Bill Lake's 1922 Grand Prix Sunbeam

The Editor Enjoys a Drive in This Delightful and Splendidly-Rebuilt Vintage Racing Car

When I heard that Bill Lake had acquired the ex-Segrave 1922 GP Sunbeam so ably rebuilt by Paul Grist I knew that some day I must beg a drive in it, because it is an interesting part of the Wolverhampton Sunbeam heritage and as Bill sets very high standrards for all his historic cars, I knew the old racer would be in immaculate conditon. When I eventually made the visit I was not disappointed; indeed, I was pleasantly surprised at how very enjoyable this old Sunbeam is to drive, and indeed, to contemplate. . . . The day before my visit it poured with rain, reminiscent of the weather conditions at Strasbourg which faced Segrave when he set out to drive this very car in the French Grand Prix, 57 years ago. Fortunately, on the day chosen for us to examine and photograph this aged but very game motorcar, it only snowed. . .

The Sunbeam Motor Car Company, under the enthusiastic guidance of Louis Coatalen, was the leading, in fact, almost the only, British firm to actively engage in top-class motor-racing immediately before and after the First World War. Prior to the holocaust the race-keen Coatalen had some notable successes. But in 1921 his Henry-type 3-litre straight-eight racing cars, which ran as Sunbeams, Talbots or Darracqs as was convenient to the new STD combine, were ill-prepared and it wasn’t until the 1922 TT in the IoM that their cost was justified. Chassagne won the TT (another wet race) at 55.76 m.p.h. for the 302 miles in one of these year-old GP Sunbeams, although his team-mate Segrave retired, with magneto failure and Lee Guinness’ car had clutch trouble which prevented it from starting. After this the prevailing 3-litre formula was altered to a maximum of 2-litres, and Coatalen had to build a team of new cars. He chose a four-cylinder engine, again of twin-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder Henry type, a design concept he had favoured ever since he prepared new cars for the 1914 TT and GP races.

There has been much controversy as to whether Ernest Henry, instigator of the Peugeot twin-cam multi-valve cylinder head, came to Wolverhampton in 1922 to work for Coatalen, whether he merely supplied drawings, or whether, in fact, he had no direct association with these new 1922 GP Sunbeams. Griffith Borgeson, who has painstakingly researched the life of Ernest Henry, and has defended him against the accusation, entirely unjustified in my opinion, that he stole Hispano Suiza drawings of the twin-cam concept and sold them to Peugeot, was told by none other than Henry’s son that Henry never went to Sunbeam’s, for they copied his engines and he was bitter about this and would never go near that Company. It is quite definite that Coatalen based his 1914 racing-cars on Henry’s successful 1913 Coupe de L’Auto Peugeot. The story that he actually commandeered one of these cars, unknown to Peugeot’s, had it brought to England, and dismantled in his house near Wolverhampton so that his draughtsmen could copy it, seemed too close to a fairy tale. Until, that is, I met Mr. A. P. Mitchell, who was a Sunbeam employee at the time and who confirmed that this definitely happened, in an interview which, as they say in Fleet Street, I scooped for MOTOR SPORT — in the November, 1977 issue. Thus there was every justification for Henry’s bitterness. Yet John Wyer, Laurence Pomeroy and Ian Nickols are convinced that Henry designed the 1922 GP Sunbeams. We may never get to the truth of the matter; which is a pity, because the failure of the new Sunbeams in the Grand Prix has been attributed to Henry being “past it” by then. That the Sunbeam retirements were due to valve breakages is ironical, in view of the fact that it has been said that Henry’s employment of four-valves-per-cylinder for his 1912 and subsequent racing engines was to enable a car with a faulty valve to have a standby, and not necessarily to improve gas-flow or reduce the weight of the valves themselves. Whatever the position, there is no doubt at all that Coatalen used another Henry-type engine in 1922. Indeed, Bill Lake tells me that his 1922 2-litre GP engines are identical to the 2-litre sports Ballot engine which Henry designed, apart from the Ballot’s transverse mounting of the magneto/water pump and its provision in the crankcase-casting for mounting a starter-motor.* I would think that, as Coatalen had so blatantly stolen Henry’s 1913 design and had based his 1914 3.3-litre TT and 4.4-litre GP Sunbeam engines on it, and as his 1921 3-litre Sunbeam straight-eights were based on Henry’s Ballot engines, Sunbeam’s should have been well able to design their own power units of this kind, without the expense of actually paying Henry to do this for them. . . .

These 1922-formula Sunbeam engines had the accepted four-valves-per-cylinder, actuated by twin overhead-camshafts driven from the front of the engine by a train of gears. Crankshaft and camshafts ran on ball bearings, the big-ends were plain and the cylinder block and head were integral. At the front of the engine there were two magnetos, instead of the coil ignition that Coatalen favoured for his 1½-litre engines of this type (another instance of his copying the Henry designs) and unlike these voiturette engines the block was of cast-iron, not aluminium. Otherwise, the cars were conventional for their period. The bore and stroke were 68 x 136 mm. (1,975 c.c.), the inlet valves were larger than the exhaust valves and nearly vertical, and with two carburetters and a c.r. of 6½ to 1, 88 b.h.p. was claimed, at 4,200 r.p.m., which with the long stroke implied a high piston-speed. The chassis had a wheelbase of 8′ 2″ and a track of 3’11”, these being quite compact cars, with impressively long tails in which the spare wheel was accommodated longitudinally under a cover, protruding from a hinged top panel.

It seems that four of these cars were built at Wolverhampton, three for the Grand Prix and one as a spare. Their story commences when the first of them was shipped out to Douglas — we have a photograph of it leaving the docks — and was used by Segrave for TT practice, being allegedly faster, for several laps, than the bigger eight-cylinder Sunbeam he was to drive in the race. (The new GP cars were not eligible, as the TT was for 3-litre cars, the voiturette section for in 1½-litres.) It is said that Segrave demanded a left-hand gear lever, and certainly his 6-foot stature necessitated moving the petrol tank and driver’s seat two inches further back than on the other cars, to give more room in the cockpit. In July the 2-litres were driven to Strasbourg for the Grand Prix. In that race, the first of its kind to experience rain since the series began in 1906, the six-cylinder Fiats proved by far the fastest cars. They forced their rivals to go quicker than they had intended, and they would have finished 1, 2, 3 had the lightweight back axles of Biagio Nazarro’s and Bordino’s cars not broken their half-shafts, resulting in the death of the former driver. His uncle, veteran Felice Nazzaro, won at 79.2 m.p.h. for the 499 trying miles, his fastest lap being at some 87¾ m.p.h. The axle failures, and a leaking fuel tank on Biagio Nazarro’s Fiat which he quickly changed, let Bugattis into the 2nd and 3rd places, but they were a very long way behind the winning Fiat. For Sunbeam’s the race was a disaster.

Segrave got up to third place at one stage, but his engine had proved difficult to re-start after a pit-stop and he retired at around half-distance, when in fifth place, with a broken inlet valve, which had eliminated Chassagne and Guinness in the other Sunbeams, after five of the 60 laps. It is said that to try to combat the unexpectedly severe challenge from the Fiats the Sunbeams’ axle-ratios had been lowered, by too great a degree because of faulty tachometers misleading the engineers, and there was no time to change them again. This meant over-revving to 5,000 r.p.m. There had also been big-end failures beforehand, due to the high engine speed. Incidentally, these cars were the only ones to be fitted, rather improbably, with mud-wings over the front wheels, when it was seen how wet the race would be. Incidentally, Segrave has said that even if his car had not proved faulty, he could never have finished the race, as he was suffering very badly from a burnt bottom, caused by petrol being spilt on the seat during refuelling.

Deprived of victory in 1922, and not having the audacity or opportunity to “borrow” one of the Fiats, Coatalen did the next best, but more costly, thing, that of employing their designer Berterione to plan the next year’s Sunbeams, which were 2-litre six-cylinder cars. It paid off, Segrave winning in 1923 at Tours, the first French GP to go to a British car. Meanwhile, the four-cylinder 2-litre Sunbeams were of little use. Not ideal for sprints, they had little purpose among the veritable armada of racing cars that Sunbeam’s now had at their disposal. There was, I think, only one appearance before the team was sold-off. This was at the 1922 Essex MC Speed Championship Meeting at Brooklands, when some class races, as distinct from the customary handicaps, were run off. One of the GP cars was entered for the 2-litre Championship. Segrave drove it and had a hollow victory, against a lone 1.8-litre Hampton, at 92.38 m.p.h. He lapped at 99.81 m.p.h. which endorses the top speed in GP guise to have been about 100 m.p.h. That is the only time one of these cars was used again by the works, as far as I can ascertain, but I have reason to think that Chassagne’s car (No. 2 of the team) was intended for the 1922 August Brooklands Meeting, although the entry was cancelled, perhaps because the engine could not be repaired in time. In fact, the valve failures were said to have holed the pistons of all the Sunbeams, corrugated recesses for the cotters having weakening the stems.

It is logical to believe that the cars were then disposed of. In 1926 J. S. Spencer drove one (thought not to have been Segrave’s) in the Private Competitors’ Handicap at the Easter Brooklands Meeting. The car was in original exterior trim, still painted green, with black wheels, and with, of course, a Brooklands exhaust system. Starting 21 sec. before Howey’s big Ballot it lapped at 86.02 m.p.h. and 98.43 m.p.h., to win at 91.75 m.p.h. Later in the season it did several more laps at around these speeds, so had obviously retained its original performance, before disappearing into limbo. (Spencer was at the time also racing one of the 1908 11-litre GP Napiers, which has never re-surfaced.)

I do not pretend to have sorted out the subsequent history of each of the 1922 Sunbeams very effectively but, with Bill Lake’s help, we can say something of what happened to each of them. In 1930 Kenward Egger drove one at Brooklands, possibly the ex-Spencer car. Dudley Froy lapped in it at 99.61 m.p.h. in the Cornwall Senior Short Handicap and its entrant later took it “round the Mountain” at 59.16 m.p.h. But it was never placed. It ran without a radiator stoneguard. At various times during and after the Second World War these 1922 GP Sunbeams passed through many people’s hands, but it is good to know that all the team is apparently more or less intact.

As far as we can sort it out, it seems that the spare car, No. 4, caught fire at Strasbourg while Segrave was practising with it and was considerably damaged. It went to Australia and has apparently since lost its proper engine. Car No. 3, driven in the Grand Prix by Guinness, was owned in recent times by Philip Mann, who used it for VSCC races. It is now owned by G. Geer of Sevenoaks. Car No. 2, Chassagne’s, was one of two owned by Terry Breen. It was used on the road by Tegrid Jones and is now in Cameron Millar’s ownership, in very original condition. The No. 1 car, which we are really concerned with here, as now owned by Bill Lake, has had a complicated career. When Sunbeam’s disposed of them, this ex-Segrave car was bought by the Hon. Jock Leith, who sold it to Guy Griffiths, who raced it at Donington and Southport and used it on the road before selling it to Ken Burness, who also raced it at Donington. Louis Giron apparently did much work on it, putting in special camshafts (the original camshafts still exist, as standard-lamps!). Then the war came and the No. 1 Sunbeam turned up in Maidenhead as a chassis, fairly intact except for a Riley radiator, now owned by Major W. K. Johnson of the Canadian Air Force. Next Mrs. Cooney had it and she used it regularly on the road, and also at Luton Hoo Speed Trials.

John Wyer did some modifications to it, including putting on a full-width two-seater body. The n/s magneto was removed to provide a drive (by belt) for a supercharger. Then the car went through the hands of Colin Crabbe and Roger Hancox, until Paul Grist took pity on it and carried out his excellent rebuild. He used to drive the car to meetings, having had the engine rebuilt by Archer’s.

Grist examined carefully Cameron Millar’s original-condition ex-Chassagne Sunbeam and made a splendid job of the rebuild. Indeed, had Bill Lake not been the honest man he is and told me that the body of his car is a replica, I might well have been fooled. This body, which is in two sections, divided at the scuttle, so that the back part can be quickly detached to reveal the petrol tank, apart from which the flexibility between the two sections must help to preserve them, was described originally as being made of welded aluminium. I do not know what Grist did but he has reproduced faithfully the lines of what I rate as one of the more handsome of vintage racing cars. He has departed from the original in using a flat instead of a curved radiator stoneguard, and the green finish is darker than the old “Sunbeam green”. Apart from that, and a few minor items of the specification, the original theme has been carefully followed. Bill Lake was discussing his 1902 Paris-Vienna Mors with Grist after a Brighton Run, heard about the rebuilt Sunbeam, and couldn’t resist it. As I was to discover, it not only looks very nice, but it is a delight to drive. . . .

The engine originally had two updraught Claudel Hobson or Zenith carburetters on the n/s, but two big Solex, with 40-26 chokes, are now fitted. As they have to be flooded to excess to persuade the engine to fire, with the risk of a fire of a different sort, the one-time backwards-facing cowl over them has been omitted. The magnetos sit side-by-side on a platform at the front of the engine and although they have separate switches, they are used together, one firing plugs under the inlet valves, the other plugs in the centre of the head, between the camshafts. The Brooklands exhaust system, with fantail, graces the o/s of the car with the handbrake lever between the exhaust pipe and the side of the body. The seats are well staggered, as they need to be with such a cramped cockpit, and behind them the spare wheel is correctly positioned in the tail. The springs are ½-elliptics, the front axle above them, the rear axle underslung, the front axle being Coatalen’s three-piece type. The back axle is now damped by four triple-Hartfords, the front axle by two. Originally single-Hartfords sufficed, made of aluminium, which Bill Lake hopes one day to re-fabricate. The tyres were originally 835 x 135s but Dunlop “herringbone” 820 x 120s are now fitted. Segrave’s car, by the way, weighed in before the Grand Prix at 13 cwt. 57 lb., Chassagne’s being heavier by 27 lb., Guinness’ by 44 lb.

The stoneguard still wears a Sunbeam badge and the bonnet, of typical Sunbeam outline, is secured by long rods or “hatpins”. There is a stoneguard folded onto the scuttle, for the driver. The brakes, all four of which are operated by the pedal, now have rod-operation, the rods outside the chassis side-members, in lieu of the former cables. In 1922 there was a band-type servo driven from the gearbox, as a casting in Lake’s possession reminds us. However, he thinks the complete Hotchkiss-type transmission, with the servo, was removed from all the 1922 team-cars for use on the 1923 GP Sunbeams, replacement transmissions, less the brake servos being found for the older chassis. The gear ratios are unchanged.

Another interesting relic in Lake’s possession is the car’s original cockpit bulkhead. This was removed when Segrave wanted the body taken off in a hurry prior to the Grand Prix, so that he could get it onto a lorry and taken over the border to Kehl in Germany, where a coachbuilder repainted it to de Hane’s fastidious standards, at his expense. Enough however, of looking round the car. What is it like to drive? Bill cranked-up the engine, and then with difficulty I climbed in beside him. With difficulty, because this really is a “1½-seater”. The gear-lever is well over to the left and the air-pressure pump on the n/s of the cockpit further restricts the mechanic’s well-being. After a short run along Lake’s private roadway, I tried driving the Sunbeam.

The steering wheel is a surprisingly big, spring-spoke affair, cord-bound, with four spokes. It controls about the lightest, most precise, steering you could wish for. Unexpectedly, the accelerator is on the right. The cone clutch could be fierce for racing starts but it functions well enough under ordinary driving conditions, although I sensed that if one let the engine labour in too high a gear, it might develop slip. The gear change is one of the best I have ever experienced in a vintage car. The large exposed gate is angled to the slant of the substantial gear lever, and has conventional H-shaped locations, except that the lower gears are on the right, or driver’s, side. Reverse is beyond second, guarded by a convenient lift-up catch. Let me say here and now that not only was I relieved to find the gear change so easy, but that I could have changed gear far more often than was necessary, just for the joy of doing so. The change from 1st to 2nd cannot be hurried and unless the engine revs. are modest, and the oil is warm, you have to crunch-in bottom cog before making this upward venture. Then from 2nd the lever just slips smoothly into 3rd, after which a short, sharp downward pull has you into top. Changing down, the close-ratios make it all so simple. The merest blip on the accelerator and the lever just slips smoothly into 3rd, and then seems to find its way automatically into 2nd. Trying out his new possession on the track, Bill found himself going backwards, with bottom gear engaged. This has obviously been sorted-out, but it took him two weekends to make reverse gear function properly. It now goes in like silk, with a very short lever movement which is a characteristic of the Sunbeam’s gear-gate. The lever does tend to stick in gear, unless tapped smartly, but even this doesn’t spoil the changes. As for the brakes, if they no longer have servo assistance, they are so light as to make one wonder why this was ever needed, and quite effective, obviating the need to reach out for the somewhat-inaccessible hand brake. This has a good locking action from a neat button on its end.

Motoring in this old racing Sunbeam through the winter sunshine, the exhaust rasping away behind until I lifted off for a corner, the wind buffeting my flying helmet over the aero screen, the car seeming to be as eager as I felt — exhilarating! The little tachometer is rather tucked-away by the steering column and therefore not very easy to inspect. But I saw that it was red-marked from 3,500 r.p.m., so I kept to a maximum of 3,000 r.p.m., conscious that this wasn’t my engine, but also thinking there must be more performance to come. Quite right! As I climbed out, pondering on those drivers who raced such motor cars in anger for 500 muddy miles, Bill said I could have used 4,000 to 4,500 r.p.m., and that unless you do the Sunbeam doesn’t really motor. No matter; it was the greatest fun. The engine, if an oily unit, seemed quiet for a twin-cam, and it never missed a beat. Coatalen tried many makes of magneto and combinations of mag and coil in his time, but these Scintillas were no doubt his best-bet in that department.

On the dash the Sunbeam’s instrumentation and controls are as follows: On the extreme right, or o/s, there is an “8 jours” clock by Jaeger of Paris, with white face. Next to this, the bigger tachometer, by the same maker. It is calibrated from to 4,500 r.p.m. in steps of five hundred r.p.m., with another five beyond the “45” mark. Then come a Sunbeam oil-pressure gauge reading to 100 but normally showing 40 lb./sq. in. and a Sunbeam air-pressure-gauge, marked 0, 1, 2, 3, 4. (There was once a mechanical fuel-feed but Sunbeam’s soon converted to air-pressure.) As the pump is out of reach, a mechanic would have to operate it but it didn’t require any attention when I was driving. The fuel tank used to hold 60 gallons but the present one has a capacity of about 32. The mechanic is confronted by the two big tumbler-type brass magneto switches, mounted side-by-side, and by a formidable Ki-gass pump, as well as the two glass-fronted drip-feeds, supplying lubricant to each of the o.h.-camshafts. A floor-mounted Klaxon horn and Pyrene fire-extinguisher complete the equipment. The dash carries two plates, one reading: “1922 GP de L’ACF—Strasbourg–Major De Hane Segrave-Jules-Moriceau”, the latter being de Mane’s GP riding mechanic (Chassagne took Laly, Guinness had Divo). “1st. 2-Litre Race Brooklands Essex M.C. 1922 Major de Hane Segrave”. This one was obviously put on by a proud owner. The other plate proclaims: “SUNBEAM—Wolverhampton–2-litre, 1972 c.c., Chassis No.1, Engine No.1 .” They seem to have docked 3 c.c. from the usually-declared capacity!) There is a Bowden advance-and-retard control under the air-pump, but it can be ignored. The engine, which was rebuilt by Archer, is run on 4-star petrol and on Shell, GP50 oil, there being a horizontally-mounted big cylindrical oil-filter on the o/s of the crankcase. The oil tank is under the floor, with a tap to prevent feed-back reached through a big hole; the main oil feed and scavenge for the dry-sump is by plunger pumps. The oil gauge dial is “straked” from “0-38” to remind the driver that oil pressure should be higher than that. Lake’s car, being the first built, has reg. no. DA6436, DA6467 and DA6468 being allocated to the other team cars. These numbers seem to have been changed about at different times, to the historian’s mental discomfort. Bill Lake has so many motoring pleasures to enjoy that he has not used the Sunbeam much. He has had it out at Goodwood and he ran it at last year’s VSCC Prescott hill climb, the fact that it improved on its time in the rain by three seconds over its best during a dry practice session being surely a measure of its good roadholding? In my short run on tarmac surfaces it handled in a lively but controllable manner. I can imagine, though, that when passing other competitors on a narrow, cambered road, this light car could be less predictable. What fun it all is!

This Sunbeam is the kind of car which, even after my very brief encounter with it in Sussex, reminded me of what Sammy Davis once wrote, about another make in another French Grand Prix, “. . . neither of us cared who was winning provided we could only go on for hour after hour over that wonderful course in the sunlight, with the roar of the exhaust behind and that ribbon of road in front.” — W.B.

* One of these Ballots has turned up in this country, after being stored for many years due to a broken crankshaft; the replacement crankshaft, never fitted, was with it! — W.B.