Two 12-Cylinder Sunbeam Record-Breakers
[The Sunbeam Motor Car Company Ltd of Wolverhampton pioneered the 12-cylinder engine, and it was after study of the racing Sunbeam “Toodles V”, described below, by Packard of America that the first successful production V12 car appeared, in the form of the Packard “Twin-Six”. Although Louis Coatalen’s creation had side valves it was a very fast car, which by 1913 had set the Brooldands’ lap-record to 118.58 mph. The story is told for us by the great Sunbeam authority, Anthony S. Heal. — Ed]
S. F. Edge did not claim that Napier were the first to build a six-cylinder motor car engine but he did his best to make it known that they were the first to drive a six-cylinder automobile on the road and to market it successfully. Louis Coatalen, on the other hand, did claim that the Sunbeam Motor Co Ltd were the first to build, and to race successfully, a 12-cylinder car but, owing to the outbreak of war in 1914, they were prevented from being the first to marker a production car of this type.
Coatalen’s 1913 racing car was driven by a V12-cylinder side-valve engine which was later developed as the “Mohawk” to power aeroplanes in the first World War. His 1920 12-cylinder Brooklands outer-circuit record-breaker was, in contrast, fitted with a 350 hp engine, developed from a war-time “Manitou” aero engine, which was adapted for use in a racing car.
The cylinders of the first 12-cylinder car, like those of the 1913 Sunbeam six-cylinder Grand Prix racers, were cast in blocks of three. Two banks, each of six cylinders, were mounted on the crankcase at an included angle of 60°. with a single camshaft in between. To save weight, non-adjustable tappets were used as the use of this engine for aircraft was envisaged by Coatalen from the outset. Its testing and development was more easily achieved at Brooklands in a racing car than in the more hazardous conditions of a 1913 aeroplane.
The space between the two banks of cylinders was pretty well filled by the two exhaust manifolds. Originally two carburetters under the scuttle fed the engine through very long induction pipes but later four vertical Claudel Hobsons were used, They were mounted on short manifolds on each of the four-cylinder blocks which were slightly staggered to allow the big ends of each pair of connecting rods to lie side by side on each crank pin. Skew gears at the front of the camshaft drove two magnetos through a cross-shaft. Dry sump lubrication, then a novel idea of Coatalen’s, was effected by two oil pumps and an oil tank in the tail, connected by large diameter pines, which ran along the outside of the chassis frame, to act as an oil cooler. The copper sump was also ribbed for cooling. The scavenge pump was rather too small and the sump had to be drained before the start of a race.
The 9,048 cc (80 x 150 mm) engine developed some 200 bhp at 2,400 rpm and was Mounted in a sub-frame carried on the at three points as on the standard 25/30 hp model. A cone clutch, which seems to have been the car’s Achilles heel, drove through a standard 4-speed gearbox and an open propeller shaft to a back axle without -a differential, like the Grand Prix cars. It was located by a pressed steel torque arm. An axle ratio of 2 to I was used, with 880 x 120 Palmer Cord tyres mounted on steel artillery wheels. The wheelbase was 10 ft 6 in and the rear two feet of the frame members were filled with lead to help rear wheel adhesion. Houdaille hydraulic dampers were fitted to each of the specially strengthened half-elliptic springs.
Following Louis Coatalen’s established custom this car was the fifth Sunbeam racing car to be called “Toodles”. This was Coatalen’s soubriquet for his wife Olive, daughter of Henry James Bath, an engineer and director of the Sunbeam Motor Car Co Ltd. It was entered for the Brooklands August Bank Holiday meeting of 1913 for Jean Chassagne to drive. Much was expected of the car and there was great disappointment when it was a non-starter due to clutch trouble. It eventually made its debut at the Autumn Meeting on October 4th when it was on scratch with Percy Lambert’s Talbot in the 100 mph Short Handicap. Chassagne evidently treated his clutch delicately for Lambert immediately gained a lead of 100 yards. At the end of the first lap the Sunbeam was catching up, being only 50 yards behind at the start of the Railway Straight and only two lengths behind as they went on to the Byfieet Banking. Lambert was justifiably running near the top of the banking and Chassagne, with the faster car, was undecided whether or not to pass below him. He waited until they ‘,ached the fork when he “swept past” the Talbot to take third place, 20 yards ahead of Lambert, having averaged 105.75 mph. His hesitation cost him the race for it seemed clear to the Autocar’s representative that given a clear run he could have overtaken txith C. A. Bird’s Coupe de l’Auto Sunbeam and N. S. Hind’s 6.3-litre Berliet, which took first and second places. Chassagne’s fastest lap at 118.58 mph gave promise of “Toodles V’s” true potential.
The race illustrated the problem of passing with two evenly matched very fast cars travelling high on the banking. It was to remain a problem for the ensuing 26 years until the track was closed at the outbreak of war in 1939, only soluble by gentlemanly behaviour on the part of the drivers concerned. Lambert and Chassagne had agreed before the race that the driver who took the lead at the start should take the position on the banking commensurate with his speed. If the second driver felt able to overtake he should pass below his rival.
Later in the same meeting the Sunbeam and the Talbot were again together on scratch in the 100 mph Long Handicap. Again the Talbot made the better get-away and was 50 yards ahead on the Railway Straight. It still had a lead of three lengths at the end of the first lap. As the cars passed under the Members Bridge, Chassagne pulled the Sunbeam down the banking and passed below the Talbot. With a clear run along the Railway Straight Chassagne established a commanding lead. He won, averaging 110 mph, the fastest race-winning speed recorded up to that date. Even the blase Brooklands habitues were moved to clap their hands as Chassagne brought the big Sunbeam back into the Paddock. His fastest lap was done at 117.49 mph.
Earlier in the year Percy Lambert had made history by setting the World’s Record for one hour over 100 miles for the first time. This was soon bettered by Jules Goux, with a 5.6-litre Grand Prix Peugeot, who covered 106.2 miles in 60 rain. It seemed more than likely that “Toodles V” would be capable of beating Goux’s record but very doubtful if tyres could stand that pace. An attempt was made on October 9th. Chassagne limited his speed to 112 to 115 mph in order to give the tyres a chance but it was nevertheless too high and on the 14th lap the tread of the offside rear wheel was thrown off and the attempt on the one hour record had to be abandoned. It was clear that the Sunbeam was capable of much greater speed but that the tyres were the limiting factor. Chassagne would have to be satisfied with only a marginal improvement on Goux’s speed.
On October 11th the Sunbeam was again prepared for another attempt. The 880 x 120 Palmer Cord tyres were fitted with security bolts with hexagon nuts and the pressures were carefully checked. Surplus oil was drained from the sump and Chassagne set off with a standing lap at 117.46 mph. This was obviously too fast so he eased up, lapping with great regularity at just over 107 mph. He took the World’s Record for one hour at 107.05 mph and continued, changing tyres on the 42nd lap in 53 sec, to set a new record for 150 miles at 105.57 mph. Louis Coatalen realised that in addition to these two records he could also claim records not only for 50 miles and 100 miles but also for 50 km, 100 km, 150 km and 200 km, making a score of eight World’s Records in under an hour and a half! Even if his side-valve engines were outclassed for Grand Prix racing he was able to show that they were still capable of setting up new World’s Records, for only a week beforehand one of the six-cylinder, 4½-litre Grand Prix Sunbeams, fitted with a single-seater body and driven by Jean Chassagne, Dario Resta and K. Lee Guinness, had run for 12 hours at Brooklands, setting up 36 World’s Records. By November Sunbeam cars held every World’s Record from 50 kilometres and 50 miles to 12 hours.
Despite these successes it had not been possible to realise the car’s full potential. Rudge Whitworth wire wheels, with eared lock-nuts, first used by Georges Boillot’s Peugeot, were fitted and in December The Autocar published a striking drawing by Gordon Crosby showing “Toodles V”, fitted with twin rear wheels, hurtling along a tree lined straight Route Nationale. The caption said that the “twelve cylinder Sunbeam car will shortly attack World’s Records on some straight stretches of road in France”. As far as I know the car never crossed the Channel but nevertheless in March 1914 the long deferred attack on short distance records was made at Brooklands. Chassagne set up three Class H (850 cubic inches) records for the Half Mile (118.66 mph), 1 Mile (120.73 mph) and 2 Miles (119.38 mph). Tyre trouble on his second lap prevented the run from being continued.
A new rival appeared to challenge the twelve cylinder Sunbeam at the Brooklands Easter Meeting of 1914. L. G. Homsted with the 84.9 hp Benz (21½ litres) was on scratch with Datio Resta with “Toodles V’, for the Lightning Short Handicap. The Benz made the better get-away but the Sunbeam soon began to gain, overtaking the German car on the Byfleet banking on the second lap. He could not catch Holder’s Vauxhall which won the race at 92.5 mph. Resta took second place at 103.5 mph.
The Sunbeam Racing Department was very fully committed in preparing two teams of new racing cars for the 1914 Tourist Trophy and the Grand Prix de l’ACF so that the twelve cylinder car was not seen in action again until July when it, together with one of the 4½-litre Grand Prix cars and one of the 3.3-litre TT machines, took part in the speed trials organised by The Yorkshire Automobile Club on Saltburn Sands. K. Lee Guinness drove the Grand Prix car to win the 4,600 cc class and Dario Resta, with “Toodles V”, won the Unlimited Racing Car Class at 104.5 mph and, in an attempt on The World’s Record for the flying kilometre, averaged 111.05 mph running in both directions. One way he achieved 117.6 mph.
The last appearance of the twelve cylinder Sunbeam at Brooklands was at the fateful meeting on August Bank Holiday 1914, when Dario Resta, again on scratch, won the Lightning Long Handicap at 107 mph.
With the outbreak of war, motor racing in Europe ceased and it was six years before the next race was held at Brooklands. The twelve cylinder engines of the type used in “Toodles V” were being built at the Sunbeam works for the War Office and The Royal Navy. The cylinder bore was increased, first to 90 mm and then to 100 mm, and the power output was stepped up to 225 hp and 250 hp.
But the racing career of “Toodles V” was not finished. The car was sent to America where motor racing continued until 1916. Ralph de Palma drove it at the opening meeting of the new track at Sheepshead Bay on Long Island in a special match race between himself, Burman (Peugeot), and Oldfield (Blitzes Benz). De Palma with the Sunbeam won at 113.7 mph.
In 1916 Hughie Hughes entered the Sunbeam toe the Corona Grand Prix in California. In 1958 Mr Earl Sargent wrote to me saying that he had met one of the early residents of the town who had been there in 1916. He said that Hughie Hughes in “a long English car” had received permission, a fortnight before the race, to make a trial run on the course. To minimise traffic problems the trial was held at dawn and the car was tinned on its best lap at just over 100 mph. He also related with glee that practically the entire city witnessed the test as the Corona course was a three-mile perfectly circular boulevard enclosing the city (and a major portion of its residential district) and after the warm up no one could sleep because of the deep note of the Sunbeam’s engine. Hughie Hughes, despite his unofficial practice run, did not finish in the Grand Prix but he drove the car again in a 150 Mile Race at Ascot Dirt Track where he finished seventh.
Frank Bill, the Sunbeam racing mechanic who accompanied Josef Christiaens with the 4.9-litre 6-cylinder Sunbeam to Indianapolis and several other American race tracks during the 1916 season, also recalled seeing the 12-cylinder Sunbeam in action on a dirt track. He wrote to me that he went “to Kalamazoo dirt track to watch the big 12-cylinder Sunbeam in a 100 mile race. It started off and took the lead and then skidded right across the track. About eight cars ran into it and within a few minutes there were 10 dead, all piled in a heap of wrecked cars”.
If that was the end of the first 12-cylinder car its achievements were not forgotten nor did the influence of “Toodles V” cease at that point. At the annual general meeting of The Sunbeam Motor Car Co Ltd, in December 1916, Louis Coatalen, Chief Designer and Managing Director, said: “At the outbreak of war the Sunbeam Company had something quite new in cars, notably the 12-cylinder machine, with which they established many World’s Records something like twelve months before the commencement of the campaign. This was the first car in the world of such a type, and it would have been marketed but for the war. As it was, they sent it to America where it performed notably and was bought by a motor manufacturing firm of perhaps the highest reputation in that continent. In consequence that firm studied the engine and standardised the I2-cylinder car from the Sunbeam Company’s machine with a degree of success that had compelled it more than to double its works, to increase its capital twofold and it had, moreover, enabled the Company to pay a dividend of 50% on that doubled capital for its financial year just concluded.”
He would mention no names but he wished to draw attention to the fact that the war had robbed the Sunbeam Company of the credit and the profit of being the first in the world to market a 12-cylinder car.
If an American company took the credit and the profit from the commercial exploitation of the 12-cylinder engine for the automobile, the 225 hp side-valve Sunbeam-Coatalen “Mohawk” gave sterling war service to the Royal Naval Air Service in seaplanes in the North Sea, Mesopotamia and Lake Tanganyika. Aero engine design developed rapidly during the war under the pressure of the demands by the British and Allied Air Services but the “Mohawk” engines, first standardised by the War Office in 1913, continued to give dependable service until 1917.
(Part Two, covering the very fast and successful V12 Sunbeam racing car powered by an adaptation of that Comipany’s “Manitou” aero-engine, will be published next month.)