Sweet Sunbeam Sixteen

Went from Wales to Devon recently in my 1990 Ford Sierra, still going at 104,000 miles, to help a new owner collect a vintage car. Nothing exotic — a 1929 Sunbeam 16 two-seater, in fact.

Cecil Clutton and John Stanford, in The Vintage Motor Car (Batsford, 1954), the first book on such cars, said, after criticism of its too-modest power output, that the 16.9hp Sunbeam “did certainly achieve a standard of flexibility, refinement and durability which, until rediscovered by modem techniques, had become a lost art”. Generous praise from authors used to 30/98s and the 1908 Grand Prix Itala!

Designer Louis Coatalen presumably used a 57.5mm-bore engine for low tax and fuel thirst, but was careful to have six cylinders and a 5.5:1 axle ratio to couple these merits with modest performance.

I had already had experience of Sunbeam 16s with my wife’s 1927 tourer and the 1930 estate-bodied one I shared with Jenks, who used it to transport his racing motorcycles.

The example being collected was of interest on account of the exceptional care given to it by its previous owner. The car, chassis no. 5046K, engine no. 5017K (block cast June 1928), left the Wolverhampton factory and was registered UL 7905 on March 13, 1929. A twoseater, it has artillery wheels, whereas other 16s had wire wheels — the former were possibly left-overs, used for the model which sold in smaller numbers than the others: Coatalen never liked waste! The colour was then white-and-black but is now blue-and-black.

No record of the car exists until 1950, when it was owned by a Mr L T Wheeler of London, who joined the just-formed Sunbeam Register. His son seems to have become the owner by May 1956. It went then to J Lester Logue in Saffron Walden, who was restoring this and other Sunbeams.

Kenneth Dodd of Newmarket bought it in November 1982 before the restoration was fully completed.

In April 1986, it moved on to HR Mothersole in Earls Colne, and when he decided to buy a yacht, to Mr Alan Pryor of Reigate on September 11, 1987. It was Mr Pryor who, until he died in 1999, took such great care of the old Sunbeam, with sound advice from that modest but 100 per cent Sunbeam man, Roger Carter, whose knowledge of all models must be as great, or greater, than anyone’s.

Mr Pryor had kept records of every conceivable item concerning these Sunbeams, such as the 5/(25p) Maker’s Instruction Manual, a roadtest report by The Autocar, a 1929 spares list, Dunlop, Claudel-Hobson and Autovac booklets, the 1990 equivalent of a VSCC ‘Blue Form’, and even a colour chart for Shell/BP petrol tins, the one on the running board in what is hopefully a thief-proof clamp.

All of the MoT certificates and licences from 1988, including the original 1929 disc, were there (in contrast to the replica tax discs which are available today, although the firm which supplies them does say they must be displayed only along with a genuine licence!).

There is a complete record of all his many runs, to Club events almost every weekend, including a trip to the Black Forest which took in the Mercedes-Benz Museum at Stuttgart, and the STD French and Jura Rallies. The article on “Sunbeams Between The Wars” by John Coombes and John Wyer, from Motor Sport, which induced me to persuade my wife to form the Sunbeam Register (which all the owners of UL 7905 joined), is neatly bound.

A professional overhaul of UL 7905 costing 1,8800 was undertaken while Mr Pryor was overseas on business in 1995, but thereafter he undertook the most thorough maintenance on his own, with advice from Carter and others. This was the subject of drawings and data in notes and 47 A4-size sheets; he must have known more about the intimacies of the car than the original engineers and draughtsmen, and perhaps of Coatalen himself!

The engine had been rebored at the factory and the pistons still showed only 0.017in wear. Every worn part was replaced. Jobs ranged from extending the petrol-gauge pipe for a correct reading, to providing a revised lamps-dipping facility and turn indicators, and an electric fan to cope with modern traffic.

When a gear pinion had a chipped tooth it was TIG welded, and when another suffered a fatigue failure, a new gear was made by Bill Barrott.

‘Peter the Pipe’ produced a 16-gauge exhaust system, and to stop the suction wipers drying up, a Ford tank as a reservoir was hidden under the floor.

The overall mileage is unknown, but Mr Pryor added some 16,200 miles. The total could be over ten times greater.

He was sceptical of the manufacturer’s bhp figure, 44 at 4000rpm, and calculated it to be nearer 50bhp. The old Dunlop, Goodrich, Firestone, Insa and Lester tyres were carefully measured to see which ones conformed to the dimensions of the original 21×4.75 Dunlops.

All rather commendable, don’t you think, for a vintage car used by a keen owner?