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News, photos and commentary referring to Sunbeam's wider legacy

An extract from the Wolverhampton Chronicle by Mark Walsh
(Note: photos are scanned from the newspaper article)

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Sleek Sunbeam is shining example of craftsmanship

Looking like an extra on a wartime film set, the Black Country Living Museum's unique Sunbeam motorcycle is the oldest surviving example of its kind. MARK WALSH talks to the man restoring the antique machine and hitches a ride back to the glory days of Black Country motor manufacture 

PHOTO: Ray Salisbury and Ken Norton, restoring a 1913 Sunbeam

When the Black Country ruled the road, the sleek black machine sitting in curator Ray Jones' shed at the Black Country Living Museum was king.

Built almost 100 years ago, the 1913 Sunbeam motorbike boasted two-and-three-quarter horse power - 346cc in new money - and was one of the first models to roll off the track at the Paul Street plant in Wolverhampton.

With a serial number in the 200s, the motorcycle is believed to be the oldest surviving Sunbeam and is poised to rev into action at the museum in the New Year.

"It was the first model ever made," curator Ray explains. "It is the only one and as far as we know the earliest Sunbeam motorcycle in existence."

Ray and his crew of dedicated volunteers - Ken Norton, David Beere, Ray Salisbury, Stan Davis and Derek Spencer - have spent four years lovingly rebuilding the machine.

When finished, the unique motorcycle will take pride of place in the museum's collection of vintage vehicles, including 38 bikes and 15 cars - all cared for on a volunteer basis by the dedicated team.

"When you restore one of these bikes, it's all got to be stripped down - if it isn't already in spare parts, of course, because some of them arrive in tea chests," Ray says.

"This one arrived intact, but it was in an appalling condition. When the museum acquired it, it was only partly restored, but we hope to have it ready and running in the spring."

The antique motorcycle symbolises the golden period for Black Country vehicle manufacture, when firms like Sunbeam, AJS, Diamond, Clyno and Orbit produced the premium motors of the day.

PHOTO: Ray Jones (front) on a 1921 Orbit and Ken Norton on a 1921 Clyno

The Sunbeam company, originally a japanning firm which made painted tin-ware, moved into bicycle manufacture at the turn of the the 20th century and made the logical next step to motorised bikes in 1912.

Legend has it the original colour scheme of black gloss and gold lining was used by the firm to match the Wolverhampton Wanderers football strip.

About 30 motorcycles per week rolled off the production line in the Twenties, supplying bikes to the British army, belt-driven models to the French army and sidecar ambulance combinations to the Russians.

In the 1920s heydays Black Country-built models also dominated the race track, with hill sprint champion George Dance and Isle of Mann TT winner Tommy de la Hay among the hallowed names who won grand prix at home and abroad.

Production continued apace until 1937, when rival firm Matchless Motorcycles bought out the company. Just two years later, the Sunbeam brand was taken over by BSA which continued to use the name on 500cc shaft-driven models until the late 1960s.

After roaring through the first half of the century, the Sunbeam name then slipped out of existence without so much as a misfire.


Bramwell Payne in one of his many roles at the museum - that of a motorcycle tester


Ray sees the conservation of the vehicles at the museum as a crucial link to the manufacturing glory of the Black Country and the preservation of the area's pride in its achievements.

"It's important that future generations realise what was done in the Black Country. You can have computers and images and pictures until the cows come home, but there's nothing like actually seeing one, touching one and above all watching them run," he says.

"That's when you get the true atmosphere of the day and appreciate what those engineers achieved."


Return to: Sunbeamland - the motor cycle works