At the conclusion of our report on the S.T.D. Register London Talbot Rally we remarked that the Sunbeams would have their turn later, at Wolverhampton. This happened on a perfect summer Sunday at the end of June.
Peter Moores having kindly offered to convey us to the old home of the Sunbeam motor-car in his magnificent 1921 24-h.p. limousine when we spoke about the annual rally during the V.S.C.C. Oulton Park race meeting, I accepted with alacrity, as I was keen to do a long journey in his well-known “Dreadnought”.
So we were off to an early start in the Rover, in order to leave the Manor House at Lewknor at 8.30 in the morning in this great Sunbeam. There are those who think, particularly if they believe in Roesch the Motor God, whose story will be told in the forthcoming Blight Bible, that in later years Wolverhampton Sunbeams were poor cars, Louis Coatalen having lost control and perhaps his skill in engineering, or persuading others to engineer, fine cars.
No such indictment can be levelled against the 1921 models, which were produced when the Sunbeam Motor Company was one of the most respected automobile manufacturers in the land and built cars of the highest class. The 24-h.p. side-valve model with lofty limousine body by the Cunard Carriage Works (of 135, Lower Richmond Road, Putney) in which we were about to journey to Wolverhampton was the post-war development of the successful pre-hostilities 25/30, whose design dated back to 1910. So it is in many ways an Edwardian conception and you may not associate this staid and dignified motor-carriage with racing. Yet its 80 x 150 mm. six-cylinder engine is directly related to that of the 1913 Grand Prix Sunbeams, one of which, driven by Chassagne, finished third, behind the Peugeots, the four Sunbeams which started in the G.P. having 4,524-c.c. side-valve power units of exactly these dimensions. In fact, these were popular bore/stroke sizes with Coatalen. His 1912 Coupe de L’Auto cars which gained such a line reputation for the Wolverhampton marque by coming home 1. 2, 3 in that race and 3rd, 4th and 5th in the Grand Prix proper, again behind the conquering Peugeots, had engines which, apart from a millimetre shorter stroke, had four cylinders of almost these dimensions, as had the 1913 Coupe de L’Auto Sunbeams, all of which were tuned versions of the Catalogue 16-h.p. touring cars, which were of 80-mm. bore and the full 150-mm. stroke. The 1913 aero-engines built by Sunbeam were vee-twelves, also of 80 x 150 mm., and these were, again, the dimensions of the very fast 9,048-c.c. side-valve Sunbeam raced at Brooklands in 1913/14 and later destroyed in a crash in America. (Incidentally, this raises in interesting problem, which I throw to Sunbeam experts. This pre-war V12 Sunbeam single-seater has been described by historians, myself included, as the first aero-engined car to race at Brooklands. It has a 60º engine, which The Autocar described as “appropriate also to flying machines and boats”, but built by Coatalen for the car. Earlier side-valve Sunbeam aero-engines were 90º units. So was this engine strictly an aeroplane power unit or was it subsequently developed into one?)
However, I digress, and after remarking that the Shelsley Walsh hill-climb in 1913 Coatalen and Bird apparently drove an eight-cylinder 80 x 150-mm. 6,032-c.c. Sunbeam which attracted surprisingly little comment and seemingly never ran again, let me return to Peter Moores’ production six-cylinder car of these classic dimensions. The engine, come to think of it, is more closely akin to those of the 1913 G.P. cars than the o.h.v. version introduced at the 1921 Motor Show was to the racing engines of that year, with their twin o.h. camshafts
The “Dreadnought” was ordered by the High Sheriff of Glamorgan, who wanted a car in which he could ride with dignity while wearing his top hat. The order was placed through Turner’s Garages of Cardiff and the Sunbeam was delivered from their Melbourne Garage in Swansea. It seems that it served in this capacity until about 1928, when the Sheriff left it to his chauffeur. Serck of Cardiff had repaired the radiator in that year and one wonders whether a minor shunt, perhaps occasioned by rear-wheel braking, may have caused the car to seem impractical in the new F.W.B. age, as happened to other elderly cars at round this time, including Ronald Barker’s big Napier? But that as it may, the chauffeur did not use the car, which rotted away in its shed, until I heard of it and informed the S.T.D. Register (which my wife was then running) of its fate. R. C. Carter recovered it, towing it to St. Albans, making it run, and bringing it to the 1955 Wolverhampton Rally, the first of which we had held in 1951.
It was in this imposing motor-carriage that I now found myself, being driven towards Stratford and the outskirts of Birmingham on this beautiful June Sunday morning, at a stately 40 m.p.h. Looking out through the deep vee-screen you note the Bolt sidelamps on stalks above the massive front mudguards, the long bonnet with its typically-Sunbeam filler cap, and, on the dashboard, the brass-bound instruments, the oil-gauge on the extreme left showing very clearly 10 lb./sq. in., the Rotax lighting panel, likewise in shining brass, displaying volts and ammeter dials, the Sunbeam lamps-switch and Rotax starter button (more brass), and the Watford 60-m.p.h. speedometer and clock, completing the layout. The starter-button is labelled “Press Right Down”, reminder that in 1920/21 electric starters were not common and thus were apt to be approached with timidity by drivers new to them.
This rare Sunbeam was immaculate and as clean as a showroom inmate. Peter shrugging this off as the result of a week’s hard labour each evening. It was nice that the dry roads enabled it to retain its pristine appearance on our 100-mile run to the rally venue. The body was originally a landaulene but the roof had deteriorated, so Carter closed it in with aluminium sheeting. The present owner had the interior restored, the upholstery being in black leather and the upright seats perhaps harder in the cushion than they were when the Sheriff and his lady rode on them. The glass division which once divided the serfs from the master’s quarters has been deleted in the interests of sociability but otherwise the body is nicely original. It is narrow, as was the wont of cars of this period, but two fold-away, rather small and slippery, occasional seats make it a six-seater. I was interested to discover small turn-buttons for locking the windows in position, these incorporating hidden rubber rollers which at the same time serve to obviate rattles from the glasses; I recall an Austin Twenty landaulette of my childhood which had to have horrid little clamps fitted as extras, so badly did it suffer from rattling windows. Clearly. Cunard knew about this. . . .
From without, this 24-h.p. Sunbeam has Sunbeam headlamps to match its brass radiator, a big tool-cum-battery box on the n/s running-board, and spare wheels on the o/s. As it is exhausting its owner’s stock of b.e. tyres it runs these days on 835 x 135 Dunlop herringbone-tread cords on the front wheels, but the back ones have been refurbished to take 5.00 x 21 Dunlops. An S.M. & B.P. petrol can graces the o/s running-board.
Having negotiated the Birmingham ring-road we arrived at Wolverhampton after some 3½-hours’ motoring, having passed a traction engine en route. Here, at the Castlecroft Hotel, other Sunbeams had gathered, for this traditional re-union. The Register Secretary had telephoned to say he was delayed in his 1923 Fourteen tourer with clutch slip and fuel system maladies, but he made good time from London thereafter. A gentleman with a 1925 14/40 tourer got in before his telegram of the previous day from Penzance, to say he had been to Land’s End, which seemed to assure for him the longest-distance prize! Roger Carter, former owner of the “Dreadnought”, was having trouble with the synchromesh mechanism of his 1934 Twenty tourer, so we were able to see this Master of Sunbeam Maintenance actually at work, with hammer and screwdriver.
This time no Twin-Cam Sunbeams turned up but there was a Type DC Darracq 12 tourer on 775 x 145 Dunlop Balloons, a 1911 Darracq C11 tourer, a rare 20/60 Sunbeam tourer unfortunately with inappropriate lining on the body and silver-painted wheels, two Very nice Sunbeams in James’ 1931 Twenty saloon and the 1932 23.8-h.p. sportsman’s coupé brought by Ashen and Eccleston, and Alexander’s Sporting 14/40 Sunbeam on b.e. Dunlops. Burley’s Sunbeam Sixteen tourer was on 20-in. instead of 21-in. tyres, six Roeseh Talbot including GO 66, an Austin 12/4, and four Sunbeam motorcycles supported the Sunbeam cars in this annual pilgrimage, and a Clyno Royal tourer, another Wolverhampton make, joined in.
After lunch the parade to West Park took place, via the cold factory in Villiers Street, given smooth passage, as usual, by the ever-willing and extremely-helpful Wolverhampton Police—and I am not printing this just because one of them told me he reads Motor Sport! This nostalgia-creating parade was led by Mrs. Kister’s 1912 16/20 Sunbeam tourer, which lost a plug and set up a smoke screen, Walker’s 19/9 Sunbeam Sixteen tourer, “our” limousine and the rest of this impressive cavalcade. Moores has the only running side-valve 24-h.p. -model left but another is being restored by a millionaire in America, having been unearthed in Peru. The “Dreadnought” has the Claudel Hobson carburetter (to which Coatalen soon reverted, after a brief flirtation with the Birmingham-made S.U.) on the o/s, water pump, and dynamo driven by a very long shall, on the n/s.
The only unfortunate in the parade was Comdr. Lewis’ 1931 Sunbeam Twenty saloon, displaying No. 13. which had a temporary fuel blockage in a modern petrol pipe. But again Wolverhampton hospitality prevailed, a passing driver leading him to West Park.
After tea and the presentation of prizes the gathering gradually dispersed. For us it was home by a different route, through Stourbridge and Bromsgrove, the roads pleasantly uncongested on this hot summer evening. Soon there was a stop to refuel (with the least expensive petrol, “And the engine gets quite confused about having to consume that”, observed Peter) and cheek the oil. This latter chore involves opening a sump tap, pouring in the lubricant (on this occasion Mobil commercial grade at 12s. a gallon, shared with Wiggins’ 1933 23.8-h.p. Sunbeam, as Moores will not use detergent oils, his engine being original in all except its piston rings, the two cylinder blocks apparently never having been rebored or the c.i. pistons replaced). and watching for it to ooze out beneath the car, which probably barred Sunbeam owners from visits to houses approached by well-kept carriage drives! In our case, only a garage forecourt was soiled. This was obviously regarded as the chauffeur’s task, for Coatalen contrived filler and tap on opposite sides of the car. . . .
Sleepy Wolverhampton and its cricket matches were left behind and we rolled southwards, over the river at Stratford, where the punts and power-craft were out in numbers. For some time the Darracq 12, a Talbot and Wiggins’ Sunbeam had made procession with us, and a mutual drink was eventually taken. Then we resumed the road and I renewed driving acquaintance with the Sunbeam, which Carter had once let me handle.
So enjoyable is a ride in the “lounge”, from which only the suppressed hum of the machinery is heard, that I was almost reluctant to get behind the big four-spoke steering wheel, topped by a circular brass quadrant engraved “Magneto” and “Carburettor”. I found the car very simple, if heavy, to drive. The big engine is so flexible it hangs on to top in reassuring fashion. The gears, changed by an enormous r.h. lever inboard of an even longer hand-brake, will take such punishment as a beginner may inflict on them and the brakes pull the heavy car up quite well, although it is politic to look well ahead and reach early for the lever if traffic in front begins to lose speed. This lever applies the rear brakes. The pedal, hidden, with the clutch pedal, high up on the floor ramp, tends to judder as the transmission brake takes hold. The leather-lined cone clutch is smooth but unless the gear-lever is moved quickly with the throttle shut it tends to hang badly, force being required to get it out of the gear it is in. The steering is excellent but heavy, and altogether 200 miles is about as far in a day as one wants to drive the car; Sunbeam chauffeurs earned their keep! The ride is solid and dead, the engine a bit noisy, but owners of the immediate post-Armistice period rode mostly in the back, immune from such impressions, and usually unaware of the chauffeur’s hardships, as they enjoyed the advantages that ownership of a motor gave them. They travelled the length and breadth of Britain, stolidly, impressively, rather as if they were in their own railway carriage. Smoker’s-companions to hand, “pulls” by the back seat like those bell-ropes with which they summoned the servants at home, they rode in dignity on their lawful occasions, at the cost of some 14 m.p.g. and the chauffeur’s wages. While Leyland, Lanchester, Napier and other makers of luxury cars were grappling with new post-war models, Sunbeam was able to sell, at £1,215 for the chassis in 1920, this well-tried 4½-litre six-cylinder motor-carriage. . . . Peter Moores’ so-splendidly restored model has Autovac fuel feed but earlier ones probably had a hand-pump on the dash. He now uses a Scintilla magneto, retaining as a spare an ex-Armstrong Siddeley instrument which Carter found by an incredible piece of luck when the “Dreadnought” suffered from shellac disease on its first rally appearance.
So we progressed along the road towards Oxford (who said you are in foreign parts, until south of Oxford?), enjoying a marvellous view which, in low modern cars, deteriorates into just a succession of hedgerows.
I will stop before I bore you . . . but I enjoyed Wolverhampton Sunday.—W. B.