Sunbeam became a household name throughout much of the world as a result of the company’s many motor racing successes, both at home and abroad. Motor racing is a dangerous sport, and all too often accidents occur, sometimes resulting in serious injury, or even loss of life.


Until 1924, racing cars were usually two-seaters, with one seat for the driver and the other for the mechanic. Over the years many mechanics were badly injured or even lost their lives in horrific accidents. The story that follows has a tragic ending, but it was not in vain, it would change motor racing rules forever, and reduce the number of injuries and loss of life.



George and Ann Barrett. Courtesy of Tom Barrett (Tom’s nephew).



George Barrett was born in Ashdon, near Saffron Walden in Essex. He moved to the Midlands to find a job in one of the many factories in the area and started working for Tangye of Birmingham, who made pumps.


George married Ann Walton from West Bromwich on 26th October, 1872 and they moved to Wolverhampton when George got a job at Joseph Evans & Sons, who made pumps at Culwell Works, Heath Town.


They lived at number 3 Woden Road, which was close to the factory.


The couple soon moved to Lea Cottage, Prestwood Road, and later to 207 Prestwood Road.


They had 9 children: Albert, Alfred, Elizabeth, Emily, Jessica, Lillian, Mary, Tom, and William.

Tom Barrett


Tom Barrett was born on 21st November, 1891 at Prestwood Road. He attended Holy Trinity day School, and Sunday School at Heath Town. He also worshipped at Holy Trinity Church, where he was confirmed. He became a member of the church choir, and was remembered at the church as having a quiet dignity, and also full of fun.

The Barrett boys. Left to right: Albert, Tom, William, and Alfred. Courtesy of Tom Barrett (Tom’s nephew).

Another view of the Barrett boys. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Tom Barrett. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

He served his apprenticeship at Culwell Works along with his eldest brother William, and afterwards worked for Guy Motors, where he worked on the Dragonfly and Wasp aero engines.


They were produced as part of the company’s war work during the First World War, and as Tom was involved in vital war work, he wasn’t called-up into the forces.


At the end of hostilities in 1918, Guy’s involvement with aero engines ended, when any outstanding wartime orders were cancelled.


The only other Wolverhampton company that continued to produce aero engines after the war was Sunbeam. Tom managed to get a job there to work on aero engines.


At this time orders for new aircraft engines were few and far between and so the company decided to concentrate on airship engines, as this form of transport appeared to have a good future.

In 1919 two Maori engines were fitted to the British R.33 airship, and another two to the R.34. The R.34 even paid a visit to Wolverhampton and flew over the Sunbeam factory.

Sunbeam also supplied Cossack engines for the R.36 and R.37 airships. The last airship to be fitted with Sunbeam engines was the tragic R.38.

It was sold to the U.S. Navy and crashed over the Humber estuary, on 23rd August 1921, killing a large number of the crew. The R.34 also tragically crashed earlier in the same year, in bad weather, luckily without loss of life.

Airships were seen to be dangerous, and it is believed that due to the crashes, Tom wanted to work on something different, not related to them. As a result he moved into the Experimental Department where his expertise with engines would be most welcome. He was now a mechanic, working on the company’s successful racing cars.

Tom at work on the airship engines.

Tom enjoying a day out on his motorcycle.


Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Not a lot is known about Tom’s time in the Experimental Department, until the tragic circumstances that would soon lead to his untimely death. On September 2nd, 1924, Dario Resta and mechanic Bill Perkins competed for the company in the International Class ‘E’ Records meeting at Brooklands, in a 6-cylinder Sunbeam Grand Prix car. Things went badly wrong during the race when a tyre came off the wheel rim and Resta lost control of the car. Unfortunately Resta was instantly killed and Perkins badly injured.

A nearly completed car in the Experimental Department. Tom is at the wheel, and to the right, leaning on the car is Alec Broome. Next right is Jack Ridley. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.
Tom married Lillian Ivy Worthington-Roberts on 27th June, 1915. She came from Cannock Road, Wolverhampton, and they moved to 39 Burleigh Road, not too far from the Sunbeam works. He continued to be an active church goer and became a member of St. John’s Church choir.

Sunbeam employees. Front row left to right: Alec Broome, ?, Jack Ridley, ?, Frank Bill (lying down), ?, and Tom Barrett. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

The 1924 Spanish Grand Prix

Sunbeam’s next major event was the 1924 Spanish Grand Prix at Lasarte, San Sebastian on September 27th. Two of the company’s drivers, Henry Segrave and Kenelm Lee Guinness took part in the race along with their mechanics.

Bill Perkins should have joined the team as Guinness’s mechanic, but he was still in hospital recovering from the injuries that he received in the Brooklands crash, three weeks earlier. A replacement mechanic was required, and so Tom agreed to go in Perkin’s place.

The two Sunbeam cars, after being unloaded at the docks. On the left is Kenelm Lee Guinness, and on the right is Tom. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Spectators view the cars on their arrival. Behind the car on the left is Kenelm Lee Guinness, next right talking to him is Louis Coatalen. On the right next to the car is Tom. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.
Another view of the car on its arrival. Behind the car is Tom, who is being interviewed, possibly by a local newspaper reporter.

Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Tom’s wife Lillian often told how he went to Spain as Segrave’s mechanic, the other mechanic being Marocchi from Italy.

The senior of the two drivers was Guinness, and as Marocchi’s English was not good, and Guinness couldn’t speak Italian, he preferred Barrett. Segrave agreed to Guinness’s request as he could speak a little Italian, and took Marocchi instead.

Segrave and Marocchi. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

The race gets underway

Kenelm Lee Guinness and Tom, before the start of the race. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Another view of the car before the race. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

In a letter written to his mother and brother on the day before the race (Friday 26th September), Tom said that he was working long hours on the car. It had taken 5 days to get the car and spares to the course, and during that time he had to stay with the car and keep an eye on it at all times. He also mentioned that he was looking forward to returning home.

Tom's last letter. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Segrave mentioned in an article in the “Autocar” magazine that there had been a great deal of rain before the race. There were lots of curves to negotiate, and the slippery road surface made the course very dangerous indeed. It was decided that sand had to be scattered onto the road to improve matters. Unfortunately there was no sand locally, and so clay was taken from the surrounding fields and used instead. This converted the track into a very dangerous slippery course, which led to Tom's disastrous accident.


On the day of the race all went well until the 11th lap. The road surface was still slippery, and Guinness's speeding car hit a rut in the road, causing him to loose control. The two litre Sunbeam car left the road at Urnieta, turned completely round, went up the opposite bank, rolled over, then crossed the road again before coming to rest. Guinness was thrown clear, across a steep railway cutting, and collided with telegraph wires. He suffered serious head and limb injuries, and never raced again. Unfortunately Tom Barrett was trapped under the car, where he died from the terrible injuries he received during the crash. The cause of death is recorded in the coroner's report as the result of a pulmonary haemorrhage.

The damaged car after the race. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Another view of the damaged car. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

A final view of the damaged car. Louis Coatalen is standing behind the car (in the raincoat) and to the right is a friend of his, a countess. The look on their faces records the horror of what has just happened. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.
Segrave crossing the line at the end of the 1924 Spanish Grand Prix. He finished in first place.

From the Autocar Magazine, 10th October, 1924.

Segrave, his mechanic, and Count Florio after the 1924 Spanish Grand Prix. Count Florio was the donor of the cup. From the Autocar Magazine, 10th October, 1924.

The sad look on Segrave's face is presumably because he had just heard about the tragic consequences of the accident that had just happened to his colleagues. In later events, Segrave wore a helmet, most probably because of this accident.

After the Race

Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

The details on Tom's death certificate. At the time he was 32 years old, not 28 as stated on the certificate. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Tom’s funeral took place on October 16th at his familiar Heath Town Church. After the funeral he was buried in the graveyard behind the church. Many of Tom's ex-colleagues from both Sunbeam and the Joseph Evans factory came along to pay their last respects.


The following donations were made towards the cost of the funeral:

Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited
Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU)
The Works Club
Sunbeam employees
Prudential Assurance Company Limited
Royal Automobile Club of Spain


Because of the accident, the rules regarding mechanics riding in cars were changed, and they would no longer ride in the car with the driver. Due to this, Tom’s untimely death must have saved many lives, and greatly reduced the number of injuries sustained in the sport.


After the accident, Lillian Barrett was given a job at Sunbeam, in the office. She later worked as an auxiliary nurse at the Royal Hospital.

Tom's grave at Heath Town. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

Another view of the grave. Courtesy of Tom Barrett (Tom’s nephew).

The grave as it is today.

A copy of a cutting from an unknown newspaper, kindly lent by Jan Jeavons:

Tributes of Respect


Funeral of the late Mr. Thomas Barrett.


The large congregation at Holy Trinity Church, Heath Town, this (Thursday) afternoon on the occasion of the funeral of the late Mr. Thomas Barrett, of 39 Burleigh Road, was evidence of the esteem in which he was held.


Mr. Barrett, who was in the employ of the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited, it may be recalled, was killed in the Spanish Grand Prix motor race at San Sebastian on September 27th. The funeral had been delayed owing to the many formalities which had to be complied with.


Brought From Spain


The body, enclosed in a shell and placed in a Spanish oak coffin, covered with black velvet, bound with black silk moiré ribbon, was brought overland to Calais, and from Dover to Wolverhampton by road.


The choral service at the church was conducted by the vicar (Rev. J. W. Morison) and the Rev. H. T. Samuel (vicar of St. John’s, Wolverhampton). Members of the choir from both churches took part. At the conclusion, the organist (Mr. W. Davies) played Chopin’s ‘Marche Funebre’.


The Rev. J. W. Morison gave a short address, in which he recalled Mr. Barrett’s associations with the day and Sunday school, and the choir of Holy Trinity, mentioning also that he was a chorister at St. John’s Church, spoke of his devotion to duty, said how he was beloved of his mates, and expressed deep sympathy with the family and relatives in the loss they had sustained.


The mourners were Mrs. T. Barrett (widow), Mr. A. G. Barrett, Master Dennis Barrett (son), Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, Mr. and Mrs. Sedgley, Mr. and Mrs. Harding, Messrs. Fred and Bert Roberts, Mr. and Mrs. Ash, Mr. and Mrs. Tonks, Mr. A. K. Barrett, Mrs. Cole, Miss Sedgley, and Mr. Johnson.


Flowers from Former Mates


The coffin was borne to the chancel and afterwards to the grave by Messrs. Murray, Stokes, Taylor, Ridley, Kettle, and Scott, six employees of the Sunbeam Company; four from the experimental shop and two from the engine erection shop.


Among those present were Sir Algernon Lee Guinness, and the following representatives of the Sunbeam company: Brig. General Huggins, Messrs. C. B. Kay, G. F. Mortimer, S. Reed, T. Harrison, R. Webster, and V. Cozens.


On the coffin plate was the inscription, “Thomas Barrett. Died September 27th, 1924. Aged 32 years,” and conspicuous was a large wreath of Spanish crystallised flowers, to which the Sunbeam racing colours were attached, together with the inscription, in oxidised silver letters, “T. Barrett, E.L., R.A.C.G.”


Other floral tributes were sent by Sir Algernon Lee Guinness, Mr. Kenelm Lee Guinness, the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited, employees at Moorfield Works, the outworkers, and the experimental department, Captain Irvine, Clement Talbot Limited, St. John’s Choir, and former mates at Messrs. Joseph Evans & Sons.

The ribbon that was draped over the coffin at the funeral. Courtesy of Jan Jeavons.

I would like to thank Jan Jeavons, Tom’s granddaughter, and Tom Barrett, Tom’s nephew, for their help in producing this section.

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