1920 Sunbeam 350HP "Bluebird",Beaulieu Finds V

This is the Fifth in a series of small bitesize bits of info on interesting cars found at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in the Beautiful New Forest National Park. All photos were taken by me and my potato unless otherwise referenced. Now we have that out of the way, sit back and relax children it’s story time.

The Focus this week lies on the Sunbeam 350hp a racer and land speed record car built in 1920. Designed by Louis Coatalen, a French engineer living and working in the UK. The car was fitted with a purpose built 18.3-litre 60 degree V12 engine based on Sunbeam’s aero engines. Each cylinder had one inlet and two exhaust valves actuated by a single overhead camshaft. The two camshafts were driven by 16 gears from the front of the crankshaft. A 4-speed transmission initially drove a back axle with differential with a shaft drive rather than the hazardous chains of most cars of the era, following a crash in 1920 the differential was replaced with a simple crown wheel and pinion so that the rear wheels were locked together Brakes were crude, as was usual in the period, with a foot brake acting on the transmission and a hand brake on the rear drums. Suspension was also typical, with half-elliptic springs all round damped by Andre Hartford friction shock absorbers


Unlike most Land Speed Record cars the Sunbeam was in hill climbs and on track, its debut was at Brooklands in 1920 being driven by Harry Hawker (of Hawker Aircraft fame). That October Rene Thomas (like Hawker, another Aviation pioneer) set a new record at the Gaillon hill climb.

In May 1922 under the control of Kenelm Lee Guiness the Sunbeam set three records, the Brooklands lap record at 123.30 mph (198.43 km/h), then the land speed record over a mile at 129.17 mph (207.88 km/h) and over a kilometre at 133.75 mph (215.25 km/h) this was the last land speed record to be set on the Brooklands track as there is only so much speed that can be held on an oval.

British land speed record legend Malcolm Campbell borrowed the car for the Saltburn Speed Trials on 17 June 1922 and broke his first speed record at 138.08 mph (222.22 km/h). The record was disallowed for it’s use of a manual stopwatch timing system.


Campbell later purchased the car from Coatalen, Campbell then painted it blue and renamed it ‘Blue Bird’, already the fourth Blue Bird. 23 June 1923 saw Campbell at Fanø, Denmark, recording another record-breaking speed of 137.72 mph (221.64 km/h) over the flying kilometre. Again the record was not officially accepted as the timing equipment was not of the approved type.

Over the winter of 1923–1924 the car was sent to the aircraft maker Boulton Paul at Norwich, Norfolk for wind tunnel tests. They devised some aerodynamics modifications including a narrow radiator cowl at the nose and a long tapered tail. The rear wheels were also fitted with disc style covers.


Campbell returned to Fanø in the summer, but the beach was in poor condition and crowd control of the spectators was poor. On the first run both rear tyres were ripped off Blue Bird and narrowly missed the crowd. Campbell protested to the officials about safety standards and declined to take any responsibility for anything else. Sadly, this time a front tyre came off and killed a boy in the crowd.

The car was taken to the home of British speed records, Pendine Sands in South Wales and saw a more successful result with the first of Campbell’s nine records. The record was achieved on 24 September 1924, with a speed of 146.16 mph (235.23 km/h) and an officially sanctioned time. After this he put the car up for sale for £1,500, but decided to keep it for a further attempt on hearing the news that J. G. Parry-Thomas was also planning a record attempt with ‘Babs’. Blue Bird returned to Pendine in 1925, and on 21 July it raised this record to 150.766 mph (242.628 km/h), the first time a car had exceeded 150 mph (240 km/h). The best run over the mile had reached 152.833 mph (245.961 km/h).


After Campbell’s Stewardship, the Sunbeam appears to have returned to circuit racing with wider tyres and a return to the short tail with green paintwork then unfortunately not much else is known about the war period. It was acquired by the then Beaulieu Motor Collection where it is now on show. The engine has undergone extensive restoration after suffering severe damage in the 1990s and was run for the first time in 20 years in January 2014.

The Sunbeam Bluebird kicked off a fascination with speed for Britain, Dominating the wheel driven land speed records, regaining the absolute Land Speed record in 1983 after 20 years under American cars and drivers.

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