4th August 2020

Missing Marques: Sunbeam - A British Great

As a marque that began with engineering excellence and huge sporting success, many would have foreseen longer lasting success for what could have been one of the great British brands: Sunbeam.

From the earliest days of motoring in the UK, Sunbeam enjoyed considerable success at the highest levels of international motorsport. Thanks to its links to the aero industry, it had great skill at producing powerful, reliable and smooth engines.

After victory at the 1912 Coupe de L’Auto race in France in which its 3-litre cars took 1st, 2nd and 3rd place against major manufacturers such as Peugeot, Vauxhall and FIAT, more success on the track soon followed with Grand Prix wins throughout the 1920s, until the company turned towards a more elusive goal; speed records.

In 1925, Sunbeam claimed 152mph with the Tiger which, thanks to streamlining and a 300bhp V12 engine, was astonishingly capable for its small, 4-litre capacity. Just two years later however, all records were annihilated again when Henry Seagrave took his 1000bhp Sunbeam, featuring two Sunbeam aero engines, to the incredible speed of 203mph.

Sadly, despite sporting successes and engineering brilliance, sales to the public did not follow, and with sales already low, the Great Depression pushed the company into receivership.

Snatched up in 1934 by the Midlands-based Rootes Group, Sunbeam sat alongside the many other marques within the group, becoming an early example of what is now widely accepted as badge engineering.

Initially, Rootes combined Sunbeam with Talbot, using the Talbot coachwork on Humber underpinnings, with the upmarket name of Sunbeam-Talbot giving the new brand sporting credentials with the public for what were, in essence, very unsporting cars. By the end of the 1940s, the Talbot name was quietly dropped after some minor sporting success was found with the Talbot-Sunbeam ‘Alpine’ which prompted Rootes to launch the Sunbeam Alpine roadster, and the Rapier coupe.

While Sunbeam models were at this point not mechanically or structurally much different to the more prosaic models in any given line-up, the Sunbeam Tiger did make some waves in the UK and America when in 1964, a small block Ford V8 was added to the Alpine in place of the standard 1500cc four-cylinder engine. With the ability to keep pace with the fearsome AC Cobra of the time, the Sunbeam name finally had some genuine performance behind it.

History was to repeat itself again however, and as sales in other parts of the company faltered with the failure of the Hillman Imp and its Sunbeam-badged siblings, the American giant, Chrysler, moved in to buy the company.

While the Sunbeam-Lotus of the late 1970s proved a glorious swansong for the brand, by the time the last Talbot Rapier, badged as a Chrysler-Sunbeam, rolled off the production line in 1981, the Sunbeam name was never to be seen again on a motor car. No longer a Sunbeam, it was a sunset.

Do you have a Sunbeam, or differently badged version of a Sunbeam? Let us know your thoughts on the car in the comments below.