to have penetrated this thinly-veiled activity, possibly owing to the personality of Coatalen, possibly for other reasons. Be that as it may, when the war duly came to its end the screens and barricades fell down like the walls of Jericho and there were the racing cars, untried but ready.

Much has been written of the Ballot effort in building their 1919 Indianapolis cars in 101 days, but in many ways I think the Sunbeam story is the more romantic.

The cars themselves are an interesting study. Like all Sunbeam racing cars of the period, they have a strong resemblance to the successful 1913 Grand Prix Peugeots. The method of mounting the engine in a sub-frame, the cylinder block head and valve layout, the crankcase and main bearing assembly, all have the unmistakable stamp of M. Henri. This is scarcely surprising, for Coatalen was, rather than a great designer, a brilliant plagiarist. The story of how the 1914 T.T. and Grand Prix Sunbeams came into being may not be known to all your readers.

After the Peugeot success in 1913 one of the cars was brought to England and was displayed by the London agent, from whom it was purchased by a Worcestershire gentleman and conveyed to his residence not far from Bridgnorth. This was, of course, merely a subterfuge on the part of Coatalen, who had the car copied in every detail, and the 1914 Sunbeam racing cars resulted. These facts, according to contemporary accounts, became widely known, and were accepted philosophically by the Peugeot concern, but apparently the Peugeot agent in London became considerably enraged, and demanded royalties. He didn’t get any.

This Peugeot influence in Sunbeam design extended, as I have shown, to the Indianapolis cars, the only major difference being two extra cylinders. It could be seen, too, in most of the Sunbeam-Coatalen aircraft engines, and was clearly discernible in the 8-cylinder 3-litre and 4-cylinder I½-litre racing cars of 1921.

Coatalen was completely open and frank about such acts of piracy. His justification was that the marque must win, and it was the business of the designer and chief engineer to see that the marque did win. If your rivals had something better than you, then you must find out what it was and, if possible, improve upon it. Even if it became necessary to purchase one of your rival’s cars, alter the name upon the radiator, and run it as your own, that would be perfectly legitimate if it provided victory for the marque—the only aim and ambition. These were Coatalen’s own words and were quoted to me quite recently by Hugh Rose, who was with the Sunbeam Co. at the time of the Peugeot incident.

Incidentally, reverting to the Indianapolis cars, I do not believe they ever actually ran in the race. They were entered for the 1919 event and arrived at Indianapolis, but there was some dispute about engine measurements which prevented the cars from starting. Subsequently, of course, they had a most colourful history; and it seems a great pity that only one of them can now be traced.

With regard to the 1½-litre 4-cylinder cars which were included in the chart accompanying my article, these were not, of course, strictly speaking, Sunbeams and I am sorry if any of your readers should have been misled on that account. In my original notes I remarked that I had included these 1½-litre jobs since they were built and maintained in Wolverhampton. These remarks were subsequently deleted and this may have led to slight confusion. [Sorry!—Ed.]

In point of fact, these cars were variously known as Talbots, Darracqs and Talbot-Darracqs. They were, as I have said, constructed entirely in Wolverhampton, and were contemporary to the 3-litre straight eights. They had four valves per cylinder—still following the Peugeot lines of thought—and the engines were, as closely as possible, half one of the eight-cylinder units. They were completely successful throughout the 1921 and 1922 seasons, winning every event for which they were entered, and their power output of 54 b.h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m.—only 36 b.h.p. per litre—combined with their reliability, seems to have been more than good enough for the opposition of the time. In 1923 these engines were replaced by one of Bertarione’s design, with two valves per cylinder, which was equally successful, and which, supercharged in 1924, continued the winning tradition until the end of 1925. But the four-valve engine was by no means finished and was used, in hotted-up form, for racing motor-boats.

Unfortunately, I cannot, from my sick bed, put my hands on all my notes, but the 1½-litre marine unit, with two carburetters and a higher compression ratio, produced a considerably higher output. Subsequently, again, this engine was supercharged for marine work, and the power output speaking from memory, was then approximately 100 b.h.p. In this form it was used by Miss Betty Carstairs. It is interesting that in their marine form these engines were always known its Sunbeams. I think that is all I can tell you about the 1917 Indianapolis cars and the 1½-litre Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracqs. They were, of course, years before my time with Sunbeams, but I spent countless hours when I might have been otherwise engaged digging out and piecing together information about the older cars, until I had enough to form a fairly complete picture.

 

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