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Historic Sunbeam photo album uncovered at auction

By Marion Brennan | Wolverhampton | News | Published:

A photo album snapped up at auction has sent ripples of excitement pulsing through the small but devoted community of Sunbeam motor car enthusiasts.

The piece of transport history contains photographs and information about every item – from cars to wheel nuts – produced at the Wolverhampton-based Sunbeam factory between 1931-33.

Sunbeam, one of the great names in British car manufacturing, employed 4,500 people at the height of its success in the 1920s. But despite its reputation for quality cars, it fell into financial difficulties and production was stopped in 1935. Rootes took over but many precious records were subsequently lost or thrown out.

Much work has been done by fans of the iconic brand, who launched the Sunbeam Talbot Darracq (STD) Register in 1950 for owners and supporters, to preserve documents, drawings and other data relating to the car. They are thrilled by this latest discovery.

A Sunbeam 12–16HP parked up for a picnic and a photocall, circa 1913

Ben Yates, archivist of the STD Register, said: “The album is an important find – even better than expected.

“We’ve never had a full record for any period of production so this is really quite special. It’s an official company reference volume – we never even knew of the existence of Sunbeam’s own listings.

“We have other albums of photos produced by various companies but not a continuous record of production over more than two years, showing not only all the company’s products but the works, state-of-the-art machines and people working them.”

The group paid almost £1,000 for the album at a recent auction by Cuttlestones in Wolverhampton.

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The Sunbeam Silver Bullet which made an unsuccessful land-speed bid in 1930

The album was previously owned by a local man, now 72, whose grandfather worked at Sunbeam, thought to be as a toolmaker.

His father also worked for the company, joining directly from school, and towards the end of its existence was based in the bus section. He then transferred to Guy Motors, who bought the Sunbeam Trolleybus Company in 1949.

According to the vendor, who does not wish to be named, his father ‘rescued’ the album in 1935 when Sunbeam went into liquidation as the volume, along with the majority of company records which were simply being thrown out.

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Mr Yates said: “This is a story we have heard from many former Sunbeam employees, particularly at the Wolverhampton rallies the STD organised from the 1950s until the Centenary Rally in 1999.”

He added: “There are, apparently, no longer any surviving employees.”

The world record–breaking 1000HP Sunbeam which reached 203 mph in 1927

Realising its importance, and with no descendants to pass the album on to, the vendor offered it for sale.

Mr Yates said it is likely that other Sunbeam employees also rescued records when the company closed and is appealing to Express&Star readers to get in touch if they know of any other documents or photographs that survived the cull.

The club has some photographs and glass negatives taken by professional photographers at the time and a limited sample of sales ledgers and board meeting minutes. There are also ‘a fair number’ of surviving sales catalogues, car handbooks and parts’ lists as these were largely in the hands of car owners rather than the factory.

“The period covered by the album suggests that other albums existed – and we would love to obtain them,” said Mr Yates.

A photograph album sold at auction has thrown up gems like this picture of a 16HP Sunbeam staff car during the First World War – which was a time when the firm made only aero–engines

The Sunbeam name was registered in 1888 by Shropshire-born John Marston, at a time when bicycle manufacture was just beginning. Marston was a perfectionist and the bicycles produced at the Sunbeamland works quickly gained a reputation for being of the highest quality. During this period Marston began experimenting with the production of motorcycles and also founded the Sunbeam Motorcar Company in 1905. The main factory, erected in the same year, was in Upper Villiers Street, and was one of the earliest purpose-built car factories in England.

Another factory was built in 1907 on the opposite side of the road and was christened the Moorfield Works after the road that framed the southern boundary of the factory. There were also smaller production units at Owen Road, Temple Street and Ablow Street.

Sunbeam expanded into motorcycle production in 1911, and won many famous races including the Isle of Mann TT. The French car designer Louis Coatalen had joined the company two years earlier and become chief designer, reorganising production so that almost all parts were built in-house instead of relying on outside suppliers. During the First World War, the company was just as famous as aero-engine manufacturers with Sunbeam becoming a clear rival to Rolls-Royce. Their engines powered aircraft for more than 10 years.

An aerial view of Sunbeam pre–First World War

In particular, Sunbeam engines powered seaplanes and airships, including the only aircraft to fly at the Battle of Jutland, and the first to sink a warship with a torpedo.

However the company’s reputation for aero-engines, the best being the V12 Cossack and the Maori, was ruined by the V8 Arab which was found to have severe vibration problems.

Locally a Sunbeam Manitou can be found in the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, and the last surviving Arab in the world, is in the RAF Museum Cosford.

A Sunbeam 16–20HP which belonged to the Indian prince, Nizam of Hyderabad

The final successes of Sunbeam aero-engines were on the ground, where they powered land-speed record-breaking cars at speeds never achieved by Sunbeam-powered aircraft. In 1920 the firm had merged with Talbot of London and Darracq of France to form the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq Group (STD).

Under racing enthusiast Coatalen’s influence, Sunbeam became heavily involved in land speed record attempts, attracting top drivers. Both Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave used Sunbeam V12s for their world land-speed record attempts.

On March 16, 1926, Segrave set a land-speed record of 152.33 miles per hour in a a 4-litre Sunbeam Tiger on Ainsdale beach at Southport.

The following year he raised the mark still higher when he reached 203.79 mph in a 1000 horsepower Sunbeam Mystery – also known as ‘the Slug’ – at the Daytona Beach Road Course on March 29, 1927 becoming the first person to travel over 200 mph. The feats were a great double for the Wolverhampton car company. However, with these triumphs came cash problems for the company, and by the 1930s it had gone into receivership, closing its Moorfield Works site in 1936.

How Wolverhampton's former Sunbeam factory used to look.

Its British assets were acquired by Rootes Securities who continued car production for only a few months.

The remainder of the company continued to manufacture trolleybuses, aircraft, motor cycles and commercial vehicles. In 1946 the company was bought by the Brockhouse Group and in 1948 by Guy Motors. They switched production to a new factory at Fallings Park around 1953.

Anyone with Sunbeam records or memorabilia can contact Ben Yates via the club’s website at: stdregister.org.uk

Marion Brennan

By Marion Brennan
@Marion_EStar

News and features reporter, specialising in human interest and local history stories.

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