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The original Blue Bird roars again!

Published Jan 30, 2014


On Wednesday morning Sir Malcolm Campbell's record-breaking 350hp (260kW) Sunbeam was fired up in public for the first time in more than 50 years, after a complete mechanical rebuild by the workshop team at Britain's National Motor Museum in Beaulieu - and everybody for hundreds of metres in every direction knew about it.

Between the two World Wars, motorsport was overshadowed by a series of record-breaking cars, all powered by huge aircraft engines. The 350-horsepower Sunbeam was one of the first, and most famous, of this breed of aero-engined giants.

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It was designed by Sunbeam's chief engineer and racing team manager, Louis Coatalen, and built at the company's works in Wolverhampton during 1919 and early 1920.


Motorvation was provided by an 18.322-litre Sunbeam Manitou Arab V12 aero engine (originally developed for naval seaplanes) modified to deliver a thundering 260kW at a time when a state-of-the-art racing sports-car such as the Bentley 3-Litre was good for 52kW flat out.

In 1922 racing driver Kenelm Lee Guinness achieved the V12 monster's first world land speed record, with a two-way run on the main straight at Brooklands that averaged out at exactly 214km/h.

Soon after Coatelen sold it to Malcolm (later Sir Malcolm) Campbell, who renamed it Blue Bird and, realising it needed a longer run to reach its potential top speed, took it first to Fano in Denmark and then to the flat, hard-packed sands of Pendine Beach in Wales, where you can run flat out for 11km when the tide is out.


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And in September 1924 he did just that, thundering past the timing poles at a new record speed of 225.856km/h. A year later, with a slightly more streamlined front end and some more engine tweaks, Campbell became the first man to drive at more than 240km/h (150 miles per hour in the old language) with a two-way average of 241.216.

But that was literally as fast as it could go, and Campbell reluctantly sold the Sunbeam to help pay for its successor, the awe-inspiring 1082kW, 404km/h Napier Railton Special (also named Blue Bird, of course) powered by a supercharged 23.9-litre Napier VIID W12 fighter engine - but that's another story.


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The Sunbeam then passed through a number of owners and was last recorded as being driven by band leader Billy Cotton in the 1936 Southport Speed Trials. Then it went missing until it was discovered by Harold Pratley, somewhere in Lancashire, in 1942.

Pratley bought it in 1944 and loaned it to the Rootes group, successors to the Sunbeam Company, who gave it a cosmetic restoration for promotional purposes but never ran it.

In 1957 it was sold to Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who got it running and put it on display in the Montagu Motor Museum; it was also trailered to car shows all over Britain and Europe and in 1960 accompanied Lord Montagu as a static display on his Motoring Thro' the Years lecture tour of South Africa.

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Its last outing was at the Goodwood Festival of Motoring in July 1962 when Lord Montagu took it on a three-lap demonstration run and Donald Campbell (Sir Malcolm's son) did a lap of honour. In 1972 it was moved into the newly created National Motor Museum where it has been on permanent display ever since.

In 1987 the Sunbeam was repainted and the wheels rebuilt, but six years later disaster struck when the workshop crew started the gigantic V12 to assess its condition. A blocked oilway caused it to seize a big-end without warning, putting a con rod through the side of the crankcase.

And that's how it stood until 2007, with a very visible hole in the engine where the piston had come out for air.

At that point senior engineer Ian Stanfield had the engine stripped to assess the damage caused by the 1993 blow-up. What they found was a badly scored crank journal (no surprise there) and three damaged pistons and their valves.

Stanfield then approached the Sunbeam Talbot Darracq Register for help in finding parts, specialist services and skills to tackle the enormous job of rebuilding the V12.

It took about 2000 hours of work, much of it voluntary, and generous donations by specialist suppliers, to stitch-weld the crankcase, re-grind the crankshaft, reline the damaged cylinder, re-metal and line-bore the main bearings, and make and fit new con rods, pistons, gudgeon pins, valves and valve springs.

And while they were busy, they stripped and cleaned the rear axle, and renovated the chassis and running gear.

And finally, on 29 January 2014, the handle was swung (and yes, Cyril, it takes two strong adults to swing it over when it's cold), to bring the engine back to life - a sound described as similar to a Rolls-Royce Merlin.

National Motor Museum Chief Engineer Doug Hill said: "This project has been a long-running labour of love for the whole team, many of whom have dedicated hours of their own time to it.

"But there’s more that we still want to do.”

“Our next aim is to recreate the design of the original gearbox (all the original drawings and records were lost when the Sunbeam factory was bombed during the Second World War) so we can restore the car to the exact condition it was in when Sir Malcolm Campbell drove it to two world records on Pendine Sands in 1924 and 1925."

The Sunbeam will be fired up again at the Retromobile classic car show in Paris from 5 - 9 February before returning to Beaulieu to be part of a new display, "For Britain & For The Hell Of It", the story of British land speed records, opening for Easter 2014.

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