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Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 350hp Sunbeam Record-Breaker Runs Again


Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Sunbeam record-breaker, better known as the Blue Bird, was fired up for the first time in twenty years this week in England. The last time it was run in public was in 1962 at the Goodwood circuit.

It suffered through a catastrophic event in 1993 while being test run when a blocked oil passage caused the engine to seize. The damage was extensive and included a broken connecting rod and piston, both of which exited out through the side of the crankcase. After being the subject of a long-term and extensive engine rebuild by the National Motor Museum’s workshop team, the 350 HP engine has been brought back to life.

The Museum’s team along with assistance from volunteers began with a tear-down of the engine in 2007. The work led by the museum’s senior mechanic Ian Stanfield and Doug Hill the chief mechanic, entailed metal stitching to close up the hole in the crankcase, and a complete rebuild that also included sleeving a damaged cylinder bore. In addition to the engine work, the chassis and running gear were also rebuilt.

In the video above courtesy of Johni Parker you can watch as Hill and an assistant hand-cranked the engine back to life, while Stanfield manned the controls in front of a crowd two hundred invited guests.

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  • Rene Thomas with the Sunbeam at the French Gaillon Hill Climb in 1920

The car was designed by Sunbeam’s chief engineer and racing team manager, Louis Coatelen, and was built during 1919 and early 1920 at the automaker’s Wolverhampton factory. In the post-WWI period it was common for record cars to be powered by aircraft engines and Coatelen choose a 1,117 c.i. (18.322 liter) V12 modified Sunbeam aero engine for his creation.

The car was first run at the Brooklands Track by Harry Hawker in 1920, there it survived a mishap caused by a tire blowout that resulted in a trip through the fence. The next appearance by the car was at the Gaillon Hill Climb in France, where it was driven by Rene Thomas, who was able to set a new record on the hill at 108.3 MPH. Gaillon photos courtesy of the French National Library.

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  • At the French Gaillon Hill Climb in 1920

After the car returned to England it was run again at Brooklands in the spring of 1921 by K. Lee Guinness. Over the next two years in conjunction with Coatelen and Sunbeam, the car was run in several events that concluded with it setting a world record over the distance of a kilometer at 133.75 MPH.

Sir Malcolm Campbell next drove the racer when he borrowed it from Sunbeam to compete in the Saltburn Speed Trials in 1923. His top speed of 138 MPH was achieved on a one-way run, but as it was timed by hand, it was not allowed to stand as an official world record. Sir Malcolm next bought the car from Sunbeam, and during a run at the Fanoe Island Speed Trials in 1923 managed a 146.4 MPH run over the mile.  

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  • Sir Malcolm Campbell at Pendine Sands in 1925

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A rebuild was next, with new bodywork and engine modifications to ready it for an attempt in 1924 at Pendine Sands on the beach at Carmarthenshire in South Wales. There Campbell was finally able to set a land speed record of 146.16 MPH in a two-way run over the kilometer. In a return to Pendine in July of 1925 after further work and development, he was able to raise his previous record to 150.87 MPH for the two-way kilometer. Pendine photos from the Peter Helck Collection courtesy of Racemaker Press. 

The Sunbeam was then retired and passed through a number of owners. It ended up residing behind a garage during WWII and was rescued by enthusiast Harold Pratly. In 1958 the Blue Bird was purchased by Lord Montagu and it was restored and displayed at the Montagu Motor Museum (now the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu). Montagu ran the car in exhibition runs at the 1959 V.S.C.C. Oulton Park meet and at its last outing at Goodwood in 1962. Lord Montagu was on hand at its recent start-up to witness the occasion.

10 responses to “Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 350hp Sunbeam Record-Breaker Runs Again

  1. Re metal stitching.
    This reminds me of an old method of repairing cracks with threaded pins.
    The first hole was drilled at the end of the crack, just as you would drill a stop hole. The hole was tapped and a slightly tapered threaded pin inserted, ends cut almost flush and peened. Another hole was drilled along the crack, located so a slight bit of the first pin was drilled into; pin inserted, cut and peened. This process was repeated until the crack was filled and closed. Just thought you might be interested, I saw an old repair in a Model T block done in this manner.


    • I worked @ a machine shop in the 80’s. We called it cold weld..used this techinque in the flat head motors…a dying art..thx… the “GREAZYONE”

  2. Fabulous restoration. We need to see it going around a track to get the fully effect! Everyone that worked on the project should be very proud of this accomplished restoration and the machining required.

    • Jeff, They are now embarking on creating a replica of the original transmission. The original unit suffered in dealing w/the high horse passed through it even when it was near new.

      A truck transmission was installed in it in the late-fifties and the museum would like to undo that next.

  3. Interesting David, what was the original transmission? Was it custom fabricated or was it from an automobile of truck of the late teen era? Also, what type of clutch did it originally use and number of speeds?

    • Jeff, That I do not know and I was unable to find any photos or drawings or details of the drivetrain.

      The late Bill Boddy in his excellent book “Aero-Engined Racing Cars” mentions of it being an issue multiple times during the time it was actively in use. When Lord Montagu got it out to run again in the late fifties it was replaced with a vintage Albion bus transmission.

  4. None of Malcolm Campbell’s cars were called ‘Blue Bird’, they always bore the single word ‘Bluebird’. More important, did he ever refer to the Sunbeam as ‘Bluebird’? I have always believed that his first ‘Bluebird’ was the Napier-Lion-engined car, which followed the Sunbeam. In Campbell’s autobiography he states, “Villiers pointed out that, whatever was done to the engine, the big Sunbeam must be already very close to the limit of its speed, and he considered that a car could be designed which would far surpass anything of which the Sunbeam was capable. The idea was most interesting, and we talked it over several times. These conversations were the actual beginning of the ‘Blue Birds’ which were built later……..” I hope that Britain’s National Motor Museum is not the source of these errors.

    • Tony, You see it spelled both ways but the Bluebird supporters club spells it as one word so it appears you are correct.

      After over 75 years all of the cars are all now lumped together by most references.

      In your quote of Campbell above you mention the following: “These conversations were the actual beginning of the ‘Blue Birds’ which were built later”…. Did he in fact also spell them as two words or was it a typo by you? What book is the quote from?

      • I have inadvertently stirred up a hornet’s nest. When I typed the section from Campbell’s book ‘My Thirty Years of Speed’, my brain must have been in neutral. Thanks, David, for spotting ‘Blue Bird’. That is exactly how he wrote it and elsewhere in the book. If the man himself called his cars Blue Birds, then that must be correct. But I still think the first Blue Bird came after the Sunbeam.
        Incidentally, the book was published in 1935.

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