Driving record-breaker Sir Henry Segrave’s Sunbeam Twin Cam

| 3 Jan 2022
Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

You can read books, study vintage photographs and search out historic locations, but there’s nothing like driving a car with direct connections to a speed hero.

Ever since reading much-missed Cyril Posthumus’ wonderful 1961 biography Sir Henry Segrave, I’ve been fascinated by the legendary 1920s racer and record-breaker.

There are few surviving machines that have firm Segrave associations, other than his three Land Speed Record steeds, but among his road cars this spectacular ivory-and-green Sunbeam 3-litre Super Sports, better known as the ‘Twin Cam’, stands out.

Although he owned it for less than a year, it travelled with him to America during his self-funded quest to be the first man to exceed 200mph on land. 

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

Segrave only owned the Twin Cam for a year, but it was with him at the scene of one of his greatest achievements

That achievement made him world famous on a level with the spacemen who later launched into the stratosphere just south of Daytona Beach.

Along the Atlantic surf on 29 March 1927, Segrave battled for control of the brake-less three-tonne Sunbeam 1000hp against the treacherous crosswinds, and this Twin Cam can clearly be seen many times in vintage Pathé newsreels.

As many as 30,000 Americans packed the sand dunes to witness the valiant speed quest of the lanky Englishman and his 45-litre, twin-engined glossy red beast.

Many camped or slept out overnight.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Twin Cam’s evocative cabin features a steering wheel specially ordered by Segrave himself

Among the 7000 vehicles that parked along the Florida sands was this former show car.

Now magnificently restored, with rebuilt features, its historic connections with Major Segrave – or ‘de Hane’, as he preferred to be called, but never Henry – are as vivid as ever.

Climbing up into the green leather driver’s seat – via the passenger door, the easiest route because the gearlever and handbrake on the far right block access – is a special moment. 

Just running your hands around the original white René Thomas steering wheel, which Segrave ordered specially in October 1926, you can’t help thinking about the challenging sagas that preoccupied him in the build up to his brave 200mph attempt. 

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

Coatalen’s 2916cc ‘six’ was a jewel in the crown, with racing provenance and easy performance

From childhood drives in 1906 around the Belleisle estate in County Galway, steering his father’s 6hp single-cylinder Rover, 21 years later the former Eton boy had become the fastest man on earth.

To drive any Sunbeam Super Sports is a major treat, but one with direct links to Segrave, the hero who took the Wolverhampton firm to glory as the first British car and driver to win a Grand Prix (the 1923 French), makes this run even more special.

A car for connoisseurs, the 3-litre Super Sports was the flagship model of Louis Coatalen’s empire.

With its distinctively drawn-out and narrow body, the Super Sports looked more a tourer than a sports car but under the long bonnet was one of the most exotic road-car engines of the 1920s, an advanced dry-sump, twin-cam unit that looked straight out of a Grand Prix racer.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Twin Cam was introduced with the main objective of achieving racing success at Le Mans

With cast-iron monobloc, the beautiful long-stroke design featured hemispherical combustion chambers, angled valves and gear-driven overhead camshafts.

With twin Claudel-Hobson H42A carburettors, it gave 90bhp at an eager 3800rpm and a top speed of 95mph when it was launched in 1925.

With this new sports model, chief engineer Coatalen’s main ambition was to beat rival Bentley in the 1925 24 Hours of Le Mans.

On Sunbeam’s first attempt around La Sarthe’s rough course, the sole surviving Twin Cam of the two works entrants achieved the ambitious aim when Jean Chassagne and debutant ‘Sammy’ Davis finished a mighty second.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Sunbeam on the startline at Branches Park, where Cambridge University Automobile Club sprints were run in the 1920s

Just over 300 were built between 1925 and 1930, of which this 1926 chassis 4001G is one of the finest and most historic.

The channel-section frame was typical of the era with a beam axle, semi-elliptic springs and Hartford adjustable friction shock absorbers at the front.

At the back, the live axle with advanced torque tube was partially located by cantilever springs ahead of the axle.

The over-long springs were a rare weakness of the layout, and when cornering hard felt as if the axle was moving about.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

A perfect road test for this historic Sunbeam

The chassis had a habit of cracking but, as with the four overstressed engine mounts, specialists today have resolved this problem.

In a perfect world I’d love to have taken this wonderful car on a Segrave celebration tour: to visit Sunbeamland in Wolverhampton; then Beaulieu to reunite it with the 1000hp record-breaker; and a final stop at Lake Windermere, where Segrave lost his life breaking the Water Speed Record aged just 33.

Nevertheless, these blissful deserted Suffolk roads are ideal for sampling the Sunbeam’s driver appeal.

The engine’s performance lives up to its advanced specification, the 3-litre unit feeling super-responsive compared to its rivals from Cricklewood and Luton.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The engine and gearbox work in perfect harmony, making driving a joy

The ‘six’ loves to rev yet still delivers strong low-down torque with a rich exhaust bark, but best of all it’s connected to the finest vintage gearbox I’ve experienced.

The lever is sited between bodywork and thigh, and works through a compact H-gate.

The superb action, perfectly chosen ratios and plate-style clutch are a joy.

It’s so easy to judge the timing when double-declutching up and down the ’box that it almost feels like a synchromesh.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Sunbeam’s simple suspension rides well

The four-wheel drum brakes are equally impressive, with reassuring bite and feel.

Although the worm-and-nut steering has the lock of a Leyland bus, its direct feel on the open road inspires confidence to counter the failings of the rear axle’s flawed location.

Within a mile you feel totally in tune with this underrated vintage thoroughbred, which rides as well as it performs.

Despite the near-mythical status of vintage Bentleys, Sunbeam did so much more for national prestige.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The famous machine has been superbly rebuilt back to show condition

As the only home company to go Grand Prix racing during the inter-war years, that pedigree shines through with this superb road car.

“For quality and history, the Twin Cam is considerably cheaper than its rivals,” says specialist John Polson, who at the time of writing had the ex-Segrave beauty for sale at £175,000, a figure that wouldn’t cover the restoration costs today.

“They’ve always been bought by enthusiasts who know and understand great vintage cars.

“The owner is only selling because he is now too old to drive it.”

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

Glistening at Olympia in 1926, launching the latest of Sunbeam’s wares before Daytona

The dazzling tourer chassis made its public debut on the Sunbeam stand at Olympia for the 1926 motor show.

Presented with spectacular ivory bodywork and matching wire wheels, the bold scheme was enhanced by racing green wings and chassis.

The dashboard was trimmed in ivory leather with specially made white-faced instruments, while the seat trim matched the wings.

Nickel-silver plating complemented the dramatic style, but it was the new cellulose paint finish, an automotive first, that attracted most attention.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Super Sport looked instantly racy upon its launch

As well as a superior gloss to previously brushed bodywork, the revolutionary spraying sped up production thanks to its faster drying.

The body style followed factory Super Sports with individual wings, exposed chassis and long running boards.

The doors were staggered, the passenger side for front access and a rear door on the driver’s side for the expansive back seat.

Among the rather staid-looking 25hp and 35hp touring models the Super Sport looked very racy under the huge riveted-steel ‘Sunbeam Motor Co Ltd, Wolverhampton’ sign.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Sunbeam’s green accents give it a smart two-tone paintjob

The finish and long, tub-like body inspired The Motor’s cartoonist, who sketched the show car with shower fitting, towels and soap holders, claiming it: ‘Would be ideal for members of The Bath Club.’

With its exclusive £1125 price-tag (£950 for the chassis only), the dashing two-tone paint finish would have appealed to the fictional Bertie Wooster but the real first owner was Sunbeam’s most famous racer, Major Segrave.

It’s now assumed that the flagship Super Sports was gifted to the speed hero as part-payment for his racing and design commitments, but he would circuit race only once more, when he drove a works Twin Cam at Brooklands in 1927.

Segrave was by then focused on a valiant Land Speed Record attempt with a still-secret Sunbeam challenger.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Twin Cam shadows ‘The Mystery’ at Daytona in 1927 before Segrave breaks the 200mph barrier, the first time it was surpassed

Designed by John Samuel Irving, the 1000hp, 45-litre, twin-engined beast known as ‘The Mystery’ was already under construction for Segrave’s first attempt on Daytona Beach, scheduled for March 1927.

I like to imagine Segrave parking the new Super Sports outside his house in Elm Tree Road, St John’s Wood, London, and taking his glamorous actress wife Doris Mary Stocker out to the West End on winter nights in the ivory charger.

No doubt on trips to the West Midlands works to check progress on the twin-engined monster, Segrave would have set impressive averages.

His passengers rarely forgot Segrave’s press-on driving style on the 130-mile journey from his north London home to Sunbeamland on Paul Street, Wolverhampton.

The Twin Cam was shipped in early March with the crated-up record car to New York, with Segrave and team on the stylish Cunard liner RMS Berengaria.

From there a boat carried cars and crew to Jacksonville, Florida, where Segrave received a staggering reception.

Sunbeam’s director Coatalen was fully committed to the publicity of record-breaking, no doubt wanting his English superstar to be seen in a Sunbeam sports car around Florida, and he got his money’s worth.

In bright sunshine, the tourer led the convoy from the docks with a police escort cutting a clear route for the English ace.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Twin Cam picked up some speed of its own on Daytona Beach, reaching 75mph

Pathé film reports show Segrave driving the Twin Cam down the beach course with local dignitaries, the camera focusing on the white Jaeger speedometer as he reached 75mph on the sand.

Among the dark American sedans at the Art Deco-style Clarendon Hotel, the Sunbeam really stood out as fans tried to get a glimpse of the famous Englishman.

The combat between Malcolm Campbell and Segrave was major international news, and The Mystery lived up to expectations with an average of 203.793mph on the Atlantic beach.

With an astonishing speed advantage of nearly 30mph over Bluebird’s previous record, set at Pendine Sands, the brutish red machine posted several firsts for Segrave and Sunbeam, and began a period of British dominance.

Sitting high behind the white dashboard and looking down that long bonnet, it”s easy to conjure this car’s Stateside history, with Segrave surrounded by expectant spectators packing the beach as he motored into the paddock.

The new Sunbeam sports car was much admired in America, including by speedboat specialist Commodore Garfield ‘Gar’ Wood who’d come down to Florida to witness Segrave’s record attempt.

The American Water Speed Record holder was the first man to travel at more than 100mph offshore and was well known to Segrave, who himself had plans to switch to water attempts.

The silver-haired Wood was a hugely prosperous engineering entrepreneur. 

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

After leaving Segrave, the Twin Cam moved on to Garfield ‘Gar’ Wood

His boat designs were rated the most advanced, and after Segrave’s successful record run he did a deal at dinner one evening to swap the Twin Cam for two speedboat hulls.

The Sunbeam was a true exotic in America, and Wood kept it for 12 years, taking it back to his home in Algonac, Michigan, on the Great Lakes Waterway where both Gar Wood and Chris-Craft boats were built.

The idea of the English sports car being owned by a second record-breaker, and being based at the birthplace of powerboating, is fascinating.

Wood eventually sold the Sunbeam in October 1938 to Major Greening, a Canadian enthusiast who regarded it as an early Christmas present. 

When the car was shipped to Greening’s home in Hamilton, Ontario, the custom papers declared the value at only $100.

During the fierce Canadian winter the twin-cam engine suffered damage, and Greening passed the broken Sunbeam on to his mechanic.

Over the ensuing 40 years the famous car was ignobly fitted with a 60hp Ford flathead V8, but with few modifications to the chassis.

After several owners and a lengthy period in storage, the Segrave 3-litre was saved by Briton Cameron Millar, the respected Sunbeam Twin Cam and Maserati aficionado.

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The Sunbeam’s instruments survived intact through the years

Fifty-two years after it was first shipped to Daytona, chassis 4001G headed back to England to Millar‘s impressive home at Dower House, near Potters Bar.

Although the original engine had long gone (it does survive, fitted to another Twin Cam), the car retained many original features including the unique ivory instruments and the special René Thomas sprung steering wheel that Segrave had fitted before it went over to Daytona.

A multiple Sunbeam Twin Cam owner, Millar had too many projects and little progress on 4001G was made.

Finally, after several keepers, this wonderful car found the ideal saviours in Chris and Pearl Rigg, who enlisted Jim Catnach, the foremost Twin Cam Sunbeam specialist, to return it to the style and condition in which it was presented in Kensington in 1926. 

Classic & Sports Car: Sunbeam, Segrave and the Sands

The engine has been subject to extensive work in recent years

The meticulous rebuild that took place in Catnach’s JC Engineering workshop in Cambridgeshire included a new engine, using an original crankcase.

After six years’ work, the finished article looked magnificent and attracted enthusiastic compliments wherever the Riggs drove it.

With progress being made at Beaulieu to rebuild one of the record-breaking Sunbeam’s Matabele 12-cylinder engines to make the 203mph monster mobile again, wouldn’t it be great to see the 1000hp reunited again with Segrave’s Twin Cam?

Just picture the two cars being shipped for display at the Amelia Island concours, with a diversion to Daytona Beach for a demo run.

With five years until the centenary of his incredible 200mph achievement, there’s plenty of time to make it happen.

Images: Max Edleston

Thanks to John Polson; Chris Rigg; the owners of Branches Park


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