Blue Bird Roars Back Into Life At Beaulieu

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Sir Malcolm Campbell‘s record-breaking Sunbeam was fired up for the first time, the first time it has been heard in public for over 50 years.

Having been put through a complete mechanical rebuild by the National Motor Museum‘s workshop team, the 350hp beast was brought back to life, producing a sound likened to that of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

The car, fresh from the mind of Sunbeam’s chief engineer and racing team manager, Louis Coatelen, was built during 1919 and early 1920 at the company’s Wolverhampton workshop. Built in an era when motor racing cars were powered by huge aircraft engines, with the Sunbeam being one of the most famous, utilising power from a naval seaplane 18.322-litre V12 modified Manitou Arab aero engine.

Named Blue Bird by Campbell, the Sunbeam holds three world land speed records, the first achieved by Kenelm Lee Guinness at Brooklands in 1922, setting a speed of 133.75mph. The car was then bought by Campbell, who painted in the distinctive blue colour scheme before setting a new record of 146.16mph at Pendine in South Wales in September 1924. He would beat that record in 1925, raising the record to 150.70mph.

Campbell sold the car soon after, passing through a number of owners and was recorded as being driven by band leader Billy Cotton at the Southport Speed Trials in 1936. After years of the car’s location being unknown, Harold Pratley unearthed it before buying it in 1944 and loaning it to Sunbeam’s successors, Rootes Ltd, who gave it a cosmetic overhaul for promotional purposes.

The car was then bought by Lord Montagu in 1957, who restored it to working order and put it on display at the Montagu Motor Museum, before touring various venues in the UK and accompanying Lord Montagu on his Motoring Thro’ The Years lecture of South Africa. It made its final on-track appearance at the British Automobile Racing Club Festival of Motoring at Goodwood in July 1964.

Since 1972 the Sunbeam has been on permanent display at the then-newly formed National Motor Museum in Bealieu. A test fire-up to assess the car’s condition in 1993 ended disastrously when a blocked oil way in the engine caused it to seize, throwing a rod in the process. For years visitors to the National Motor Museum were able to see the hole left in its engine where the piston and con-rod had exited.

The workshop staff at the National Motor Museum started looking at the car in 2007 with a view to repair the engine, with an initial strip-out allowing them to assess the damage caused by the 1993 sieze.

A huge restoration project then took place, with the Sunbeam Talbot Darracq Register approached to assist in the finding of parts, specialist services and skills needed to undertake the rebuild. Approximately 2,000 hours dedicated to the project, largely helped by the workshop’s volunteers under the Senior Engineer, Ian Stanfield.

“This project has been a long-running labour of love for the whole team and such has been their passion that many have dedicated hours of their own time to get the job done,” said the National Motor Museum’s Chief Engineer, Doug Hill. “There is huge satisfaction in seeing it finally completed. However, there is more that we still want to do and our next objective is to research the design of the original gearbox – all original drawings and records were lost when the Sunbeam factory was bombed during WWll – so that we can restore the car to the full 1920s specification, as driven to two world land speed records by Sir Malcolm Campbell at Pendine Sands in 1924 and 1925.”

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Based in Mid-Wales, James joined TCF at the start of the 2013 season, covering a range of disciplines, predominantly Motorcycle Road Racing and NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter @JCCharman
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