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Sunbeam History

During 1903 and 1904 John Marston and his sons were experimenting with motorcycles. It is thought that they were using a Swiss "Motosacoche" engine mounted on a modified Sunbeam bicycle. Some of the Sunbeam employees were clearly giving thought to motorcycle production because in 1903 James Morgan, the Deputy Works Manager patented a "Little Oil Bath" for chain driven motorcycles. This work came to an end in 1904 when one of the company's employees was killed on one of the experimental prototypes. After the accident John Marston decreed that no more work would be carried out on these machines in his factory. It seems that he never liked them in the first place.

John's aversion for motorcycles continued for several years, during which time much of the early development had taken place and many successful machines had been manufactured locally. His thoughts eventually turned back in this direction in 1911/1912 and he engaged John Greenwood, who had previously worked for Rover and JAP to develop a Sunbeam motorcycle.

The best local motorcycle designer was Harry Stevens, one of the four Stevens brothers who ran A. J. Stevens & Company Limited, just up the road in Retreat Street. Harry would later become well known for his A.J.S. motorcycles that were produced in vast numbers at Graiseley Hill. Harry was employed by Sunbeam as a consulting engineer and he designed the first Sunbeam motorcycle, a 349 c.c, 2¾ hp. single-cylinder, side-valve machine, with two speed transmission and a forward mounted magneto. John Greenwood then had the task of preparing it for production. The first machines went into production in 1912 and were soon a great success.

[img] Sunbeam motorcycle advert from 1912

The machines were hand built, with a selling price of 60 guineas. Almost immediately they featured in competitions and were very successful. Two Sunbeam machines gained gold medals in the London-Exeter-London trial, in December 1912, and the Sunbeam name became well-known to enthusiasts throughout the country. The first two Sunbeam sidecars made their appearance in 1914. They were called the 'Gloria Number 1' and the 'Gloria Number 2'. Sunbeam's success in sporting events continued. The most notable racing success of the year was achieved by Howard Davies, who came joint-second in the senior T.T. Sunbeam also won the team prize.

At the outbreak of war, Sunbeam started to develop machines for use in the armed forces. The machines were finished in matt khaki with black lining and gold lettering. During 1916 large numbers of Sunbeam motorcycles were supplied to the Russian Army for use on the Eastern front. A new 8 hp. twin with a 3 compartment fuel tank was developed for this purpose. It was fitted with a machine gun and armoured sidecar. The machines were powered by a Swiss 996 c.c. MAG engine, and had Brampton 'Biflex' forks.

The sidecar was also produced as an ambulance (stretcher carrier) and there was even a double decker version. A 4 hp. and later 3½ hp. version was sold to the French army. These had a belt drive and were the only Sunbeams to be so equipped.

1918 was a disastrous year for the Marston family. John Marston's 3rd son, Roland, died at the early age of 45. He had been groomed as his father's successor at Sunbeam, and his untimely death came as a great shock to his parents. At the time John and his wife Ellen were staying at their house at Colwyn Bay. Unfortunately this was too much for John, who was overcome with grief. He died on the 8th March, the day after Roland's funeral. Sadly, Ellen also died six weeks later. John and Ellen were buried at Colwyn Bay.

John Marston's Eldest son, Charles, was in charge at Villiers and rapidly expanded the highly profitable company. When faced with a claim for death duties, after has father's death, he sold John Marston Limited to a consortium of wartime munitions manufacturers who had done well out of the war and were looking for somewhere to invest their money. In 1919 the consortium was taken over, and became part of Nobel Industries Limited, and a return to civilian production was authorised by the Government. Sunbeam quickly produced a new catalogue, which listed what were basically models from the 1916 range, and new versions of the W.D. Machines. Due to the rapid inflation which followed the war, prices continued to increase until 1921, when the 3½ hp. models sold for 171 guineas. The new models were well received by the general public. The press considered that they were amongst the most handsome machines on the road and the 3½hp. single was described as the Rolls Royce of singles. When motorcycle sporting events restarted in 1919, Sunbeam continued to be very successful. Competitions were dominated by Sunbeam riders such as George Dance, Tommy de la Hay and John Greenwood.

[img] A new Sunbeam range was developed in readiness for 1920. The new machines included the famous laminated leaf spring front fork, which was to be an important feature of future Sunbeam machines. Larger cylinder cooling fins were introduced along with drum brakes on the 3½ hp. model. Another introduction was detachable and interchangeable wheels. In 1920 the company achieved its first T.T. victory when Tommy de la Hay came first in the Senior Race at an average speed of 51.79 m.p.h. Sunbeam achieved its second T.T. win in the Senior Race when Alec Bennett came in first (to the left).

[img] Sunbeam motorcycle advert from 1927

From (shortened)

In 1928 the Sunbeam motorcycle trademark was sold to ICI, and in 1937 to Associated Motor Cycles Ltd (AMC) which continued to make Sunbeam bicycles and motorcycles until 1939. AMC's core business was the manufacture of Matchless and AJS motorcycles. Some years after it sold Sunbeam, AMC went on to own Norton, James and Francis-Barnett.

[img] Sunbeam motorcycle advert from 1935

[img] In 1943 AMC sold the Sunbeam name to BSA and Sunbeam Cycles Ltd came into being. Sunbeams were built not at BSA's main factory at Small Heath, Birmingham, but at another BSA factory in Redditch,Worcestershire. Three Sunbeam motorcycle models were produced from 1946 to 1956, inspired by BMW motorcycles supplied to the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. They were followed by two scooter models from 1959 to 1964 (to the left).