Midlands-based Sunbeam’s entry for the 1923 French Grand Prix looked like being the best of the rest — yet the result was a welcome surprise. On the 80TH anniversary of the first-ever British GP win, Bill Boddy looks back
This year is the 80th anniversary of a British win in that greatest of European races, the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, as if I could ever forget. It was an occasion for rejoicing in British motor racing and among the automobile industry here, and did no harm at all to the Sunbeam Motor Car Company of Wolverhampton, England. It was the work and enthusiasm of that fine driver Henry de Hane Segrave, the Sunbeam Experimental and Racing Department, and of Louis Hervé Coatalen, a lover of motor racing — as you are, or you would not be reading Motor Sport.
Coatalen was born in 1879 at Concarneau in Brittany. He was educated at the Lycée at Brest and then took an engineering course at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers. After which, aware that the motor car was taking hold in France, he served in the drawing offices of leading automobile firms, first Panhard-Levassor, then Clement and De Dion-Bouton. He then sailed for England, to take the position of designer at Crowden’s at Leamington Spa, but was soon skilled enough at 21 to go to Humber’s in Coventry.
Six years later Coatalen was in partnership with William Hillman and designed the Hillman-Coatalen car, enabling him to race in the loM TT’s of 1906, ’07 and ’08. A year later the talented Louis joined Sunbeam, and by January 1912 had a seat on the board. He remained there for 20 years, as chief engineer, which enabled his love of racing to flourish, at some expense to the shareholders.
Coatalen drove at Brooklands in Sunbeam cars of his creation, first in 1910 with the unconventional ‘Nautilus’ with rear-placed radiator and pointed prow, and in 1911 with the much more successful overhead-camshaft ‘Toodles II’. He also broke the world’s 12-hour record in his 25/60hp Sunbeam. In two seasons at the Track, 1910/11, Coatalen had nine wins, one in the Raglan Cup race, six seconds and two third places, and he did well in speed-trials and hill-climbs. Later he devoted his skills to the preparation of the racing Sunbeams. This resulted in a team of side-valve cars for the two-day, 956-mile 1912 Coupe de L’Auto race at Dieppe which was amalgamated with the French Grand Prix, resulting in Victor Rigal’s Sunbeam coming third in the GP itself, as well as winning the 3-litre event, with Dario Resta and Medinger second and third, a fine measure of Sunbeam superiority. It was a great feat against the huge GP cars, but unkind people pointed out that it had been achieved with French drivers, as were Coatalen and Monsieur Claudel who tuned the cars, over roads built with French labour. Coatalen replied that he was a naturalised Englishman and, as a good engineer, used the best equipment available… He increased Sunbeam’s racing for 1913.
From that time on Coatalen enjoyed motor racing participation almost to excess and the 6.1-litre ‘Toodles IV’ won $3500 for Albert Guyot at the Indianapolis 500 in 1913.
Sunbeam cars for the 1913 Coupe de L’Auto race were developments of the all-conquering 1912 cars, but they were no match for the Ernest Henry-designed twin-cam Peugeots, although Resta was third, Chassagne and K Lee Guinness retiring with back-axle failure. For the 1913 French GP Coatalen ran new six-cylinder 4.5-litre cars, but the Henry Peugeots beat them, Sunbeam third.
After the war, during which there were good Sunbeam showings in American races, there was no let-up in Louis’s love of racing. Indeed, he had 13 racing cars built, including the GP ones intended to score for Talbot and Talbot-Darracq as well as for Sunbeam, the team of three invincible 1.5-litre Talbot-Darracqs and the very fast 350hp V12 single-seater. This aroused disquiet among some STD shareholders. When Napier’s use of six-cylinders was being loudly publicised by S F Edge, Coatalen had been instructed to build only four-cylinder Sunbeams. But the directors, inspecting the factory, came upon a car with two extra cylinders and drew Coatalen’s attention to it. “It has six cylinders,” he was told. Looking puzzled, Coatalen simply peered under the bonnet and said, “Why, so ‘e ‘as”.
Before the 1914 French GP he managed to have a 1913 Henry Peugeot brought in secret into the drawing-room of his house in Wolverhampton and dismantled. Trusted draughtsmen copied it, and it was then reassembled and returned! But Peugeot remained supreme that season, until vanquished by a five-car Mercedes team in the 1914 Grand Prix. The Sunbeams based on Peugeot mechanicals gave Resta third place, but the others retired with engine trouble.
One of the 3-litre straight-eight Sunbeams had won the 1922 TT, but for the French GP the following year Henry was persuaded to design for Coatalen new four-cylinder 2-litre cars. To no avail, as they developed broken valve stems after, it was rumoured, Sunbeam had made its own mods.
But to that historic 1923 French GP, once described by Laurence Pomeroy as being a race of more technical interest and diversity than before. For this Coatalen had enlisted the services of Vincent Bertarione to design the Sunbeam entry, knowing that the previous year his Type 404 2-litre Fiat driven by Felice Nazzaro had won the GP. I have never been sure whether the famous Italian engineer was a freelance or had by then left Fiat’s employ, but he must have been aware that the new Type 805 supercharged Fiats could beat his non-s/c six-cylinder 1922 cars as revised for Sunbeam.
So how must Coatalen have viewed the opposition? Those new Fiats threatened. They had arrived late with a spare car at the Tours circuit, Rossi in charge, and they surpassed the Sunbeams as favourites. The Delage, entrusted to Réné Thomas, with revolutionary V12 engine, not yet supercharged, might seem too new and untried, and maybe Coatalen disregarded the Type 32 eight-cylinder Bugattis and the sleeve-valve Voisins, both with odd-looking, wind-defeating bodies of different forms. But the Rolland-Pilains for Victor Hémery and Albert Guyot were known to be fast.
However, Coatalen had complete faith in his drivers: Segrave, after a learning period with a 1914 GP Opel and a post-war Type 13 Bugatti, had won important races for the STD organisation; K Lee Guinness was an old campaigner who had tamed the biggest of the racing Sunbeams, winning races in it and taking the LSR to 133.75mph at Brooklands in 1922; Albert Divo was extremely reliable. The Fiats, driven over the Alps from Turin, were the last to appear for practice, but were notably quick. An open contest seemed likely.
First to appear had been the Sunbeams, also driven to Tours and housed in the Hotel de Boeuf Couronné at Neuvy-le-Roi, where the racing cars were worked on in the dance hall, guarded at night by reliable locals. The Fiat team was housed in the magnificent estate of the Chateau du Pouille.
At 8am on July 2, the 2-litre grand prix started. It was a race of 35 laps (496.5 miles) over a circuit of closed public roads (three pedestrian bridges had been built over it) with three long, rather cambered straights joined by the 30mph La Membrolle hairpin and two faster corners. The surface was reasonably good except for stones from an earlier event. A rolling start was used, set in motion when ‘Le Chevalier’ Réné de Knyff dropped a yellow flag.
Thomas’s Delage led the pack from the front row, but was quickly overtaken by Pietro Bordino’s Fiat, which had got past Guinness’s Sunbeam. It was a hot day, making for dusty roads. Already, on this very first lap, the unfortunate de Vizcaya had gone off at the hairpin, his Bugatti ‘tank’ hitting a tree. The Fiat was well ahead after only one lap, Guinness being some 41sec in arrears. Thomas’s Delage was already beginning to overheat so, from being the best of the rest, he fell back.
The Sunbeams’ clutches had been relined on the day before the race and a plate restricted pedal movement. This now caused the unit on Segrave’s car to slip so badly that he thought of retiring. But after discussion with his riding mechanic Paul Dutoit, they kept going, and much later the stop broke and the clutch became normal. Divo was doing well in what rude people called the ‘green Fiat’, and Guyot’s Rolland-Pilain was sixth, ahead of Segrave’s ailing Sunbeam. But there was a very long way to go.
Bordino did not complete the eighth lap; the new Fiat had made fastest lap at 88mph, but grit sucked in had destroyed the supercharger which forced air into the engine. So Lee Guinness now led — a British driver in a British car, a foretaste of the race result. He was ahead of the remaining two Fiats until his pitstop of 119sec, just quick enough to keep ahead of Giaccone’s Fiat which, however, soon went past the Sunbeam, the clutch of which, like Segrave’s, was slipping.
In motor racing anything can happen — and it did! The Fiat came in for fuel, water, oil and a change of plugs, which occupied 292sec. It restarted badly, did another lap, then retired with the same trouble that had put Bordino out, grit in blower and engine.
Segrave was now able to use all the Sunbeam’s power but Guinness had clutch slip on his car. His mechanic Perkins tied a rope to the pedal and pulled on it until he was so exhausted that a stop was made to replace him with Smith, another brave riding mechanic.
Half-distance, and the race order was Carlo Salamano’s Fiat leading the Sunbeams of Divo and Segrave, with the quicker Rolland-Pilain next, ahead of KLG, the remaining Fiat, the surviving Bugatti and the Voisins last. But in the second half, as Divo and Salamano fought it out, this now historic race produced a most dramatic ending.
It seemed certain to Sunbeam supporters that they would see a 2-3-4 finish by the cars from Wolverhampton, with the victor the supercharged Fiat of Salamano. But with two laps to go the Italian car stopped and refused to restart, the rather experimental blower system having wrecked. Divo, too, had seemingly ruined his chance of second place when, in his excitement, he jammed the fuel-filler cap of the Sunbeam. Nothing would budge it so he had to refuel the reserve tank every lap, after losing 18 minutes trying to free the main filler cap. So Segrave took the lead. It had taken a skilful drive lasting 6hr 35min 19.6sec for him to become the first British driver in a British car to win this most prestigious of races.
In spite of his ill-luck Divo was second, after 6hr 54min 25.8sec. It could have been a 1-2-3 finish for Sunbeam had Guinness not made a mistake at Membrolle hairpin and his engine then been reluctant to restart, which allowed Friedrich’s Bugatti to fill third. Next in was Guinness, followed by André Lefébvre’s Voisin.
The victorious driver was presented to France’s War Minister, M Maginot, and back in London the RAC organised a celebration dinner, at which Sir Arthur Stanley presented the three Sunbeam drivers with special gold medals and their mechanics with silver medals. The STD Directors said car sales should be enhanced by this magnificent racing performance.
Segrave drove the winning Sunbeam back to England and it was displayed in the company’s showrooms in Hanover Square. It was not until Jim Clark won in a Lotus at Reims in 1963 that a British driver again won the French Grand Prix.
A plaque on the wall of the Mairie at Semblançay commemorates this British success. The STD Register joined a rally to Tours in 1993 and will do so again for the retrospective event on June 22/25 this year, when no doubt many appropriate cars will parade again on the temporarily closed roads of the 1923 circuit.