The Pioneers of Performance and Style: Sunbeam Cars

The Sunbeam Motor Car Company can trace its roots back to the industrious vision of John Marston, whose dedication to quality and performance laid the foundation for a renowned car marque. Yet by the mid-1930s, amid financial difficulties and a rapidly-changing industry, the history of Sunbeam was at an end.

Automotive History
14 December 2023

Sunbeam Cars, a marque synonymous with innovation and elegance, has a storied past that dates back to the late nineteenth century. Like many of the early British motoring pioneers, John Marston began making bicycles, but in 1901 he started making cars, and left an indelible mark on the automotive landscape.

The heart of Sunbeam’s identity lay in its racing pedigree, a testament to the company’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of speed and performance. Under the guidance of the brilliant engineer Louis Coatalen, Sunbeam not only excelled in road car production but also became a dominant force in the racing world. Coatalen’s visionary approach propelled the Sunbeam Motor Car Company to the forefront of automotive engineering, culminating in the creation of the legendary 1000hp car. This marvel of engineering, a symbol of Sunbeam’s technical prowess, shattered speed records and etched the company’s name in the annals of motor racing history.

But by 1934, the original vision was dead. Slow sales and defaulting on repayments of borrowed money to fund the company’s racing programme led to the appointment of receivers and the company was sold to the Rootes brothers.

This is the history of Sunbeam.

John Marston: Jack of All Trades, Master of Every One

The 'Golden Sunbeam' (Credit: SSPL via Getty Images)

Born in Shropshire in 1836, John Marston was one of the most successful industrialists of the Victorian age. After an apprenticeship as a tinplater and Japanner – applying Oriental-style lacquerwork to metal objects like tea trays, candlesticks and pocket watches – he started making bicycles in 1877.

His company, Sunbeamland, produced high-quality bicycles known for their durability and elegance, under the brand name Sunbeam, a suggestion from his wife Ellen. His commitment to excellence in bicycle manufacturing – his top-of-the-range bikes had alloy wheel rims, epicyclic gears and gold leaf pinstriping – was a precursor to his entry into the automotive world. In 1901, influenced by the burgeoning automotive industry, Marston started experimenting with motor-car production, leading to the formation of the Sunbeam Motor Car Company in 1905.

Under his guidance, Sunbeam developed a reputation for high-quality, luxurious cars, and later, for its involvement in motor racing. John Marston’s legacy, and indeed the Sunbeam cars’ history, is characterised by his unwavering commitment to quality and innovation, principles that guided his successful transformation into one of the most significant figures in the early automotive industry.

The Dawn of Sunbeam

12/16hp Sunbeam at the Midland Automobile Club Hill Climb, 1913 (Credit: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

The first of the Sunbeam cars was the 12/16, launched in 1901. This vehicle was a result of the collaboration between John Marston’s company and Maxwell Mabberly-Smith, a talented young architect and engineer. It had a two-and-three-quarter horsepower, four-cylinder De Dion engine and was well-received for its quality and reliability. It was reported to have sold for £130. It was described by an early motoring journalist as ‘sociable’, with the two passengers sitting back to back and the wheels in a diamond formation.

In 1902, a beautiful 12hp, 1.5-litre four-cylinder Sunbeam designed by early French car maker Berliet was launched, priced at 500 guineas, or £525. It was accompanied by a 16hp stablemate two years later.

In March 1905, the true history of Sunbeam began with the official formation of the Sunbeam Motor Car Company under the chairmanship of John Marston.

The first car made by the new company was the 2.6-litre, four-cylinder 14/20, followed by the Angus Shaw-designed 16/20. These early cars were not only successful road cars, but they enjoyed success in early trials and events, including the 16/20’s famous run from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1905 without stopping the engine.

But come 1909, the history of Sunbeam cars was about to shine bright.

The French Connection

Sunbeam competing in the RSAC Scottish Rally, 1934 (Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

Louis Hervé Coatalen, a French Breton who eventually took British nationality, joined the company from Humber in 1909. His appointment marked a transformative era for the company, especially in terms of its involvement in motor racing and automotive engineering. Coatalen, a talented and visionary engineer, brought with him a passion for innovation and performance which significantly influenced Sunbeam cars’ direction and success.

Coatalen’s first car, the 3.4-litre, four-cylinder 14/20, was a modified version of Angus Shaw’s design. For the first time, most of the car’s components were made in-house. He was instrumental in introducing new engineering techniques and improving the performance and reliability of Sunbeam cars. Coatalen’s expertise in engine design and his forward-thinking approach were pivotal in transitioning Sunbeam from producing primarily luxury vehicles to also focusing on performance-oriented cars.

The Race Is On…

1925 Sunbeam 350 hp (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Coatalen was a driving force behind Sunbeam’s foray into motor racing, a move that greatly enhanced the brand’s reputation. He understood the value of racing not only as a sport but also as a means of demonstrating and improving automotive technology.

Under his guidance, Sunbeam achieved numerous racing successes, including notable performances in the prestigious Brooklands races, and the Tourist Trophy. These achievements in competitive racing helped to establish Sunbeam as a formidable player in the automotive world. In fact, the Sunbeam, driven by Henry Seagrave was the first British car to win a Grand Prix, in France in 1923. Unlike today’s races, the 1923 race lasted 6h 35m over a distance of just under 800km.

Coatalen’s tenure at Sunbeam saw the development of several high-performance cars. These vehicles were not only technologically advanced but also beautifully designed, showcasing Sunbeam’s commitment to combining style with substance. His work culminated in iconic creations like the Sunbeam 350HP, which set a land speed record in 1922, and the Sunbeam 1000HP. Known as The Mystery and powered by two, 22.4-litre V12 aeroplane engines, it was driven by Henry Seagrave at Daytona Beach in Florida and was the first car in history to exceed 200 mph (320 km/h) in 1927.

Louis Coatalen’s impact on Sunbeam was profound and multifaceted. He not only propelled the company into the forefront of automotive engineering and design but also established its legacy in motor racing, leaving an indelible mark on the history of Sunbeam and the automotive industry as a whole.

The Beginning of the End

1931 Sunbeam 16hp (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

While Sunbeam was enjoying incredible success on the racetrack, the road car business was suffering and personal tragedy befell the Marston family.

In March 1918, John Marston’s third son Roland, who was being primed to take over the chairmanship from his father, died suddenly. The morning after Roland’s funeral, John Marston himself died aged 82.

In June 1920, the Sunbeam Motor Car Company was bought by French company Darracq, who had also bought another British manufacturer named Clément-Talbot. The new company was called Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq (STD) Motors Ltd. This acquisition was part of a larger trend of consolidation in the automotive industry during this period.

Despite its racing successes, Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq faced financial difficulties. The economic challenges of the late 1920s, including the impact of the Great Depression, strained the company’s resources. In an effort to address its financial problems, Sunbeam launched a range of new models including the 3-Litre Super Sports, the Speed 20, and the 3.3-litre Twenty-Five.

However, these efforts were hampered by the continuing economic downturn. Immediately prior to the opening of the 1934 Olympia Motor Show, Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq applied to the court to appoint a receiver. The sale of the company to the Rootes brothers was completed by July 1935.

Under Rootes, the Sunbeam brand continued, but the company’s focus shifted. The emphasis on racing and luxury vehicles diminished, and Sunbeam’s identity dissolved into the broader Rootes Group strategy.

The History of Sunbeam Cars: From Sunrise to Sunset

1927 Sunbeam 1000hp (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The Sunbeam Motor Car Company, from its inception under John Marston to its zenith in the hands of Louis Coatalen, represents an extraordinary chapter in automotive history, distinguished by pioneering innovations, remarkable racing achievements, and the creation of vehicles that epitomised luxury and performance.

The short journey, marked by technological triumphs like the 1000HP car and historic racing victories, reflects a relentless pursuit of excellence. Even as the Sunbeam name merged into the Rootes Group in the 1930s, its legacy endured, encapsulating a period where style, speed, and engineering ingenuity were seamlessly interwoven.


You May Also Like

Explore More