Captain Jack Irving, Sunbeam's brilliant design engineer

Many of Sunbeam’s excellent products owe their success to the company’s exceptionally talented design engineer, Captain J. S. Irving who became Chief Experimental Engineer in 1918, and Chief Engineer in 1925. In the 1920s he was in charge of the development work on the Sunbeam racing cars, including the 1,000 hp. car that broke the world land speed record in 1927.
John Samuel Irving, known as Jack, was born in Manchester on 29th March, 1880. He attended private and board schools from 1885 until 1891, then attended secondary school from 1891 until 1893.

He did a general engineering course at the Coventry Technical Institute from 1897 until 1903, and in 1909 after completing a City and Guilds of London Institute course in Motor Car Engineering, was awarded a 1st Honours and received a silver medal. He then joined the Institution of Automobile Engineers.

In 1893 he started a seven year apprenticeship as a tool maker with the Fulwell Engineering Company, at Coventry, working under his father who was General Manager. Between 1900 and 1901 he worked for the Daimler Motor Car Company Limited at Coventry, before joining Samuel Robbins of Rugby, an early motor car dealer, as Depot Manager.

Jack Irving.

An advert from 1903.

In 1904 he rejoined Daimler at Coventry where he tested vehicles, before becoming Chief Instructor. From 1908 until 1910 he lectured in Motor Car Engineering at Coventry and Wolverhampton Technical Institutes.


In 1901 he was living at 59 Paynes Lane, Coventry with his parents Samuel Irving, age 46, born in Manchester, a cycle maker, and Louisa Ann Irving, age 44, born in Sydney, Australia. They had seven children; John Samuel Irving, age 21; Letitia Ellen Irving, age 17, born in Coventry, a watch finisher; Alice Grace Irving, age 14, born in Birmingham, also a watch finisher; Henry Irving, age 12, born in London; Harold Irving, age 9, born in Ilkeston; Amy Irving, age 7, born in Coventry; and Louisa Irving, age 7, also born in Coventry.


J. S. Irving left Daimler in 1911 and joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment, at Farnborough, where he was in charge of the Engine Research and Testing Departments. Whilst there he lived in Reading Road, Farnborough. He was involved in the development of airships. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the Royal Flying Corps where he attained the rank of Captain.

Jack Irving.

When the war ended in 1918 he joined the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited, in Wolverhampton as Chief Experimental Engineer.


He initially worked on the Maori IV engines for the R33 and the R34 airships, followed by the Cossack III engines for the R36 and the R38 airships.


He was also greatly involved in the design of Sunbeam’s racing cars including the 1923 French Grand Prix cars, and the extremely successful 2 litre racing cars. In 1925 he became Sunbeam’s Chief Engineer.


One of his greatest achievements at Sunbeam was the detailed design of the 1,000 hp. car that broke the world land speed record at Daytona Beach, Florida on Tuesday 29th March, 1927. Driven by Henry Segrave, it achieved a speed of 203.792 mph.


Ironically the record run was made on J. S. Irving’s 47th birthday.

In 1927 he became Chairman of the Wolverhampton Centre Committee of the Institution of Automobile Engineers. A post he held for twelve months. He was also an Associate Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a Member of the Society of Automotive Engineers of the U.S.A. In 1927 he became a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


Later in 1927, J. S. Irving left Sunbeam to join the Humphrey-Sandberg Company where he developed the Humphrey-Sandberg freewheel and easy gear change device for cars. Whilst there he was given permission to devote some of his time to the design and construction of the Irving Napier Special, known as the ‘Golden Arrow’. The car, built for Henry Segrave, was powered by a Napier Lion aero engine of the same type used in Supermarine Schneider Trophy seaplanes. It was capable of 925 bhp. at 3,300 rpm.


Golden Arrow was built in Kenelm Lee Guinness’s factory at Putney Vale in West London. The car was taken to Daytona Beach, Florida, where it was driven by Henry Segrave, and broke the world land speed record at 231 mph. on 11th March 1929.


Irving was then appointed Technical Director of Humber Limited where he assisted in the design of the Hillman Minx.


In 1931 he joined Bendix Limited of Kings Road, Tyseley, Birmingham as general manager. In 1936 to 37 he was President of the Institution of Automobile Engineers. After Bendix Amalgamated with Girling Limited in 1943, he became Technical Director, a post he held until his retirement in 1946.


J. S. Irving was a modest and kind man, who was always willing to offer a helping hand. In his workshop at home he used to make toys which were taken on Christmas Eve to the local children's homes. He died at Acocks Green, Birmingham on 28th March, 1953. A large number of people attended the funeral service, many from the automobile industry. He married in 1904, and was survived by his son and daughter.

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