ex-Kenelm Lee Guinness, Sir Henry Seagrave, Jean Chassagne 1922 Sunbeam 2-litre Strasbourg Grand Prix Works Racing Car Registration no. DA 6468 Chassis no. 2.22 Engine no. 2
For the 1922 season and the following three seasons the Automobile Club of France (A.C.F.) elected to place a new engine capacity limit of two litres into their formula for cars competing in the Grand Prix events. The 1922 race was to take place to the west of Strasbourg on a roughly triangular course.
Director and Chief Engineer of Sunbeam Talbot Darracq Motors Ltd., Louis Hervé Coatalen, secured the services of Ernest Henry, late of Peugeot and Ballot and at that time at the high point of his career, to lay out the design for the Sunbeam entry to this event. Although the design was undertaken at the old Darracq Works at Suresnes, manufacture took place at the Sunbeam Works at Wolverhampton.
Henrys engine design followed largely conventional racing car practice of the time, a four-cylinder engine with fixed head cylinder block and separate crankcase, four valves per cylinder, operated by two overhead gear-driven camshafts. The crankshaft was a built-up unit turning in rolling element main bearings but with white metal-lined connecting rods. A major and innovative change lay in the asymmetrical disposition of the valves, a scheme that would be destined to have a successful following many years later. Carburation was provided by a pair of Solex instruments and ignition to the twin sparking plugs by Scintilla magnetos, placed forward of the timing wheel case. A respectable 88bhp at 4,200rpm was obtained when tested on the brake.
The remainder of the car was quite conventional, an arched chassis frame with axles underslung assuring a low centre of gravity. Braking was by cable to all four wheels with Hispano-Suiza patent servo mechanism driven from the gearbox main shaft. The brakes could be adjusted from the cockpit during a race.
Initially only one car was completed and this was subjected to testing at Brooklands and at the Tourist Trophy circuit on the Isle of Man, where the car was found to be quite as fast as the Sunbeam 3-litre, eight-cylinder racing cars that were entered and won that event. The results gave the S.T.D. management every confidence that they had produced a very quick and effective racing car with which to enter the fray in the forthcoming French Grand Prix and three more cars were built.
All four cars were despatched to Strasbourg in the weeks leading up to the event for further testing, driver familiarisation and practice sessions. The team of drivers was Jean Chassagne (mechanic Robert Laly), Kenelm Lee Guinness (mechanic Bill Perkins) and Henry de Hane Segrave (mechanic Jules Moriceau), history recording that the latter two drivers, at least, enjoyed a spirited drive from the Channel port to their destination.
During one of the practice periods the car driven by Segrave sustained damage after a major carburettor fire and spilled petrol. Attempts to contain the blaze by the means to hand were unsuccessful and worse, the hot engine cylinder block was cracked after well-meaning bystanders attempted to douse the flames by pouring on buckets of cold water. The spirit of the team must have been further dampened with the arrival of their arch-competitor Fiats team. When these cars essayed their practice it was clear that the performance of the Italian cars was superior to that of the Sunbeams. It was decided to lower the axle ratio in order to improve the acceleration of the Sunbeams to match more closely the Fiats performance. Sadly these efforts came to nothing and indeed the change caused the failure of all three cars during the race. Safe engine revolutions were exceeded and the inlet valves fractured with consequential piston damage. Chassagne (Race No.9) and Lee Guinness (Race No.16) succumbed during their fifth lap but Segrave (Race No.21) survived until he too suffered the same failure on Lap 29, although he had worked his way up behind the leading Fiats by the time his race was over.
The 1922 French Grand Prix is recorded as one of the most gruelling in the history of these early events and, apart from the loss of the Sunbeams, many of the other teams suffered retirement, including the Fiats; despite their overwhelming superiority all but one were out with rear axle failure, leaving old campaigner Felice Nazzaro the clear winner by nearly a whole hour before second man Pierre de Viscaya in the racing Type 30 Bugatti.
After considering all the available evidence, including race reports, definitive books and many photographs, it is not in our opinion possible, except in one case, to identify which driver drove which car at Strasbourg in 1922. Despite the written evidence to the contrary, none of the contemporary photographs seen show all four cars together complete, though pictures of three complete cars together with major components of the fourth at the Works testify to their existence. Indeed, in his well known and highly regarded work, Sunbeam Racing Cars, the late Anthony S Heal writes only of three cars prepared and entered for this race.
It is known that three cars were entered for the event and only three took part in the race. Since one car is reported to have been rendered unserviceable due to fire damage, then four cars must have been sent to the venue.
There is general agreement among all interested parties that the car driven by Segrave was Chassis No.1, the car now in the care of Neville Webb in Queensland, Australia, and it is due to Webbs research and documentation that we know so much about these cars. His research work, The Strasbourg Sunbeam, was published in 2006.
In Webbs opinion the car offered here, Chassis No.2.22, Engine No.2, is that driven by Lee Guinness in the race. If this is the case, then he also considers that this car was that driven by Segrave into first place in a 2-litre Championship race held at Brooklands in September 1922. He further makes the case for this car being that driven by one J S Spencer into first place in Race 5, the Private Competitors Handicap, at Brooklands on 5th April 1926. A photograph of the car and driver at this event exists and well known Sunbeam race mechanic Bill Perkins is seen to be standing behind the car in attendance.
Bill Perkins notebook exists in the care of Oliver Heal and on the appropriate page Perkins records attention to Spencers car on 30th March but records the car as Chassis No.3, Engine No.3, so there is cause for doubt on the validity of this identification.
More recently, Sunbeam enthusiast, researcher and author, Bruce Dowell, has prepared an article on the subject of the Strasbourg Sunbeams and this was published in the April 2009 issue of the magazine The Automobile. In his opinion Chassis No.2.22, this car, is the car which suffered fire damage and a cracked cylinder block whilst being practiced by Segrave and was thus the car that did not race at Strasbourg. If this was the case, then the car may have been provided with a spare engine, rather than just a cylinder block, in the course of its repair upon the return of the cars to Wolverhampton after the race; the engine number is stamped on a brass plate attached to the crankcase on this car. No other number appears under the plate, yet all the other cars have the engine number stamped directly into the parent metal of the engine bearer.
Further photographic evidence suggests that two of the cars in the hands of Chassagne and Lee Guinness had very distinctive flared scuttles, viewed in elevation, whilst the third car, race No.21 driven by Segrave, had a much flatter profile. As the identity of this car has been established beyond reasonable doubt as the first car built, Chassis No.1, originally registered DA 6436, then the car with a similar though not identical scuttle profile is that photographed at the Works bearing the registration no. DA 6468.
We understand that the body panelling on Chassis No.2.22 is original to the car and that this appears to conform to the flatter profile at the scuttle panel as depicted in the period photographs of DA 6468. This may lend further support to the argument that DA 6468 is indeed Chassis No.2 and that this is the car that did not compete in the race.
Differences of opinion may continue to rage amongst the cognoscenti but all agree that DA 6468, Chassis No.2.22, Engine No.2, is in many ways the best example, the most complete and original one of the four surviving cars.
The post war history of this car is thankfully much more clear. In 1946 it belonged to a J Purnell of Bourne End, later that year passing via Raymond Grant to Douglas Armstrong who advertised the car in Motor Sport in March 1948. It passed to David Allen who campaigned the car at Silverstone, Goodwood and the Prescott Hillclimb. He retained the car until 1960 when it came into the possession of VSCC Past President, Philip Mann, who raced the car at Silverstone. Mann parted with the car at about the time that he completed his restoration of the 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes, No.2.22 coming into the current ownership in 1968, since when it has not seen active competition use.
Arguably the prettiest of all the Sunbeam racing cars, in the years in which that name was at the forefront of British racing achievement, a Strasbourg Sunbeam would be a covetable addition to any collection of historic racing cars, and the presence of this car on the market today for the first time in 41 years represents a rare opportunity for the discerning enthusiast to acquire one of the few surviving British Grand Prix cars of the period.
The car has not been used for some time and we advise the usual careful recommissioning before use. Disassembly, inspection and refurbishment as found necessary will no doubt be needed in order to ensure that the car is returned to full and first class running condition. A new owner may choose to fabricate replacement undertrays to the original pattern and fit wheels and tyres to the original size.
Then Chassis No.2.22 will be ready to resume a competitive career following a long period of inactivity. Its reappearance will create a sensation among enthusiasts for historic racing cars wherever the car is presented.
References and Bibliography
Sunbeam Racing Cars, Heal 1989 The Strasbourg Sunbeams, Webb 2006 The French Grand Prix, Hodges 1967 The Classic Twin Cam Engine, Borgeson 1981 Motoring Entente, Nickols & Karslake 1956 The Lure of Speed, Segrave 1928 Sir Henry Segrave, Posthumus 1961 The Boys Life of Sir Henry Segrave, Wentworth Day 1930 The Autocar 1922 July 3, July 7, July 14 and July 22 reports The Motor 1922 May 17 and July 22 reports The Automobile, The Strasbourg Story, Bruce Dowell, April 2009
We acknowledge the assistance of Keith Taylor for the supply of period photographs and cataloguing research.