Vintage Postbag, September 1979

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A 1914 Sunbeam on the Road

Sir,

After reading, in the June issue, your fascinating account of Mr. Lake’s 1922 GP Sunbeam, the reference to the 1914 3.3-litre machine tempts me to reminiscence. In 1927, at the summer training course of the Oxford University Air Squadron, my Flying instructor – Flying Officer G.D. Armour – owned one of the 1914 cars, and I coveted it. At the time I had a very staid 9 h.p. Fiat two-seater, as I was a little weak at the knees after several rather hairy years with a Blackburne-engined Aero Morgan. Armour was about to get married, and I persuaded him to do a swap. The story of the Sunbeam appeared to have been that, after lying in the Wolverhampton works during the 194-18 war, it had been converted into a a two-seater sports car for the use of some senior member of the Sunbeam staff. The engine had been slightly “softened”; I suspect that they had fitted the new camshafts, and there was a large single carburetter attached to a copper water-jacketed manifold with a priming cock. Otherwise everything, including transmission and chassis, seem unchanged. The conversion was truly professional, and quite lavish; a nice two-seater body – doorless, it is true – windscreen, the “cape cart hood” of the time, electric lighting and starting, speedometer and clock on each side of the big tachometer, even a little gradient meter attached to the body fairing under the driver’s elbow. It was a marvellous car; the gear-change was so superb, that, like you, one made quite unnecessary changes up and down for the sheer pleasure of the operation – without touching the clutch, of course. Maximum speed about 75 m.p.h., which was pretty good in those days, when most of the high grade production sports cars could not manage much more than 85. The 1914 Sunbeams did not have a front wheel brakes and I remember the rather pleasant hiss of the metal-to-metal rear brakes, with their steel drums and irons shoes. Petrol feed by air pressure, with the original hand pump, although, once under way, pressure was maintained, more or less, by a small mechanical pump, linked to one of the camshafts. The general engine design, with integral cylinder heads, must have been very similar to the 1922 version. I remember the big oil-tank under the driving seat, with the cylindrical brass filter and distribution vessel alongside the crankcase, from which sprouted tubes leading to the various lubrication points. In constant fear of lubrication failure, and destruction of some irreplaceable part, I always used “Castrol R” – castor oil – which one used to buy in green one-gallon cans, costing ten shillings. Fearful oil leaks in the system were virtually incurable, and the oil consumption was terrific; it was certainly a very oily engine! I have no recollection of any tap to control feed back, which used to happen in a big way. There were certainly no visible dash-mounted drip feeds. I remember one Sunday morning cocktail party at the house of R. C. Gallop at Hythe (Kent), when my old warrior was parked alongside Gallop’s immaculate 3-litre Bentley. Below the front end of the Sunbeam was the usual little growing pool of oil. I said to my host – “Go on, laugh.” His gentle reply was characteristic – “I never laugh at good machinery”. This pleased me enormously, because, at the time, Gallop was right-hand man and “Racing Project Engineer” to Count Zborowski at nearby Higham Court. I remember, also, that on the same occasion, he told me the story of the Peugeot origin of the Sunbeam engine design. Starting the old car in winter cold was a problem which I solved by what must have been a pretty dangerous expedient – injection of a few drops of ether through the priming cock in the induction manifold!

I motored very happily for a good many thousand miles, and eventually sold the car to a man, whose name I’m ashamed to say, I can’t remember, but who lived at Rolvenden in Kent. Sad to say, the subsequent history of the car is unknown to me; some years ago, Mr. Cecil Clutton suggested that this might have been the one which had passed into the hands of Mr. Anthony Heal, and was then undergoing restoration to its original form. Perhaps one of your readers can complete the story? I am not proud of the fact that I myself did not attempt the rebuild and restoration, which, in retrospect, seems to have been a near duty! But, as a youthful, and impecunious, enthusiast I lacked the resources to do very much. All I could manage was to lift the block – with the assistance of a friendly professional mechanic – in order to inspect and grind the valves, all 16 of them! We inscribed our initials in red enamel inside the camshaft-drive casing.

Aldeburgh

D. V. T. Fairrie

Ernest Henry Designs

Sir,

A few years ago I rebuilt the engine of a 2LS Ballot and was able to compare it in detail with those of the GP Sunbeams then being restored by Paul Grist and Barry Peerless. The two engines differ in many respects, besides the layout of the auxiliary drives and the provision of a dynamo and starter motor on the Ballot.

The Ballot has a wet sump which is topped-up automatically from an auxiliary tank on the dashboard. It has a two-piece crankshaft whereas that on the Sunbeam is fully built-up from six pieces, though the reason for this is obscure as the plain big-ends are split in the normal way. A possible clue lies in the first description of the cars in The Autocar which spoke of “ball bearing big-ends of a special type”. The Ballot has floating big-end bushes lubricated by jets feeding collector rings secured to the crank webs. One can see, from various features, that the Sunbeams were originally designed and built with a similar system, but they now have pressure feed to the directly-metalled big-ends from each end of the crankshaft. This modification was presumably made before the French GP after early trials had disclosed a weakness. The Ballot camshafts are driven by a vertical shaft and bevels. The valves are symmetrically disposed at a 60° included angle and there is one plug per cylinder. The bore and stroke are 69.9 x 130 mm. and the gearbox is separate.

The Sunbeam engine does, however, resemble the Ballot more closely than the 1921 1½-litre Talbot-Darracqs with their light-alloy blocks and plain main bearings. Further evidence pointing to Henry being the designer is contained in the announcement in The Autocar of December 10th, 1921, that he was about to leave the Ballot to take technical control of the STD racing department. [Actually, of the Talbot-Darracq branch, not of Sunbeams – Ed.], a move which has been confirmed my M. Fernand Vadier who worked with him at Ballot.

King’s Lynn

A. Archdale

Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars

Sir,

In your interesting reference to Alex Ulman, I note that he refers to the 1919-1920 Norperforce Expedition, of which I have no knowledge, but, he does not think that the 70 m.p.h. quoted by Lawrence of Arabia is reasonable. Perhaps Lawrence may have been using the Rolls armoured cars of the 1914-18 War period.

I was the driver of the leading car of the RNAS No. 2 Squadron Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars, under the command of the Duke of Westminster. These cars had single rear wheels and to all appearances were normal “Ghosts” fitted up for war. The cars were delivered to us in December 1914 and after training, landed in France on March 1st, 1915. During my stay in France, I had occasion to “adjust” the engine, after which I tested the car on a slight upgrade road, and soon the car picked up to 65 m.p.h. Satisfied with the performance on this short run, I returned to camp. I write this to explain that Lawrence may have been using one of our cars, which I heard after being turned over to the Army were afterwards sent to Africa. Meantime I had transferred to the RNAS, aerocraft section and later in France until 1919, with No. 10 Squadron RAF. Please excuse the writing, as I am 88 years of age.

Oakham

Archibald Smith, Ex-CPO(E)

Gardens and Bugattis

Sir,

Could I make two points regarding R. S. Peacey’s letter about Cardens and Bugattis?

He omits to mention that the gear he described on the Carden monocar – not motor car – was a reverse gear, so it was not meant to be engaged when moving, the result of trying to do so would be similar to any other type of reverse – but I do not think it could have damaged the driving chain – it wasn’t strong enough to do so.

I am somewhat surprised he liked his Type 30 Bugatti, as the Weymann saloon I had – photo enclosed – was one of the most unpleasant cars to drive I ever owned, because of an awful vibration period from about 40 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h. in top. It came from the engine, which I had overhauled by a Bugatti specialist, when I discovered an 8-cylinder crankshaft with only three ball-and-roller main bearings – a pretty stupid design, surely?

Chichester

G. de Jongh

Apologies!

Sir,

Thank you for publishing my letter re. Garden Cyclecars in the July issue.

However, either my young scribe or your printers have got it “screwed up” a bit! (1) The early Carden AV: it wasn’t the rockers which flew off but the rollers. (2) I dictated “fun to drive and practical” – not “Thunderdrive”. (3) Bugatti Grand Prix Montife should of course read “Modite” and “Course Invitation” is, of course “Course Irritation”. (4) The noble driver was Chris Staniland (not “Hanalan”).

I wouldn’t like your readers to think that, though paralysed in body, my mind was going slowly “round the bend”.

Cheltenham

Bob Peacey

The 1923 200-Mile Race Newton

Sir,

I read with great interest your reference to the 1923 200-Mile-Race Newton that I took over early in 1965 from Nick Sloan. I would like to try and correct the widely-held misconception that the car had anything at all to do with Ceirano (S.A. Giovanni Ceirano, Turin). As you mention, the car was commissioned by Newton & Bennett through Noel Newton. Both the design and construction was by 26-year-old freelance Olivio (not Oliver) Pellegatti in Milan, without any involvement from Ceirano. I believe that Pellegatti finished his career in the USA as chief designer for Johnson, the outboard-engine people, and died in Northern Italy in 1968.

All the evidence available to me suggests that three cars and four engines were built in 1923, two of the cars being for the 200 Mile Race and the other one a longer touring chassis. In the 14 years in which I have owned the Newton I have been unable to find any reference to the other racing car – or the touring car – after the October 1924 London Motor Show. They were interesting chassis – what happened to them? Perhaps one of your readers knows?

As you say, the engine with my car was in poor condition – mainly through poor castings rather than wear or misuse. The crankcase (and many of the other light-alloy castings) was of magnesium and daylight could be seen through the main bearing webbs! Corrosion over the years had not improved matters. Very few people could cast magnesium in 1923 and I assume that Newton was supplied (back door?) by the Milan works of lsotta-Fraschini. Certainly I.F. is clearly stamped on several of the timing gears. The spare engine came through Neil Smith to Gordon Stewart-Brown, and finally Julian Beresford most kindly agreed to let me have the engine in 1971. I think this touring-specification engine must have been the fourth, or spare, as it does not seem to have had any use. It also had a very nice cast-aluminium crankcase! A complete engine has now been put together for me by Bob Danaher of Stradishall using the ex-Beresford castings and lovely Martlett pistons, but the more sporting crankshaft/flywheel/clutch and valve gear from the original engine. The long restoration of the car is now well advanced but sadly the need to earn a living, family, a house, an Anzani Nash and a twin-cam Sunbeam will together make it unlikely the Newton will be running in 1979. However in 1980 – we shall see!

Abbots Langley

G. M. Hare

Vauxhalls of the 1920s

Sir,

Thank you for your most enjoyable article in the July issue on Vauxhalls of the 1920s. My father had a 14/40 in that era and always swore it was one of the finest. The registration number was XR 2866 and if the present owner cares to get in touch I can tell him much of the car’s long history. One anecdote of general interest: My father shipped the car to India in 1924 and told me this did not involve any formalities at all; the number, the licence and the insurance were valid throughout the Empire in those days!

Market Harborough

Julian De Lisle

The Straight-Eight Wolseley

Sir,

Your recent article on straight eights prompts me to write about a Wolseley I bought at the end of the last war. Until then, I was not aware that Wolseley ever made a straight-eight.

At the time, I owned a 4 1/2-litre Bentley Vanden Plas tourer, which badly needed new tyres. The chance of getting new ones was nil, so when I heard of the Wolseley, and discovered that it had a good set of tyres of the size I wanted, I was very interested. It had been laid-up during the war, but the radiator had not been drained, and it had a cracked block. The owner had died, so the car was sold, and I bought it for £20.

After I had switched the tyres to the Bentley, I started to examine the Wolseley, which was in very good order, apart from the cracked block. It had a dickie seat for two, with a fold-down windscreen and sidescreens. The engine was similar to the six-cylinder Wolseley Viper, but instead of the overhead camshaft drive being through the dynamo, it just had a plain shaft. No dynamo was visible under the bonnet, but further exploration revealed that it was mounted behind the gearbox, and the drive to the rear axle passed through it! Needless to say, it was a very substantial affair, and only charged when the car was in motion.

I was now interested in getting the car on the road, if the block could be repaired cheaply. I freed-up the pistons, which were partly seized in the bores, with liberal doses of Redex, and after draining stale petrol from the tank, and fitting a battery, the engine started quite easily, and ran for some minutes in its “air-cooled” condition. I then approached a local welding expert, known to Belfast motorists as “The Yank” (he had an American accent) who had the reputation of tackling any welding job. The block was cracked right along one side, and I asked him if it could be repaired without removing the engine, and to my surprise he agreed to “have a go”. Some days later, he rang to say the job was finished. Apparently, he welded a few inches at a time, and so avoided pre-heating.

The car was now on the road, and was a pleasure to drive. It had a three-speed box, but once under way, you could forget about the lower gears, as it had steam-engine torque in top. I discovered the car had once belonged to Sir William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) who was a personal friend of its late owner.

Alas, one day when I was giving it one of its infrequent outings (petrol was still rationed) it went on to seven cylinders. A check-up showed that plugs and ignition were OK but there was no compression on the dud cylinder. Further investigation revealed that the piston in that cylinder was permanently at TDC. Removal of the sump revealed that one of the dural con. rods had broken just above the big-end, which was still bolted to the crankshaft, so there was no drop in oil pressure. The piston was held at the top of the bore by the top piston ring. A knowledgeable friend informed me that all dural rods required a process known as “normalising” after a period of time, especially if the car had been laid-up, otherwise the metal crystallised.

As there was little hope of getting a new rod, I reluctantly decided to scrap the car. Apart from the fact that it would have been well-worth preserving, as I understand only a few of this model were made, I had decided that it would make an interesting second car.

Strangford

Stanley Porter

[It was news to me that these Wolseleys had a dynamo incorporated in the transmission and surely the gearbox gave four forward speeds?— Ed.]

The Things They Say . . .

“The electric car is no solution . . .” – Bob Lutz, Chairman of Ford of Europe, discussing energy conservation with Edouard Seidler, in an interview reported in Autocar. “The Transport Minister must must encourage faster research into electronically-propelled vehicles . . .” – Sir Clive Bossom, RAC Chairman, speaking recently to the Worshipful Company of Carmen. – W.B.

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