1924’s land-speed record holder, an 18.3-liter Sunbeam, has a new gearbox to punish

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Don Wales at the wheel of 350hp Sunbeam at Pendine National Motor Museum in Beaulieu

The National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, England, is home to over 280 historic vehicles, including a multimedia presentation that features the Campbell father-and-son duo’s record-breaking 1920 Sunbeam 350-horsepower “Blue Bird,” 1000-hp 1927 Sunbeam, 1929 Golden Arrow, and 1960 Bluebird CN7. 

Sir Malcolm Campbell first broke the land speed record in 1924, driving a 1920 Sunbeam chassis with an 18.3-liter V-12 onboard. This car was designed by Louis Coatalen, featuring a purpose-built engine based on two Sunbeam aero designs. This resulted in a hybrid layout with four blocks of three cylinders, arranged in two banks set at 60 degrees. Purchased by Campbell and quickly renamed Blue Bird, this 350-hp prototype turned out to be good for 146.16 mph at Pendine Sands on a calm September day nearly a century ago.

Lord Montagu in Sunbeam at Goodwood 1962
National Motor Museum in Beaulieu
Malcolm Campbell at speed in Sunbeam 350hp at Pendine Sands
National Motor Museum in Beaulieu

Malcolm Campbell with Sunbeam 350hp at Pendine Sands
National Motor Museum in Beaulieu

Unfortunately, sometime after World War II, the original gearbox was removed, only to be replaced by a temporary unit from a 35-hp Albion. Not only was this transmission designed to handle only 1/10 of the Sunbeam’s output, it also lacked a transmission brake function, which was a crucial part of the Blue Bird’s otherwise crude brake system.

This special Sunbeam was sold to the Beaulieu collection in 1958, and the museum recently managed to rebuild its utterly complex V-12. Only the gearbox remained an issue, right until the engineering team came up with a suitable alternative in the form of a Bentley C type transmission, adapted to fit the Sunbeam’s chassis with custom-made mounts.

Sunbeam 350hp starting up
National Motor Museum in Beaulieu

Blue Bird still requires two new exhaust pipes, a reupholstered seat, and the re-manufacture of a slightly dropped nose cone and rear wheel spats. After that, it should be good for at least 146.16 mph once again, depending, of course, on the gearing of that beefy Bentley gearbox.

Sunbeam Gearbox
National Motor Museum in Beaulieu
Sunbeam Gearbox
National Motor Museum in Beaulieu
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