Historic Car Brands



The ‘Sunbeam’ name was registered by John Marston in 1888 for his bicycle manufacturing business and Sunbeam motor car manufacture began in 1901. The motor business was incorporated into the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited in 1905 and Sunbeam motorcycles were not made until 1912.


Between 1899 and 1901 Sunbeam produced a number of experimental cars, but none was offered for sale. One had a two-seat body on a channel steel frame powered by a single-cylinder, four-horsepower, horizontal engine with electric ignition. The engine was designed to run at 700rpm, using two forward speeds and reverse, with belt drive to differential gears on the live axle.


1901 Sunbeam-Mabley – Alf van Beem


What happened then was weird: the first production Sunbeam was designed by a young architect, Maxwell Mabberly-Smith, who probably should have stuck to doing houses. 

Powered by a single-cylinder 2¾hp De Dion engine, it had its wheels disposed in a diamond pattern and carried two passengers, plus the driver, who steered with a tiller. The centrally-located wheels did the driving.

Somehow, Sunbeam sold hundreds of these contraptions, before London-born Thomas Charles Willis Pullinger joined Sunbeam in 1902, after working in France with Alexandre Darracq as Darracq’s designer and personal assistant. (He later designed perhaps the first small car and certainly designed the first water-cooled cylinder head.)

Pullinger recommended that Sunbeam buy a car from an established firm, then gradually delete certain components that would be made by Sunbeam, until all that was bought-in would be the engine. His suggestion was a recently superseded Berliet design.


1903 Sunbeam – Buch T


In late 1902, Sunbeam launched a Berliet-derived, 2.4-litre, 12hp, four-cylinder car, with a side-valve engine beneath a bonnet at the front, a four-speed gearbox, chain rear drive and all four artillery wheels of the same size fitted with pneumatic tyres. 

In February 1904 the 12hp car was joined by a 3.6-litre, six-cylinder, 16hp stablemate. The new car featured Sunbeam-designed chain cases, so the chains ran in oil to reduce noise and keep out dirt.

In January 1905, the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Ltd was formed to separate it from the John Marston Sunbeam Cycles business.

In 1906 the four was bored out to 3.4 litres and the six to 5.1 litres.

The Breton car designer, Louis Coatalen, joined Sunbeam from Hillman-Coatalen in 1909, and became chief designer. He reorganised production so almost all parts were built in-house, instead of relying on outside suppliers’ variable quality components

His first design was the 3.8-litre, four-cylinder, side-valve, T-head, cross-flow Sunbeam 14/20 that had a shaft-driven rear axle.It was upgraded in 1911 with a tuned engine and rebranded 16/20.

By 1911 Sunbeam was building about 650 cars a year and was regarded as a substantial motor manufacturer.


1914 Sunbeam 12/16 – Karen Roe


In 1912, the 58hp, 2.4-litre, four-cylinder, side-valve, T-head, cross-flow 12/16 arrived and took the first three places in Dieppe’s Coupe de l’Auto two-day race for sub-three-litre cars. The first of the three cars was also third in the Grand Prix car division.

In 1912 Coatalen designed a series of aircraft engines that were not a commercial success, but along the way the company became one of the first to build aluminium single-block engines.


1916 Sunbeam Australian Imperial Force Ambulance – State Library SA


During the First World War Sunbeam built trucks, ambulances and 647 aircraft of various types by the time the lines shut down in early 1919.

A series of personal misfortunes hit Sunbeam, when Marston’s third son, Roland, suddenly died in March 1918 and John Marston himself died the morning after Roland’s funeral.

In 1919, Darracq bought a London motor manufacturer, Clément-Talbot and in June 1920 Darracq bought the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited. The Sunbeam Talbot and Darracq businesses retained their separate identities.


1922 Sunbeam 14 – Kevin Johnson-Bade


On 13 August 1920 Darracq changed its name to STD Motors Limited, representing Sunbeam, Talbot and Darracq.

At its height in the 1920s, Sunbeam Motor Car Company’s Moorfield works employed 3500 staff on a 50-acre site, where the buildings covered 15 acres.


Kenelm Lee Guinness’ Sunbeam at the 1922 French Grand Prix


Sunbeam’s great racing era was in the 1920s under Coatalen’s leadership, when well-engineered, reliable cars earned a great reputation on the track.

Coatalen built racing cars for Henry Segrave, who won the French and Spanish GPs in 1923/4. In 1921 Segrave participated in his first Grand Prix in a Talbot that was a re-badged 1921 Grand Prix Sunbeam, powered by a straight-eight, twin-overhead-camshaft, four-valve-per-cylinder, aluminium-block engine.

Sunbeam also built a Brooklands racer with a purpose-built, V12, 18.3-litre engine whose design was a hybrid of the Sunbeam Manitou and the Sunbeam Arab aero engines. This famous Sunbeam 350HP established three Land Speed Records and was bought by Malcolm Campbell, who named it Blue Bird and in September 1924 achieved a new record speed of 146.16mph at Pendine Sands in South Wales, raising it the following year to 150.76mph. 


Sunbeam 350 – Hermans


In the same year, Coatalen’s new 3-litre Super Sports came second at Le Mans, beating Bentley.

In 1926, Segrave captured the LSR in a new 4-litre V12 Sunbeam racer originally named Ladybird and later renamed Tiger. Coatalen decided to re-enter the LSR field himself, building the truly gigantic Sunbeam 1000HP, powered by two 450hp Matabele engines.

Sunbeam 1000HP – David Hunt


On 29 March 1927 the car captured the speed record at 203.792mph it’s now at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, UK.

Coatalen’s obsession with improvement meant that there were numerous small changes in models from year to year. Therefore, although his designs are basically similar, few parts are interchangeable. 


Coatalen aboard the Sunbeam Nautilus


Two models dominated production: 1920–24 16hp, 16/40, 24hp, 24/60 and 24/70 models, based on pre-war designs; 1922–23 14hp, the first post-War four-cylinder; 1924 12/30 and 16/50 produced in only small numbers; 1924–26 14/40 and 20/60 developed from the 14hp, with two cylinders added.

The 1926–30 3-litre Super Sports was Sunbeam’s Bentley rival. Its 90hp, 2.9-litre, six-cylinder engine had inclined valves operated by two overhead camshafts and dry-sump lubrication. In 1929 a supercharger was added, increasing the power output to 135hp.


1927 Sunbeam DOHC 3-litre – Herr Anders Svensson


The 1926–30 16hp (known as ’16.9’) and 20 hp (known as ’20.9’) models had six-cylinder, integrally-cast-iron block and crankcase engines and were produced over many years. The 20.9’s 2.9-litre engine put out 70hp and shared brake, suspension, steering, axles, gearbox and transmission components with the 3-litre Super Sports.


1927 Sunbeam Super Sports – Pettifoggist


A few 30/90 4.8-litre and 5.4-litre, eight-cylinder cars were produced in 1926-27.

The new models continued in the 1930s: the 16hp bore was increased from 67 to 70 mm, (known as ’18.2’); a new model 20hp (known as ’23.8’) with 80mm bore and seven main bearings; new model Speed 20 consisting of 20.9 engine with improved exhaust manifold and downdraught carb installed in a cruciform-braced chassis;  18.2 engine installed in Speed 20 chassis and renamed ‘Twenty’; a ‘Twenty-Five’ introduced, with a modified 23.8 engine; the Twenty given the 20.9 engine in place of the 18.2; the Dawn introduced, with12.8 engine and IFS; the Speed 20 renamed Sports 21, with redesigned body style and the Sports 21 given a high compression version of Twenty-Five engine.


1932 Sunbeam Twenty fixed head coupe Davocano


The most successful Sunbeam, judged by volumes, was the 16.9, followed by the 20.9 made from 1926 to 1930. The 16.9 was solid and reliable, but it was a little underpowered with its 2.1-litre engine and the 20.9 made a big jump to 2.9 litres and 70hp. With similar body weight and vacuum servo brakes the 20.9 was capable of 70mph (110km/h).

Sunbeam built its own bodies and also supplied chassis to coach builders who constructed many limousines on Sunbeam chassis.

Financial difficulties arose in the early years of the Great Depression and, just before the opening of the October 1934 Olympia Motor Show, an application was made to the court for an appointment of a receiver and manager for the two major subsidiaries of STD, Sunbeam and Automobiles Talbot France. 


1934 Sunbeam Twenty sports saloon – Clive Barker


Clément-Talbot remained profitable and was sold to the Rootes brothers.

In July 1935 Rootes Securities announced they had bought Sunbeam Motor Car Company and its subsidiary, Sunbeam Commercial Vehicles.

Rootes was an early proponent of badge engineering, building a single mass-produced chassis and equipping it with different body panels and interiors to fit different markets. 


Sunbeam-Talbot Ten –  Charles 01


In 1938 Rootes created a new marque called Sunbeam-Talbot, to combine quality Talbot coachwork and Hillman and Humber chassis. The initial two models were the Sunbeam-Talbot 10 and the 3-Litre, followed by the Sunbeam-Talbot 2-Litre and 4-Litre models. Production of these models continued after the war until 1948.

In 1948, the Sunbeam-Talbot 80 and Sunbeam-Talbot 90 were introduced, with a new, streamlined design. The 80 used the Hillman Minx-based engine with overhead valves and the 90 used a modified version of the Humber Hawk with overhead valves. The underpowered 80 was discontinued in 1950. 


Sunbeam Talbot 90 – Foshie


The 90 was renamed the 90 Mark II and then the 90 Mark IIA, and eventually in 1954 the Sunbeam Mark III, finally dropping the Talbot name. Engine displacement went from 1.9 litres to 2.3 litres and 80hp.

The 1953 Sunbeam-Talbot Alpine was a two-seater sports roadster, but the Talbot name was dropped in 1954 for the Sunbeam Alpine sports car, making Sunbeam the sports-performance marque. In 1955 a Sunbeam saloon won the Monte Carlo Rally. Production ceased in 1956 and was replaced by the sporty Sunbeam Rapier.


Sunbeam Rapier Series1 – David Parrot


In 1959 a totally new Alpine was introduced and the 1955 Rapier – a badge-engineered Hillman Minx – was upgraded. After several successful series of the Alpine the Ford V8-powered Sunbeam Tiger was released in 1964.

But in the early 1960s Rootes was in financial trouble and in 1964, Chrysler bought 30 percent of the company. Models were abandoned over the next few years s Chrysler tried to build a single brand from the best models of each of the company’s components. 


1965 Sunbeam Tiger Roadster – Graham Gilbert  


Brand loyalty began to erode and was fatally damaged by the decision to call everything ‘Chrysler’. The Tiger was dropped in 1967, after an abortive attempt to fit it with a Chrysler engine and the Hillman Imp-derived Stiletto disappeared in 1972.

The last Sunbeam produced was the ‘Rootes Arrow’ series Alpine/Rapier fastback (1967–76), after which Chrysler, which had fully taken over Rootes, abandoned the marque.

Stay informed and receive our updates

From Jim Gibson & Allan Whiting directly to your inbox

You have Successfully Subscribed!