Eoin Young samples a brace of historic Coatalen Sunbeam racers
Tom Wheatcroft, renowned owner of the Donington circuit with its superb Grand Prix museum, seldom does things by halves. When it comes to Tourist Trophy Sunbeams he doubled the bet and when he bought a complete car with a host of spare bits in New Zealand two years ago, he commissioned Auto Restorations in Christchurch to build a matched pair of the 1922 cars.
Sunbeam had built four for the Tourist Trophy race on the Isle of Man that year. Three were entered, two started and the only one that finished, won in the hands of the tiny Frenchman, Jean Chassagne. By 1926 the 1922 TT-winning three-litre straight-eight Sunbeam was being raced on New Zealand beaches by Matthew Wills but it was no match for the 3.3-litre four-cylinder Sunbeam (by historic chance the car that had won the 1914 TT!) raced by his brother-in-law, Bill Hamilton, the man who would develop the commercial principle of the jet boat. George Henning bought the car for the 1928 season but it must have been a difficult beast to tame, and a year later he had sold it to A R E (Dick) Messenger, who had no intention of racing it, preferring to fit a sports-type body with hood and mudguards and use it as a 100 mph road car. History has it that Messenger used alcohol fuel to strip various coats of paint from the old racer until he came down to a large number seven on the scuttle — Chassagne’s winning number from 1922,
Alan Stanton, Ian Jones and Allan Wylie headed the team at Auto Restorations to build the twin TT Sunbeams, setting out to create a new car out of the bits while copying missing parts from the complete car.
Auto Restorations was formed in June 1973 when Gavin Bain, Bill Clark and Leon Witte decided they had enough cars and rescue projects between them to warrant a restoration workshop which could also take on outside work to finance itself. Bruce Pigeon joined the company as Managing Director in 1982 and with a specialist staff of 15, it has earned an international reputation for prize-winning restorations.
The 1922 Sunbeam spares that Messenger had collected on a trip to Britain in the Forties included an engine, a chassis, a radiator, a rear end and masses of assorted bits which had to be identified and put together like a giant jigsaw. Many parts had to be made from scratch and this is where the specialist expertise of the Auto Restoration craftsmen came in. Clive Warburton built two new sets of stub axles from solid blocks of steel, new king pins, new brake drums, new brake shoes, a new crownwheel and pinion — they even made new carburettors, 1992 versions of the 70 year-old updraught Claudel-Hobsons!
The complete car was in fact on its last legs, a runner but that was about all. It was completely stripped and newly-made copy parts were fitted where necessary. They found, in fact, that the spare chassis had been the original on the winning Chassagne car, as all the bolt holes matched perfectly with the body sides. Messenger had had the forethought to keep the original racing body when he converted the car for road use.
Wheatcroft bought the cars from Rob Shand in 1990 and two years later the long shallow straight-eight engines in his twin Sunbeams were rumbling into life. The cars were numbered 7 (the rebuilt Chassagne winning car) and 1 (the car built from bits). This was fitting because in 1922 the number 1 car was reserved for the Sunbeam of Kenelm Lee Guiness who had won the previous TT before the war in 1914, but in fact he non-started in 1922 because of a last-minute clutch problem. Fitting, then, that the number one car is now a phantom, a copy-car created from historic parts but without a race history.
The weekend late in November that Wheatcroft was having his first drive in number 7 a vintage rally/race in Perth, I was driving number 1 along country roads at the top of Lyttelton Harbour with Gavin Bain providing what I assumed to be expert advice, Euan Sarginson taking photographs and Sunbeam enthusiast John Riley as an energetic tow-truck driver. The car was a bitch to get off the line. There was no flywheel which meant that it had instant throttle response with no mass to spin, but the engine died as quickly between throttle stabs.
The seats for driver and passenger were staggered and Gavin Bain and his wife Jackie were a cosy fit when they arrived at Sarginson’s house. I was an even cosier fit as I squeezed in, felt for the central accelerator (not such a problem for me now, since driving my Stutz and surviving a few panic moments hitting the throttle instead of the brake) and familiarised myself with the gearlever and brake lever outside the cockpit in real vintage racing style.
The foot brake stopped the rear wheels only, and the outdoors ‘handbrake’ operated the front wheels, so it was four-wheel-braking — after a fashion . . .
The big steering wheel was cord-tied and had been faithfully copied from the original, even down to the signature and portrait badge of old racer, René Thomas, who supplied racing wheels in the Twenties as Les Leston would do in the Sixties.
The gearshift pattern was on a plate on the dashboard as a reminder that the ‘H’ was inside out with first on the outside lever away and up, second straight down, third towards you and up and fourth straight down. Not that I ever found fourth on our up-and-back runs. Bain reckoned first on the Sunbeam was nearly as high as third on his 3-litre Bentley!
Being a ‘modem’ sort of chap, I always rate being able to drive a vintage car at all as something of an achievement, and coaxing the Sunbeam off the line called for a careful combination of throttle and clutch to avoid the dreaded stall. It was easier to tow-start than crank, and we did this a number of times. My gearchanging was a noisy progress between cogs, giving full value to the term ‘crash’ gearbox.
There isn’t a lot you can tell from a few trips back and forth along a country road in a 70 year-old car, apart from being able to say you’ve done it, but afterwards I could reminisce at what it must have been like for Chassagne averaging 56 mph for just on five and half hours over most of the course now used for the modern motorcycle TTs on the Isle of Man. Or how the deaf-and-dumb Matthew Wills must have cursed the difficult-to-drive car when it was being beaten by its own Sunbeam ancestor on New Zealand beaches.
Gavin Bain took John Riley for a drive in the old racer and l was rather relieved to see that he stalled as well, while trying to get off the mark. When we were having a deserved dram back at Sarginson’s afterwards, Gavin said: “The great thing about driving old cars is that it’s so wonderful when you stop.” I know what he means. . . E S Y