Over the past few years, Motoring Weekly has described the brands that became part of the Rootes Group and for this article we add to the list with the Sunbeam company. Sunbeam were famous not only for road cars but also aero engines, which ended up in Land Speed Record winning cars.
The Sunbeam company was originally founded as a bicycle maker in 1877. John Marston was a metal worker who had set up his own tinplate business and as he was a cyclist, he started to make bicycles. By the end of the century, cars were coming on the market and Marston’s company built a couple of prototypes.
In 1901 the first production car was made called the Sunbeam Maberley with a 3hp motor. It was in production for 3 years and then the bicycle company built a model based on Berliet components followed by one with a Peugeot based engine. By this stage Sunbeam the bicycle maker was also making motorcycles and a new company was formed in 1905 to manufacture cars. This was the true Sunbeam Motorcar Company.
In 1909 Louis Coatelen, a French designer and engineer joined from Humber and it was his influence that saw Sunbeam through their golden years. His plan was to manufacture as many parts in-house as possible and he designed the 14/20 followed by the 16/20. His designs were at the top end of the market competing for a while with early Rolls-Royces.
Coatelen had a passion for speed and motor sports, campaigning Sunbeams in races and he designed new engines for attempts at Land and British Speed Records. His engine designs lead him to develop aircraft engines of various sizes – some of which were fitted to cars as well! These engines helped the company through the First World War.
In 1920, Sunbeam merged with the Talbot-Darracq company to form STD or Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq. Whilst the group made a wide range of cars, Coatelen continued to build high quality road and race cars. One of the racers was the Sunbeam 350HP. This car was built for speed record attempts at Brooklands, the famous circuit near London. It was fitted with one of their 18 litre V12 aero engines called the Manitou. The engine was unsuccessful in a plane with 300 horses, so it was slotted into the car and tweaked to 350 horses, hence the name. After several successful speed records it was bought by Malcolm Campbell, who restyled it and called it BlueBird and took the World Land Speed Record to 150mph.
Coatelen then gave Sunbeam another great PR opportunity by building the Sunbeam 1000hp, another Land Speed Record challenger fitted with Sunbeam’s old aero engines – in this case two Sunbeam Matabele V12’s of 22 litres each. Although they had started out in an aircraft, they had also been used in a powerboat before their final resting place in a streamlined car. In 1927 at Daytona Beach, it was the first car to hit 200mph.
The road models continued to be advanced as well with the 1926 3-litre SuperSports model being the first production Double Overhead Cam although they were all between 20 and 30hp. You would think that a designer of aero engines would be able to squeeze more than that out of the road engines!
Being part of Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq didn’t help the engineers as the Talbot brand was the dominant one and Darracq was the niche sports car brand. The three brands couldn’t survive together and by 1935 they were in receivership. The Rootes Group bought the remains of the UK arm of the company and dropped both the Sunbeam and Darracq brands, although they quickly resurrected Sunbeam-Talbot using Hillman and Humber designs.
After the Second World War, the Talbot name was dropped as there was now a successful French brand of the same name – born out of the STD Motors carcass. So Sunbeam now had mostly Hillman components and were becoming the sports brand of Rootes. This was finalised with the first Alpine Mark 1 convertible of 1954, a 2.2 litre four cylinder car based on a previous saloon. There was a Mark 3 but no Mark 2!
Confusingly, in 1959 the Series 1 Alpine was released, a two door roadster with a 1500cc motor culled from other Rootes cars. The Series 2, 3 and 4 models from 1960 – 65 had a 1600cc motor and the Series 5 ended its life with a 1725cc motor. These cars are the classic Sunbeam sports cars and spawned the Tiger – another Carroll Shelby influenced car. Shelby had taken the AC Ace and dropped a V8 into it and created the Cobra, for Sunbeam he slotted a 4.3 litre Ford V8 into the Alpine to create the Tiger with the conversions done by Jensen.
In 1964, Rootes sold 30% of the company to Chrysler and this was the start of the slide into obscurity. Initially the Sunbeam models continued with the Alpine and larger Rapier coupe and then in 1967 Rootes was completely absorbed into the Chrysler fold.
Chrysler’s plan was to drop the marques in favour of their own branding and as such Sunbeam ended as a marque in 1976 but the name lived on for a few more years as a model name: the Chrysler, later Talbot Sunbeams were small 1600cc hatchbacks. Before the model and therefore the name died completely, the company worked with Lotus to win the 1981 World Rally Championship with the car fitted with a 2-litre 16 valve Lotus motor.