Sunbeam Bicycles

The company was founded by John Marston, a native of Ludlow, where his father had been Mayor of the borough and a Justice of the Peace. John’s education began at Ludlow Grammar School and continued at Christ’s Hospital School in London. On leaving school in 1851 he came to Wolverhampton as an apprentice to Edward Perry, tin plate worker and japanner at Jeddo works.

At the end of his apprenticeship in 1859 he purchased a japanning business at Bilston from Daniel Smith Lester. This venture proved to be a great success, so much so that two years after Edward Perry's death in 1869, John purchased Jeddo Works and returned to business life in Wolverhampton. All kinds of domestic products were produced and the company became one of the two largest makers of black enamelled ware in the country.

John was a keen cyclist and became interested in trying to improve the machines of the day. Around 1887 he constructed a rather crude and heavy bicycle with solid tyres. At the time, William Newill, the works foreman, built a much improved machine for his boss, with a special low frame because John Marston had short legs. The cycle had been finished in the usual japanning colours of black and gold leaf, and to the same high standard as Marston products of the time.

The story is told that John's wife, Ellen saw the sun reflected in the high gloss finish, and so the bicycle became known as 'The Sunbeam', the name being registered in 1888. John was so pleased with the cycle that he decided to manufacture them and gave William Newill a partnership in the new venture.

Read about John Marston and the company.

The first Sunbeam bicycles were exhibited at the Stanley Show in London during February 1889. There were 13 bicycles and tricycles on display at the company's stand, including a ladies tricycle and a safety bicycle that included the first part to be patented by Sunbeam; an eccentric crank bracket for adjusting the chain. Another exhibit at the show that would soon become a prominent feature of all Sunbeam machines was J. Harrison Carter’s oil tight chain lubricator and gear cover. The casing contained a small oil bath which lubricated the chain to reduce wear, kept it clean and improved power transmission. This was adopted by Sunbeam and from 1897 onwards would become known throughout the world as 'The Little Oil Bath'.

In May 1889 the company opened a London showroom and depot at 38 Holborn Viaduct and soon moved to larger premises at 51 Holborn Viaduct. William Travers, a famous bicycle racer was recruited as the London Agent and also acted as a consultant in future bicycle design. A. Gilbert, another bicycle racer became finishing shop foreman.

The following is a short description from "Bicycles & Tricycles of the Year 1889" by Harry Hewitt Griffin:

The Sunbeam Dwarf Safety Roadster. John Marston, Paul Street Works, Wolverhampton.

Marston's patent eccentric chain adjustment is a leading feature in this group of machines. This takes the form of an axle bracket, the upper shank of which is brazed into the foot of the seat pillar. Attached to this is a collar, forming a case carrying the eccentric flange, through the shoulder of which the axle passes. If the chain requires adjustment, the nut holding together the split lugs of the case is slackened, and the eccentric, by gripping the shoulder with a spanner, is turned forward or backward as desired. The total scope of the adjustment is equal to a link of the chain, so that if the chain becomes very slack, the eccentric can be turned back to enable a link to be removed; it can then be tightened up again.

Marston's patent eccentric chain adjustment.

Stay rods from the rear axle run into the butterfly flanges shown at the foot; a single stay runs from a flange at the other side up to the neck of the backbone. This very handy means of adjustment does away with the uncertainty of adjusting both sides alike, and permits a fixed rear axle.

The back frame forms a sort of triangle, the upper round fork tubes running into a sort of cap near the top of the taper seat pillar, the whole fitting being very neat. An Arab or other comfortable spring and saddle are fitted, and there is a good direct plunger brake acting on the pilot wheel. Instead of abrupt bends, the handlebar is brought back in a gradual curve. To the wheels are put direct spokes, crescent rims, and ¾in. smooth white tyres of an extra good quality (so good, in fact, that if the ordinary rubber is used instead, an allowance of 10s. is made), fixed on by Hookam's patented spring-wire process.

All the usual details are well carried out, and the Sunbeam deserves rank as a first-class machine at certainly a first-class price. Ball bearings are put to all parts; the square block pedals have adjustable cranks. Both wheels are 30in. List price: £21.

The Sunbeam Dwarf Safety Semi-Racer.

The Sunbeam Dwarf Safety Semi-Racer.
The lines of framework very much resemble those of the noted Demon Racer. The seat-pillar is stayed by slanting tubes from top and bottom direct to the centres, thus relieving the backbone of any strain. Adjustment is made by the usual rear fork slot. As in the stronger pattern, it has 30in. wheels, geared to 60in., hollow felloes, and wired-on ⅝in. tyres; the direct plunger brake is retained, but the whole framing is very light. Price: £18.10s.”

From "Cycling" magazine.

The following is a short description of a Sunbeam tricycle from "Bicycles & Tricycles of the Year 1889" by Harry Hewitt Griffin:

The Sunbeam Lady's Direct Steering Roadster. John Marston, Paul Street Works, Wolverhampton. A light and pretty machine. It has 32in. driving and 28in. pilot wheel. The frame is of the drop or “V” pattern, and the whole of the chain, and gear box at the back, is covered in by a leather guard. A slight help is given to the steerer by a couple of flat steel springs, fixed to the front pillar, and acting against a stud below the backbone. Although not a strong spring, like the old automatic steerers, the guides are sufficient to keep the wheel straight, an assistance to novices.

Tyres of the very best quality, fixed by Hookam's process, and a direct plunger spoon brake, are fitted, and the machine is a first-class one. The list price, with the usual fittings, balls all parts, and finished enamelled and plated, is £24. There is also a stronger Sunbeam, at the same price, for gentlemen.”

In 1890 Sunbeam exhibited some interesting new models at the Stanley Show. Their lightweight road racer weighed only 16 lbs, and the Light Roadster weighed 29 lbs. Also on display was the spring frame Sunbeam, an anti-vibration model. Unfortunately the idea did not prove to be successful due to the launch of J. B.  Dunlop's pneumatic tyre.

At the 1893 show Marston's launched the Sunbeam-Carter gear case after acquiring a manufacturing license from Harrison Carter. William Newill also had the idea of making the gear case fill a gap in the frame. The rear offside lower chain-stay was removed and soldered into the inside of the chain case.

In 1895 the business was incorporated under the Companies Act as John Marston Limited, and in the following year three more depots were opened. One at 157 Sloane Street, London, a second at 168 Deansgate, Manchester, and a third at 37 George Street, Edinburgh.

1896 saw the introduction of a new range of models, the only survivor from the previous year being the Ladies’ V.R.831, now called the 853.

The Royal Sunbeam was introduced in black, olive green, dark cherry, or dark navy blue. The catalogue listed four ladies models, the 853, 854, 856 and the “Gentlewoman’s Touring Sunbeam” with an upward sloping top tube starting from just below the seat lug.

A new rim with staggered spoking also appeared as did a head-lock, and for the first time a Sunbeam spanner was supplied free with every bicycle, along with a new design of oil can (except with the Sunbeam Special 848)

Also in 1896 John Marston patented a method of filling and emptying the gear case without spilling oil.

The 1896 catalogue.

Some Sunbeam models from 1896:

An advert from 1896.

A second London depot, in Sloane Street, opened in 1897, and the straight upper down tubes on the 853 & 854 were replaced by curved tubes, and became known as a loop frame bicycle, which remained popular for many years.

A new seat pillar was fitted to the Royal Sunbeams that allowed more adjustment and a more comfortable ride, and 3 spanners were supplied free of charge with each bicycle.

During 1897 the bicycle gear  case was advertised as the 'Little Oil Bath' and a Carter patent label placed on the inside of the case, under the pedal bracket where it couldn't easily be seen.

The 'Little Oil Bath'. Courtesy of Jim Boulton.

Sales rocketed and by 1898 there was an urgent need for expansion, particularly in the manufacture of components such as pedals. This resulted in the setting up of the Villiers Cycle Components Company to make them.

Read about Villiers'
bicycle components.
“The Scorching Sunbeam” appeared in 1899. It was a cheap machine without brakes, mudguards, or gear case. An important introduction in 1900 was the roller type free-wheel, with the bearings continuously lubricated by oil dripping from the cog and splashing up from the chain. The introduction of the free-wheel meant that more effective braking was required, so two brakes were introduced, a rod operated front rim brake and a pedal operated (back-pedalling) rear brake. Free-wheel and back-pedalling brake were an optional extra on all models.
1901 saw the appearance of the bicycle trailer, a device patented by J. Marston & J. Herbert, called the Sunbeam Cycle Ricksha. It first appeared at the National Cycle Show in November and had a wicker body on a steel tube frame, resting on elliptical steel springs.

The trailer fastened to the cycle by a clip on the seat pillar, with a ball and socket joint that attached to an adjustable connecting arm, so that the Ricksha remained upright even when the bicycle fell over. It weighed 33lb and could be purchased from the Sunbeam Cycle Agency, 95 Western Rd, Hove, Sussex.

In 1902 the “Featherwieght, Ladies Sunbeam” (design H.R.H.) was the first Sunbeam machine fitted with Roman rims as standard.

They were invented by Dr. R.I. Roman of the Roman Cycle Co., Lombard Street, London in 1897, and were joint-less alloy rims made from an aluminium alloy he called romanium.

Bicycle sales continued to rise and in 1903 over 1,000 “Royal” Sunbeams were sold, one customer being Sir Edward Elgar who purchased two of the machines with 28inch frames and three brakes.

He called them both 'Mr. Phoeus' and was an enthusiastic cyclist, often going to the works for a 'tuning'. The 'Gent's Royal' model sold for 16 guineas.

Sir Edward Elgar and one of his 'Royal' Sunbeams.

The epicyclic gear.

The same year saw the introduction of the famous silent 2 speed epicyclic gear, mounted inside the front chain wheel and fully enclosed and lubricated inside the gear case.

It was operated by a thumb lever to give a 25 percent increase above normal speed, later increased to 30 percent. It became the best epicyclic gear to be produced and was far better than the equivalent gear fitted by Sunbeam's competitors.

The only disadvantage caused by the fitting of the 'Little Oil Bath' was the difficulty of removing the inner tube on the rear wheel. Punctures in those days could happen frequently because of the poor state of the roads and the thin tyres then in use.

To overcome this problem Sunbeam acquired the exclusive right to use Professor Sharp's patented tyre removal system consisting of a divided axle, a spacer and a bolt. When the bolt and spacer were removed the wheel was only attached on the chain-stay side and so the inner tube could easily be slipped off. The new system appeared on machines in 1905

Sunbeam machines were several times more expensive than some of the competition and in order to secure sales, the emphasis on quality was essential. In 1907 the company launched a new top of the range model, the 'Golden' Sunbeam, costing between £17 and £25 and famous for its lining in real gold leaf.

Also that year's catalogue included the 'Featherweight Sunbeam' racing machine, weighing only 25lbs., and the “Royal Sunbeam tricycle”.

Also during 1907 Sunbeam obtained a patent for a better oil retention system for the 'Little Oil Bath' and William Newill's three speed hub was introduced.

This in conjunction with a 2 speed bottom bracket gear made the six speed Sunbeams possible.

Another of Sunbeam's innovations was the "almost" leak-proof oilcan. It seems that the company wasn't confident enough to declare the device fully leak-proof.
The Sunbeam Golden Tricycle.
1908 saw the launch of a sales campaign aimed at dealers. A 72 page booklet was issued to all agents, called “Hints for selling Sunbeam Cycles”. It stressed that Sunbeams were aimed at the top end of the market.

In the same year, a cheap model, the “Special Sunbeam” was introduced. It had no gear case, but came with a Villiers two-speed hub gear.


In 1909 Roman aluminium alloy rims were fitted to all models and the “All-Black Sunbeam” model was introduced in the autumn.

The following year all models were fitted with gear cases and without offside chain-stays, which were replaced by stays that were soldered onto the inside of the gear case.  The “Special Sunbeam” was discontinued.

An early 20th century view of Sunbeamland.


A new patent head-lock first saw the light of day in 1911 and new aluminium and rubber pedals were fitted to the
All-Black Sunbeams.

The 1913 Sunbeam tricycle. Courtesy of Jim Boulton.

By 1913 Sunbeam bicycles had reached their final form.

The highest standards of construction were used along with the best materials and the highest quality finish of any make of machine.

At the outbreak of World War One, Sunbeam and other manufacturers were put on limited war production by the Government and 'The Military Sunbeam' was made in large numbers for the French Government and sold in smaller quantities here.

The standard military machine had no oil bath, was finished in WD green and fitted with a front carrier. Extras included Joseph Lucas rifle clips and a rear carrier.

Sunbeamland, as portrayed in the 1914 catalogue.
The patent aluminium pedals for the Golden Sunbeams.
Courtesy of Jim Boulton.

Courtesy of Jim Boulton.

After John Marston's death in 1918 the company was acquired by a conglomeration of arms manufacturers who merged to become Nobel Industries Ltd.

Over the next few years a lot of investment took place which resulted in new buildings and machinery. Bicycle production continued much as before with the same models and high standards.

In 1921 the 'Golden' Sunbeam sold for 23 guineas and the 'Royal' sold for £21.

The “Special Sunbeam Light Roadster” was introduced in 1923, and sold for £19.18s.

The single geared machine was fitted with a gear case and 26inch wheels as standard.

Also a fixed wheel version with thumb lever brake was available for £17.17s and a free wheel version with two rim brakes, cost £18.18s.

Over the next few years there were noticeable price reductions and in 1926 the “New low-built Sunbeam” was introduced with 26inch wheels and an 11inch bracket.

The same year saw the introduction of the Sunbeam dismounting clutch.

The Low-Built Sunbeam.
More changes occurred at the end of 1927 when Nobel Industries joined forces with several other chemical companies to form Imperial Chemical Industries.

Production continued at Wolverhampton but it was now difficult to sell the expensive quality machines in the face of fierce competition from other manufacturers.

A Lady's Golden Sunbeam, on display outside the National Cycle Collection at Llandrindod Wells.
By 1928 there were many cycling clubs with enthusiastic riders and to cater for this market Sunbeam introduced the “R.R. Sporting Sunbeam”.

In 1930 the 'Royal' sold for 12 guineas and the 'Golden' sold for 16 guineas. Price reductions in the following year brought the price of the 'Royal' down to 10 guineas.

In 1935 ICI decided to dispose of the cycle and motorcycle side of the business. Profits were very low and a lot of investment would be needed to update the old methods of production that were still in use.

In 1937 the cycle and motorcycle business was purchased by Associated motorcycles, who moved manufacturing to their works at Plumstead in North London.

Luckily for the workforce ICI retained the works and concentrated on the production of car radiators.

This turn of the century poster was sold at Christies, South Kensington, in October 2001. The  spectators are watching a bicycle race, though it does not look like Molineux. Picture copyright, Christies Images 2001, by courtesy of Christie's Images.

Read George Peck's Memories
of Sunbeamland
  Look at the 1936 models from the Sunbeam catalogue

If you are interested in Sunbeam bicycle patents take a look at John Ward's excellent Flickr pages.


“Wolverhampton Cycles and Cycling” by Jim Boulton. Published in 1988 by Brian Publications.

“The Sunbeam Motorcycle” by Robert Cordon Champ. Published in 1980 and reprinted in 1986 by the Haynes Publishing Group.

Unless otherwise credited, the black and white images are from various Sunbeam cycle catalogues.

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