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.
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.
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.
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.