An old friend

The accompanying picture of a smart Sunbeam Sixteen tourer owned by Bernard Burgess reminds me that this is an old friend. It started life as a 1930 fabric saloon, at one time run by Dr Dawson, who used it for towing a caravan on Alpine holidays. When the body disintegrated he had an estate-car body made to replace it. Bodies of this kind had got a bad reputation during the war years because they were apt to be crudely run-up to evade the “red petrol” laws. Not Dr Dawson’s. It was constructed by a skilled boat-builder, with aluminium panels over a wooden frame.

Dr Dawson, like Mr Burgess, was an early member of the Sunbeam STD Register. The doctor had bought his Sunbeam after it had run 52,000 miles and by 1953 he had covered another 40,000 miles in it, trouble-free apart from a jammed starter.

Having been impressed by the 1927 Sunbeam Sixteen tourer which my wife had acquired in 1952 and with which I had had fun in a few trials and on journeys to Wolverhampton and Sandhurst etc when she was organising STD rallies, and wanting another vintage car, I persuaded DSJ to go half-shares with me in the Dawson car, in its shooting brake form, when the good doctor was moving on to an Austin, of later date, but pre-war. We discovered that he knew the Sunbeam intimately — “You shouldn’t have any trouble,” he told us, “but listen for a tap from the little ends, at. . .”, and here he quoted the actual mileage at which this would happen. (In fact, over very many years, the engine never had to be taken down.) After the deal had been very amicably concluded, “Have you got a van?”, he asked. “No, we are going to drive the car home,” we replied. “Ah,” continued the doctor, “but there are lots of spares that go with it and you will need a van to collect them.”

No extra charge was asked for this collection of parts and the special tools Dr Dawson had made for the car, which we duly collected, with a borrowed van. That was some time in the 1960s and the Sunbeam proved very dependable. The body was 100% rainproof in heavy downpours and retained the comfortable original leather seats. It had been given Sunbeam hydraulic brakes from a 1931 Sixteen which were as good, or better, than those of the most modern cars. At its first MoT test the tester put his Tapley meter on the floor, told me to get up to 30mph, and he would shout “Stop!” On the command I braked and the Tapley thing shot across the floor and he into the windscreen. On the road you could apply these brakes going down a steep hill and the Sunbeam just stopped.

Its only snag was that it didn’t care to be hurried. The gearchange was pleasant but likewise not to be hurried and the cruising pace was normally around 35 to 40mph. I never discovered why this was. But I do recall leading a long line of vintage light cars on VSCC Welsh rally and thinking it would be nice to Show their occupants the rather interesting and scenic road from Ryahader to Abbeycurnhir. But as the gradient increased, the Sunbeam got slower and slower. The low bottom gear saved it from total disgrace, but I was reminded of the late Cecil Clutton’s comment about the Sunbeam Sixteen in The Vintage Motor Car (Batsford, 1954): “This engine produced the remarkably low output of 44bhp at 4000rpm, despite the quite high c r of 5.7 to 1. One would have thought it quite difficult for such an engine, at this date, to have produced less than 56bhp.” Which is no doubt why Coatalen put in a 2193cc six-cylinder engine, in place of the 2040cc one, for 1931. Perhaps the weight of the estate body, although alloy-panelled, was responsible, but our journeys were stately rather than hectic, not necessarily from choice.

In this reliable and comfortable car with the wonderful steering I drove for more than 2800 miles in 1966/67, for instance, when most of my time was occupied with testing moderns for MOTOR SPORT. Then, DSJ, who used to service it anyway, decided it would be useful for taking his racing motorcycles to meetings. On the delivery run there was an amusing episode. The exhaust pipe came adrift and, deeming the noise too great for venturing into London, I stopped at friendly Parkway Garage run by the Gittings brothers, just outside Ledbury, and sought help. They put the car up on the hoist and did a fine welding job, of which even DSJ approved. But they had not realised that my wife, children and the dog were in the car, so there they remained, trapped, until the hoist came down again. . . Prior to this, the “Glasshouse”, as it was affectionately known, had been used to attend Wolverhampton and other STD rallies like the older Sunbeam, and by the summer of 1970 my wife had stopped and toasted it on the road to the Elan Valley, when the odometer displayed the magic 100,000 miles.

By the 1980s the rot had set in and the old car appeared unrecoverable. But not to Roger Carter, who is “Mr Sunbeam” to so many grateful STD Register members. When Bernard Burgess of St Albans decided it should have a new lease of life Roger set about the mechanicals, Mick Collis built the new tumblehome touring body, which was painted by Roger’s son, and this was splendidly trimmed and the original seats re-upholstered in leather by Stephen Bowles of Bridport. Which shows what can be done, no matter how impossible a restoration job may appear. And I am told that, contrary to my experience, this 1930 Sunbeam now has a reasonable turn in speed.