The Land Speed Record

In 1923 Malcolm Campbell persuaded Louis Coatalen to sell him the 18.3 litre, 350 hp. ‘V12’ Sunbeam car. He had high hopes of using it to break the world land speed record.

In June 1923 the Danish Automobile Club were holding their International Speed Trials on the beach at Fanoe Island, Denmark. He took the car there and on 23rd June made an attempt on the record. He achieved a mean speed of 137.72 mph. for each way of the 1 Kilometre course and a speed of 146.4m.p.h. in one direction. Unfortunately the Commission Sportive refused to recognise the new record because they did not approve of the timing apparatus.

During the winter months the car was sent to Boulton & Paul Limited in Norwich for wind tunnel tests and a new body. The car had proved difficult to control at speed and tended to veer to one side. It was hoped that a new streamlined body would overcome the problem and allow the car to reach higher speeds. After testing in a wind tunnel, a new long-tailed body was fitted and various mechanical improvements were made. After applying a coat of blue paint, the car became ‘Bluebird’.

In June 1924 the car was taken to Saltburn for another attempt on the record. On the first run he achieved 142.2 mph. and reached 143.39 mph. on his return run. A new electrical timing apparatus had been installed, but unfortunately it failed to record the time on the first run, this being timed by hand. Yet again his attempt on the record had been thwarted by the inadequate timing apparatus.

Campbell had the opportunity to return to Fanoe in August, but only agreed to do so if the timing was improved and also approved by the Commission Sportive. Accordingly they borrowed the official RAC apparatus, which was operated by the official timekeeper from Brooklands. All now looked set for a good record attempt and Campbell returned with the car in August. Large numbers of spectators lined the course to watch the attempt, but they were far too close for safety and Campbell's protests on the matter were ignored.

On the first run the car went well, but skidded, and both rear tyres came off. Luckily he managed to stop safely, and the rear tyres were replaced. On the return run the car started to veer towards the spectators as the tail swung out. Campbell found it difficult to control the car and the front offside tyre came off as the car skidded. He managed to keep on a straight course as he crossed the finishing line but unfortunately the tyre ran into the crowd and hit a small boy, who died from his injuries. The meeting was then abandoned.

Undaunted, Campbell took the car to Pendine Sands near Camarthen, South Wales, where he achieved his first major success. On September 25th he achieved a new world land speed record of 146.16 mph. He returned again on 21st July, 1925 and raised the record to 150.78 mph.

Donald Campbell and 'Bluebird' at Pendine Sands.

Another view of the car at Pendine Sands.

The record stood for less than a year because on 16th March, 1926 Henry Segrave took his Sunbeam ‘Tiger’ down to Southport Beach and set a new record of 152.33 mph. over a distance of 1 kilometre. Unlike Campbell’s ‘Bluebird’ the ‘Tiger’ had a modest 3.98 litre engine, but was of much lighter construction. After Segrave’s success, a great rivalry began between himself and Campbell, which would last until his untimely death in June 1930.

In 1923 a privately owned 3 litre Bentley competed in the very first Le Mans 24 hour race, with some success. This may well have been at the back of Coatalen’s mind when he designed the “Three-Litre Sunbeam”.


Six were built in 1925 and two were entered for that year’s race on 20th and 21st June.


The first car was driven by Jean Chassagne and Sammy Davis, and the second by Henry Segrave and G. Duller. Segrave and Duller’s car retired in the 26th lap with clutch trouble after leading the race for the first 11 laps.


Chassagne and Davis went on to finish in second place after completing the 1,343 mile course at an average speed of 55.9 mph.


They also received a 500fr award for the most comfortable body.


This was also the only British car to complete the course. 315 of the cars were built and although they were listed until 1930, a few were produced later.

From The Autocar, June 26th, 1925.

Chassagne driving the 3-litre Sunbeam at speed.

Back at the Works


Five new models appeared in 1926. The first, the 16.9 hp. would replace the 14/40 hp. and the 14/60 hp. The new 2 litre car had a 6-cylinder engine and would become the company’s most successful 1920s model. It remained in production until 1930 and around 3,500 were built. During that time several versions were introduced and improvements continuously made.


Another new car, the 20.9hp. would also remain on sale until 1930. It was powered by a 2.9 litre, 6 cylinder engine and around 2,500 were built. Another introduction, the 25 hp. was a larger version of the 20/60hp. with prices varying from £995 to £1250. This model also proved to be quite successful as during its six years in production a total of 1,356 were built.


The last two of the new cars for 1926 were the 30 hp. and 35 hp. both top of the range models, with a price tag to match. They were powered by an 8 cylinder engine and even the running chassis cost £1,050. Prices for the 30 hp. started at £1,295 and the 35 hp. varied in price from £1,850 for the Saloon to £2,280 for the Limousine and Landaulette. Only a small number were made.

An advert from 1927.

The Sunbeam Orchestra.

By 1927 around 4,000 people were employed at Moorfield Works, which had grown to cover about 30 acres. From 1927 onwards Louis Coatalen spent a lot of time in his native France and the works came under the control of Mr. Clement B. Kay, General Works’ Manager.
Although things still appeared to be much the same, Coatalen’s flair and strong leadership were missing, and the world wide depression at the time didn’t make things any easier.

The Sunbeam Male Voice Choir.

The Sunbeam Military Band.

Some of the new models introduced from now on would use components from earlier designs, in an attempt to reduce the large stocks of engines and parts at the factory.

As stocks dwindled, new or slightly different models were sometimes introduced. Although quality was never sacrificed.

Mr. Kay did much to promote a good team spirit throughout the workforce. He actively encouraged sports and recreation activities at the works.

The Sunbeam football club enjoyed many successes as did the cricket club. For many years the company had three separate cricket teams.

The Sunbeam Football Team.

One of the works' Cricket teams.

The musical society had a full orchestra with about 50 performers and the male voice choir won many awards throughout the country.

There was a military band, and dances and whist drives were held during the winter months. A large sports ground stood next to the works canteen and included football and cricket pitches and a bowling green.

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