The story of how a Wolverhampton racer broke the world land-speed record 100 years ago

A 100 years ago this month, Kenelm Lee Guinness clambered into his car for the drive of his life.

The Sunbeam 350hp outside the company's works in Upper Villiers Street, Wolverhampton
The Sunbeam 350hp outside the company's works in Upper Villiers Street, Wolverhampton

He rammed the accelerator to the floor, wrestled with the steering wheel, and pushed his Wolverhampton-made racer around Brooklands at speeds previously unknown to man.

The story of how the Sunbeam works driver broke the world land-speed record on May 17, 1922, is the subject of the first talk by a new history charity later this month.

The Museum of Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire has been launched to mark the centenary of Lee Guinness's triumph, with the view to promoting the history of the area through a series of exhibitions and talks.

The organisation will collect and preserve items relating to the history of the area, and eventually intends to open a museum where people can view the collection.

It will begin with a talk about the 1922 triumph at Brooklands which will be held on May 25 at Penn United Reformed Church.

The Sunbeam at Pendine Sands

The Sunbeam 350hp was unlike any car you would have seen on the road at that time. While for most people, the electric starter motor recently introduced on the Ford Model T represented the cutting edge of automotive technology, the Sunbeam was something else.

While the Model T had a 2.9 litre engine, producing a modest 20bhp, the Sunbeam was powered by an 18.3 litre engine designed from an aeroplane – producing 357bhp, which would give many of today's performance cars a run for their money. And when Lee Guinness drove it at Brooklands in 1922, he set not one but three records: the land-speed record over a mile, at 129.17mph, the land-speed record over a kilometre, at 133.75mph, and the fastest lap of the circuit at 123.3mph.

The car had been built at the Sunbeamland works in Upper Villiers Street during 1919-1920. But while its fearsome engine certainly had the power, its Achilles heel would be the gearbox which was not strong enough to manage the power.

While most drivers found the Sunbeam 350hp too unruly to handle, Lee Guinness was one of the few with the skill to tame the ferocious beast.

Another was Malcolm Campbell, who reached 137.72mph when he borrowed the car to take part in the Saltburn Speed Trials the following month. But because the feat had been recorded on a manual stopwatch, it was not considered an official record.

Malcolm Campbell behind the wheel of the Sunbeam

After persuading Sunbeam boss Louis Coatelen to sell him the car, Campbell painted it his favourite shade of blue and renamed it the Bluebird.

On September 25, 1924, Campbell used the car to set a new land-speed record of 146.16mph at Pendine Sands in Wales, and returned to Pendine the following year where he became the first driver to reach 150mph.

The car is now at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire, where it recently benefited from a major restoration.

The Sunbeam has recently been restored at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu

Andy Sloane, chairman of the new museum trust, said the organisation had put together an exciting calendar of events for its inaugural year.

The talk, by Paul Hutton of the Marston Sunbeam Club, at 7.30pm. Tickets are prices £7. For more information see the website,

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