And in other cars as well… But read on
Why Sunbeams? Why Scotland? I hasten to explain. In the 1920s it seems that whoever was then responsible for publicising the products of the Sunbeam Motor Car Company of Wolverhampton had the bright idea of asking the Leading motoring writers of the day to accompany him on the long journey to the Scottish Motor Show, which the weekly motoring journals were then in the habit of covering in prolific style. This ploy not only saved these scribes a long train journey but enabled them to assess the merits of the latest Sunbeam motor-cars, on what was then a not inconsiderable (and often very cold) winter journey.
As I always enjoy trying to re-enact motoring history, when Chrysler UK revived the Sunbeam name on a new series of hatchback family saloons I thought it would be amusing to travel up to the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, where the Scottish Show has been held since 1911, in a modern Sunbeam, traversing one of the routes used in the adventurous 1920s by those writers from The Autocar who had made the journey by road, so often at the invitation of the Sunbeam Company. This was duly accomplished, in a Scottish-built 1.6-litre Sunbeam S, naturally far more effortlessly and very much more quickly than in those earlier Sunbeams and other cars. First, however, let us consider these annual pilgrimages to the North, which became quite a journalistic occasion, as fleets of the latest demonstration models made their way to the show.
The Nineteen Twenties
The first record I can find of The Autocar describing such a journey is in 1922, when the Show took place in January and much snow was encountered en route. That year L. V. Cozens of Sunbeam’s invited two members of The Autocar’s staff to go with him in a 24/60 sixcylinder Sunbeam sports-tourer. One of them was, I think, the great S. C. H. Davis. They prepared themselves with wool, leather, and fur garments and enormous boots, only to discover that Cozens had the hood and side-screens up on the sporting Sunbeam.
From the start, Cozens also heavily-clad, they encountered snow. But inside the Sunbeam the crew were warm and comfortable, one of them, Sammy I suspect, remarking that it was even possible to light “the unstained briar” more easily than in a first-class railway carriage, so few were the draughts, and the 4 1/2-litre o.h.v. Sunbeam also rode very comfortably. Soon Cozens retired to the rear seat, keeping a miscellaneous assortment of suitcases and impedimenta company. But he told off the man who was now at the wheel for changing down on a steep hill which the Sunbeam (70 b.h.p. at 2,000 r.p.m.) could take on the 4-to-1 top gear, so flexible was it. Thereafter bottom gear (11.9 to 1) in the four-speed gearbox was used only twice, when leaving an hotel yard and in a snowdrift. It was easy to start in top gear and the engine was very quiet except for a typical Sunbeam carburetter hiss. So bad were the roads that the car’s full potential was never seen but the Jaeger speedometer reached 65 m.p.h. and 45 m.p.h. was “a mere nothing”.
Lunch was taken in Preston and until Lancaster a full-force gale was encountered, just as with our Chrysler-Sunbeam in 1977. The 24/60’s hood sticks “groaned like the wings of a Bristol Fighter in bumpy weather”, to quote Cozens. ‘fea was eaten in Kendall, where the petrol was topped-up, the consumption coming out at 17 m.p.g. Shap had been closed the day before but was now open, and over icy roads, in the dark, the ascent was accomplished, the Sunbeam performing excellently. The night was spent in Carlisle and, hood down, this fine motor-tar completed the journey the next day, via Gretna, Moffat and Crawford, where an early lunch was enjoyed. This top-gear run, which included Glasgow traffic, endorsed for those involved the smoothness, silence, and docility of this 1922 Sunbeam, the only criticisms of which were that mud was thrown too readily onto the body and that the oil-filler was on the opposite side of the engine to the level-cock.
That appears to have been The Autocar’s first run to Kelvin Hall in a Sunbeam. The previous year, however, they had gone up through the night in a Swift Twelve tourer and a Morris-Oxford tourer, a tedious experience which may have given Mr. Cozens his idea of inviting them to enjoy a more luxurious form of travel on the next occasion. Incidentally, I think rival journals may have been on the road, for Davis stopped en route in 1922 to chat with the crew of a big open Isotta-Fraschini.
For 1923 the Scottish visit was accomplished with one of the new Rolls-Royce Twenty tourers and an Arrol-Johnston saloon. In the Rolls the writers left London and diverted from the usual route in order to climb Kirkstone Pass from Ambleside, completing 282 miles that day in time for dinner, with a complete absence of fatigue. The early part of the run was done in winter sunshine, the only sound being the hiss of the tyres and the tick, tick of the speedometer drive not the ticking of the clock on the well-stocked dashboard! All was praise for XM 2821, except for the brake pedal requiring a good deal of effort; the hand brake was used only for parking, by the R-R driver and the journalists. This Rolls-Royce was thought of as an ideal lady’s car, requiring only top gear right down to a crawl, the automatic advance for the coil-ignition functioning well, speed rising to a “positive crescendo”, with a gulp from the carburetter, if the accelerator was stamped upon, as the car swept along to cries of “Rolls” from village urchins. Incidentally, its power was given as 50 h.p. at 3,000 rpm.
It was lunch at Grantham (116 miles), tea at Leeds. There had been a tendency to forget to open the manually-controlled radiator-shutters and a luminous thermometer dial was therefore suggested. After tea the crew struck out for the lakes, via Ilkley, Settle and Kirkby Lonsdale, where a petrol check showed 215 miles covered at 21 1/4 m.p.g. The long winding hill out of Settle called for a change-down, the gear-lever action being “exceptional”, on this three-speed Rolls, and by 7 p.m., in the rain, they arrived in Kendall and, finding the hotels full, pressed on to Riggs Hotel at Windermere. Pride, they say, goeth before a fall, but in the case of this Twenty Royce it was merely a lack of grip by the smooth-treaded tyres in the mud of the 1-in-5, 1,470 ft. Kirkstone Pass. The ascent had called for 1st gear at times, 2nd most of the way up, and by dropping back a few yards after stopping, a re-start was easily accomplished. At the summit the engine water temperature was 95 deg. C. After which it was on through Patterdale, Penrith and Carlisle, for lunch at Lockerbie. Glasgow was finally reached in daylight, the 30 cwt. 3.1-litre Barker tourer attaining nearly 60 m.p.h. on its 4.82-to-1 top gear during this comfortable journey. Its push-rod o.h.v. gear was the nearest approach the occupants had encountered to absolute silence and the aluminium pistons were devoid of slap, even from cold, but there was an almost imperceptible tap from the rearmost cylinders, which disappeared as soon as the engine had warmed-up. The verdict was: “A fine car, indeed!”.
The £750, 2.6-litre Arrol-Johnston saloon – a more appropriate car for this particular journey in 1922 than our American-financed Sunbeam of 1977 was photographed with the Rolls-Royce outside Rigg’s Windermere Hotel, and had taken its crew to tea at the Middleton Hotel in Ilkley, and then on to Windermere. Next day it climbed Kirkstone on its Dunlop Magnum tyres without coming to rest, as had the Rolls, but it was boiling at the top. This today-tame gradient had been included in the 1922 MCC London-Edinburgh Trial, incidentally. The A-J diverted to the factory where it was made, in Dumfries, but got to the Central Hotel in Glasgow, in a gale, in ample time for dinner.
The next year, 1924, the railway strike made the use of cars for the traditional January journey more desirable than ever. The Autocar has the use of four diverse vehicles. A Sidcot-suited, trilby-hatted Sammy Davis borrowed a works-hack 1 1/2 litre 12-h.p. Palladium, which had been used for MCC trials, and contrived to get to the Clyde and back in two-and-a-half days, not bad, as he remarked, in an article laced with Roman history, for a hard-used small-car costing under £400. They had left St. John’s Wood at 9.30 one morning, after the car had been brought there the day before from the Palladium works at Putney. A goat-coat was provided for the artist (they were three-up), lunch was had at the “George” at Stamford, tea at Boroughbridge, where the Armstrong Siddeley fleet was seen. They missed Scotch Corner in heavy rain and mist, but made the County Hotel at Carlisle by 8.45 p.m. Glasgow was reached by the next midday. Then, one Friday night, the Palladium did the run back, the by-now-dim headlamps being switched off at Doncaster and the “George” at Grantham providing a much-needed breakfast. The 800 miles had been trouble-free, the Parsons snow-chains not being needed. But note that oil was put in more than once, a tappet and a headlamp-lead needed adjusting, but that four speeds and four-wheel-brakes helped the little car along.
Another means of getting North used by this famous weekly journal that year was in a wire-wheeled 2.3-litre Morris Six tourer, which did the run from Oxford, including climbing Shap, without using bottom gear in the three-speed gearbox, except for traffic stops. It proved capable of a speedometer 59 1/2 m.p.h., at 26 m.p.g., but 2nd gear was on the low side, even in a car laden with three people, a week’s luggage, a camera and golf-clubs, etc. The Sunbeam element was provided in 1924 by a 27/70 tourer, which made the expedition in company with the latest Lanchester Forty saloon. Two days were allowed for the 300-mile outward journey, the Sunbeam being joined up with in Wolverhampton and a start made in foul weather. At an easy 35 to 40 m.p.h. the two majestic motor-cars progressed steadily, no wipers fitted to their windscreens, of which the Lanchester’s was vee-shaped. The human four some lunched in Warrington, took tea at Kendal after which bad weather decided them to take the easier climb over Kirkstone Pass rather than up the “Struggle”. The Lanchester led, closely followed by the Sunbeam, darkness and fog making the ascent hazardous, yet uneventful. A comfortable night was spent in the Ullswater Hotel at Patterdale, where the now-traditioni photograph was taken next morning, and they continued in sunshine, overtaking many other cars bound for the same venue, all intent on beating the rail strike, on the fast road from Penrith to Carlisle. They detoured to Moffat for lunch after watching a horse-drawn ploughing match and got to Glasgow, over tram-lined roads from Hamilton, shortly before 4 p.m., everyone “as fresh as paint”. The 27/70 Sunbeam (their designation) was praised for its excellent servo four-wheel-brakes, the big Lanchester as effortless in all it undertook.
It was much the same in 1925, when a straight-eight Sunbeam, a Lanchester 40, a twin-cam 3 -Iitre Sunbeam, and a sleeve-valm Willys-Knight, all saloons except the Sunbeams undertook the communal journey. This time the cars did the run rather faster, leaving Birmingham after 11 a.m., getting to Patterdale by 6.30 p.m., then starting out at 11 a.m, next day, to reach Edinburgh by 4.30 p.m., although stopping for all normal meals and photography. It was Edinburgh because the Kelvin Hall had burnt down, and the date was now November. Moreover, normal clothes and walking shoes were now comfortable wear because, although this was before the advent of heaters, the bodies were now better sealed against draughts from the snow-laden atmosphere. Better acceleration and braking contributed to easier, faster running. In the expected picture outside the Ullswater Hotel an 11/40 Riley saloon has joined the convoy. An impromptu cold-start test at the hotel was won by the 8-cylinder Sunbeam, in 8 sec., the Willys-Knight next, in spite of sleeve-valves, in 9 sec. The motoring writers changed from one car to another and wrote nice things about all of them. The Lanchester did 75 m.p.h. and felt like “a liner put to sea”. The 8-cylinder Sunbeam was the only car that climbed Kirkstone Pass all the way in top gear (they took it from the easier, Troutbeck side), the 3-litre Sunbeam had steering that was disconcertingly light on initial acquaintance, went to “somewhere near 92 m.p.h.”, and the booming exhaust note was more pronounced than the twin-o.h.c. valve-gear. It accelerated with “an elastic force”.
By now this collective run North was becoming an accepted part of the The Autocar’s routine. In 1926, with the Show still in Edinburgh, Georges Roesch lent one of the first 14/45 Talbot tourers and there was a sort of “musical chairs” between a 14/40 Lea-Francis, a Riley Nine tourer, a Sunbeam Sixteen tourer, a Sunbeam Twenty-Five Weyrnann saloon, the inevitable Lanchester Forty saloon, a Riley Twelve and a Crossley Six. The date was now December but they tackled Kirkstone, and later the Devil’s Beef Tub. The twin-cam 6-cylinder Lea-Francis had gone tip Kirkstone, three up, at 22 to 23 m.p.h. without needing its 18.2-to-1 bottom-gear and with no sign of boiling; it then coasted down the “Struggle” in neutral and the four-wheelbrakes slowed it easily as hounds crossed the road for a kill. It also climbed Red Bank in second gear, after the occupants had had a late lunch in Ambleside and even got up Blea Tarn Pass without snow-chains. It gave about 25 m.p.g. to the Talbot’s 27. The latter car had left London early. Its crew took breakfast at “The Anchor” at tempsford (14/6d for four persons), lunch at the “Old Bell” at Hamby Moor, tea at the “Middleton” at Ilkley, arriving at the “Royal” at Windermere by 8.15 p.m. after getting hopelessly lost. The very stiff engine had given maxima of 18, 25, 35 and 52 m.p.h. In the morning the Talbot’s special direction-indicators had been found to have been left on, flattening the battery, but the 1.6-litre engine commenenced on the handle and Roesch’s silent, single-unit dynamotor recharged the battery in five minutes. Kirkstone was vanquished easily, although there were four in the car, but it boiled at the summit. The brakes were up to the subsequent winding roads and after lunch at the County Hotel in Carlisle and tea in Moffat they were in Edinburgh a minute before 6.30 p.m. No oil had been needed. The cost per head was under £2, first-class railfares at that time costing double.
Of the other cars on this 1926 occasion, both Sunbeams were highly praised for their comfort and light controls, and the Twenty-Five ascended the “Struggle” from Ambleside easily in second gear, the Sixteen getting up the Devil’s Beef Tub in top, although just passed by the bigger model. Petrol thirst was 18 and 24 m.p.g., respectively. All the cars received their mead of praise, the Riley Nine tourer climbing the “Struggle” twice, with the coolest radiator of them all.
The thing was now becoming almost monotonous. In 1927, by which time the Kelvin Hall was open again, The Autocar had the use of as 3-litre twin-cam Sunbeam saloon and a Sunbearn Twenty-Five Weymann saloon, joined at the Patterdale Hotel by a Big Six Bentley, a 16-h.p. Darracq, a 14/45 Talbot, a Riley Twelve, a 21-h.p. Crossley and a Lanchester 21, all saloons, and by an 18/50 Star tourer. This time the quick-starting sweepstake outside the hotel went to the Star, in 5 sec., the Darracq taking 5 1/2 sec., the Lanchester 8 sec. I will not bore you further with an account of how all these ears performed on the trek North. What is worth remarking on, though, is the fact that a return run of 347 miles was made in one day in a Standard Nine fabric saloon, over the Penrith, Appleby, Brough, Wetherby, Doncaster, Newark, Leicester, Rugby route, finishing up at Leamington Spa. Remembering the roads of fifty years ago, this was quite an undertaking, especially as that November there was rain and snow, breaks were made for lunch, tea and dinner at hotels, and the maximum speed of the Standard was only 45 m.p.h…. Incidentally, in writing of the 3-litre Sunbeam, which was naturally noisier than the Sunbeam Twenty-Five, it was recalled that George Duller’s 3-litre had covered greatest distance in that year’s Six-Hour Sports Car Race at Brooklands.
In 1928 Geoffrey Smith, the then Managing Editor of The Autocar and father of today’s Maurice Smith, DFC, wrote more briefly of going to Glasgow in stages in six 1929 demonstration cars ranging from a £555 2.9-litre 20/60 Vauxhall Velox saloon to a £1,095 4.9-litre straight-eight Stutz saloon, the other cars sampled in the course of the annual pilgrimage being a Sunbeam Twenty Weymann saloon, a 4 1/2-litre Bentley fabric saloon, a straight-eight Lanchester and a 20/65 3-litre Humber limousine. All were duly photographed outside the hotel where they stayed, at Richmond in Yorkshire, where a 2-litre open Lagonda and a 14/45 Talbot coupe also entered the garage. The Stutz wandered on tramlines on its 6 in.-section tyres and had squeaky brakes, but was a top-gear car which “streaked up hills”. The Sunbeam, of the kind Mr. Smith had owned in 1927, was quietly unostentatious, the Bentley engine had a period at 45 to 50 m.p.h. but the car did almost 75 in 3rd, 90 m.p.h. in top; the central accelerator and the positioning of the gear lever weren’t liked however. The Lanchester droned along at 70 m.p.h. entirely effortlessly but its steering was too high-geared, the luggage-carting Humber was not fast but was sweet-running and had supple springing, and the beautifully-balanced engine of the Vauxhall was liked more than its central accelerator.
After this the journey was presumably too common-place to merit further articles. Just before and after World War Two Lord Rootes apparently sent his Show cars to Glasgow on special trains, their locomotives bearing his personal-crest, the off-loading being done at Stockcross Station.
Fifty Years Later
When I told John Rowe of Chrysler UK my plans, he willingly lent me the top-S-model new Sunbeam, a Dunlop SP4-shod hatchback, and aficr taking it over from the former Talbot/Rootes depot in Ladbroke Grove and using it for nearly a week, three of us, with much luggage, set off just after noon one November Friday, bound for the Kelvin Hall. The Motorway was joined at Chester and left at Kendal. Soon it was evident that we were in the Lake District. At Windermere we passed the afore-mentioned Royal Hotel, and the Steamboat Museum which should be worth a visit. In fading light we got up Kirkstone Pass as if it were a main-road gradient, the little car coming down the other, steeper, side in second-gear, scarcely using the effective brakes. Into Patterdale, and to Ullswater, where we found the Patterdale Hotel. Due to present-day staffing problems it is now shut out-of-season but it was nice to meet Mrs. Kathleen Tonkin, who has been there since 1924,. and to know that the hotel has been in the hands of the same family since 1919. She did not remember the influx of 1920’s motoring writers, but kindly dug out some old pictures of the hotel for us.
Next, we turned into the Ullswater Hotel where The Autocar so often stayed, obviously modernised since those long-ago days, very palatial, but where our hoped-for tea of bread-and-butter, jam, and cakes turned out to be just cream-and-jam scones (easier to assemble?), which cost £1.20. Further on, now in the dark, a garage in Penrith where we refuelled, did not know of the County Hotel, where The Autocar used also to stay. After looking at Gretna Green, which involved finding the old North Road, and being sickened by the flash cafes which have sprung up adjacent to the fabled Blacksmith’s Shop, we used the fine dual-carriageway road, locally referred to as the motorway, to Crawford. Here, off to our right on the original road, we espied the well-lit Crawford Arms Hotel. Thinking this to be another port of call of those motorists of long ago we stopped there in fact, the larger hotel they knew was on the site of the present Post Horn hotel, on the opposite side of the old North Road. However, the friendly service and good meal provided by this little RAC hotel induced us to return there for the night when the good initial impression was fully maintained, and the charges were found to be very moderate (after we had spent the evening in the company of John Coombs of the STD Register, whose father, as Publicity Manager at Sunbeam’s in the 1920’s. would undoubtedly have approved of the purpose for our journey.
Before going to the Scottish Show the next morning we drove to Alexandria, to look at the derelict but well-preserved Argyll factory. I have frequently asked our photographers to go there when they have been covering rallies in Scotland, but they have never made it, so I thought I would do so myself.
The Argyll Factory
Glasgow proved to have many gaps in its dreary buildings, presumably relics of the 1939-45 bombing, but wide roads surprisingly free of traffic on this Saturday morning. A smart 1 1/2-litre RM Riley saloon was spotted outside the National Tyre Services premises, the only aged car we saw, and then we ran into Alexandria, where the old Argyll headquarters towers over all, complete with an imposing clock-tower, from which an Argyll car noses, the whole building an astonishingly vast structure. It was opened in June 1906 by Lord Montagu and cost so much that to this is attributed the eventual demise of this Scottish motor-car empire. Today it is guarded by Securicor. But they politely permitted me to take photographs, to enter the legendary marble entrance-hall and even to ascend the great marble staircase, up to the long corridors of offices and imposing boardroom. The whole place is very clean and presentable and we were glad to hear that a Preservation Order has been placed on it. In 1935 it became the Admiralty Torpedo Factory and much more recently Plessey, the present owners, occupied it. Now it is empty and if anyone is looking for impressive offices to rent, on the outskirts of Glasgow, I think Plessey would be glad to hear from them … (It is said that the building originally cost £220,000, 40,000 bricks a day being laid during its construction; the Admiralty bought it in 1914 for £153,000).
After this detour in torrential rain we arrived at the Kelvin Hall by :1.30, to find, as with all Motor Shows, that it was impossible to park anywhere near it. The Show hall was brightly lit and very neat, cars and commercial vehicles in the main building and the motor-cycles packed tightly together, rather as an afterthought it seemed, on a cleared section of the cinema-floor. There remains no sign of the fine wooden roof, destroyed presumably in the 1925 fire. The Press Office was unmanned from the time of our arrival to lunchtime and no-one from London or Coventry was to be found on the Chrysler stand. So we were soon on our way South, the last memory of now-busy but still uncongested Glasgow being an Alfa Romeo badly crunched at a side-road not a Show demonstration-car, I hope ….
The 1977 1.6-litre four-cylinder Sunbeam took us home in capital fashion, down the M6 Motorway. In fact, getting clear of Glasgow at about 1.35, we were driving through Wolverhampton by late tea-time, prior to eating in Bridgnorth. This in spite of pausing for petrol on the Mb, where, as a lady driver was remarking, Forton charge dearly for it, in spite of theirs being a Self-Service Station.
The Sunbeam grew on us the more we drove it. Somewhat over-geared, (3,850 r.p.m. a speedometer 70 m.p.h.) it will not go to peak revs. (6,000 r.p.m.) in top gear. However, the speedometer can be put to an indicated 76 m.p.h. in 3rd, to 95 m.p.h. in top, at a tachometer reading of 5,200 r.p.m. The gear-change must be the sweetest there is, the noise-level is low, the heater extremely effective, the brakes reasonable, the ride comfortable, and the handling good, even with a heavy load. The self-lifting glass rear-panel of the three-door body makes for very easy loading but two hands are required to close it, pressing on the screwed-in retaining hooks. The seats are worthy of praise and the wipers give a 100% clear windscreen-glass, although the n/s wiper rubber tried several times to escape. The stalk control for the turn-flashers is on the left, as on German cars, and is rather too short and the r/h wiper-stalk moves up for off as on a Colt. The instruments are easy to read but the smaller dials including that of the oil-gauge, are not calibrated. The engine would probably benefit from two instead of one Zenith-Stromberg carburetter, but, driven extremely hard, gave 29.2 m.p.g. of four-star fuel. The tank provides a range of better than 280 miles and has a simple, non-lockable bayonett, filler. Nor do the very many useful interior parcels stowages and pockets possess lids. This DIN b.h.p. is 69, at 4,800 r.p.m.
I was favourably impressed with the Chrysler-Sunbeam, which in this S-form, with rear-window wash/wipe, sells for £2,984.66. It could well help to pull the Company out of present financial predicament. At the end of the week’s test this happy little car had covered mat than 1,300-troublefree-miles and had obliginly conveyed a large miscellaneous load into London after which it needed about a pint of oil. W.B.