Array of Sunbeams

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As Nick Pellett has rightly remarked, it is a minor miracle that all three of the 1914 Tourist Trophy Sunbeams have survived to appear together as at last year’s Isle of Man TT Centenary, where his car performed so well, as described last month. Their preservation began after the VSCC accepted Edwardian cars and Kent Karslake, the celebrated contributor of ‘Sideslips’ to Motor Sport, had encouraged the resurrection of by then historic racing cars.

By 1949 Sir Francis Samuelson’s TT Sunbeam was raced against Kenneth Neve’s 1914 TT Humber at Silverstone, and the discovery of the other TT Sunbeams had commenced. (All three of the 1914 TT Humbers also survived but did not come together as the Sunbeams did, although Judy Portway, Neve’s daughter, competes with one today.) Cecil Clutton had found one of the Sunbeams abandoned outside a Maidenhead garage and took it to Bill Short’s London premises, from where Anthony Heal, the acknowledged expert on all Sunbeam racing history, undertook its restoration. The other team cars were similarly found and put into good order, a miraculous survival.

Louis Coatalen designed these TT cars with four-cylinder 3.2-litre twin-cam 16-valve engines, with which Kenelm Lee Guinness was to win that two-day 600-mile race over the punishing Manx mountain course, involving driving for 10hr 37min 49sec. The other cars were driven by Dario Resta and KLG’s brother Sir Algernon Guinness. Resta’s car broke a big-end bolt on the first lap and Algy Guinness’s Sunbeam, after being in a secure second place on day two, retired when a propellor-shaft joint seized. But KLG had vanquished two sleeve-valve Minervas and three other cars, out of 22 starters, to win at 56.44mph. His fastest lap was 59.3mph, an indication of how difficult was the IoM course. (In the 1922 TT over the same course Jean Chassagne in an eight-cylinder Sunbeam averaged 55.78mph in the now one-day race, but in rain.)

A spare car with the same body and bolster fuel tank as the other 1914 cars, as it might have had to be nominated for the race, was taken to the IoM. Two months before, one of the cars was sent to Brooklands for tests, driven by LG Hornsted and CD Day, Sunbeam’s subsequent production manager.

All four Sunbeams were driven from Wolverhampton to the Fort Ann hotel in the IoM. They wore number plates MN 523 to MN 526, these apparently being trade plates, indicating that Coatalen disdained paying tax on cars intended to uphold British prestige.

After the 1918 Armistice there were other racing Sunbeams to occupy Coatalen, and the pre-war TT team was put to rest except for the car with which CV Cozens, Sunbeam’s sales manager, took class and formula wins at the Liverpool speed trials in 1920, and that which Segrave drove at the Holme Moss speed hillclimb in July 1921, with second fastest time. In 1924 CWF Hamilton, after a visit to England, took one back home to New Zealand to win the 1924 Muriwari Beach race and set the NZ five-mile record to 100.2 mph.

Otherwise no more was heard, until late in 1930 Kent Karslake wrote No2 of Motor Sport’s ‘Veteran Types’ feature, a piece headed `Kenelm Lee Guinness’s Tourist Trophy Winner’, with beneath it a picture of KLG in the winning Sunbeam. But Karslake began: “Having firmly inscribed the title of this article I may as well admit at once that I am not quite sure whether the car which I came across recently is actually the Sunbeam with which KLG won the last TT, or whether it was one of the other cars. But it has IoM engraved on the radiator.” It had a fully-equipped touring body, cord-bound steering wheel and a 1914 TT-type engine. It belonged to an acquaintance of Karslake’s (possibly Clutton or Heal), and was awaiting him in Hyde Park. Another picture showed it registered as AJ 2088, a Yorkshire number. By 1940 Anthony Heal had possession of the Sunbeam which in the ‘Veteran Types’ article No21 was described as having a clumsy wood-decked sports body and a welded-up inside exhaust manifold.

Encouraged by the Motor Sport article by Karslake and the VSCC’s introduction of an ‘Edwardian’ category the search for the older racing cars continued, and the Sunbeams did well in this and other Clubs’ events. C R Abbott OBE competed in the Brighton Speed Trials in his, and in 1951 Stanley Sears won the Edwardian class at Prescott. In 1952 he was third in the VSCC Itala Trophy race, beaten only by a GP Bugatti and the 10-1/2-litre Delage, and was second at Prescott to Clutton’s 1908 12-litre Itala. The following year Eric Sears was beaten only by a 1927 Lancia Lambda in the Pomeroy Trophy contest. Jack Sears was fourth at the VSCC Silverstone vintage Seaman race behind a Type 35B Bugatti and two 4-1/2-litre Bentleys. In 1954 Jack Sears won the Pomeroy Trophy, the aged Sunbeam vanquishing cars of all ages, and achieved this astonishing feat again in 1963. Sir Francis Samuelson drove his TT Sunbeam in the veteran drivers’ parades at Silverstone and Goodwood in 1954 and 1961. But even now which car was which in the1914 team puzzles the experts.

All three are still intact, the most recent recommissioning being by Tony Fabian before the Christies auction sale in 2004, where it went for a final bid of well over £480,000. The present owners of the cars are Nick Pellett, Brian Moore and Neil Corner. The TT race numbers had been 4 for KLG, 15 for Resta and 21 for Sir Algernon. This gave rise to the cars being known as IoM 1, 2 and 3. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Sunbeam used this numbering, and although the engine components and the chassis frames were numbered, whether this was in order of manufacture or race entry is not known. Christie’s quoted No1 on the car they sold and suggested that “The Sunbeam was a race winner”.

More very interesting information has now arisen concerning this complicated historic record. Mrs Jennie Greaves informed the STD Register that she had found some forgotten photographs of cars owned by her grandfather, Mr Brodie Dunwell, one of which was the Sunbeam AJ 2088, which he had owned from 1925 until 1949 or a little later. It took her father to his wedding in 1945 in Forest Hill and was repainted a year later.

Mrs Greaves’s photographs show the Sunbeam with a smart touring body and its radiator to have a Sunbeam badge and to be inscribed IoM 1, so that it was accepted as the TT winner. Sunbeam apparently put touring bodies on its pensioned off racing cars — on one of the1916 Indianapolis cars for instance — and we know that AJ 2088 had a TT engine. But its radiator had a protruding top associated with the 1912 Coupe de l’Auto cars and these do not seem to have been badged or numbered. Would a reasonably spacious four-seater body have been put on a TT chassis with a wheelbase of 8ft 10in? More likely that a production 14hp chassis with a wheelbase 1in longer was used. (In which case one of the surviving TT cars must have had its chassis shortened and been given a replica body and bolster tank.)

Indeed, in a piece about the cars which Kent Karslake wrote for the book From Veteran to Vintage (Temple Press, 1956) he remarked that “…two of them survive, or at least their engines do. Neither of them [the Samuelson and Sears cars] can be called complete TT cars because it seems that after the race the engines were installed in more normal frames with longer wheelbases.”

I am therefore not prepared to say which of the survivors is the car which served Lee Guinness so well 82 years ago.

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