Sunbeam were a pioneering Wolverhampton company that had previously made bicycles and began motor car manufacture in 1901.

In 1909 frenchman Louis Coatalen joined the company as chief engineer and was in charge of a string of successful racing cars and land speed record attempt cars in the period 1910 to 1930. They earned the company a lot of publicity, intended to help to sell the everyday Sunbeam models that were the company's bread and butter.  Sunbeam's 'Racing and experimental Department' was perhaps the largest automotive racing concern in Britain in this period, headed by chief experimental engineer Captain J S Irving, who together with his team of engineers were responsible for turning ideas into detailed plans and then into fully functioning machinery, often in a very short space of time.

Coatalen claimed that "racing helps improve the breed, and puts every man on his mettle".

edwardian period

In the years before the 1st world war, Coatalen often drove the racing cars himself, nicknamed 'Nautilus' and then 'Toodles I, II, III & IV), Coatalen frequently changed the engine designs quite radically from year to year in an attempt to go faster, or having several different engine designs on the go at any one time. Although it has to be said that his designs were often based on sideways glances at therival Mercedes, Peugeot or Ballot racing engines.

The early 'Toodles' car constructed in 1911 was a 4-cylinder 3.2 litre with an overhead camshaft and 4 inclined valves per cylinder, which was state-of-the-art at the time, and in 1912 set a one-hour record in Toodles IV at 93mph.

In 1912 he built several new smaller racing cars which featured 3 litre 4-cylinder sidevalve engines, these were less ambitious in terms of design-complexity, but were nevertheless fast on road circuits, and more importantly reliable, and came in a victorious 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the 'Coupe de l'Auto' race at Dieppe that year. (pictured above)

Spurred on by the success, the next year he built four new 4.5 litre 6-cylinder sidevalve cars and entered them in the 1913 Amien French Grand Prix. Jean Chassagne's Sunbeam came in 3rd against stiff competition from Peugeot and Delage which had larger overhead-valve engines.

In 1913 he combined two cylinder banks from his 1912 4-cylinder racing engine to form a V8 design, which he tested at Brooklands in his Toodles racing car, this would later become the basis of his V8 aero engine designs in WW1.

Toodles V was equiped with Coatalen's first V12 aero engine, a 9 litre sidevalve engine that would later develop into the Mohawk v12 aero engine in WW1.  The car achieved a mile average speed of 120mph at Brooklands in March 1914,  before it was shipped to the United States, where it was raced by Ralph DePalma (DePalma later sold Toodles to the Packard Motor Car Company, which used the car's engine as the inspiration for its seven-liter (430 cu in) Twin Six, which became the world’s first production 12-cylinder engine in 1916).

Fitting prototype aero engines into their racing cars allowed Sunbeam to test a new engine's reliability more safely than in the air, and gave publicity for both cars and aero engines.

In 1914 a new car was built for the 600-mile, two-day 1914 Isle of Man TT. Coatalen entered three twin-cam 3,295cc Sunbeams (although it has to be said that the double-overhead camshaft engine design bore a close resemblance to the previous year's winning Peugeot design) and nominated the Guinness brothers and Dario Resta as the drivers, Kenelm Lee Guinness came in 1st but the others were retired with mechanical failures. Later in July at the French Grand Prix at Lyon, Dario Resta's Sunbeam came in 5th but both of the Guinness brothers were retired.

During WW1 Sunbeam designed and built more than a dozen different aero engine types for biplanes, seaplanes and airships, the design was often quickly updated or superseded by a new design after a small number of units had been produced. Coatalen was certainly trying to push boundaries in combustion engine design at the time, although this perhaps meant that some ofhis aero engines were too experimental and not the most reliable. The V12 double-overhead camshaft Afridi & Moari aero engines were perhaps the most advanced and successful units.


Post world war one

After the war car production resumed, and Sunbeam once again had a busy schedule of circuit racing and speed record breaking.
In 1920 a new 350hp car was built solely for outright speed (pictured above) The 18 litre V12 engine was a new design but utilised design elements from the earlier Sunbeam wartime aero engines.
On paper the car had great potential but early appearances at Brooklands were disappointing with retirement due to gearbox trouble. In Easter 1922 it won it's first short handicap race at Brooklands with an average speed of 103.8mph. Tyre technology at the time was often the limiting factor and thrown treads caused drivers many dangerous moments at Brooklands and at the popular speed-trial events held on beaches.
Despite it's initial problems (mainly caused by a lack of suitable tyres) drivers took a shine to the new 350hp Sunbeam, Sammy Davis described accelerating on the Brooklands railway straight as "too wonderful for words... like being hurled into space... provides the sensation of a lifetime". Kenelm Lee Guinness who drove it frequently at Brooklands had a deep admiration for it. In May 1922 at Brooklands, Guinness set a new land speed record of 133mph.  Subsequently Malcolm Campbell became interested in the car and persuaded Mr Coatalen to let him drive it at the 1922 Salbturn speed trials were he achieved 127mph. He then pressed Coatalen to sell him the car but Coatalen declined.
Campbell was convinced that the car's full potential had not been reached at Brooklands or Saltburn, and that with a longer course it could achieve a far higher speed. After many renewed requests, In 1923, 2 weeks before the Danish Auto club's international speed trials at Fanoe, Coatalen agreed to sell the car to Campbell. He achieved a mean speed of 137mph and a fastest one-way run of 147mph (which would have been a new record) but unfortunately for Campbell, the French Commission Sportive refused to accept this as a new land speed record as the timing equipment used by the Dutch club had not been inspected and approved by them!
Over the next year many improvements were made to the car and a new longer-tailed body was fitted to help make the car more stable at high speed.

In September 1924 Malcolm Campbell gained the official land speed record in the 350hp Sunbeam at Pendine sands in Wales, initially at 146mph, and then again at 150mph.


During the period 1920-25 Sunbeam developed a string of cars intended for European circuit racing. 3 litre and 4.9 litre 8-cyinder engines had been developed for a similar chassis, and had had success in the Coppa Florio and Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. The 4.9 litre car had had success in Indianapolis racing in America.  Also a string of smaller 2-litre 6-cylinder engined cars were built, intended for European events (at the time the french GP races running in a 2-litre limit format).

Ernest Henry (who had previously worked for Ballot) had been brought in to head engine design on these cars. Early results in 1922 were promising, with a win at the Isle of Man TT for Jean Chassagne. In 1923 the cars came good and Henry Segrave drove a 2 litre Sunbeam to victory at the French Grand prix at Tours, Albert Divo came in 2nd in the sister car. Divo also won the Spanish grand prix later that year. Segrave came in 5th at the french Grand prix in 1924, and also won the Spanish GP again for Sunbeam that year.  In 1925 Giulio Masetti drove a Sunbeam to 3rd at the French grand Prix.

In 1925 a new supercharged development of the 2-litre car proved successful at Brooklands and  hillclimb events, and gave a very high hp/litre.

Segrave was also instrumental in organising the first recognised British Grand prix at Brooklands in 1926, but by then the 2 litre Sunbeams were outclassed by new and more complex Delage and Bugatti cars.

(a short original Pathé film of the 1923 French GP below)

Segrave and his mechanic in the 2 litre Grand Prix car

4-litre tiger

Spurred on perhaps by the success of the 2-litre cars, In 1925 Coatalen embarked on a new 4-litre V12 car that would make use of the experience they had gained. The engine was a development of the 2 litre 6-cylinder racing car engines, utilising a similar double-overhead camshaft layout, but with twice as many cylinders, and initially a pair of rootes superchargers. It developed around 300bhp and  in the spring of 1925, Henry Segrave set a new land speed record at Southport sands at 152mph, which was the smallest-engined car ever to hold the land speed record, and also the last LSR car that was also a successful circuit-racing machine (and driven on the road to  and from circuit races in europe). Two similar V12 cars were produced, the Tiger & the Tigress. Both were modified extensively in the 1930s to remain competitive, with a new lower chassis design.

The Tiger (also called the Ladybird due to it's bright red paint) was perhaps the pinnacle of Sunbeam's racing endeavours and marked a high point in the company's career.

(pictures showing Kaye Don in the V12 Tiger at Brooklands were it had much success. The 2nd shot showing how bumpy the Brooklands banking was, with all four wheels off the ground at over 100mph)

the 1000 hp record car

Competition for the land speed record in this period was intense. In 1926 it had been raised by Parry Thomas in his 27-litre Liberty V12 powered 'Babs' to 171mph, then again in 1927 by Malcolm Campbell in his Napier Lion powered 'Bluebird'to 174mph.

Sunbeam responded by quickly constructing a vast dual-engined machine to regain the record.  Featuring a pair of  22-litre Sunbeam Metabele V12 aero engines, and dubbed the '1000hp Sunbeam' for publicity purposes (the total was nearer 900hp) it was the first land speed car to feature a fully enclosed aerodynamic body which led to the 'Slug' nickname.

In March 1927 Henry Segrave accompanied the car to Daytona beach for the record attempt, and he drove the 4-tonne machine to an incredible 203mph. The days of a dual-purpose circuit/land speed car were now over.


In 1928 the record had once again been broken by Ray Keech in the White Triplex Special and stood at 207mph. This was particularly galling for Sunbeam as the Triplex was by all accounts a poorly constructed machine (that later crashed killing it's driver)

High cost

The drivers paid a high price  for their records in this period. In 1927 John Parry Thomas had been killed in an attempt to drive his record car 'Babs' faster than his previous attempt at Pendine sands.

Mechanic Lee Bible was killed in 1929 in an attempt to drive the White Triplex special faster than it's previous attempt on Daytona beach (the original driver Ray Keech had refused on the grounds that the car was unsafe to attempt higher speeds).

 Giulio Foresti was extremely lucky not to be killed in 1927 when his attempt car Djelmo flipped over at Pendine sands.

Count Louis Zborowski (creator of the Chitty record cars) was killed in 1924 when his Mercedes racing car hit a tree at the Monza circuit.

Henry Segrave was killed in a water speed record attempt on lake Windermere in 1930.

the silver bullet

In 1929 the record had been raised substantially to 231mph by Henry Segrave in his new Golden-Arrow car (incidentally designed for him by the now ex-sunbeam chief experimental engineer J S Irving, which perhaps showed that Irving's capabilities had surpassed that of Coatalen).

Sunbeam responded quicklywith a new car which was completed in 1930. Featuiring a pair of unique new supercharged 24-litre V12 engines.

Unfortunately conditions on Daytona beach were poor and after delays due to bad weather the car only achieved 186mph, the team were forced to return to the UK with their pride dented. A lack of a sufficient period of engine testing and development was perhaps the cause of the low speed. On paper the new engines should have produced a total power output way in advance of the 900hp Napier Lion engine used in Segrave's Golden Arrow, but according to contemporary reports the Sunbeam'sengines misfired and were beset with technical problems.

In this original Movietone news broadcast from 1930, driver Kaye Don arrives in the Tiger V12 car (that had previously held the LSR record in 1925), is enthusiastically greeted by the charming French Sunbeam chief engineer Louis Coatalen, and then Kaye boldly describes the car's potential. Sadly the trip to Daytona was not a success and despite their earnest endeavors the record was never reclaimed by a Sunbeam.

The Darracq takeover

The Darracq concern was an ambitious french manufacturer that had been building cars since 1898. Manufacturing was based in Suresnes near Paris, France, but had been bought by a British group of financiers in 1903, the main purpose being to benefit from french car technology (which was at the time in advance of the British exploits) and to float the company on the stock market (this process was more difficult in french law, in the UK it was easier at this time). Arguably Darracq built some of the best engineered cars of the Edwardian period , including successful racing cars in 1905 (100hp) and the V8 200hp which took the land speed record at 122mph on Daytona beach in 1906. But there was a constant struggle between the British directors and the original French management and manufacturing in Suresnes.

Despite shaky finances pre-WW1, the Darracq concern seemed to come out of the war with cash to spare and promptly bought Clément-Talbot Limited of London, Jonas Woodhead & Sons of Leeds, suppliers of springs for cars. Then later in June 1920 they bought control of Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited, and in August W & G Du Cros Limited of Acton, taxi operators and van, lorry, bus and ambulance body builders

S.T.D Motors Ltd

In 1920 the conglomerate was then rebranded 'S T D Motors Ltd' to recognise the grouping of the Sunbeam, Talbot and Darracq car companies.

Unfortunately during the 1920s many of the models produced by the three companies were competing for sales with each other as they all produced cars of a similar quality in the 14-20hp range.

The Sunbeam brand was perhaps the largest of the three in terms of models produced. During the period 1920-1930 Sunbeam sold around 16,200 cars, Talbot around 14,600. Although by the early 1930s Talbot was still a profitable entity and Sunbeam was not.

Whilst Sunbeam gained a lot of publicity for their racing endeavors it perhaps didn't transfer directly into sales of stately saloons and limousines that were the company's mainstay. They did not survive the depression, and went into receivership in 1934, STD then being bought by the Rootes Group in 1935.

Nick Baldwin gives a concise if harsh summary of Sunbeam in his 1920s A-Z

"Vast amounts of money were misspent on a fabulously successful racing and land speed record programme...  which a firm making only 1000 cars a year (and few of them aimed at sporting customers) could ill afford. Virtually everything was made in house...  necessitating 30 acres of factory floor space and up to 4000 employees... too many models, including everything from overhead camshaft sportscars to straight-eight limousines, constituted a recipe for disaster, which duly arrived in 1935"

The Rootes Group used the Sunbeam-Talbot name for some of their larger cars from 1935 up until the 2nd World War.

Postwar, the Sunbeam-Talbot name was again used for some Rootes models, with component parts being shared with the other models sold under the Rootes-acquired brands of Hillman and Humber. In the 1960s the Sunbeam Tiger name was revived for the V8 version of the Alpine sportscar.