Some people find it hard to comprehend the enthusiasm older Sunbeams arouse in their owners, and that’s quite understandable. They were unquestionably nicely designed motorcycles with decent performance, but so were several less prestigious machines made around the same time. And while Sunbeam’s as-new finish was legendarily well above the norm, many old bikes from other manufacturers have now been restored and given equally lustrous paintwork.
Admittedly the Wolverhampton-made motorcycles also had a superb competition record culminating in TT victories in 1928 and 1929. But even there the Model 90’s distinction of being the last two-valve pushrod machine to ever win the Senior race, arguably said more about the frailty of early overhead camshaft machines than the superiority of the Sunbeam.
While we are speaking of mysteries surrounding the marque, some readers might be surprised to learn that the long-lived Sunbeam Motor Cycle Club – founded in 1924 and still going strong organising prestigious outings like the Pioneer Run – has for the last 83 years happily accepted any make of motorcycle in its events. Most marque-related clubs are formed to bolster their members’ enthusiasm for their machines, but Sunbeam owners are evidently so convinced their mounts are superior they feel no need to shield them from outside competition.
Well today I’m riding a veteran Sunbeam, and all of a sudden I’m a believer too! Most of the Sunbeams I’ve previously ridden and reported upon were produced in the vintage and post-vintage periods, and they impressed me more with their quality than their originality. But they were made years after company founder John Marston had passed on, and perhaps understandably reflected a period of consolidation rather than innovation. The veteran, in contrast, is so advanced I can quite see why Sunbeam was content to rest on its laurels.
Owner Paul Tillion – showing me round his lovely old Sunbeam at his Berkshire home – says, “It seems like cheating really, because it’s as easy to ride as a mid-1920s vintage machine, but some health problems and bad knees mean that I need a bike like this if I’m to continue doing events like the Pioneer Run that I’ve enjoyed for years.”
If this is cheating, Paul, it’s very junior league stuff. If veteran runs weren’t peppered with motorcycles repaired and restored with components made years after the official date of manufacture, then their entry lists would be sadly depleted. And it’s no secret that some owners – ageing at the same rate as their steeds – have updated them with clutches and gearboxes. Well the veteran Sunbeam needs absolutely no such surreptitious improvements, because its makers supplied everything a rider could reasonably require.
Such as? Well, I apologise if I’m teaching my grandfathers to suck eggs, but some readers might not realise that many veterans were similar in concept to the auxiliary power units clipped on to millions of bicycles in the early 1950s, so the rider was effectively a cyclist who had some power assistance provided he was skilful and lucky enough to get his motor running and keep it that way. Frequently there was direct belt drive to the rear wheel with even two-speed gearboxes being considered an unnecessary complication, and as for clutches; they were an exotic rarity regarded with the same suspicion as electric starting on Hondas in 1960.
But then along came Sunbeam and showed that it was all possible…at a price. John Marston’s Sunbeam factory was not one of the pioneers in the chronological sense; his Wolverhampton company had been making what it called ‘The Gentleman’s Bicycle’ since 1890, but it was only in 1912 that the first powered machine appeared, priced at a hefty £63. Marston had head-hunted John E Greenwood, who had previously designed the well-regarded Rover, and seemingly given him carte blanche to develop the ‘Gentleman’s Motor Bicycle’.
The 2¾hp (350cc) machine he came up with was a revelation. Both its primary and final drives were by chain, but even better was the way both chains were hidden inside the enclosed cases Marston had long since patented as ‘Little Oil Baths’ and featured on his bicycles. What’s more, there was a proper two-speed countershaft gearbox, and even a kick-starter operating through the primary drive.
It’s easy to overlook the innovation involved in this latter aspect, but John Greenwood must have been a man of vision to design something that subsequently became the industry norm, while other manufacturers were faffing around with starting handles and levers operating through the rear chain. Many riders still accepted that pedalling or running and jumping were better methods of getting things moving, and they probably were on a clutchless motorcycle, because it was of limited use having a running motor but still having to get the machine rolling before crunching it into gear.
The Sunbeam’s motor was a beauty, because while most other manufacturers were content with basic proprietary power units, Greenwood came up with a very advanced design. It had quite a short stroke, roller bearing big end and mains instead of the plain bushes that were still the norm, and there was gear drive to the Bosch magneto. Incidentally, this latter feature is an easy way of identifying veteran Sunbeams, because the large pinion driving the magneto at half engine speed necessitated a very distinctive corresponding bulge in the timing cover of pre-1915 machines.
John Greenwood himself successfully debuted the new machine by winning a Gold Medal in the 1912 ACU Autumn Trial, and it proved instantly popular after being shown at the 1912 Motor Cycle Exhibition, with more than 800 being made the following year. Flushed with success Sunbeamland – as the Wolverhampton factory titled itself – quickly introduced a sidecar model with a V-twin JAP engine, and then came up with the half-litre model featured here. The smaller single had been so successful that Greenwood didn’t need to make any great changes, and the 500cc/3½ version looked much the same. That didn’t mean he’d taken any short cuts however, as both the bore and stroke had been extended, and the gearbox now had three ratios.
Ambitiously, a three-man team was entered for the 1914 Senior TT on the new Sunbeams, and the factory’s confidence was rewarded with a second place for Howard Davies – later to achieve further fame with AJS and his own HRD machines – and with the Manufacturer’s Team Prize. This was controversially taken away and given to Wolverhampton rivals Rover after it was discovered that Sunbeam had substituted Tommy de la Hay for original rider Charlie Nokes who had become ill during practice, but since de la Hay was the lowest placed of the three Sunbeam exponents, there could hardly be any accusation of skulduggery.
But of course the ACU has often caused upset by applying its own rules as if they were handed down by Moses, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity, so the spat probably brought the Sunbeam’s performance to the attention of many who would otherwise have dismissed them as luxurious but staid tourers. Sales would no doubt have boomed if WWI had not intervened, but Sunbeamland was soon hard at work making aircraft, with limited motorcycle production aimed at the military. Triumph and Douglas had that market pretty well tied up anyway, but a batch of 3½hp Sunbeams – which bizarrely had to be fitted with belt drive – was commissioned by the French authorities, while a consignment of V-twins went to Russia.
So the test 3½hp Sunbeam (what a pity they didn’t give their models suitably impressive names) is quite a rare beast. The Vintage Motor Cycle Club’s Machine Register is by no means a complete listing of old motorbikes; but it is a good guide to relative rarity, and it details just five veteran 500cc Sunbeams compared with about 200 vintage ones…’nuff said?
'Add its amazing specification and Sunbeam’s reputation for quality to that rarity, and you inevitably get a highly desirable machine with an impressive monetary value.'
Add its amazing specification and Sunbeam’s reputation for quality to that rarity, and you inevitably get a highly desirable machine with an impressive monetary value. Even the ancilliary fittings are exceptional, with little decorative wings embellishing the headlamp of the Powell and Hanmer lighting set. Paul Tillion says he cannot take the motorcycle out without somebody wanting to buy it, and one chap has seriously offered him £20,000. He’s not selling, though, as he likes to ride old bikes, and the ‘three and a half’ lets him continue to do that in considerable style without any unseemly exertion.
The Sunbeam’s quality is evidently obvious even to those you’d expect to be oblivious to the charms of motorcycles, if not definitely antagonistic. Photographer Terry Joslin was happily taking static photographs with a rather up-market private house as the background when the lady resident drove up. When we explained our mission and apologised for the intrusion, she beamed and said; “That’s fine, I’ll open up the garden for you if you need some different views.”
With that effect on a non-motorcyclist, it’s no wonder the owner likes his Sunbeam, and he is speaking from experience of many other old machines. Paul Tillion started his riding career as a young lad on a BSA Sloper given to him after being submerged in the 1947 floods, and he still remembers his delight at getting it going, and achieving a metronome-like tickover. His subsequent career in heavy engineering took him all over the world building factories, but he often managed to come back for the London to Brighton car and motorcycle runs, even when he was working in India. Incidentally, he still owns an obscure four-wheeler made before the turn of the last century, and amusingly points out how it was equipped with a whip and a towing point so that it could be towed home by a pony after the inevitable breakdowns…
No such reliability problems with the Sunbeam which has proved as reliable as it is easy to use. I let Paul start it for me, because he says that the starter quadrant is fragile on these machines and the last thing I want to do is break this lovely old machine, but it’s soon chuffing away like the proverbial chaff cutter and mine to enjoy. The clutch doesn’t free well enough to allow a noiseless engagement of first gear, but thereafter is as good as gold, taking up the drive progressively and permitting easy changes between the gears without any of the careful manipulation of revs that would otherwise be essential.
'The riding position is rather stately, but the handling is surprisingly nimble, and I have no problems at all doing U-turns for the camera shots.'
The riding position is rather stately, but the handling is surprisingly nimble, and I have no problems at all doing U-turns for the camera shots. These were done on a quiet private road, or I might not have been quite so gung-ho, as the brakes are about as good (or as bad) as I’d expect. That is to say I can feel the rear one working, but the front one doesn’t even squeak, let alone create enough friction to damage the painted finish on the wheel rim.
But the brakes are actually the only clue to the Sunbeams age. Drum brakes were not yet commonplace in 1914, and Sunbeam had to squander some of the benefits of chain drive by putting a dummy rim on the back wheel for a block to rub against. Up front the brake is unashamedly of the type used on bicycles until recent years, and it’s painfully obvious that a device that slows a pedal cycle doing 10mph isn’t going to be very effective against three hundredweight of motorcycle doing 50!
Yes. This machine will achieve a very respectable pace for an oldie, and I’d guess it turns out eight to 10 brake horsepower. But forget any comparisons with 197cc Villiers job giving the same nominal output, because this machine will keep going at much the same speed up hill and down dale. It’s partly because appreciable torque is delivered at low engine revs, and partly that the flywheel appears to be of monumental proportions. As proof, at the end of my ride I counted the engine continuing to turn over at least six time after I’d used the valve lifter, and even then letting go of the lever had it immediately thudding back into life.
It’s a shame WWI limited the sales Sunbeam would undoubtedly have enjoyed with this model, but its essential rightness was demonstrated by its post-WWI reintroduction with few changes, and it continued to be made even after trendier ohv versions were developed in the early 1920s. Owner Paul Tillion is dead right when he says his bike’s a veteran which is like a vintage-job because that’s exactly what it became, and in a period of rapid evolution that shows just how advanced it was in the first place.Enjoy more The Classic MotorCycle reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.