That 1922 GP Sunbeam in Australia

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It may be remembered that, after driving and describing Bill Lake’s splendid 1922 GP Sunbeam last year, I became embroiled in a complex attempt to sort out which car is which, of those owned in this country by Lake, Cameron Millar and Geer, and which driver drove them at Strasbourg. At the time there was a suggestion that only three of these team-cars had been built, the counter-argument being that there were four, of which one is now in Australia. Eoin Young tried to help me by producing a picture of a racing Sunbeam he had encountered “down under” but it turned out to be one of the 1922 straight-eight, bolster-tank 3-litre TT cars, which is not the same thing as a four-cylinder GP Sunbeam. 

Some time after this I was put in touch with Mr. Neville Webb of Gilston, Australia, who is painstakingly rebuilding one of these cars, proof that there were four of them! I do not wish to become involved in an extension of the former sorting-out of these cars and Mr. Webb is not particularly concerned about who may or may not have driven his Sunbeam in the French Grand Prix. But he says that after reading the letter from Bill Lake that we published in Motor Sport last year he went out and scraped away the paint on the front dumb-irons of his chassis and on the n/s one, very plainly, is the figure “No. 1”. The o/s dumb-iron is scarred and marked but it appears to have the same number on it. The crankcase from this car also has No. 1 stamped on it. So Mr. Webb concludes that my findings are correct and that he has car No. 1, originally with Reg. No. 6463.

There is an additional interesting point, so far as numbers are concerned. The car’s back-axle is stamped, on the differential housing. “No. 2. 15 x 15” and also “Ratio 3.67”, and this, I am informed looks like an original stamping. But there is also, on the other side of the axle casing a professionally-made brass plate, secured with four round-headed screws, inscribed: “14-55. 3.928-1”. The No. 2 caused Bob Shepherd when he was writing-up the car for Australian Motor Sports, to describe the Sunbeam as car No. 2. but it seems more likely that number refers to the axle, perhaps to avoid confusion between those for the TT and the GP cars of the same year. The plate naming the lower axle-ratio poses a bit of a mystery. We know after practice at Strasbourg the axle-ratios of all three cars were lowered, to try to spare the engines. Whether this change of ratio would have been noted by fitting such data plates at Strasbourg is unknown, but it seems unlikely, even assuming there were facilities there for making these. What is more likely is that axles giving various ratios were taken out with the cars, and that the casings all having been stamped with the high ratio, plates were put on to distinguish those later converted to give lower ratios. It is just possible that the plate on Webb’s Sunbeam was put on much later, at the time when the tyres were converted from beaded-edge to 21″, but unlikely, as Sunbeam’s had by then surely disposed of the cars. When Segrave raced one in the Essex MC Brooklands Championship race presumably the higher, not a lower, axle-ratio would have been used. Incidentally, Mr. Webb says there is no sign of Segrave’s initials on his car, stamped under the driving seat, which Lady Segrave told Guy Griffiths about when he owned the Segrave car.

My real purpose for returning to this subject is not to indulge in a further “sort out” but to give the history of the Sunbeam now being rebuilt in Australia since it arrived in that country, a story that follows much the same pattern as the history of other top-class racing cars after they have passed out of their maker’s ownership. 

It seems that the car was imported to Australia by Hope Bartlett in 1925, for racing on the banked Maroubra track. It is believed to have been purchased not directly from Sunbeam’s but from Williams Bros., whoever that was. The car is said to have arrived a few days before Christmas, and to have proved disappointing until the engine was rebuilt. It then proved able to beat Garlick’s Alvis to which a supercharger had been fitted, the Sunbeam accelerating more slowly but lapping at some 97 m.p.h. It was apt to catch fire but came to no harm and won the main 8-mile race at Gerringong in 1926 as well as beating a Bugatti in a Match Race. Hope Bartlett then took it to New Zealand, where it was second to a 1914 TT Sunbeam in the 50-mile Beach Championship, having oiled a plug and done some 40 miles on three cylinders. I think it also competed in the Lobethal hill-climb. 

At the time it was sent from England the car had been given 21″ wheels, the gear-lever had been moved to the right, outboard of the external exhaust-pipe, and the brake-servo had been removed, at which time it is assumed that larger front brake-drums were fitted. Hope Bartlett sold the old Sunbeam to Russell Taylor of the Advanx Tyre Co., who disposed of it to a Mr. Straughton, although it may also have gone to New Guinea for a while, before that. The next owner was Ash Moulden, who dug up the car’s history and kept the Sunbeam in immaculate order, using it on the road, from 1935 to 1936, although for some reason he cut off the long tail, possibly so as to be able to carry a spare wheel, which was mounted on the shortened tail. 

The next owner was Les Robinson, who bought it from Moulden for £50, with five new tyres. This gentleman was known as “Suey”, short for suicide, by those who watched his earlier wild and fearless racing of vintage cars! Robinson kept the car until the outbreak of war. For a time in 1939 Ross Haig had it, but never ran it, selling it back to Robinson. The Sunbeam engine having been badly damaged after Robinson had hit a “sleeping policeman” with the sump, so he got a circa-1930 Oldsmobile engine at a dump and substituted it (one wonders which one, as Oldsmobile were making six and eight cylinder power units at that time). Outwardly the car looked original, even to the correct exhaust systern. The rear brake drums used to open out until a couple of rings were pressed on to them. In its original form the car apparently used to do 4,250 r.p.m., or some 105 m.p.h., which it had done in this country. It had the 14/55 axle ratio.

Robinson raced the car at Ballarat, Fisherman’s Bend and Nurricopta, etc. After the war the ancient Sunbeam changed hands many times, moving about between Mt. Gambier and Adelaide. It went back to Robinson eventually and then to his friend Kinsley Osbourne, who persuaded Robinson to race it at Ballarat, when racing was resumed in 1946 or 1947. In the meantime someone had put the inevitable Ford V8 engine into the car, coupled to the original Sunbeam gearbox. Robinson had found the car frightening (even for him!) on cambered roads and changed this by fitting hydraulic rear shock-absorbers from an Army ambulance to replace the four friction ones, and making a fuselage-shaped streamlined body which stiffened the chassis, the structure being formed of steel tubes. At Ballarat the cars to beat were Barrett’s Alfa Romeo and Lex Davidson’s SSK Mercedes-Benz. With the Ford V8 engine the Sunbeam would, it is said, give 100 m.p.h. in third gear and Robinson says he had it up to 5,200 r.p.m. in top, equal to some 130 m.p.h. That was with the new body. (At Narricopta it was faster than Doug Whitford’s Special but the brakes, now uncooled, were no good at over 100 m.p.h.). Anyway, in the race the Alfa Romeo came by with a lap to go, when Robinson was flat-out in 3rd gear. Although he was 10 m.p.h. slower he thought he would give chase, so pulled the lever back into top gear. But the gear oil had got so hot the gears seized up and he had to finish the race in top gear. The cause was found to be heavy lubricant put in when the engine was changed, as before this they had always used Castrol 1-R in gearbox and differential and had never had any trouble. The differential was never dismantled incidentally, although the straight-cut gears emitted a shrill howl as speed increased and the pinion bearings were thought to be worn. Osboume drove in the next race with only top gear, as the cogs refused to be hammered along the shaft. Indeed, for two years the car was run like that, even at Bucks Hill, a real mountain climb. One of them used to hold the clutch out while the other cranked-up the engine and the acceleration was still very good, the car spinning its wheels. Robinson used to remove the four-spoke steering-wheel to get in and out of the cockpit.

Robinson used to drive the Sunbeam to and from races, using Bosch inserts in the lamps that had been fitted, for good vision at night. On one occasion he was driving back from Narricopta at well over 100 m.p.h. and hit a bump near Moorlands which threw the car some feet into the air. Unknown to the driver, because it still handled all right, this broke some of the bolts on the right-hand side of the three-piece front axle and stretched others. In the morning Robinson couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked at the front tyres, as they had only a few thicknesses of canvas left. He thought at first that someone had stolen the originals but when the truth dawned a few h.t. bolts to retain the forged axle ends put matters right. Alas, since then the axle has been flung into the sea. 

After three more owners had had the car Mr. Webb discovered it in a chicken shed, still with the streamlined body and Ford engine. The radiator was missing but by offering a reward for information he is gradually locating lost parts. He has interviewed Mr. Robinson and has kindly let me see a transcript of the tape. The fuel tank may be found under a lawn, by using a metal detector. The steering-wheel, oil regulator, and the Sunbeam crankshaft, with rods attached, have been discovered. There is hope that the nickel-silver Sunbeam radiator will turn up. The chassis is original as to running-gear (including the Perrot brake-gear) and even the petrol-tank alloy mounting brackets are on it. The proper exhaust manifold has been found. A replica front axle will be made up. 

Mr. Webb tells me that when the paint on the chassis was stripped it showed silver and grey primer, black and red with orange primer, then green with grey primer, and that at the time when Hope Bartlett bought the car it had a Brooklands exhaust system, altered cockpit sides, and a crude racing-number 190 on its bonnet. Now if it was Christmas 1926, not 1925, when the car was exported, this might suggest the car with which Spencer won a race at Brooklands that year, as this one had the by-then compulsory BARC “can” and fishtail, as, of course, did Eggar’s, in 1930. The car in Australia has the bulge in the scuttle by the driver’s right foot, which may aid identification. 

Les Robinson is still active, having built a Morris Special in recent times and worked on a Jaguar XK 120. He plans to tour Australia in search of opals in a steam-waggon, with a BSA Bantam he has restored slung on behind. Mr. Moulden returned to England when war broke out. Other owners of the Sunbeam have included a blood specialist and a monumental mason.

It only remains for me to thank Mr. Webb for such generous information, and to wish him the best of luck with the Sunbeam’s resurrection. 

W.B.

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