Veteran - Edwardian - Vintage, May 1986

The 4.9-Litre Sunbeams

Success after Success far the Indianapolis-engined Cars.

Louis Coatalen, Chief Engineer and Director of the Sunbeam Motor Car Co. of Wolverhampton, was a great motor-racing enthusiast, who had sagely copied, literally, the design of a 1913 Ernest Henry twin-cam sixteen-valve Peugeot when planning his team of cars for the 1914 French GP and loM TT. This piratical move ensured a fifth place in the Grand Prix, behind the victorious Mercedes team and the best placed of the Peugeots, and victory in the TT. The TT had been run over two days in June, the GP in July, and although the war clouds had gathered. Coatelen was tempted by the prospect of Sunbeams competing in the great American Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. He was well acquainted with track racing, at Brooklands, and Sunbeams had already done quite well at Indy, the ex-Brooklands “Toodles IV” finishing 4th in 1913, and one of two side-valve 1913 GP Sunbeams managing 7th place in 1914, after Chassagne’s had burst a tyre and crashed. In the 1915 “500” a 1914 GP Sunbeam had come home 10th, so Coatalen may well have had hopes of winning outright in 1916 a politic move at a time when racing had ended in Europe.

Although engaged in aero-engine production, the redoubtable Louis contrived to build larger engines, for the 1916 Indy contest. These were of the same general design as the 1914 GP engines but with six cylinders, of 81.5 x 157 mm (4,914 cc) in two sets, with four-valves-per-cylinder operated by twin oh-camshafts, four ball main-bearings, plain big-ends, and aluminium pistons for the first time on a Sunbeam racing engine, giving the then quite high c.r of 5.8 to 1. Two Claudel Hobson CZS carburetters fed the engine, ignition was by Bosch magneto, and there was dry-sump lubrication. The power output was 156 bhp at 3,200 rpm and these engines were put into two 1914 GP-type, 9 ft 2 in wheelbase chassis and shipped to America. It is indicative of Coatalen’s concern for motor racing that, with the war just hotting up, he released Josef Chrishaens, the Belgian pilot who had escaped from Germany and had been flying experimental aeroplanes for Sunbeam, to drive one of the Indy cars, the well-known Sunbeam driver Dario Resta taking the other. The former driver was 2nd at Sheepshead Bay Speedway behind a Peugeot in a 20-mile race came 4th at Indianapolis (reduced to 300 miles), and stayed on, to finish 3rd in a 300-mile race at Chicago, with Galvin coming in 5th with the other 4.9 litre Sunbeam. Galvin then took another 3rd at Cincinatti Speedway, and Louis Chevrolet two more, at short Indy races late that year. TASO Matheson tells of another third at the Fort Snelling banked concrete track, unlike the others which were board tracks — and what can anyone tell me about that?

Indianapolis then closed down “for the duration” but opened again in 1919. Coatalen was encouraged, no doubt by the 1916 results, to have another go. He either revamped the two existing 4.9s or built two new ones. Probably the latter, because it seems likely that one of the earlier Indy Sunbeams remained in the USA, although we know that the other returned to England, was given a four-seater body, making a most exciting touring car, was bought by Phil Paddon in 1920, and sold to Gerald Herbert. I would say here that I am depressed that I am unable to give categorical evidence of the individual identities of these cars, my conscience is somewhat appeased by finding that even The Autocar, at a time far closer to the action, remarked when writing of one of them: “Although always interesting, the careers of famous racing cars are not always easy to follow, as these machines often undergo important modifications and change hands so frequently that even their owners are not always able to trace their complete history from the time they first try their fortune in speed essays on road or track.”

Anyway, two 4.9 Sunbeams were prepared for the 1919 Indy race apparently with 8 ft 7 in wheelbase chassis. They did not start therein, some reports say, because their engines were found to be outside the 300 Cu in, limit, others that a serious engine-vibration period was discovered in practice. In trying out one of these cars in March 1919 (the race was in May) Christiaens was killed in an accident while turning too fast into the factory from Villiers Street, and it would be logical to think that perhaps the cars never did go to America, where Resta and Chassagne should have driven them, for it seems odd that an engine-size anomaly would have been discovered before the race, or that Coatalen would have not found the alleged malady after these engines had done at least 1,470 racing miles, three years previously. Be that as it may, there would have been plenty of time for them to have returned before Brooklands reopened in March 1920.

The Brooklands revival was at first affected by rain, but at the 1920 Whitsun Meeting a 4.9-litre Sunbeam with a single-seater body and each front dumbiron separately faired-in, was driven by Harry Hawker, the celebrated pilot who had flown with Sunbeam aero-engines and been rescued in dramatic circumstances from his unsuccessful cross-Atlantic flight. He won the Lightning Short and Long Handicaps, both from scratch, respectively at 98 1/2 and 101 1/4 mph, after skilfully overtaking below a Vauxhall. For the Summer Meeting Hawker was occupied with taming the new 350 hp V12 Sunbeam, which took him through the Railway-straight fence in practice, after a tyre burst, so the Indy car was entrusted to Capt G. L. Geach. After winning very easily, at 99.46 mph, a Match Race against a 4 1/2-litre Vauxhall driven by E. H. Lees, which had started 18s before the Sunbeam. Geach came out for the 100 mph Long Handicap. Going very fast he emerged from behind the Members Hill, and was seen to swerve, but he recovered, only to swerve again at the end of the Railway-straight. The Sunbeam missed a telegraph pole and a telephone box by a narrow margin, to roll over three times, ending on its wheels in a turnip field. Geach was flung out just in time and, like Hawker, escaped serious injury. Maybe the engine had seized, locking the back wheels…

Whether this was why a two-seater body was used by A.C. Bird (of Bird’s custard, who lived at that time, I believe, near the foot of the famous hill) for Shelsley Walsh a fortnight later, or whether this was another Indy Sunbeam, I do not know, but with it Bird made ftd, with an ascent in 58.5 sec (34.9 mph). Using the same car, still in two-seater form, Geach then won his class and made ftd at the Westcliffe speed-trials, clocking 30.4 sec (73.58 mph), over the kilometre, in a dead-heat with Harveyson’s 7 hp Indian motorcycle. Before that Geach had made best time in his class (61.12 mph), beating the aged Austro-Daimler and Fiat of Foresti and Duff. The Indy Sunbeam was serving Coatalen well and it was out again at the 1921 Brooklands Easter Meeting, in the hands of Andre Boillot, brother of the immortal Georges, who had been shot down fatally during the war in aerial combat. In the 100 mph Short Handicap Chitty-Bang-Bang was too quick for the Sunbeam, which had given it four seconds start, and it was second. but in the “100 Long” Boillet, again from scratch, was the winner, at 104.76 mph, lapping at 111.17 mph.

For Shelsley Walsh in 1921 Bird had a 4.9 Sunbeam with a single-seater body, no doubt the car he had used in 1920 with this lighter body. It paid off, as he broke the course-record, in 52.2s, wresting this from the 30/98. At Whitsun 1921 Segrave drove the grey two-seater 4.9 Sunbeam, grappling with his handicap, a lap at 114.49 mph worth only third place in the “100 Long”. For the Kop hill-climb early in 1922 C.A. Vandervell got hold of the Sunbeam and a stirring battle took place between him and Count Zborowski on his 4.9 litre Ballot, the Wolverhampton car failing by a second to beat the Count’s time. Coatalen again entered Segrave for the Easter Brooklands races, and he went home with a second and a third place, his car proving more accelerative than the Ballot had been in winning another race, and equalling its former fastest lap. A 1921 type low GP chassis was used a hint of later developments. This heavily handicapped entry had better luck at the May Meeting. Segrave winning the “1OO Short” from the giant Wolseley-Viper and coming in third in the “100 Long” in spite of a very heavy penalty. He won the first of these races by a few lengths, up the finishing-straight, as the Viper had been too high to pass on the Byfleet banking.

As an indication of how fast the old Indy Sunbeams were. Segrave took Class-F records of up to ten miles in 1922, the two.way mile at 115.27 mph. Then, at the Royal Brooklands Meeting, he was second in the Duke of York’s Handicap behind Ivy Cummings’ Coupe de I Auto Sunbeam, second in the short handicap, and won the Athlone Lightning Long H’cap at 109.82 mph. L.V. Cozens then took the Segrave car up to Saltburn and won the 5-litre class in the speed-trials on the sand, doing the fs kilo in 22.8s. This irrepressible car continued to do well, Capt (later Sir) Malcolm Campbell setting a new course, record for Spread Eagle hill with it and doing the same at the Holme Moss hillclimb, where he broke the record by ten seconds. Still in the summer of 1922 Bird made his expected run at Shelsley Walsh, being beaten only by a TT Vauxhall, his time of 54s being only 0,14s slower, and when the Speed Championships were decided at Brooklands in the autumn. Segrave won a very close race with Zborowski’s Ballot, at 105.58 mph, with a hybrid 4.9 3-litre.

By now the design was pretty long in the tooth. the engine layout dating back to 1915 or even earlier, but Coatalen had had the good idea of putting two of these 4.9-litre engines into the chassis of the 3-litre straight-eight cars he had evolved for the 1921 GP (Segrave having driven such a hybrid at Brooklands at Easter but sans fwb) retaining the bolster fuel tanks, for the forthcoming Targa Florio. A lower chassis would clearly be an advantage, as would four-wheel-brakes, for this tough road race. After an unpleasant voyage out, in Lee Guinness’ yacht, Segrave and Chassagne drove the two cars so converted in this 268 1/2, mile race. Segrave being second to Boillot’s Peugeot, after a drive lasting over 8 1/4 hours, and Chassagne fourth, after using olive oil in the engine on the last of the four laps, a broken oil-pipe having drained the proper lubricant. I think Chassagne’s Sunbeam then probably returned to Suresnes and was bought by the Argentinian enthusiast, Martin de Alzaga, who was based in Paris, New York and Buenos Aires. He used it to win the 100-mile race at the opening of the new Miramas track in France, at 92 mph, early in 1924. It was considerably modified by 1927, with a T-D radiator and a new body, and was successful in several Argentinian races, after its engine had spent 18 months in the owner’s racing motor-boat. being second in the King of Spain’s Cup at San Sebastian in that role. The car was raced until 1936.

Coatalen would have had plenty of material for the aforesaid permutations, because five straight-eight 3-litres were built for the 1921 GP and four more, it seems, for the TT, and there must have been at least three 4.9 engines in the Experimental Department at this time, and no doubt drawings and patterns for making more. Another permutation, late in 1922, was putting a 4.9 power-unit into one of the road-racing chassis but giving it a streamlined single-sealer body and a curiously-cowled radiator with the intention of trying to do 100 mph tor 24 hours, which was not, however, pursued.

Malcolm Campbell bought the ex-Chassagne Targa Florio Sunbeam in 1923, repainting it “Blue Bird” blue (Reg No XO 3716) Leo Villa worked on it at Campbell’s house at Povey Cross, Horley, and at a lock-up at Rodmartin Mews off Baker Street — in those days even London’s traffic was sometimes enlivened by the passage of a racing car! At Porthcawl Campbell did ftd over the one-mile course on the sands, in 47.4s, crossing the line at 110 mph, the next day at the Caerphilly hill-climb, it misfired and spun on one run. Only a week before the car had done a two-way kilo at 100 mph on the Faneo Island beach in Denmark, II then went to the factory for some alterations and Perkins drove it to Shelsley Walsh, where Campbell won his class in 54.855s and unofficially beat the record, with a time on his second run of 51.9s.

In 1924 Resta, with the aforesaid low-chassis single-sealer 4.9-litre Sunbeam, was second-fastest at kop hill-climb, to Cook’s TT Vauxhall, and at the Easter Brooklands races Campbell won the Lightning Long H’caps from the Viper, at 100,5 mph, lapping at 111.67 mph and at the August races he cleaned-up the Lightning Short and Long H’caps, the Sunbeam’s bolster tank now covered with a streamlined tail and the lap speed up to 112.93 mph, Campbell also made second-fastest time at the Spread Eagle hill-climb, in 39.8s. He then offered the car for sale and the Dunlop Company acquired it named it “firefly I” and used it for tyre testing, its companion being one of the 1924 200 Mile Race Alvises.

It was presumably this Sunbeam that Capt (later Sir) A G Miller took on in 1926, having paid £355 for it. In March he drove up to Southport in a Voisin, as he was negotiating with Lord Tollemache for an agency for these cars, his mechanics going by train. In fearful weather he won two 20-mile races. Miller drove back to London on the Sunday in a Wolseley coupe his friends in the Voisin Painted bright red with black wheels, the old Sunbeam, to which shock-absorbers had been fitted, was run at the Brooklands Easter Meeting without success, Miller afterwards motoring back to London to dine at the Batchelors Club. At a Surbiton MC Meeting Miller was second in the Senior Short H’cap, after muffing his start — perhaps he was tired, as he had got up early to go to his office, to let Lord Tollemache try a Voisin chassis, before going down to Brooklands. Kaye Don drove in another race but found the car difficult. Miller, by the way. had driven it down to the Track.

At Whitsun he won the Gold Vase race at 100.7 mph, by half -a-length from Kaye Don in the Viper, lapping at 112.42 mph, and four days later Miller tried for records, doing the ss mile at 78.19 mph, but they were never confirmed. At an Essex MC Meeting the Sunbeam took a second and a third place, Miller being commended for his skilful handling of the old car as he brought it off the Byfleet banking to a close finish, skidding slightly in a cloud at dust. Then at the Summer Brooklands’ Meeting he had an easy win at over 112 mph in the Lightning Short H’cap, returning to London afterwards, going to a show, and then on to a yacht moored at Southampton, in a Voisin.

Kaye Don then took over as the Sunbeam’s driver and at the BARC August races he won the “lightning Short”, lapping at 114.23 mph, and look a second and a third in other races, repeating this at an Essex MC Meeting, and closing the 1926 season with a second place at the Autumn Brooklands Meeting. In 1927 H. Wright entered the Sunbeam for Don, whose successes with it are too numerous to detail. Suffice it to say that he was very prominent in the aged Sunbeam in spite of having the 2-litre GP Sunbeam “The Club” to race as well, and with the older car won the Founder’s Gold Vase. That year another 4.9 Sunbeam made desultory appearances at Brooklands, driven by S. A Payn. Junr. who should perhaps have spent more time tuning it than repainting it in different colours! Its best lap was at 98.04 mph. It was presumably that 1916 Indy car which went back to Phil Paddon when Gerald Herbert exchanged it for a 4 1/2 Bentley, and which was sold to Payn’s friend W. B Scott, later being used in speed-trials by Bunty Scott-Moncrieff, Oliver Bertram, and the Duke of Grafton. It was found in an Aylestone scrapyard in the 1930s and is now being painstakingly rebuilt by Pat Stephenson.

By 1928 Kaye Don had not only “The Cub” but the 4-litre V12 Sunbeams to cope with, so he sold the 4.9-litre to E.L. Bouts, who used to drive to Brooklands in elegant Delage and Ballot cars, and who had decided to take up motor racing. He paid £240 for it, had it overhauled at T&Ts, and maintained it himself. He shared it at first with Don, and with Jack Dunfee who lapped faster than anyone else in it at 117.46 mph (Don had done 116.65 mph and the new owner’s best lap was to be at 113.71 mph). I remember how this venerable red Sunbeam seemed so very much part of the Bank Holiday and Club Brooklands days. It was an exciting car, which liked to run high on the bankings, was tricky to handle, very fast, its top pace being in the region of 130 mph, and it had a sort of “Edwardian” atmosphere about it. It was the first racing car I photographed with my Box Brownie as a boy, when I had gone down to the Track with my mother in a hired 14 hp Armstrong Siddeley landaulette on a practice day and, such was the freedom of those times, we were allowed to go out and mingle with the racing cars — the enlargement has, alas, long since been lost.

Bouts did extremely well in the old warrior, although the 2-litre GP Sunbeam he acquired later was faster — in this he lapped at 117.46 mph. He was sometimes in trouble for alleged baulking and towards the end the 4.9 was less reliable. Over the years, however, what a very fine record it achieved, especially taking into account now hard the handicappers were at Brooklands — from April 1926, when Miller revived it, until the spring of 1931. I make its score 12 first places plus a dead-heat, 15 seconds, and nine thirds. That must be about the best run of successes by any Brooklands’ car over such a period, although Parry Thomas may have had a higher score between 1922 and 1926; but I haven’t counted. . . .

Following difficulties with its complicated ball-bearing crankshaft Bouts dismantled his car and, after T&Ts had advertised it for £180 at the end of 1930, it eventually went for scrap, at a time when the Track Scrutineers were beginning to frown on the older cars, anyway. So, of these very effective Indianapolis Sunbeams, only one appears to have survived. — W.B.