History of Sunbeam cars

Steve City continues with the History of Sunbeam Cars

In 1901, tin-plate maker John Marston and Maxwell Maberly-Smith started to sell Sunbeam cars for £130. The first vehicle had seats on each side, facing different directions, with a single cylinder engine that didn’t quite reach 3 horsepower; the wheels were unsprung and belt-driven, with an 18 mph top speed. It was a success, with 420 sold through 1904, at which time Marston started to import Berliet car chasis and add bodies to them; over time, Sunbeam built more components and made more of the car their own, though the engine, gearbox, and subframe were always imported. This sold better, with sales of 18 per month, and Sunbeam Motor Car Company, Ltd, was created to increase production. The cars were made at a central factory in Wolverhampton, with a number of related works to make components.

The first new car to be produced by Sunbeam Motor Car Company was based on a Peugeot; it ws fairly popular from its 1906 introduction, with ten produced each week. A chief engineer who had worked at Humber was appointed, resulting in more local production and less outsourcing. This new engineer, Louis Coatalen, started Sunbeam’s racing program, which increased popularity; he also added a new touring car based on racing vehicles. Production was interrupted by World War I, but afterwards Sunbeam saw a number of sales and racing successes, including 1922 and 1925 speed records (134 and 151 mph, respectively).

In 1920, Sunbeam merged with Darracq of France, which had recently purchased Clement-Talbot (a company set up to import French Clements) to form a new company, STD Motors (also including a spring maker, commercial vehicle maker, and dynanometer maker). Racing cars were transferred to STD, and were campaigned under the different brands depending on marketing needs. Engineers were hired away from Peugeot and Fiat, increasing racing successes and improving the standard Sunbeam cars; the Sunbeam 3-Liter Super Sports is said to have been very advanced, with a twin overhead cam engine; the vehicle actually produced 130 hp when supercharged, with dry sump lubrication and a top speed of over 90 mph. It finished second in the 1925 LeMans. At the same time, Sunbeam started to make trolleybuses in 1931; and it started to sell Darracqs as Talbots.

The racing, however, was expensive, and Sunbeam remained unpaid for World War I work; the company went bankrupt in 1934. Rootes purchased the trolleybus business first, then Clement-Talbot, replacing the firm’s original cars with Hillman and Humber variants. (The commercial vehicles were sold to Guy in 1949.) Talbot of France was purchased by former employee Anthony Lago, and became an independent company. (Darracq would be purchased by Simca in 1959, so they would be reunited under Chrysler Europe in the 1960s.) Then Rootes purchased Sunbeam Motor Cars and assigned it to be the group’s luxury car maker, closing Wolverhampton and abandoning all its existing cars for other Rootes vehicles sold under the Sunbeam name. After a brief time, Rootes simply ended the Sunbeam marque, making one wonder why they purchased it in the first place and giving some insight into Rootes’ eventual bankruptcy. However, with Lago having purchased the French Talbot, and selling cars under that name, Rootes decided to resurrect Sunbeam and lower confusion by modifying its Talbot name to Sunbeam-Talbot for Britain in 1938. Talbot cars now called Sunbeam-Talbot included the Ten, 2 Litre, 3 Litre, and 4 Litre. The 3 and 4 Litre were based on the Humber Snipe.

In World War II, Rootes produced 60% of Britain’s armored cars, along with scout cars, engines, bombs, and bombers. After the war, the 3 and 4 Litre were cancelled, and production was moved from London to Ryton, where Peugeots are still made; the London plant became the Thames Television studios, of all things.

Postwar Sunbeams were put into road rallys rather than speed races, and the 90 model proved to be exceptionally successful. The Sunbeam Alpine was based on the 90, essentially a two-seat roadster version. It was made from just 1953 to 1955 but was very successful in rallys, as was the new for 1955 Sunbeam Rapier, which was to be popular in rallys as well; a four door version was the Hillman Minx (and Singer Gazelle). The Alpine returned, based on the Hillman Husky with Rapier running gear, in 1959. The related Venezia appeared in 1963. The Tiger (“Alpine V8”), essentially an Alpine with an American V8, was brought out in 1964, and was assembled by Jensen, which used Chrysler V8s in some of its cars. Carroll Shelby-prepared Alpines were entered in Le Mans in from 1961 to 1963, though in both latter years neither of the Alpines entered failed to finish. In 1966, the Tiger was largely replaced in racing by the Imp Sport, a version of the Hilllman Imp.

The 1960s, despite the sporty and successful cars, brought financial problems once again, due to problems with some Rootes cars and union issues. In 1964, Chrysler bought about a third of the company, just a year after buying Simca; they took full control in 1967 and renamed the group to Chrsler UK in 1970. Chrysler now owned Sunbeam, Talbot, Darracq, Hillman, Humber, and Singer. The first results of this union were unhappy – the cancellation of a proposed Alpine update and of the Tiger; and all Sunbeam production was moved to Linwood, Scotland. However, Roy Axe’s new Rapier was introduced on schedule.

Despite Chrysler’s generally superior quality in the United States, the corporation started to embark on a short-sighted cost-cutting campaign which did not sit well with customers. Nor did eliminating the multifold Rootes brands, which perhaps was inevitable but perhaps was as foolish as eliminating Plymouth. In 1976, the last domestic Sunbeams and Humbers were produced, and in 1978, Hillmans were called Chryslers. Sunbeam was still used on export vehicles made by just about all Rootes brands, however.

For information on the leading web-site and association for Sunbeam Lotus visit

Avengers and Sunbeam Lotus Club

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