Sunbeam Cameo

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A little bit of Sunbeam racing history came to light in an unexpected place, while we were reading an adventure story in the period style of Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie.

This was a book by Mark Pepys, Sixth Earl of Cottenham, who drove “works” Sunbeams in lesser events in the 1920s, before turning to the FWD Alvis cars. Entitled All Out (Cassell, 1932), it is entirely fictional, but its Dedication to Lady Doris Segrave recalls the good times Segrave, his wife and their friends had with Cottenham in those days.

In particular, the Earl recalls riding with Segrave in the 2-litre GP Sunbeams at Montlhéry and Brooklands, in the 4-Litre V12 Sunbeam at Southport (where in 1926 it raised the Land Speed Record to 152.33mph, Cottenham presumably doing some of the test-driving) and at San Sebastian (where the front axle broke while Segrave was leading), in the “wickedly fast and un-stoppable” 1926 Talbots, and in Sunbeam touring cars, presumably including de Hane Segrave’s twin-cam 3-litre.

What is especially interesting is that Cottenham refers to bringing back to England the 2-litre Sunbeam with which Segrave made history in 1923 at Tours, by being the first driver to win the French GP in a British car— albeit one closely related to the previous year’s Fiats. It seems he took turns to drive it from Paris to London with Segrave.

He says Doris Segrave (formerly the actress, Doris Stocker) went off with the luggage, George (possibly George Duller) with his Epsom salts and best umbrella, Segrave and he with the winning car. They laughed and joked all the way, apparently, yet averaged about 64 mph to Le Havre (in the race, with Dutoit as his mechanic, Segrave had averaged 75.3 mph). After dinner they were cautioned by an armed gendarme for larking about on the quayside, and had to sleep in their shirts on the ship, as the luggage had gone on to London. Next morning Segrave washed the Sunbeam down with paraffin before the drive to London.

On that run, maintaining a very high pace from Southampton to Winchester, many plugs oiled-up and had to be changed, presumably on account of the slower traffic. Yet across the deserted Hartford Bridge Flats their speed, according to Cottenham, was “rising to 120 mph” — amusing, as he said, for one who was later to play such an active part, in print and on the wireless, in advancing road safety! WB