Sunbeam was a marque registered by John Marston Co. Ltd of Wolverhampton, England in 1888. The company first made bicycles, then motorcycles and cars from the late 19th century to ca. 1936, and applied the marque to all three forms of transportation. A Sunbeam was the first British car to win a Grand Prix race, and set a number of land speed records.
John Marston was apprenticed to the Jeddo Works of Wolverhampton as a japanner (metal lacquerer). In 1859, at the age of 23, he bought two existing tinplate manufacturers and set up on his own, John Marston Co. Ltd. Marston was an avid bicycler, and in 1877 set up the Sunbeamland Cycle Factory, producing bikes known as Sunbeams. Between 1899 and 1901 the company also produced a number of experimental cars, but none of these were offered to the market.
The first production car named as a Sunbeam was introduced in 1901, after a partnership with Maxwell Maberly-Smith. The Sunbeam-Mabley design was an odd one, with seats on either side of a belt-drive powered by a single-cylinder engine of less than 3hp. The design was a limited success, with 420 sold at £130 when production ended in 1904. At that point the company started production of a Thomas Pullinger designed car based on the Berliet mechanicals. They introduced a new model, based on a Peugeot motor they bought for study, in 1906 and sold about ten a week.
In 1905, the Sunbeam Motorcar Company Ltd was formed separate from the rest of the John Marston business which retained the Sunbeam motorcycles and bicycles.
The French car desgner Louis Coatalen joined the company from Humber in 1909, and became chief designer. He soon reorganized production such that almost all parts were being built by the company, as opposed to relying on outside suppliers. He quickly introduced his first design, the Sunbeam 14/20, their first to use a shaft-driven rear axle, upgrading it in 1911 with a slightly larger engine as the 16/20.
Coatalen was particularly fond of racing as a way to drive excellence within the company, noting Racing improves the breed. After designing the 14/20 he started the design of advanced high-power engines, combining overhead valves with a pressurized oil lubrication system. In 1910 he built his first dedicated land-speed-record car, the Sunbeam Nautilus, powered by a 4.2 litre version of this engine design. The Nautilus implemented a number of early streamlining features, known as wind cutting at the time, but the custom engine suffered various problems and the design was eventually adbandoned. The next year he introduced the Sunbeam Toodles II, which feature an improved valve system that turned it into a success. Coatalen won 22 prizes in Toodles II at Brooklands in 1911, and also achieved a flying mile of 86.16 mph to take the 16 hp Short Record. Sunbeam cars powered by more conventional (for the time) side-valve engines featured prominently in the 1911 Coupe de l’Auto race, and improved versions won first, second and third the next year. Sunbeams continued to race over the next few years, but the company had moved on to other interests.
Coatalen also designed a number of passenger cars, notably the Sunbeam 12/16. By 1911 they were building about 650 cars a year, at that time making them a major manufacturer.
The war years
Starting in 1912 they had also branched out into aircraft engines, introducing a series of engines that were not particularly successful commercially. Coatalen seemed to be convinced that the proper solution to any engine requirement was a design for those exact specifications, instead of producing a single engine and letting the aircraft designers build their aircraft around it. Their closest brush with success was with the lightweight V8 Sunbeam Arab, which was ordered in quantity in 1917 but suffered from vibration and reliability problems and only saw limited service and the V12 Sunbeam Cossack. Meanwhile Coatalen continued to experiment with ever-more odd designs such as the star-layout Sunbeam Malay which never got beyond prototype, air-cooled Sunbeam Spartan and Diesel-powered Sunbeam Pathan. The company was fairly successful with the introduction of newer manufacturing techniques, however, and was one of the first to build aluminum single-block engines, a design that would not become common until the 1930s.
During World War I the company built motorcycles, trucks and ambulances. The company also participated in the Society of British Aircraft Constructors pool, who shared aircraft designs to anyone that could build them. Acting in this role they produced Short Bombers powered by their own Sunbeam Gurkha engines, Avro 504 trainers, and even designed their own Sunbeam Bomber which lost to a somewhat simpler Sopwith design. In total they produced 647 aircraft of various types by the time the lines shut down in early 1919.
In the immediate post-war era, Sunbeam aero engines could be found in a number of record-breaking cars. A 300 hp Sunbeam Manitou, originally designed to power the R34 airship, powered one of these, which over a series of owners eventually allowed Malcolm Campbell to officially capture the world speed record at 150.766 mph after renaming it the “Bluebird”. Coatalen decided to re-enter the field himself, building the truly gigantic Sunbeam 1000HP powered by two 500 hp engines. In March 1927 the car captured the speed record again at 203.792 mph, a record that stood for a number of years.
On August 13, 1920, Sunbeam merged with the French company Automobiles Darracq S.A.. Alexandre Darracq built his first car in 1896, and his cars were so successful that Alfa Romeo and Opel both started out in the car industry by building Darracqs under licence. In 1919 Darracq bought the London-based firm of Clement-Talbot to become Talbot-Darracq in order to import Talbot’s into England. Adding Sunbeam created “Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq,” or “STD Motors.”
STD Motors went bankrupt in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression. By this point only Talbots was still a success, and in 1935 that portion was purchased by the Rootes Group. The receivers eventually sold the rest of the company to William Lyons of “SS Cars,” who was looking for a name change given the rising Nazi connotations. But just as the deal was supposed to close, Rootes purchased Sunbeam out from under Lyons, who was justifiably upset. He then changed the name of SS Cars to Jaguar.
Rootes was an early proponent of badge engineering, building a single mass-produced chassis and equipping it with different body panels and interiors to fit different markets. He ended production of existing models at all the new companies, replacing them with designs from Hillman and Humber that were more amenable to mass production. For many years the “Sunbeam-Talbot” marque was used on their upscale versions, while Hillman was use on base models and Humber on trucks. The Talbot name was dropped in 1954 for the Sunbeam Alpine sports car, making Sunbeam the sports-performance marque.
In 1959 a totally new Alpine was introduced, and the 1955 Rapier (essentially a badge-engineered Hillman Minx) was upgraded. After several successful series of the Alpine were released, director of US West-Coast operations, Ian Garrad, became interested in the success of the AC Cobra, which mounted a small-block V-8 engine in the small AC Ace frame to create one of the most successful sports cars of all time. Garrad became convinced the Alpine frame could also be adapted the same way, and contracted Carroll Shelby to prototype such a fit with a Ford engine. The result was the Sunbeam Tiger, released in 1964, which went on to be a huge success.
The Chrysler era
But by this point Rootes was itself in financial trouble. Talks with Leyland Motors went nowhere, so in 1964 30% of the company (along with 50% of the non-voting shares) was purchased by Chrysler, which was attempting to enter the European market. Ironically, Chrysler had purchased Simca the year earlier, who had earlier purchased Automobiles Talbot, originally the British brand that had been merged into STD Motors many years earlier.
Chrysler’s experience with the Rootes empire appears to have been an unhappy one. Models were abandoned over the next few years while they tried to build a single brand from the best models of each of the company’s components, but for management “best” typically meant “cheapest to produce” which was at odds with the former higher-quality Rootes philosophy. Brand loyalty started to erode, and was greatly damaged when they decided to drop former marques and start calling everything a Chrysler. The Tiger was dropped in 1967 after an abortive attempt to fit it with a Chrysler engine, and the Hillman Imp-derived Stiletto disappeared in 1972.
The last Sunbeam produced was the “Rootes Arrow” series Alpine/Rapier fastback (1967-1976), after which Chrysler, who had purchased Rootes, disbanded the marque. The Hillman (by now Chrysler) Hunter on which they were based soldiered on until 1978. A Hillman Avenger-derived hatchback, the Chrysler Sunbeam, maintained the name as a model rather than a marque from 1978 to the early 1980s, with the very last models sold as Talbot Sunbeams. The remains of Chrysler Europe were purchased by Peugeot and Renault in 1978, and the name has not been used since.
• Sunbeam Mabley 1901-1904
• Sunbeam 12hp 1903-1910
• Sunbeam 16/20 and 25/30 1905-1911
• Sunbeam 20 1908
• Sunbeam 35 1908-1909
• Sunbeam 16 1909
• Sunbeam 14/20, 16/20, and 20 1909-1915
• Sunbeam 12/16 1910-1911
• Sunbeam 18/22, 25/30 and 30 1911-1915
• Sunbeam 12/16 and 16 1912-1915
• Sunbeam 16/20 1912-1914
• Sunbeam 16 and 16/40 1919-1921
• Sunbeam 24, 24/60 and 24/70 1919-1924
• Sunbeam 14 and 14/40 1922-1923
• Sunbeam 20 and 20/60 1923-1926
• Sunbeam Super Sport 1925-1930
• Sunbeam 30 and 35 1926-1929
• Sunbeam Long 25 1926-1932
• Sunbeam Sixteen 1924-1933
• Sunbeam Twenty 1929-1935
• Sunbeam Twenty-Five 1929-1935
• Sunbeam Three Litre 1925-1930
• Sunbeam Speed Twenty 1933-1935
• Sunbeam Dawn 1934-1935
• Sunbeam-Talbot Ten 1938-1948
• Sunbeam-Talbot Two Litre 1939-1948
• Sunbeam-Talbot Three Litre 1938-1940
• Sunbeam-Talbot Four Litre 1939-1940
• Sunbeam-Talbot Ten 1938-1948
• Sunbeam-Talbot Two Litre 1939-1948
• Sunbeam-Talbot 80 1948-1950
• Sunbeam-Talbot 90 1948-1954
• Sunbeam Alpine
• Sunbeam Rapier
• Sunbeam Sport
• Sunbeam Tiger
• Sunbeam Imp Sport 1966-1976
• Sunbeam Stiletto 1967-1972
• Sunbeam Vogue
• Sunbeam Crusader V8, 150 hp
• Sunbeam Zulu V8, 160 hp, developed from Crusader
• Sunbeam Mohawk V12, 225 hp
• Sunbeam Gurkha V12, 240 hp, developed from Maori
• Sunbeam Cossack V12, 320 hp, 18.4 litres
• Sunbeam Nubian V8, 155hp, 7.7 litres
• Sunbeam Afridi V12, 200 hp, 11.476 litres
• Sunbeam Maori V12, 250 hp, 14.7 litres, developed from Afridi
• Sunbeam Amazon Straight-6, 160 hp, 9.2 litres, developed from Cossack
• Sunbeam Saracen Straight-6, 200 hp, 11.2 litres, developed from Amazon
• Sunbeam Viking W18 “Broad Arrow” 450 hp, 33.6 litres, developed from Cossack
• Sunbeam Arab V8, 200 hp, 11.8 litres
• Sunbeam Bedouin inverted V8, 200hp, 12.3 litres, developed from Arab
• Sunbeam Manitou V12, 325 hp, 14.7 litres, developed from Maori
• Sunbeam Tartar V12, 300 hp, 15.4 litres
• Sunbeam Kaffir W18 “Broad Arrow” 300 hp, developed from Arab, 18.3 litres
• Sunbeam Spartan V12, 200 hp, 14 litres, air-cooled
• Sunbeam Matabele V12, 400 hp, 22.4 litres, developed from Cossack
• Sunbeam Malay Five-pointed star arrangement of 20 cylinders, 500 hp, 29.4 litres
• Sunbeam Pathan Straight-6, 100 hp, 8.8 litres, diesel
• Sunbeam Dyak Straight-6, 100 hp, 8.8 litres
• Sunbeam Sikh V12, 800 hp, 64.1 litres