The 1916 Indianapolis Sunbeam

When a prominent racing car becomes the sole surviving example of its type that merits attention. The more so when, as in the case of Harold Smith's 1916 Indianapolis 4.9-litre Sunbeam, it has lain neglected for more than half a century before being painstakingly restored. This work was entrusted to STD specialist Ian Polson of Wickenbrook, near Newmarket. They were rewarded when the old Sunbeam won the Edwardian class at the 1988 VSCC Weston-Super-Mare speed trials, its first appearance since its restoration, in the record time of 21.87 seconds. It ran at VSCC Colerne the following year, now with the correct full length tail, Harold Smith again winning his class, in 35.37 seconds and, competed at VSCC Shelsley Walsh, where Bird's single-seater Indy Sunbeam had set a course record back in 1921.

This Sunbeam has an interesting history, well documented by Sunbeam expert Anthony Heal. The full story of how Louis Coatalen, Sunbeam's chief engineer, sent cars out to America for the celebrated Indy long distance races is completely recorded in Heal's great work Sunbeam's Racing Cars 1910 to 1930 (Haynes,1989) and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that in the 1913 Indy 500 Albert Guyot, driving "Toodles IV", was fourth, beaten only by Goux's 5.6-litre GP Peugeot, a Stutz and a Mercer. In 1914 the Sunbeam entrusted to Jean Chassagne burst a tyre and overturned but the American private owner Harry Grant was seventh in his 1913 GP Sunbeam, but in 1915, of Coatalen's two twin-cam 1914 GP Sunbeams, one retired and the other was last.

However this did not deter the Sunbeam Motor Car Co. of Wolverhampton from entering again for the 1916 race which was reduced to 300 miles. Racing driver Josef Christiaens had advised Coatalen to put two of his 4.9-litre six cylinder twin-cam 24 valve engines into GP Sunbeam chassis. Driving himself, with Frank Bill as the mechanic, Christiaens came home fourth, at 79.66 mph, beaten only by Dario Resta's 4 1/2-litre Peugeot, a Duesenberg and Mulford's smaller Peugeot. Apart from that, the two Sunbeams which had been shipped to the USA despite the difficult wartime conditions, gained places in a number of other races, driven by Christiaens, Galvin and Louis Chevrolet. There had, it has to be admitted, been vibration problems with the 4.9 engines, necessitating a top limit of 2,600 rpm. In a final race at Indy in September 1915 Chevrolet had a rod come through the crankcase in a fierce race against a Hoskins, losing second place by a mere half second whilst coasting home.

Under the circumstances it is difficult to understand why Coatalen did not run both cars in the important 300 mile race, thereby having a double insurance against failure. Be that as it may, the exciting thing is that the car now campaigned by Harold Smith is one of these successful and exciting Indianapolis Sunbeams. It would be nice to think it is the actual car run in the "300" by Christiaens. It is chassis no. GP2, with engine no. GP4. This confirms it as one of the longer wheelbase 1916 cars but whether or not Christiaens would have had GP1 is lost in the mists of time . . . .

However there is a possible explanation. When the famous Indy 500 mile race was revived in 1919, as the Victory Sweepstakes, Louis Coatalen was ready to try again. Christiaens apparently suggested that the same type of 4.9-litre power units be installed in the shorter wheelbase 1914 TT Sunbeam chassis. Probably to convince the directors of the effectiveness of such cars and the prestige of racing them in the USA, Christiaens put on a demonstration for them on February 23rd on the public roads outside the Wolverhampton factory. Alas he hit a curve, overturned, and was killed, his mechanic Frank Bills being badly injured.

What follows constitutes one of motor racing's unsolved mysteries! The race was not due until May 31st and rumour says that early that month two of the intended team of three Indy Sunbeams had been shipped out to the USA. It also says that Coatalen was in New York by April 28th on his way to the Speedway. Yet neither of the Sunbeams were submitted for qualifying, nor were they scrutineered. They were to be driven by Resta and Chassagne but instead they were withdrawn. No explanation was given. Three solutions were being circulated at the time. One was that the cars were untested, as Brooklands had not re-opened, and Coatalen feared the opposition provided for his ageing cars by the new Ballots and De Palma's Packard. Another suggestion was that the engines were four inches over the 300 cu. in. race limit — but surely not for they had passed the same rule in 1916, and had not been scrutineered anyway. The third theory was that the vibration that had intruded in 1916 had again posed a problem; but wouldn't a great engineer like Coatalen have cured this between then and 1919?

I find myself wondering whether the 1919 cars ever left England for America? Had they done so, one might have expected the American press boys to have crowed more loudly over the withdrawal of such famous British cars? There is some reason to believe that my theory is correct; Coatalen could well have had other business in America at this period.

Whatever happened, the fact that only two cars are supposed to have got to America provides an explanation which I think fits Harold Smith's Sunbeam. This was given a four-body in 1919 yet has a GP chassis number. It seems that the ill-fated car Christiaens was showing off to the board was the 1916 Indy-type car, which Chevrolet blew up in that last race, while the two newer ones, with TT chassis, were being completed inside the factory. In which case, after the racing body had been damaged in the accident, it would be logical to fit a touring one and to replace the damaged engine. A spare engine would presumably have accompanied the two cars to the USA, the fourth spare engine being installed in the car Christiaens had crashed in 1919 — hence GP4 in Mr Smith's car.

Apart from this surmise, the provenance of this only surviving Indy Sunbeam is well established by Anthony Heal, with a few additions from my own archives. After it had been fitted with the four-seater body by Hamshaws of Leicester, by April 1919, it was registered DA 3172 and used as a road car by Coatalen. Sunbeam then sold it in 1920 to the well known dealer and racing car trader Phil Paddon in London. He re-registered it in Sligo, Ireland as El 995 to avoid police interest in this fast and unusual motor car. Apparently it was lent for a week to a prospective client but the gentleman preferred a Rolls-Royce Alpine Eagle. However Paddon soon sold the Sunbeam to Gerald Herbert of Coventry, who had raced Singer cars at Brooklands before the war.

That was early in 1920 and The Autocar published a page of photographs of the car which showed it to have an enormous exhaust pipe running along the nearside of its four-seater body, a well stocked fascia, a spare wheel on each side, and the two carburettors Autovac-fed. It weighed only 27 cwt, 12 lb in this form and did 89 mph at 2500 rpm. (It is significant that The Autocar stated that this was one of the cars withdrawn from the 1919 Indy race because the engine was oversize confirming, unless a mistake had been made, my theory that Coatalen may have intended the team to consist of two new cars and the 1916 Indy racers).

Gerald Herbert kept the old Sunbeam for a long time, not returning it to Paddon until he exchanged it for a Bentley. It was overhauled in Paddon's workshops before being offered again for sale. W B Scott, the well known Brooklands driver and sportsman, had it for a while, his friend S A Payne Jnr racing it at the Track in 1927 without success. David Scott-Moncrieff then became interested as did R Chapman. They went to Brooklands where T and T's were storing it, and after it had been tow-started behind Scott-Moncrieff's HE they did a few laps in it but desisted when the state of the tyres was realised. The Sunbeam now had a red two-seater body, fabric covered over a crude wooden framework but the fourseater one was available with it.

Scott-Moncrieff drove the Sunbeam in the 1930 CUAC speed trials at Branches Park and Oliver Bertram in the Lewes speed trials the following summer. It was no doubt passing through the trade at this period and Scott-Moncrieff sold it to the Duke of Grafton in 1933, thus upholding his slogan "suppliers of horseless carriages to the nobility and gentry". It was re-registered AYE 444, a 1934 Somerset number, which it still retains.

The Duke had taken up motor racing (unfortunately he was killed in a 3.3-litre Bugafti in the 1936 Limerick Grand Prix) and the car was offered to him "as raced by Oliver Bertram". He had tried it in the Gopsall Park speed trials in March 1933 but it suffered from severe clutch slip. It was seen being driven through Leicester and it ended up in Arthur Bruce's scrapyard in Aylesford. At this time three keen young enthusiasts, Harold Smith, Pat Stephenson and 12/50 Alvis owner John Cooper, who was to become Sports Editor of The Autocar and who was sadly killed in a road accident, had formed the Scuderia lmpecuniosa. Hearing of the old Sunbeam they formed a three man syndicate and bought it for £15, towing it to Harold's house in Leicester behind a Morris Cowley, dismantling it pending re-building. That was in 1935 and it was not until 1981 that Mr Smith was able to start restoring this historic car.

It was then that work started on the immaculate restoration undertaken by noted STD restorer Ian Polson in East Anglia. The Sunbeam's engine was ready to be re-started after its long slumber by April 1986 when the car was driven on test on a private road. By 1988 Poison had made an accurate reproduction of the original body, bonnet with its skewer-type hinges and two side panels for carburettor flooding, and side panels. Even the multiple rivets for the aluminium panels were spaced correctly, after studying old photographs.

The long, cylindrical, tapered extension to the tail was constructed the following year, using a wire former — which may now make a useful parrot's cage — the aim, of course, being to use as many original parts as possible. The two cylinder blocks were in surprisingly good condition, remembering that back in 1935 the engine was seized absolutely solid. The gearbox and back axle casings, crown wheel and pinion, etc. were used again but VSCC member Barry Linger of Wimbourne made new gears. The old exhaust system with its big Brooklands silencer, dating from W B Scott days, was able to be patched up and a cover was made for the magneto, on the offside of the impressive engine, this magneto rotating to provide advance or retard, for maximum spark efficiency. New float chamber lids and needle bosses had to be made for the updraught CZS Claudel Hobson carburettors, which have their AID markings. They feed into two three-branch inlet manifolds on the offside, and on the exhaust or nearside of the engine there are three large crankcase breathers.

Naturally, new pistons, valves, valve guides and crankshaft ball-races were needed and the original fuel tank filler having been stolen necessitated a new one. The scavenge pump for the dry sump lubrication had been lost, so Poison made a new pump 50% larger, to obviate over-oiling problems. The road wheels, which date from Brooklands' days, are shod with new Firestone 5.25 x 21 tyres. The vented oil tank is at the rear of the engine. The pressure pump feeds to a vertical 3-litre Bentley-like filter at the front of the engine, from whence oil is taken to a horizontal distribution tank behind the camshafts, from where eight oil lines supply the various parts of the power unit.

New chassis parts include wheel bearings, king pins etc. but the original radiator was retained, but was re-cored. Thus this sole surviving active 4.9-litre Sunbeam was magnificently resuscitated. I was privileged to have a brief drive in it one fine April afternoon. You climb up into the narrow cockpit, to be confronted with a little panel on the left for the air and oil pressure gauges, the former reading to four lb/sq in, the latter calibrated in stages from to 60 lb/sq in, in ten pound stages. The first of these small gauges came from a 1920s Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, the other from a vintage Sunbeam. A large hand pump beneath them maintains fuel pressure. Before the driver there is a little tachometer, on the car since the 1920s at least, reading to 2500 rpm, with a reminder that the rev limit is 2900. To the right of this is the water thermometer, reading up to 240 degrees, and the magneto button. The four-spoke steering wheel may well be original; it is quite substantial, as required by the Indy regulations apparently. The quadrant above it carries the ignition and throttle controls, too much retard being prevented by a peg restricting the spark lever.

The priming cocks on the tops of the inlet manifolds having been filled with petrol, I twirled the Bosch starting magneto on the under-bonnet offside of the bulkhead, Ian wound on the starting handle, and the impressive 81.5 x 157 mm, twin-cam, 24-valve, 150 bhp engine broke into throaty life. It showed no inflamable tendencies but it soon overheats. So we lost little time in driving off. The inside right-hand gear lever is unusual in having no visible gate, this being within the cross-shaft tunnel, and the two-plate clutch is either "in" or "out". Steering lock is poor, as might be expected on a track car, and on the narrow country roads the old Sunbeam weaved about rather exuberantly, suggesting rather more castor angle perhaps. But it is a superbly vintage car, the brute force acceleration thrusting you eagerly forward, the wind over the screenless scuttle tearing at one's face, the exhaust note thrumming away behind . . . . A pace of 65/70 mph comes up readily in top gear, the axle ratio now about 2.8 to 1, the axle casing being inscribed with the 1916 alternatives of 2.5 to 2.9 to 1. It was a most enjoyable experience to add to my long repertoire. . .

Afterwards, we discussed various aspects of the car. It is possible to see where the front cross-member and radiator were moved forward in the GP chassis to take the new sub-frame required to accommodate the six-cylinder engine. This sub-frame was meticulously machined so that the gearbox shaft and crankshaft would line up without the need for universal joints; it is mounted on one spherical joint at the front, two at the back, to protect the engine from chassis flexion. Incidentally, I was impressed by the size of the four crankshaft ball bearings and Polson had to do some adaptation when finding replacements. The engine differs from Henry concepts in having finger-type cam-followers. The pointed end to the body's individual tail was made detachable to facilitate transporting the Sunbeams in box-cars on American railroads. It remains a mystery whether two cars or only one went to Indianapolis in 1916 and there is a story that those said to have gone there in 1919 were never uncrated.