A remarkable Sunbeam revelation

How Louis Coatalen copied a 1913 Coupe de L'Auto Peugeot for his 1914 TT cars

It is accepted that the Sunbeam that won the 1914 TT, driven by Kenelm Lee Guinness, was a direct crib of the famous and successful 1913 Coupe de L'Auto Peugeot. Louis Coatalen, who had come to the Sunbeam Motor Company in Wolverhampton from Hillman in 1909, had shown himself to be extremely keen on motor racing. He had scored a notable success with his 3-litre side-valve Sunbeams in the 1912 Coupe de L'Auto race but realised after 1913 that such engines had no chance against the new concept of twin-overhead-camshaft four-valves-per-cylinder power units which Ernest Henry had pioneered for Peugeot in 1912, enabling thorn to win the French Grand Prix with 7.6-litre engines against the monster 14-litre Fiats.

Coatalen was a man of action and was determined to have as good a racing car as these revolutionary Henry Peugeots. Many authorities say that he arranged to buy a 1913 3-litre Coupe de L'Auto Peugeot and have it copied in England, down to the last detail. There is also the more dramatic story that he "borrowed" one of these Peugeots for his purpose, unknown to Henry and the Peugeot factory. At this year's STD Register Wolverhampton Re-Union some very interesting details of this transaction were provided by 96-year-old Mr. A. P. Mitchell, CEng., AMIMechE. Through the kindness of Ken Fidgen and other members of the Register I was able to visit Mr. Mitchell and hear his fascinating ,account, made, as he says, "without prejudice".

I thought it would be is good idea to invite Anthony Heal to accompany us, as the onetime owner a a 1914 TT Sunbeam and the outstanding authority on Sunbeam racing history. He was on holiday in North Wales, so drove in his new Rover 3500 to Mid-Wales, where we transferred to the Editorial Rover 3500. Meeting Fidgen, who had driven up from Surrey in his 1960 MG saloon, we lunched in Bridgnorth before proceeding to the rendezvous at Tettenhall Wood.

How was it that Mr. Mitchell was "in" on this piece of somewhat clandestine Coatalen activity? This is easily explained. He had served his Indentures with thy GWR at Swindon and the AEU Secretary, Billy Oates, told him of a job going at "The Sunbeam". Mr. Mitchell was there by 9 o'clock the next morning, to see Bill Jones, the Sunbeam foreman. He was given a job, making a simple machining operation to stacks of pistons."There must have been a gross of them", he recalls, "but I got through them in a couple of days". This meant that other work had to be found for him, and he was moved into the machine-shop, from which the toolroom seas annexed, and there started to work, with the other skilled fitters, at first on gear-driven oil-pumps. Incidentally, each man had to draw the tools required for his particular task against his numbered docket, so that a check could be kept on the tools and their whereabouts. That was in the days when Sunbeam were toying with the odd little Maberly and more seriously with their fine four-cylinder 12/16 and six-cylinder 25/30 chain-drive cars. One improvement Mitchell suggested for these cars was using an oil-jet into the timing-case, to quieten the camshaft-drive gears. Mr. Mitchell remembers that around 1910 the gas main was brought across the fields to the back of the factory, and was used to supply two big gas-engines, which drove tho machine-tools from overhead shafting. He soon found himself in the Experimental Department with five other mechanics, engaged on experimental and racing-car machinery. This took him to the Continent with the Sunbeam racing team, and when Bernard Bates became alarmed, when going as mechanic, at the way Chassagne drove on test along the roads and lanes near Amiens before the 1913 French Grand Prix, Mitchell was given his place. From that time onwards he was Chassagne's regular riding mechanic. He used to study a French dictionary while eating his frugal lunch at the factory, in order to better converse with his driver...

Naturally, from this position in the racing-shop, Mr. Mitchell knew about how the 1913 Peugeot was copied. The story is that Dario Resta had been provided by Peugeot's with the car with which Georges Boillot hut won the 1913 Coupe de L'Auto race, his instructions being to take it round to all the French car agents, as a publicity exercise. Resta drove racing cars for Coatalen and he was able to arrange for Chassagne, another Sunbeam racing-driver, to collect this Peugeot and drive it to Wolverhampton. There it was driven to the drawing-room of Coatalen's then-residence, Waverley House on Goldthorn Hill, stripped right down, and the pieces laid out on the floor. Two draughtsmen, Hugh Rose and Ted Hatlands, then set about making detailed engineering drawing, of the entire car. Mr. Mitchell made his own drawings, which we were privileged to see.

It seems that the house used for this secret work was then unoccupied by the Coatalens, although Mrs. Olive Coatalen was present some of the time—"A striking woman," Mr. Mitchell recalls.

After the drawings were completed the car was carefully re-assembled and then driven to the Sunbeam works, where the engine was bench-tested. I asked whether the rebuild had occasioned any difficulty—re-timing it, and so forth. "No", was the reply, "it was a wonderful engine; you couldn't go wrong". What a remarkable story . . .!

Whether all this was done without anyone at Peugeot's knowing isn't certain. Coatalen may have paid for the car. Even if he had, he would not wish anyone outside his own racing-shop to know what he had done. This is borne out by the letters he was soon writing to the motor papers, saying why he had decided to use ball main-bearings and four-valves-per-cylinder for his latest racing engine, etc! Never a mention of Peugeot. Obviously, Coatalen was determined to convince people that the 1914 TT Sunbeam, was designed in his own drawing office, so it was essential to examine the 1913 Peugeot, in secret. Knowing something of Louis Coatalen's career, I can easily believe that, indeed, the entire operation was clandestine.

Naturally, we asked Mr. Mitchell how long the copying operation took. He wasn't able to give a direct answer, because at the time when the Peugeot was at Wolverhampton he was sent out to the Seine to work on some V8 Sunbeam-engined boats with Brooks hulls, made for the Smiths Financial Group, and from there he was instructed to proceed, via Cherbourg, to Indianapolis, for the 1914 500-Mile Race in which Chassagne was driving for Sunbeam. So he wasn't home in time for the loM TT in June, although his wife went over, with a party of Sunbeam mechanics, to see Guinness win this two-day 600-mile race at 56.44 m.p.h. Having dominated the French Grand Prix of 1913 with 5.6-litre versions of their new design, Peugeot built 3-litre cars for the Coupe de L'Auto race, which Boillot impressively won, on September 21st, 1913. Between then and June 1914, when Mitchell returned from America and found that an impressive number of identical engines nine to a dozen he thinks, had been built by Sunbeam's, Coatalen must, have conceived and hatched his copying and found scheme. The TT Sunbeam engine was enlarged from Peugeot's 78 x 156 mm. to 81.5 x 160 mm., and gave just under 100 b.h.p.

Some of these Henry-type Sunbeam engines four, their way into racing-boats and when, at Monaco, thy engine covers of one boat were left open, Resta peered in and retorted "That's my engine". Incidentally, Mr. Mitchell returned from Indianapolis on the Aquatania, strapped-up as a result of Chassagne's Indianapolis accident. The TT Sunbeam engine had a few improvements on the Peugeot, such as struts between the steel piston-crowns and gudgeon-pins. Coatalen made very good use of his cribbed design, the 4 1/2-litre GP Sunbeam engines being similar, as were the war-time Sunbeam V8 aeroengines, although the complex Peugeot cam-follower was later changed for a finger between cam and valve. Incidentally, strength is lent to the story that Peugeot had no knowledge of what Coatalen was up to, if you believe the story that when Coatalen wanted Henry to design the 1922 GP Sunbeam engines he refused, because of the way his design of 1913 had been stolen, or was only persuaded by Chassagne to provide drawings. (It might have been thought that by then the Sunbeam DO would have been sufficiently well versed in 16-valve engines to do its own drawings!)

Mr. Heal asked Mr. Mitchell how it was that Burgess had used an identical design Its the 1914 TT Humber, except for a "handed" cylinder block (to avoid copyright claims?). Mr. Mitchell would not be drawn, apart from saying that Mr. Howard, the Sunbeam Works Manager, knew Mr. Burgess... Mitchell was in charge of the cars at Indianapolis, at the time when Tom Harrison was in charge of the Experimental Department at Villiers Street. He was also at Brooklands in 1913 for the successful Sunbeam long-distance record attempt, when a 4 1/2-litre single-seater Sunbeam driven by Chassagne, Resta, and Guinness covered more than 1,000 miles in 12 hours. Interesting asides were the quantity of tools, spares and portable work-benches, etc. shipped out to Indianapolis by Sunbeam's, the very simple and effective reverse-gear found on the Peugeot they stripped down in that Wolverhampton drawing-room (which was apparently the winning Coupe de L'Auto car) and that when they were plagued with plug trouble at Amiens in 1913, thick-electrode Ohos effected a conwlete cure, and gave K. Lee Guinness the idea for his KLG plugs.

When the war came, Mr. Mitchell joined the Air Ministry in Lincoln's Inn, Fields, on aero-engine investigation looking at 54 makes in all. He remembers the chronic vibration troubles that afflicted the Sunbeam Arab V8 aero-engines, so bad that the magneto on a platform on the crankcase ceased to function, when he was over Brooklands with Alcock in a Maurice Farman, and the shafts of the double-reduction gearboxes sometimes new off the crankshafts of these engines, causing an urgent order for a large quantity of them to be held up...

After the war Mitchell joined the Guy Motor Company, where they were assembling their first three lorry chassis in a small factory formerly occupied by the Gibson Window-frame people. A Coventry-Climax engine was converted from thermo-syphon to pump cooling and put into is Rubery Owen chassis frame. Guy's were making heavy gearboxes for Maudslay and they also Worked on the JB4 engine for AEC's. These engines ran all right on the rest-bench, when fed with mains water, but they overheated when used with the lorry radiator. The cure was to improve the flow of water through the head gasket. Guy's then decided to make their own engines: using an ingenious inclined-side-valve head that gave something of the free gas-flow of an o.h.v. layout with the simplicity of a normal side-valve power-unit. The same layout was used in 1919, for the Guy V8 private car. I asked how many of these were made. "Nine", was the immediate reply! Mr. Mitchell recalled the automatic chassis-lubrication system of the V8 Guy, operated by the steering as right-hand corners were negotiated. "At first", he said, "you could tell where is Guy had been by the trail of oil drips we left behind, especially near corners!" Enot's eventually supplied a spring-loaded nipple to cure this. Incidentally, Guy's had a V8 Cadillac to copy but could never achieve the quiet-running gearbox of the American car.

The subject of our interview later opened his own garage, next door to Guy's. He was able to convince his customers that if they drove properly they had no need of the new anti-knock petrol, and he ended up selling 79,000 gallons of Power a year. I would like to thank Mr. Mitchell for this interesting interview and congratulate him on his excellent memory, which entirely belies his 96 years.—W.B.

V-E-V Miscellany, -The Gazette of the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain has come out in a new format. The Veteran Car Run to Brighton takes place on November 6th. Incidentally, the VCC will celebrate its Golden Jubilee next year and plans are afoot to commemorate it. By the way, the Club's new address is Jessamine House, High Street, Ashwell, Herts. In America a 60-h.p. Fiat and a 1903 two-cylinder Ford are in process of restoration and in this count, R.C. Skerman is busy with such work on a veteran four-cylinder Panhard-Levassor, while a 1902 twin-cylinder 7-h.p. car of the same make is being restored in Middlesex.

It never rains but it pours! Having referred to a marine-type sleeve-valve Daimler that turned up recently, we now learn that a similar engine has just been taken out of a boat, an eccentric driven water-pump being fated to this marine-conversion. Which is a reminder that a 1911 Daimler landaulette which had stood in a garage since 1923 is on the road again and that in New Zealand another sleeve-valve Daimler, which was converted into a hearse around 1928, is being rebuilt. An Acro Morgan 3-wheeler and a Castle-Three 3-wheeler joined the motorcycles on this year's Graham Walker Memorial Run to Beaulieu.

Among those who went to the National Motor Museum for Lord Montagu's 21st al Birthday Party for his V& V Magazine (which Motor Sport missed, being at the R-REC Rally at Monmouth) were Anthony Heal's 3-litre twin-cam Sunbeam, with Len Gibbs as passenger, a rare 17.9 Swift tourer, a 1916 six-cylinder Austin Twenty Mayfair limousine, a 1926 Hillman 14, many pre-war Austin Sevens and larger Austins, a 20/25 Rolls-Royce, a 1923 Standard Super-Flying-12 and a 1923 Harper Runabout brought on a trailer, as well as many more recent vehicles. There are quite a number of non-Morgan 3-wheelers now in evidence perhaps the Morgan Three-Wheeler Club should put on a special meeting, as host to them? Reference to a R-REC Rally reminds me that in writing jocularly last month of that Club's outbreak of "plaqueitis" I was premature in referring to one at Bournemouth; it has not yet been unveiled, this ceremony being scheduled for next year, to mark the spot where the Hon. CS. Rolls met his death in a flying accident 67 years ago. And while making that correction, I am reminded that in last September's "Book Reviews" Ted Inman Hunter was wrongly credited with contributing the Bamford & Martin section to the original Aston Martin book, whereas he wrote the Bertelli chapters. The B & M section was the work of the late Fred Ellis. A 1933 Chrysler Kew is being refurbished in Windsor. The AGM of the Pre '50 American Auto Cub took place in Oxford on October 29th.

The Fiat 15-Ter truck that was supplied new in 1918 to the Italian Government, and which came here as war-surplus, has passed from George Liston-Young's ownership into the hands of a Surplus Equipment Company in Surrey and is nearly ready for the road again. A new body had to be made for it, but retaining the original iron-work. A similar Fiat 'bus is known to be in the same county. A reader has sent us a copy of RAE News for last March, which contains the good news that the RAE's 1916 SE5a biplane, now the only authentic flying-example of this famous fighter, is airworthy again, after its forced-landing at Old Warden in 1972, caused by a crankshaft breakage. The engine had to be replaced, along with the undercarriage and other parts. A replacement for the Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, in the form a 200-h.p. Wolseley Viper, was obtained from Mr. Shelley of Billericay, in exchange for a 150-h.p. Hispano-Suiza engine that was unsuitable for flight. Both this SE5a and Mr. Shelley's collection of aero-engines have been covered in the past in Motor Sport. Does anyone know a spare Hispano-Suiza aero-engine, which one day might be needed by the RAE? The Bullnose Morris Club reports that a 1927 Morris tourer, which had stood in the open for some 40 years, is being restored in Truro and that a new Australian member has a Morris-Cowley which was purchased new by his stepmother in 1929 and used by her until 1967. Stanley Gibbons Ltd. inform us that 37 of the many Roman coins found when Brooklands Track was being built in 1906-07 are now in their possession, these coins dating from 295-300 AD. So it seems that some more Brooklands historical items will probably soon come under the hammer. The Press handout is optimistic in saying that the old Track "has been completely cleared, although more than half of it is now unused." In view of our recent articles on the Leyland Eight, it is interesting that the Eire and Cork Evening Echo, of August 19th last, published an action picture of the Leyland tourer in which Michael Collins was ambushed and shot dead in 1922. A reader, Mr. C. R. 'Fumy of Coulsdon, has sent us details of a 1918 Panhard-Levassor rail-car which was in use in the Australian Gulf Country from 1922 until 1929, when it was replaced by a larger AEC railcar. It then became the spare on the 188-mile Normanton-Croydon-Normanton run, remaining in use until 1936, sometimes pulling a luggage box-van. It was finally scrapped in 1941 and is now in the Redbank Museum in Queensland. The engine is of 20-24 h.p. and this railcar was known simply as, "The Panhard". Following our reference to a vintage Daimler Bass "bottle-van" at the new Bass-Worthington Brewery Museum in Burton-on-Trent, we were interested in a cutting from the Coventry Evening Telegraph, sent to us by a reader, about one of these Daimlers which Mr. Ernest White drove regularly from 1925 and 1939, when he was a Bass-Worthington sales-representative. He recalls-these "bottles" as difficult to drive, with poor visibility, no rear window, no screen-wiper, and an outside handbrake. They were also very hot in summer, very cold in winter, and draughty. Mr. White drove round the country distributing publicity material and the Daimler was in trouble during the 1926 General Strike, as representing capitalist interests! Apparently there is real cork, in the bottle's nose. The Gurnsey Motor Museum, opened in 1976, has issued 8 souvenir guide, from which it is seen that among the vintage cars it contains are a 1924 Citroen 5cv, a 1924 Trojan, a 1928 Rolls-Royce Twenty chassis, a 1928 18/50 Star Eclipse tourer and Speedy and Ruby Austin Sevens - W.B.