Decline and Fall

Around 1926 things started to get a little shakier, as if reflecting the problems which Nobel Industries were having. In 1927 they amalgamated with Brunner Mond Limited to form ICI, a vast conglomerate of which John Marston Limited was but a small part. Initially this had little impact at the works, Sunbeamland remained under the control of Sidney Bowers, and Works Manager, F. T. Jones.

The company did not do badly under ICI, but motorcycles were not their chief interest, and this was certainly felt at Marstons, where 1927 became a year of uncertainty for the workforce.

Of course the general depression did not help. Motorcycle sales slumped and the company contracted. The machines were still good ones, but they had undergone a great change, no longer being the Rolls Royce of motorcycles, but a considerably less highbrow machine.

Luckily John Marston had decided to begin producing radiators in 1906 for the growing car industry, initially in Temple Street, then at Sunbeamland.

The radiators were a very popular product, and sold well, eventually becoming the company's most important asset.

Radiators were not only made for road vehicles, versions were available for aircraft, and industrial applications.

An advert from 1907.

An advert from 1919.

An extension to the works

The Elms, Penn Road.

On the opposite side of Penn Road to Sunbeamland stood an old square red brick house called the Elms.

It was built in the late 18th century, and was the family home of John Mander and his first wife Esther. John was the founder of Mander Weaver and Company, manufacturing chemists in Cock Street, Wolverhampton.

Because of John's profession, the house became known as  "Gallipot Hall" after the glazed earthen pots that were used for storing medicines.

The house had extensive grounds, and during the last years of its life was known by many people as the doctor's surgery because it was occupied by general practitioner, Dr. Brookes.

Around 1926 the house and grounds were purchased by John Marston Limited to make way for a new factory building.

The house was demolished in September, 1926.

The Elms Works in the mid 1950s.

A plan of Elms Works.

The new building, known as Elms works, or Clock Works because of the clock on the roof, opened in 1928. It contained the Service and Spares Department run by Joe Dudley, the stores run by Freddie Simpson, the Competition Department, the canteen and Social Club, and offices.

At the time, the staff were actively encouraged to participate in social and sporting activities outside working hours. As a result the Sports and Social Club upstairs acquired snooker tables, and became the meeting place of many sports teams, and even the 'Beamers' dance orchestra. Sporting activities included bowling, cricket, fishing, football, and tennis.

The canteen was also the site of the official celebrations when Charlie Dodson won the Isle of Man Senior T.T. in 1928. This was the company's third T.T. win.

An advert from 1928.

In November 1929 production of the Deloford portable boat began in an empty workshop on the top floor. The boat, made of plywood and rubberised sheet, could be packed flat for easy transportation. A lot of orders were received, the venture appears to have been a great success.

The first and second pages of a Deloford leaflet.


The third and fourth pages from the Deloford leaflet.

In 1929 Sunbeam finally adopted the saddle tank, which had been invented by Howard Davies in 1924. It was a significant year because Charlie Dodson won the Senior T.T. for the second year running, at an average speed of  72.05 m.p.h. He also made the fastest lap in 30 min.47 seconds at a record speed of 73.55 m.p.h.

Team mate Alec Bennett came second and Arthur Simcock finished in seventh place. To cap it all Sunbeam also won the team prize for the third year in succession. Sadly this was the company's last successful Isle of Man T.T.

1930 started badly. Sidney Bowers was taken seriously ill, and on January 26th, replaced by accountant Graham Bellingham. Sales were falling because of the depression, and a new range of models was announced in readiness for the Motorcycle Show.

Sidney Bowers' departure heralded the start of many changes that would take place at the works during the next few years, beginning with a costing exercise in the form of a time and motion study.

John Greenwood (standing) and Charlie Dodson, after his T.T. win in 1928.
The inspection was carried out by experienced employees who timed and checked all operations and procedures. This must have worried many of the 600 staff. The study led to a rationalisation process which ended many of the old-fashioned, uneconomical processes, such as the large amount of hand soldering of components. For the first time many components were purchased from other manufacturers rather then made in-house. One of the conclusions of the study was that many of the machines were worn out, but as investment was not a priority at the time, nothing was done about it.

Mark Homer's Sunbeam Lion.

A number of changes to the range of models took in 1930. The Model 6 'Longstroke' was restyled and called 'The Lion', which was named after one of the ICI trademarks. The design of the fuel tank was a departure from usual Sunbeam practice. The soldered petrol tank was replaced by a bought-in welded and chrome plated tank.

There was also the new 344 c.c. Model 10, which had an overhead valve engine, and was designed by Stephenson and Greenwood. It had a three speed gearbox, was lightweight and economic on fuel. Fuel consumptions of over 100 m.p.g. were not uncommon.

In the new range, the Druid-type forks were replaced by Webb-type centre spring forks, and soldered petrol tanks were discontinued (except on the Model 90) in favour of the welded, chrome plated bought-in type that was fitted to the 'Lion'.

In 1931 prices were reduced due to the continuing depression, and the company adopted more internal economies in an attempt to reduce manufacturing costs.

Sunbeam machines continued to take part in trials events, but racing was discontinued. George Dance left the company and moved to Diamond Motors, and then went into market gardening.

August 1931 saw the introduction of a 2-stroke outboard motor for boats. There were three versions, a 340 c.c. twin, a 102 c.c. single, and a 78 c.c. single.

It was produced at Wolverhampton for several years, and distributed by Merlyn Motors, Whiteladies Road, Bristol. It became known as the 'Seagull' outboard motor.

John Grew's Model 6 from 1930.

The 78 c.c. and 102 c.c. versions were tested on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal at Coven, near Three Hammers Farm. The 102 c.c. version was also tested on the River Severn. The 340 c.c. model was tested on the River Severn, near Lincoln Weir, Holt Fleet, Worcestershire. The engines were tested by G. E. Greenwood (son of John Greenwood), and F. W. Matthews.

Two views of the 'Seagull' outboard motor at the Black Country Living Museum.

View a list of
Sunbeam Staff

In 1932 only minor changes were made to the models. New detachable and interchangeable wheels were fitted to all models along with a 4-speed constant mesh gearbox. Sales continued to fall and more economies were introduced at the works. Most of the spares were sold off

In a further attempt to reduce manufacturing costs, the 'Lion' was revamped with a detachable cylinder head, and the Model 90 only produced in small numbers, because it was expensive to build, as much of the machine was hand fitted. The Model 10 was dropped, and the old 350 c.c. Model 8 reintroduced.

John Greenwood, known in the works as 'Cherry' Greenwood because of his red nose, retired in April 1934. As chief designer he had been the leading light behind the Sunbeam designs,

Sales were still falling and a re-assessment of the cycle and motorcycle production began at the works. By the summer of 1934 motorcycle sales had greatly declined, but bicycle sales had doubled, so more emphasis would be placed on bicycle production. Around the same time it was decided to greatly increase, and fully mechanise radiator production. As a result, many of the buildings in the factory yard were demolished and replaced in August and September by a range of modern assembly bays.

The writing was now on the wall for the cycle and motorcycle part of the business.

R. J. Cook's Model 8 from 1935.

At the 1934 Motor Cycle Show, Sunbeam introduced the 'High Camshaft' Model 16. It was designed by George Stephenson and had a duplex cradle frame, Burman gearbox, and powered by a 249 c.c. engine. It sold for £49.10s and was in production for about 12 months. Unfortunately sales of the machine were not good, due to competition from other manufacturers, particularly Velocette.

The 1934 catalogue featured the 493 c.c. overhead valve Model 95, a top of the range machine that sold for £95.10s and the 246 c.c. overhead valve 'Little 95' that sold for £69.10s. There were also the 500 c.c. and 600 c.c. 'Lion Longstroke' machines, the 250 c.c. overhead valve 'Longstroke', and the 350 c.c. Model 8.

The 1935 catalogue featured much the same range of machines as in the previous year, but all at greatly reduced prices.

Sunbeam bicycles and motorcycles were still in the doldrums and so ICI started to look at selling their two wheeled subsidiary. On the motorcycle side there was not too much to sell. ICI wanted to keep the factory, for which they had other work. There were no groundbreaking machines on the drawing board, no large order books, and not even a production line, production lines had never been quite the thing at Sunbeamland and the factory was not even designed for it.

In most years, only around 35 motorcycles were built each week. The best year for sales was 1930 when production briefly peaked at around 50 motorcycles a week. Although bicycles were made in larger quantities, only 2,000 to 3,000 were made in a year, at the height of production.

An advert from the early 1930s.

Motorcycles were always hand-built on a bench, production techniques never improved with time. This was quite a contrast to A.J.S. which used to be based at Graiseley Hill, where the latest machinery and production techniques were in use, and 20,000 to 25,000 machines were built in a good year. Because A.J.S. parts were accurately machined, they were easily replaced when necessary. Sunbeam spares still had to be hand-fitted, which could involve filing, or re-drilling holes to a suitable size.

The same range of machines remained in production in 1936 with two major innovations. All machines now used the new duplex cradle frame and several models had larger, improved brake drums.

During 1936 ICI continued to look for a buyer for Sunbeam bicycles and motorcycles, and clearly caught the attention of the Collier Brothers who ran Associated Motorcycles (AMC). Walter Iliff, Sunbeam's Company Secretary was blissfully unaware of this when he offered motorcycle sporting personality, George Rowley of A.J.S. the job of Sales Manager and rider. A.J.S. had been acquired by the Collier Brothers in 1931 and was now based at Plumstead. George accepted the job and returned to Plumstead to inform his employers of the situation. On his return he was told in secrecy that AMC were about to acquire Sunbeam. He instantly wrote to Iliff stating that he could not accept the job because he had to give 6 months notice to AMC. This must have been quite embarrassing for Iliff because he had already notified the press about George's appointment.

The sale finally took place in August 1937. On the afternoon of the sale, George arrived at Sunbeamland with an AMC Director, the AMC Production Engineer, and the AMC Paintshop Manager. They were clearly shocked when they looked around the factory and saw the antiquated production techniques. None of the machinery was of use, it was extremely old and worn-out. They decided to transfer the large stock of components to their London factory, along with the design data, and drawings etc. Everything else, including the machinery, was scrapped, and the factory records destroyed. AMC had however acquired the customer's goodwill, the brand name, and the dealer network. Two new companies were formed, Sunbeam Bicycles Limited, and Sunbeam Motor Cycles Limited, and production began at Plumstead.

ICI absorbed the whole of the cycle and motorcycle workforce into large-scale radiator production, which was essential to secure the future of the factory.


Today original Sunbeam motorcycles remain popular, and many of them are preserved around the world. They are not only preserved, but regularly used in rallies and vintage events, and still prove to be reliable. Although Sunbeam got off to a slow start with motorcycle production, they outlived most of their local rivals. When production ended in 1937, only one of the other early Wolverhampton motorcycle manufacturers, Wolf, was still building machines.

Sunbeamland, as it was several years ago.

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