Beaulieu’s 1927 record-breaker gets an engine rebuild for 90th anniversary, ahead of its run in 78 years
On 29 March 1927, Sir Henry Segrave and his Sunbeam 1000hp averaged 203.79mph over two opposite runs at Daytona Beach, setting a new Land Speed Record in the process. Now,
90 years later, work has begun to rebuild one of its two 22.5-litre V12 Sunbeam Matabele aero engines. It’s all happening in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, where the Sunbeam has been on display since 1958.
Doug Hill, the museum’s manager and chief engineer, is masterminding the scheme. He and his colleagues hope to run the engine, the rear one of the two and currently mounted in a test rig, as a celebration of the 90th anniversary. If they succeed, it will be the engine’s first firing-up since it last ran in 1939.
For Hill, this has been a journey of discovery. ‘The engines counter-rotate because the flywheels face each other. They did that by altering the timing of the camshafts,’ he explains.
He’d been told that the engines had been sealed, as had that of Napier’s Golden Arrow, also on Beaulieu display. ‘I remember Louis Coatalen, Napier’s chief engineer, taking off some of the Golden Arrow’s covers and it was immaculate.’ Not so the Sunbeam’s motors, though. ‘We removed the plugs and thought, “Hang on, that’s not right”.’
An endoscope revealed internal corrosion but, having successfully re-commissioned the museum’s 1920 350hp Sunbeam record-breaker in 2015, Hill and his team ‘had some momentum’ to tackle the younger car. It has been a tough three-year job, which shifted from conservation to fully recommissioning one engine.
‘Old Castrol R had been left in the engines, turned to glue and seized them. Gentle heating and internal solvent baths were used, but it took 18 months to unstick the rear engine. Stripping it was a slow process, too. You can’t just split castings and jam things between cases.’
A mix of very patient volunteers and staffers gently pulled everything apart. All bar 20 water jacket plate bolts sheared, but at least they were luckier than they had been with the 350hp car in which all 850 of them broke. The threads have been re-tapped and the bolts replaced.
Otherwise, the engine has cleaned up well. ‘We’ve managed to salvage everything apart from four cylinder bores that were too corroded,’ Hill reports with pride. The crankshaft has been polished, new bearings made and the original pistons put back with new rings. Hill reasoned that the engine wouldn’t be running under serious load, so it was safe to use the original parts where possible.
The corrosion wasn’t a huge surprise, as the engines were made from a quartet of motors used in a 1920s Maple Leaf powerboat that ended up ‘on the bottom of Detroit harbour’ during the Harmsworth Trophy. This mix-and-match approach might explain the slight variation in carburettor mixture controls. The team also discovered an ancient screwdriver in an oil tank, perhaps dropped by one of Segrave’s mechanics, and evidence that someone had brutalised a camshaft bearing ‘with a hammer’.
Doug Hill has been at Beaulieu for 43 years, but he credits ‘new boy’ Ian Stansfield, who arrived in 1977, as the driving force behind the 1000hp project. If funds and manpower allow, Hill would love to see the Sunbeam’s other engine, transmission and chassis restored so the whole car could run properly for its centenary in 2027. ‘That,’ he said, ‘would be the swansong I’d like for my career.’
Words: Martin Gurdon