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Vintage Motorcycles: The Sunbeam



Vintage BSA Motorcycle

John Marston Co. Ltd. & Sunbeam Company History


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The Sunbeam Motorcycle and Sunbeam Motorcar Company Ltd. was founded by John Marston (1836—1918) in 1888, starting out as a bicycle manufacturer in 1877, then shifting into motorized vehicles towards the end of the 19th century. Marston began his business career as at age 15, starting with the John Marston Co. Ltd. of Wolverhampton, England, which took over an existing factory on Villiers Street which made tin goods and japanware (black lacquered, or enameled) household goods.



The factory on Pool Street in Wolverhampton, West Midlands was named the "Sunbeamland Works Cycle Factory," and the Sunbeam name itself was coined by Marston's wife, Ellen Edge-Marston. Because the Sunbeamland Works was not yet set up for assembly-line parts production, Marston's oldest son Charles (Sir Charles Marston) established the Villiers Cycle Component Company, which produced pedals for Sunbeam bicycles.

Villiers later became the Villiers Engineering Company Ltd., a manufacturer of 2-stroke engines for AJS, The James, British Excelsior, New Hudson motorcycles and several others.



Sunbeam Golden Bicycle
The Sunbeam 'Golden' Bicycle

The Sunbeam marque quickly developed a reputation for its reliability, high quality and technical innovations. Models like the Sunbeam 'Golden' or 'Royal' featured alloy wheel rims, a fully-enclosed lubricated chain-drive case called the "Little Oil Bath" (designed by Sunbeam employee James Morgan) patented 'eccentric chain adjustment' mechanism, and an innovative variable speed two-speed or three-speed epicyclic (planetary gear) gearing which consists of four outer "planet gears" revolving around a central "sun gear."

Models like the Golden were even embellished with genuine gold-leaf pin-striping. Other notable bicycles produced at the Sunbeamland Works were the Sunbeam Dwarf safety bike semi-racer, the Sunbeam Roadster, the 'Season's Sumbeam,' the 'Gent's Royal,' the 'Royal Road Racer' and the 'Lady's Special."

Although Marston began experimenting with motorcycles as early as 1903, a fatal accident by one of his employees on a test bike temporarily quelled his vision. In 1905, the Sunbeam Motorcar Company Ltd. was formed separate entity, and Marston retained the Sunbeam bicycle and motorcycle business.


Sunbeam Motorcycles

The first motorcycles produced at the Sunbeamland Works were introduced in 1912, under the name "The Sunbeam." The first production Sunbeams were designed by a consulting engineer named Harry Stevens, one of the four Stevens brothers at A.J. Stevens & Co. Ltd. (AJS Motorcycles), and John Greenwood, who had previously worked for Rover and J.A. Prestwich.

The 1912 production model used a 2.75hp single-cylinder 350cc side-valve motor with a two-speed transmission, forward-mounted magneto, and Sunbeam's signature "Little Oil Bath" enclosed chain drive. The 350 model was an immediate success, and soon became known as the "Gentleman's Motorcycle." The 350cc model was soon increased to a 3.5 hp 500cc, still featuring Sunbeam's traditional black livery with gold pin-striping.



1916 Sunbeam 500
1916 Sunbeam 500cc Government Service

Sunbeam also had some success on the racing scene, with Sunbeam employees Howard Davies, John Greenwood, Tommy De La Hay winning several competitions, including the Midland Reliability Trial.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, many of West Midlands' motorcycle manufacturers turned production over to the British war effort. Sunbeam 'Government' models were upgraded with a constant-mesh gearbox, rear-mounted magneto driven by a Morse chain, and a modified three-compartment fuel tank. By 1916, Sunbeam was supplying motorcycles to the Russian Army, which used Swiss-made MAG 996cc engines or J.A. Prestwich engines. Sunbeam also began building two sidecar models, the Number 1 and Number 2, with units built by Charles William Hayward.

In 1916, John Marston retired from the company, and died two years later on March 8th, 1918, one day after his son Roland's funeral, and six weeks before the death of his wife Ellen. This left the company with no likely successor other then John's eldest son Charles, who was working at Villiers, or Thomas Cureton, who was John Marston's partner. In 1919, Sunbeam was acquired by Nobel Industries Ltd. of Ardeer, Scotland, a munitions company owned by industrialist Alfred Nobel of 'Nobel Prize' fame.



1929 Sunbeam Model 90 Road Racer
1929 Sunbeam Model 90 Road Racer

Sunbeam won its first T.T. victory in 1920, with team rider Tommy De La Hay, and by 1921 the company offered three versions of its 3.5 horsepower model: the 'Standard,' Semi-Sporting' 'Sporting Solo T.T.,' and 'Longstroke T.T.' models. By 1927, Nobel Industries Ltd. merged with Brunner Mond Ltd. in Northwich, Cheshire, forming Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), but the Sunbeam name continued. 1936 was the last of the numbered 'longstroke' series, concluding with the Model 11.



1932 Sunbeam Model 9 OHV Longstroke
1932 Sunbeam Model 9 500cc OHV 'Longstroke' Single

The Sunbeam name was acquired by BSA chairman Sir Bernard D.F. Docker in 1943, and all future Sunbeam production took place at BSA's Redditch factory in Worcestershire.


Sunbeam S7 & S8 Models

In a radical departure from the conventional models of the past, Sunbeam introduced its 'S' models, and the 'S7' in 1946. Ultimately there were three S models which included the S7, S8 and S7 Deluxe.



1948 Sunbeam S7 500
1948 Sunbeam S7 500

The S7's 500cc engine was an inline-twin with shaft-drive, large tires, and black paint that had somewhat teutonic styling, similar to the German BMW. The S7 was not particularly well received by the public, and had some reliability issues as well. The S8 was introduced in 1949, and had slimmer, standard-sized wheels, and was available in both black and grey livery. There was also a 'mist green' S7 Deluxe, and multi-colored export models.



In 1959, BSA Introduced the final collaborative effort with Sunbeam, the 'BSA Sunbeam,' which was also sold as the Triumph Tigress, which was a 175cc two-stroke single-cylinder scooter designed by BSA's Edward Turner. 1959 was the final production year for Sumbeam, and BSA sold the remaining stock of parts to Stewart Engineering in Leamington Spa, UK.


Sunbeam Motorcycle Links

History of Sunbeam Bicycles

The Villiers Engineering Co. Ltd.

The Villiers Story

Sunbeam Motorcycle History

Sunbeam History

Redditch History - Sunbeam S7



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