Further thoughts about those 1922 Grand Prix Sunbeams

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By writing-up Bill Lake’s splendid 1922 GP Sunbeam in the June issue I have let myself in for some more sorting-out of the Sunbeams, or an attempt to do this, when I had hoped the last had come of that, after I had done a difficult-to-research article on which 1924 GP Sunbeam was which, back in 1973. The difficulty seems to be that everyone would like to own the car Segrave drove in the Grand Prix at Strasbourg 57 years ago, even though he, like his team-mates, retired from that race with valve trouble.

Before getting embroiled in that, let us look again briefly at the cars themselves. I think some confusion may have been created between these 1922 four-cylinder Sunbeams and the 1923 six-cylinder cars, because it is known that some parts of the latter were used for the similar but supercharged 1924 GP Sunbeams, so that the identity of the 1923 team cars, from which came the first British winner of the French Grand Prix, was lost. I am not so sure that there was any such usage of parts from the 1922 cars, when the Bertarione-designed 1923 cars were being built. Bill Lake suggested that as his 1922 car hasn’t the original brake servo on its gearbox that this might be due to the entire back-axle assembly from these cars having been transferred to the 1923 racing chassis. I have since realised that whereas open propeller shafts and Hotchkiss drive were used in 1922, the 1923 GP Sunbeams had torque-tubes. So it seems unlikely that the older axle and transmission assemblies would have been any use for the 1923 cars. Louis Coatalen of Sunbeam’s, whose love-of-his-life these racing cars were, was apt to say that the racing-car of today was the touring car of tomorrow and then correspondents in the contemporary motor papers would write to enquire why, if this was so, he used Hotchkiss drive on his touring car but torque-tubes on his racers, differentials on one but not on the other, overhead camshafts for racing, push-rods for his touring cars, etc. or vice versa.

Another point is that Segrave’s car for this Strasbourg Grand Prix was supposed to be recognisable because, to accommodate his tall frame, the seat had been moved back a trifle. The staggered seats were moulded to the fuel tank and Mr. Geer has pointed out that if Segrave’s driving-seat was moved back some major work must have been done, inasmuch as the tank was on cast-alloy brackets let into the chassis frame. Bearing on this, Mr. Lake says the fuel tank on his car is very old, not a new one made when the car was rebuilt, but that it does not hold anything like the 60 gallons I quoted for the tanks in 1922. That was the gallonage given in contemporary Press descriptions of the cars but whether this implies that a smaller tank was used for Segrave’s car I do not know.

Then there is the question of who designed these 1922 racers. They are definitely of Ernest Henry concept and that great Sunbeam authority Anthony Heal says Henry was most certainly responsible for them, although he was not employed at Wolverhampton for the purpose. He writes as follows:—

Dear Boddy,

I read with interest your article on the 1922 Grand Prix Sunbeam, but I was surprised that, despite the considerable amount of research that has been done during the last ten years and the number of articles that have been published, you still seem to entertain some doubts about the authorship of its design.

It is true that Ernest Henry did not move to Wolverhampton, but did the design in Louis’ Coatalen’s office at Suresnes. The liaison between Henry and the Wolverhampton factory was maintained by Jean Chassagne. H. Wilding, of the Experimental Department, also visited Henry in Paris to discuss matters with him.

You mention several notable authorities who subscribe to this view. To them you might add Harry Mundy, Paul Frere and Griff Borgeson. The first derived his information from H. Wilding himself while Frere and Borgeson have confirmed it with ex-colleagues of Ernest Henry in Paris.

Yours sincerely,

Anthony S. Heal.

Now no one respects Mr. Heal’s knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, Sunbeams of the vintage years more than I do. The only comment I feel obliged to make is that Mr. Griffith Borgeson, whom Heal mentions as supporting the theory that Henry actually put pencil to paper on behalf of the 1922 GP cars, is that in his authoritative study of Ernest Henry Borgeson visited that designer’s son, who informed him categorically that his father would have nothing to do with Coatalen and Sunbeam’s after the crib which had taken place of his 1913 twin-cam racing Peugeot engine when the 1914 TT Sunbeams were in the offing. (Automobile Quarterly, Vol. XI, no. 3 — “The Charlatan Mystery” — see also Motor Sport, July 1974.) To that I added the comment that by 1922 the Sunbeam Experimental Department, from whence stemmed the racing cars, should have known enough about the Henry-type twin-cam, multi-valve cylinder head to have been capable of making another such an engine without outside help… However, unless Mr. Borgeson backs me, I will bow to Anthony Heal and accept that Henry drew these cars in Paris, especially as he told me the other day when we met at Brooklands that, far from Henry never wishing to have any association with Sunbeam’s, he was in the Sunbeam pit at Strasbourg, although he was pretty cross about Coatalen’s alterations to the valves of the Sunbeams, which caused all three to retire, with the blame having since been placed on Henry by those who think he was responsible for the design, but was slipping into incompetence in his old age. Which to some degree is true, of other than the valve-cotter aspects of the cars.

We come now to the difficult, possibly after this passage of time, impossible, matter of trying to decide who drove which of the surviving Sunbeams at Strasbourg. Bill Lake’s has Reg. No. DA 6436 and the others (with a spare car) to have carried the numbers DA 6466, DA 6467 and DA 6468. It must be assumed that the first or prototype Sunbeam was completed some time before the others, and registered first, as happened with the 1924 Sunbeam GP team-cars, which were registered DA 8079, DA 8666 and DA 8667 respectively. In this case the prototype was apparently ready even earlier than in the similar situation in 1922. It has been easier to ascertain who drove these latter cars, the prototype was driven by Dario Resta in the Grand Prix but Segrave used both DA 8666 and DA 8667 in events after 1924 and I do not think anyone knows for certain which he drove in the GP; DA 8667 became Kaye Don’s famous “Cub”.

If this identification difficulty existed in 1924, it is even more apparent when looking back to 1922. The idea seems to be current that Segrave would have been given the No. 1 car of the team. But would he? After winning the 1923 French Grand Prix for Sunbeam’s at Tours he was the great driver in everyone’s estimation. This was hardly so in 1922 when he was very much the junior member of the team. He had been with Sunbeam’s then for only one full season and had only won one voiturette long-distance event, the 1921 200 Mile Race at Brooklands in a Talbot-Darracq for them. What is more, Coatalen had intended Lee Guinness to win that race, as he had intended Guinness to win the 1921 Voiturette Grand Prix at Le Mans, from Rene Thomas and Segrave. This puts the perspective on Segrave’s place in the STD team at that time. I would have thought that at that time Jean Chassagne would have been Louis Coatalen’s No. 1 driver, especially in a race to be run on French soil, with Kenelm Lee Guinness, who had won the 1914 TT for Coatalen, No. 2, and new-boy de Hane Segrave No. 3. This is pure speculation. But if it were so, Chassagne would presumably have had the first car. Apart from the gap in the registration numbers, there is evidence from pictures of the state of the 1922 team-cars within the Wolverhampton factory and of an unpainted car used for early Press pictures, that one car was finished well ahead of the others. Incidentally, I believe that whereas the others had a bulge in the o/s of the scuttle to accommodate the driver’s right foot, this one hadn’t, although this is apparent in photographs of the car Segrave drove in the Grand Prix. It has been said that at first r.h. gear levers were used, later altered to central gear levers, in spite of this being a further restriction on space in the cramped cockpits of these narrow cars. If my assumption is correct, we can list the cars thus:-

DA 6436 – Chassagne

DA 6466 – Guinness

DA 6467 – Segrave

DA 6468 – spare car (?)

However, it might be assumed that the first car would be the team-hack, especially as we have pictures of it being used by Segrave (in the IoM) and by Guinness (at Strasbourg) for practice. If this were so, we have to rewrite the table thus: DA 6466 – Chassagne, DA 6467 – Guinness, DA 6468 – Segrave, DA 6436 – spare car (?). I have put a “?” after spare car because some authorities only refer to three cars having been built.

Now there is some photographic evidence that the second assumption may be correct. Three cars were obviously lined-up for the cameras, not long before the race, because whereas two are relatively dirty, Segraves is clean and shining; indeed, one historian has pointed out that this was because he had sent the body into Germany to have it repainted. Most exasperatingly, two of the Sunbeams carry no number plates, but Guinness’ does – DA 6467. If we reckon there were four cars and that DA 6436 was the practice-hack, if Guinness is in his correct car, which is almost certain, wouldn’t Chassagne have had DA 6466 and Segrave DA 6468? (I can think of no likely reason why only Guinness’ Sunbeam still bears its Reg. No. plate in this picture, and am open to suggestions . . .). Much of the foregoing is borne out by a letter I have just received from Paris:-

Sir ,

I was greatly interested in your excellent article in the current issue describing the 1922 Grand Prix Sunbeam, a splendid piece of restoration and a most desirable car in every way.

There is little, if any doubt, that Ernest Henry did, in fact, design this Sunbeam for Segrave; in his famous book “The Lure of Speed”, he states on page 114 that the cars were designed by Henry and he should have known, being No. 3 in the team that year for the Grand Prix. Furthermore, Robert Laly, whom I knew well, and who was Jean Chassagne’s mechanic, confirmed to me as recently as the summer of 1972 (he died in December of that year) that these cars were the work of Henry and that he and Chassagne came over from France to carry out tests and trials, at Brooklands, on the first car and to get it, and the two others into raceworthy condition for the Grand Prix.

In the early “seventies” Henry’s grandson paid a visit to Britain and spent some time with that great Sunbeam enthusiast, and expert, Anthony Heal. I understand that he brought with him a quantity of photographs of cars designed by his grandfather, including several of Chassagne and Laly at Brooklands with the 1922 Grand Prix Sunbeam. Laly’s comments about the car were that it was no match for the Fiats at Strasbourg being 7 to 8 miles an hour slower, but faster than the Rolland Pilains, Ballots and Bugattis.

I don’t think that Henry was ever employed by STD group. I am inclined to the view that he was commissioned by Coatalen to design a car for the Grand Prix, for an agreed fee, and that the cars when built were prepared and put through their paces by Chassagne and Laly under the supervision of Captain J. S. Irving the chief engineer of the Sunbeam Racing Department. Chassagne, incidentally, was an absolute expert in the preparation of racing cars and had been in the Sunbeam team at Lyon in 1914 and was to be No. 1 driver at Strasbourg in 1922.

During the Easter holidays of 1926 my brother and I used to go round to visit the Sunbeam Showrooms in London, at the corner of Princes Street and Hanover Square, to feast our eyes on one of these cars which was for sale and which I think eventually became the property of J. S. Spencer, who won a race at the BARC Easter Meeting that year, averaging 91.8 m.p.h.

Some four years later, in May and June 1930, Alastair Miller had another of these cars for sale and I am almost certain that this was the one raced by Eggar in 1930 and 1931. That they were tractable and made good road cars is borne out by a letter that appeared in The Autocar the same year from the Hon. Jock Leith who used his for touring whilst employed near Fort William in north-west Scotland.

In recent years many claims have been made that such-and-such a car was driven by so-and-so but at this stage in time I think it is virtually impossible to say who drove what car with any degree of certainty, except in a very few instances for engines, chassis, etc. were changed around as and when it suited the racing department concerned to do so. Let it be borne in mind, also, that firms involved in racing when building a team of, say, three cars, would probably produce at least six or more of all the essential parts, and one might well come across chassis No. 2 with engine No. 5 and back axle No. 4 and only those employed in the racing department concerned, or the actual records kept there, could state with any authority the history of each particular car and any modifications, or changes made to it.

Paris

T. A. S. O. Mathieson

I would like to think that we now have solved this particular conundrum. Alas for tidy thinking, the car numbers (as distinct from Reg. Nos.) do not tally; I feel inclined to find a way out by suggesting, as I did before, that the Reg. Nos. must have been changed about. There is also that Segrave plaque on the dash of Lake’s car, which says it is car No. 1, and it bears Reg. No. DA 6436. On the other hand, Guy Griffiths tells me that the car he had and which he raced was stopped one day by Lady Segrave when he was driving it through Kingston-on-Thames – she was in an American coupe which Guy thinks was a fixed-head De Soto – because she recognised it as the Sunbeam driven by her late husband. Now you may think that the lady would have recognised it as the type of car, but not the actual car raced by De Hane, were it not that she was able to give Guy several items that pointed to this being Segrave’s actual car, the most significant being that when the bodies were removed from all the team-cars (obviously at Strasbourg, while the mechanics were altering the axle-ratios, which is when the fastidious De Hane had been able to have the one from his car repainted) Segrave had got his mechanic to stamp his initials “H.O.D.S.” on the chassis frame where the driver’s seat fitted, to ensure that he got the same car in the race as he had practised in. Fascinated, Guy looked at his car, and there were those initials, roughly marked with a centre-punch. The Reg. No. of Griffiths’ Sunbeam – DA 6486. Of course, the mark could have been copied by others. But as presumably only Lady Segrave and Moriceau knew of them, this is unlikely.

The ownership sequences which Bill Lake and Paul Grist tried to work out thus require some revision. Griffiths bought his car from the Hon. Jock Leith, who had just acquired a Type 35 Bugatti from Synies of Byfleet, as well as using the ex-Zborowski two-seater Boulogne Hispano Suiza as an exciting road car. Guy sold his Sunbeam to Ken Burness. He is certain that it went later to Grosscurth and then to Mrs. Cooney, when it was re-registered EVB 998.

Cameron Millar has car No. 3, engine No. 3 which he has always believed to have been the Chassagne car. It is the one Tegryd Jones used on the road, and was bought from Breen, re-registered CHX 882. The Allen car was no. 2, engine no. 2, the other Terry Breen Sunbeam, and it will be remembered that Philip Mann had DA 6468 on the Sunbeam he raced in VSCC events. If anyone can sort that out, I shall be interested! Without wishing to be dogmatic or offend anyone, I append a possible solution but it has many omissions.

Car No. 1 (DA 6436)

Segrave’s GP practice car and at Brooklands? Believed to have caught fire. Now in Australia (see Motor Sport January, 1938, page 25) with incorrect engine?

Car No. 2 (DA 6466)

Chassagne in GP?, Terry Breen, Allen Bros., Philip Mann (DA 6468), M. D. Geer.

Car No. 3 (DR 6467)

Guinness in GP?, Terry Breen, Tegryd Jones (CHX 882), Cameron Millar.

Car No. 4 (DA 6468)

Segrave in GP?, The Hon. Jock Leith, Guy Griffiths, Ken Burgess, Major Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Cooney (EVB 998), Roger Hancox, Colin Crabbe, Paul Grist (DA 6436), Bill Lake.

N.B. I know that Cameron Millar thinks his is the Chassagne car but I do not think he is dogmatic about this. It is tempting to think of Leith having bought car No. 1, as we know this caught fire at Strasbourg and there was evidence of a fire when Leith bought his Sunbeam. However, any racing car can catch fire, so this is not conclusive. Last month’s correspondence says it was No. 4 car. However, if the last registered of the team was thought of as the spare one, this could fit the actual Segrave race car.

Reverting to which driver drove which Sunbeam in the Grand Prix, this is a problem that may never be solved. Manufacturers used to allocate numbers to their team-cars, particularly in pre-1914 times, and put their top driver in car No. 1. Thus in the 1906 French GP Szisz was in Renault No. 1, Edmond in Renault No. 2, Richez in Renault No. 3. In the 1912 GP Jules Goux was in Peugeot No. 1, Georges Boillot in Peugeot No. 2, but in 1913, after Boillot had won the previous year’s race, he had Peugeot No. 1, Goux Peugeot No. 2, Delpierre being in Peugeot No. 3. Mercedes gave Mercedes No. 1 to Poege in the 1908 Grand Prix, Salzer being in Mercedes No. 2, Lautenschlager in Mercedes No. 3. But after the last-named had won this race, for 1914, the next Mercedes appearance, Lautenschlager was in car No. 2, Director Seiler getting No. 1, Salzer No. 3, Frenchman Wagner No. 4 and the Belgian agent Pilette No. 5. That year, in the Peugeot team, Boillot retained No. 1, Goux was in car No. 2. At least it was possible then to say who was regarded as the No. 1 team driver! It seems that Coatalen followed this form, if you study the following list, showing how his drivers were graded in pre-1914 races, based to some extent on results obtained (in brackets) but also on nationality and place of race, perhaps:-

1912 GP

Car. No . . . . Driver

1. . . . . . . . . . . Rigal (5th)

2. . . . . . . . . . Callois (R)

3. . . . . . . . . . Resta (4th)

4. . . . . . . . . . Medinger (9th)

1913 GP

Car. No . . . . Driver

1. . . . . . . . . . . Callois (R)

2. . . . . . . . . . Resta (6th)

3. . . . . . . . . . Chassagne (3rd)

4. . . . . . . . . . Guinness (R)

1914 GP

Car. No . . . . Driver

1. . . . . . . . . . . Chassagne (R)

2. . . . . . . . . . Resta (5th)

3. . . . . . . . . . Guinness (R)

1915 GP

Car. No . . . . Driver

1. . . . . . . . . . . Guinness (1st)

2. . . . . . . . . . Resta (R)

3. . . . . . . . . . Guinness, A. (R)

It should be mentioned that race numbering did not denote the status of team-drivers, as starting orders were drawn by ballot, although prior to 1912 teams had been grouped together for this purpose. However, in that 1922 French Grand Prix at Strasbourg the Sunbeam drivers were listed in the order Chassagne, Guinness, Segrave, although their cars were numbered 9, 16 and 21, respectively. So, as a final thought, if the prototype car was No. 1, Chassagne would have had No. 2 (DA 6466?), Guinness No. 3 (DA 6467 – as in the line-up picture!) and Segrave No. 4 (DA 6468). The Reg. Nos. tie-in with those on Geer’s Sunbeam and on the ex-Griffiths’ car, but not with that on Lake’s, if his is the Sunbeam Segrave used in the Grand Prix. Anyone care to come in? — W.B.

Just after the article was finished the following letter arrived from Mr. Lake, who owns the 1922 GP Sunbeam registered DA 6436:-

Sir,

I am sorry that Mr. Geer, in his July letter, takes exception to the common belief that my car was Segrave’s. He is, of course, quite right in saying that it does not matter too much as it is the pleasure of ownership that is important. However, all the evidence does seem to point to mine being Segrave’s car and to help sort it out, here is the strength of it.

Although the photo reproduction in Motor Sport was not totally clear, the original is and the car being unloaded at Douglas carried DA6436. This is an earlier number than the other three, so it is likely to have been on chassis No. 1. This is also probable as, being the first car built, it would be the one most likely to be taken to the Isle of Man.

It is accepted, I believe, that because of his height, Segrave had his car modified, with the seating moved back and a centre gear change fitted. So it seems unlikely that he would practise in any car other than his own.

There is also a photograph in the July 14th issue of The Autocar for 1922 showing Segrave in his car after practice in Strasbourg and the Registration Number is visible on the tail. It ends in 6 and has what is almost certainly a 3 before it. It is not clear, however, although it certainly does not look like a 6 which is the only other possible figure if Mr. Geer is right.

Turning to the car as it is now, Paul Grist bought it carrying EJB 998, with the log book showing chassis No. 4. (Hence Leith s understanding that his car was No. 4.) However during the rebuild, when the paint was removed, both front dumb iron tips were seen to be stamped “No. 1.22”. I think I am right in saying that the factory stamped all the GP cars in this way, the last two figures representing the year. I don’t see that this can be argued with, and it would be very interesting if other owners scraped enough paint off to see their own numbers.

Other parts of the car are mixed up with those from other chassis, as so often happens with racing cars. The front axle is stamped No. 2 and the gearbox No. 3, I think. The engine has a seemingly original brass or bronze plate on the offside engine bearer saying “Engine No. 1”, but on the nearside is stamped “No. 2”, with a line through it, “No. 4” next to it, also crossed out,and “No. 1”, so make of that what you will!

The aluminium plates on dash and bulkhead were made and fitted during the rebuild. It was also then that the car was re-issued with DA 6436.

The Motor Sport article was misleading about the petrol tank, because it had not been moved back in the frame as stated but simply reduced in size, where it protrudes in front of the filler to enable the seating area of the body to be further in the rear. The tank is original as far as is known, and certainly very old. There is also the matter of the bisected bulkhead mentioned in the article and in Segrave’s book.

From all of this I think everyone must agree that the car is No. 1 and that the Registration Number is correct. I am also personally satisfied that No. 1 was Segrave’s car but will look forward to learning of any other evidence, in support or to the contrary.

Whilst writing, could I correct a small fault in the article that was entirely my fault? Archer helped in the engine-rebuild with the supply of some parts, mainly pistons I think, but the rebuild itself was carried out by Paul Grist and his merry men.

East Grinstead

Bill Lake

[As a barrister says to M’Lud when he would like to continue but can see that it might confuse the issue, I rest my case. — Ed.]