Sorting out the Sunbeams

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—A sequel—

LAST MONTH’S attempt to sort out the history of the 1924 Grand Prix Sunbeams resulted in the loan of a very interesting album compiled by J. V. Ridley, grandfather of the VSCC member who kindly brought it to my attention, Mr. Ridley having worked in the Sunbeam Experimental Department in Wolverhampton with Fred Barnes, Bill Timmins, Bill Murrey, Alf Stokes and others, supervised, of course, by Bill Perkins. Not only is this beautifully arranged album of great interest but it throws, perhaps, a little more light on the tangle that surrounds the individual careers of the 1924 team Sunbeams.

From its unique photographs I am reminded that in their early days these GP Sunbeams had a slave splined hub fitted on the n/s, under the straight-through exhaust-pipe guard-tunnel and close to the cockpit, so that a spare wheel, fitting snugly by the n/s rear wheel, could be carried, presumably in case of punctures on the long road journeys to races which these cars frequently made. I learn that after Thomas Barrett had been killed in the 1924 San Sebastian GP his body was brought back to Wolverhampton by road for burial at Holy Trinity Church, Heath Town, where he had been a staunch Churchman. Sir Algernon Lee Guinness represented his brother, too ill to attend, who had been involved in the fatality, at the funeral, and top personnel from Sunbeam’s were also present. I find that Luigi Marocchi was apparently riding-mechanic to Segrave when he won the 1924 Spanish GP, Lee Guinness taking Perkins as his mechanic at Lyon that year.

There is a report on the GP Sunbeam which was being prepared for Kaye Don early in 1928. This is particularly interesting because it confirms that the car was No. 3 but it seems to suggest that during 1927 Don used another Sunbeam, perhaps Segrave’s No. 2 car.

The reasoning behind this is that the 3.75-to-1 axle-ratio is described by Perkins as too low for Brooklands and that the driving position “as at present will not suit Kaye Don”. Perkins thought that the upholstery, seat cushion and steering column would need altering. He based this on the fact that he had found the car “very uncomfortable” and Don was “generally bigger”. Perkins, in fact, said “I feel sure that he would not be able to manage the seat as at present”. Now this suggests that Don himself had not complained, yet in 1927, the previous year, he had lapped Brooklands at over 118 m.p.h. in one of the cars and won Brooklands’ fastest race. He would not have been likely to do this in a car he could not manage. This makes me wonder whether during 1927 Don had been using the ex-Segrave No. 2 car, but surely a seat that suited the slim Segrave would have been equally unsuited to Don? Could he have used the ex-Resta car and found the driving position of this one nothing to complain about? Of course, it could have been that Don did not complain but that Perkins was being efficient about the thing, in view of the forthcoming record attacks, when Don would be in the car for nearly an hour instead of for less than a quarter-of-an-hour as in his Brooklands races. Yet with Perkins just as much in charge in 1927 as in 1928 one would have expected the seat problem to have been noticed earlier, unless the American LSR bid had diverted Perkins’ attention.

If this only complicates matters, there is other evidence which could explain why No. 2 engine was put into Don’s No. 3 Sunbeam. In his report Perkins refers to a noisy axle and to the axle-ratio, which was later changed for 4 low one (here again, why not in 1927, if this was the car Don had used then, unless Perkins was searching for even faster lappery, duly achieved?), and says that various unlocated oil leaks from the engine needed curing, that the water pump leaked (it was duly re-packed) and that the fuel tank would not hold pressure (which was attended to). Now comes the significant part. The blower pressure at 4,000 r.p.m, in top gear was found by the head racing mechanic to be “only 3 hectograms, which is below the pressure required”. I find it interesting that he did this testing on Watling Street, when there was a universal 20 m.p.h. speed-limit—but then, British prestige was at stake! On that road Perkins obtained 4000 r.p,m. in top gear in one direction and returned at 4,800 r.p.m.

Although he admitted that he was using KLG Type 396 plugs which were not satisfactory, no others being available, he finds it fair to conclude that “Considering that the car is fitted with a low gear-ratio this performance is not startling; as 5,000 r.p.m. has been exceeded with a high ratio.” This report is dated 21/2/28. On 6/3/28 Perkins took the car out again and although the blower pressure was the same and again caused him to comment that it was “lower than required”, he was able to go a mean of 4,600 r.p.m., or 115 m.p.h. (on the public road!): The clutch pedal was found to need a little more clearance, the engine still leaked oil, the petrol tap leaked and Perkins wrote that “The driving position is still very uncomfortable, as only the cushion has been lowered”.

The following month Don took British Class-E records at Brooklands, at over 118 m.p.h., in a car which Perkins had not been able to persuade to exceed a genuine 115 m.p.h. and which was hardly in condition for a 100, mile high-speed run. So it seems likely that this was why the engine from Sunbeam No. 2 was installed in Don’s car, although why he did not simply change cars I do not know. No. 3 engine was presumably overhauled and perhaps put into No. 2 car by the time W. B. Scott bought it. I have had a letter from Mr. Scott which confirms that he bought it from Sunbeam’s, and was the first non-works driver to own it. I did Mrs. W. B. sort an injustice by quoting only lap speeds in BARC races, because I am reminded that she obtained her Gold Star for a 120 m.p.h. lap in the Sunbeam. This was at a Club Meeting and it seems that the fastest laps by the three cars were: No. 3, Kaye Don. 126.73 m.p.h.; No. 1, Jack Dunfee, 125.77 m.p.h; No. 2, Mrs. Scott, 120.88 m.p.h. (Could the lower speed of the Scott car be due to it having the rather worn-out engine from Don’s car before it was re-engined and the low axle-ratio, used by Segrave for sprints?)

Incidentally, where I was remarking that it is a mystery why the original GP body was removed from the No. 2 Sunbeam which DSJ now owns and a “boy racer” body substituted, confusion may have arisen because the printers made me say that “one of the cars is known to have been crashed in recent years”, whereas I had written that “None of the cars is known to have been crashed in recent years”, i.e., why, therefore, was the handsome racing body removed and an ugly one substituted (before the war, I think) if the original wasn’t wanted for Hiller of the other two team cars?—W.B.

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