Grant Ford doesn’t get to enjoy ‘real vintage’ machines very often, so a chance to spend time with a 1927 Sunbeam was grasped with both hands, now this reporter is ‘not for turning’.
John Marston was a perfectionist; his delight came from excellence in everything Sunbeam produced and this standard was set long before his first motorcycle left his Wolverhampton works. Work life began as an apprentice manufacturing ‘Japanware’ products wrapped in the highest quality black lacquer finish; this form of enamelling would continue from kitchenware to bicycles with his first foray into transport during the late 1800s.
At the turn of the century Sunbeam like so many other marques experimented with the addition of small combustion engines attached to their cycles. Following the death of a staff member whilst aboard one of these pro-visionary machines, plans were dropped in favour of Sunbeam Motor Cars. Thus the company was considered a late arrival on the motorcycle scene when it produced the John Greenwood designed 350cc machine in 1912. Powered by an ‘in house’ single cylinder, side valve engine unit, their first offering would include features that would become synonymous with the brand; oil bath chain case, beautifully finished and constructed by hand. ‘The Gentlemen’s Motorcycle’ had arrived and at 60 guineas a well maintained machine should offer decades of reliable transport. Immediately the brand was tested in the sporting trails of the day and as expected was able to outperform the competition of which there was no shortage.
The following year a publicity stunt to promote Wolverhampton’s finest involved climbing three mountains, first Snowdon followed by Ben Nevis and finally Mount Tosari in Java (Indonesia). Sales were buoyant prior to the First World War when the factory known as Sunbeamland switched over to supply the war department. Matt khaki and black Sunbeam’s saw service in France, Italy and even with the Russian Army on the Eastern Front, many coupled to a machine gun toting sidecar. As the war drew to a close tragedy struck the Marston family when their third son Roland died unexpectedly at just 45. Roland Marston was being groomed to take control of Sunbeamland and the shock certainly contributed to the passing of John Marston himself the day following his son’s funeral.
John’s wife Ellen passed away just six weeks later. The responsibility now lay at the feet of eldest son Charles who was leading the very successful Villiers Engineering Company. Utilising Marston’s old ‘Japanning’ works in Villiers St, Wolverhampton, Charles had developed reliable and affordable power plants used by many manufacturers. With death duties to pay and a post war Britain, Charles unsure of its future, decided to sell John Marston Ltd to a group known as Nobel Industries Ltd; they kept the Marston name and production continued featuring the same high standards as before. The Sunbeam Car Company had been set up in 1905 and although it bore the same name, it had been separate from all of Marston’s other interests and supplied aero engines during WW1, including the successful Sunbeam Cossack V12.
The early 1920s saw sporting success on two wheels with the return of the TT and senior wins for both works riders Tommy de la Hay and Alec Bennett. Land speed record attempts on four wheels saw Malcolm Campbell take a 350hp Sunbeam to 150mph at Pendine Sands in 1925. Alec Bennett would return to the Isle of Man in 1927 and win the Senior again, this time aboard a Norton; Sunbeam motorcycles would face new ownership this very year and a Model 2 chassis A1197 would depart the exit the works onto Paul Street, Wolverhampton; costing its first owner 63 Guineas or 6 months wages for the average working man. At the time Sunbeamland produced twelve models including two versions of the 350cc side valve; the Model 1 (touring) or the Model 2 (sporting). It was also the year Nobel Industries ran into financial problems and they joined with Brunner Mond Ltd to create the massive company ICI.
Although there was uncertainty for the 600 workforce at Sunbeamland, their huge parent company had little interest in the motorcycle business and so around 35 machines per week continued to leave the factory as before. With the Great Depression approaching the future for all things Sunbeam would become a treacherous road, especially for the hand built machines that saw falling sales into the thirties. ICI were finally able to dispose of the Sunbeam motorcycle and bicycle brands in 1937 when Associated Motorcycles took production to the home of Matchless along with AJS to Plumstead Road, London. The techniques and tooling used to construct these bespoke bikes were considered too worn or of no future use, thus scrapped. ICI kept Sunbeamland for radiator production; something John Marston had first introduced in 1906 for the expanding car industry and now became the sole security for the future of his Wolverhampton factory.
Eighty-Nine and Looking Fine
The Bonhams LOT 502 for auction at Olympia in December 2007 listed this 350cc Sunbeam as a Model 1/2, which one? My first question for owner Rob Aylott. ‘This bike features the full chain bath from the touring version together with the smaller foot pegs of the sporting version’ he informed me. The handlebars are flatter (underslung) as were the sporting version, I suggested this 350 is a Model 2 with the welcome addition of the rear chain oil bath. Rob enjoys a fine collection of classic and vintage machines with the Sunbeam being one of the youngest. What then was his reasoning behind the purchase of this particular machine? ‘My father a Sunbeam’, at which time he produced an image from the mid-30s when his father Effingham would take any opportunity to enjoy his machine most weekends. It was the first vintage machine Rob acquired upon retiring and something he had always promised himself. It is in the blood certainly and as a young apprentice aircraft design engineer my host couldn’t afford a car and like so many his bike was everyday transport.
Beginning with an Ariel Colt, Rob also remembers having a very early Honda 250 then an ex-Police 500cc Triumph during the 73 oil crisis. Rob’s association with the museum at Beaulieu goes back many years, he was able to offer support with their restoration of a 1936 Brough Superior, one machine his father always desired. A decision was made to find a Sunbeam Model 2 which could then enjoy Beaulieu’s workshop. Re-commissioned in 2008 the purchase proved to be very original, ‘authenticity is key as far as I am concerned and Beaulieu was able to verify that it is all very genuine’ Rob explained whilst comparing the bike in 2016 against the manufacturer catalogue from 1928. Sourcing a suitable pair of 2.75×21 inch tyres proved a challenge, so for immediacy, two fronts with more modern pattern were fitted. The magneto required specialist repair, debris inside the tank was removed and a full mechanical inspection carried out; essential for a machine that is known to have spent at least a decade inside an Austrian motorcycle museum.
A firm believer in riding regularly Rob will often use the Sunbeam to visit local shops, taking every chance to appreciate the south downs twisting roads. With plenty of vintage machinery at his disposal Rob finds the Model 2 the most usable of all his collection and so I was keen to understand the starting procedure prior to us enjoying a jaunt. The handlebar selection of levers is quite daunting for the novice; on the left, front brake, clutch lever and advance retard whilst the right hand deals with throttle and air levers plus decompressor and change gears. ‘There is no ‘twist and go’ with this old machine’ smiles our pilot. Before attempting to start, the pump on the tank is put to work and whilst this is not a total loss system both engine and gearbox need to be topped. Their oil is from the same source just redirected via a tap under the tank, Rob gives the gearbox several whilst the engine often receives its share on the move; especially when dealing with serious inclines. The space taken by a separate oil tank holding around 1.1 litres obviously restricts the fuel capacity slightly to just over 5 litres.
The exhaust and Ghost silencer received fresh nickel plate not long ago and the bright sunshine bounces from its surface whilst Rob points out an accident with a fuel spill will mean the tank needs attention on the left side. The Sunbeam still displays a quality of finish that drew gentlemen to their sales outlets a century ago, the black coating is deep and rich whilst fittings are lavishly plated. The original leather tool bags remain, as does the Lycett Aero saddle, showing signs of age but growing worn gracefully. The supplying dealer sticker is still present on the rear mudguard, the name of Alfred Chaston of Blackwood verifies this machine spent time in the Welsh Valleys.
The handle bar grips still proudly show the name John Bull and stamped into the hand throttle lever is AMAC to match the 26 x 2 ½ carburettor. The original order didn’t include the optional extra of a Lucas Magdyno electric lighting outfit, with large size headlamp and ammeter at £10.10s. Once primed, set and prepared, just two kicks bring the single to life and as the motor settles, Rob pushes the lever forward to engage first, then with a minimum of blue haze we go. Getting the ‘pullaway’ correct requires experience, the correct amount of engine thuds per yard takes practice. Rob’s handling of this vintage machine is impressive, his gear changes come with the minimum of graunch and reading the owner’s manual only enforces the fact.
Under the section ‘Changing Gear’ it states; ‘As soon as the machine is travelling at a good speed in low gear and the engine is beginning to run unnecessarily fast but not before, raise the clutch lever and simultaneously reduce the throttle opening. Then quickly move the gear lever from the low gear notch into the next gear position and at the same time release the clutch lever rather more quickly than before, simultaneously opening the throttle lever. It is well worth while acquiring this gear change artistically being the hallmark of a good driver’. Not for the uninitiated like myself but no doubt my guide knows how to handle vintage machines and I am sure being able to enjoy the same marque his father rode just adds to the pleasure. It was fascinating to spend time with the finest quality motor cycle of its era, which still behaves faultlessly in 2016, even after several hours of riding.
Words and images Grant Ford for Classic-Motorbikes.net