On the up: Vauxhall 14hp M-type vs Sunbeam Fourteen

| 10 Dec 2021
Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam

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By 1919 the UK’s car industry was still emerging from the previous war-torn four years.

The companies that had survived the hostilities, either through diversifying their manufacturing output or producing vehicles for the military, were heading, they thought, towards boom times.

And they were – at least for a short while.

But by late 1920, Britain’s economy had started to crumble, and the car market with it, down by a staggering 50%.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
The Vauxhall M-type and Sunbeam Fourteen arrived at a difficult time for both companies

Middling-to-prestige car makers, such as Vauxhall and Sunbeam, were suffering more than most.

Their woes were compounded by the double whammy of a new flat rate of excise duty equal to £1 per RAC horsepower produced by a new car, replacing the previous – and kinder – graduated rate levied since 1910, and their staple 16-24hp models became far less marketable.

Rumour also had it that Herbert Austin was to capitalise on the duty change with a model that would transform the market…

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
Vauxhall – much like Sunbeam – launched the M-type hoping to reclaim lost sales

The approaches of Vauxhall and Sunbeam, however, resulted in the cars you see here: from Luton, the M-type 14hp, and, from Wolverhampton, the 14/40, representing the slightly earlier but similar Fourteen.

Vauxhall was first to market in 1921, with the Sunbeam following in 1922, each seeking to reclaim vital sales that had compromised both companies’ market shares.

For Vauxhall, the M-type became the marque’s entry-level model, sitting below the aged D-type and barnstorming 30-98 E-type.

Designed by CE King and costing £650, the Vauxhall represented genuinely fresh thinking.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
The M-type’s engine was Vauxhall’s first to feature a separate cylinder head

While there were undoubtedly hints of cost cutting with its engine’s three-bearing crank, the 2297cc four-cylinder sidevalve unit was Vauxhall’s first with a separate cylinder head, which simplified maintenance and reduced running costs, and the first to have the clutch and gearbox in-unit with the engine.

In another break with tradition, the cylinder head, crankcase, gearbox, torque tube and rear axle casing were all aluminium, making the M-type a lithe and agile machine weighing just 2425lb with a four-seater touring body.

A three-speed gearbox and two-wheel brakes were no surprise, given the need for competitive pricing, but an electric starter and Autovac fuel supply simplified the ownership experience.

It’s important to separate pre-war Vauxhalls from the more mass-produced cars that came later, and the M-type is no exception.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
Sunbeam hoped the Fourteen would revive its fortunes

It was finely crafted and in essence a scaled-down model from further up the range.

Its substantial chassis had semi-elliptic front springs and cantilever springs at the rear, although the absence of standard dampers (Hartford items were a cost option) compromised the ride.

Sunbeam had been in a similar position to its Luton rival after the war, with a range of more powerful but by then quite dated models born out of its pre-war Grand Prix and record-breaking successes.

The company had merged with Talbot and Darracq in 1920, following the death two years earlier of founder John Marston, so the feeling was that its new car should mark a renaissance for Moorfield Works.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
Despite its name, the Sunbeam’s engine actually had a slight horsepower deficit to that of the Vauxhall

When the first Fourteens emerged from Sunbeam’s Wolverhampton factory they were, like their Luton-built rivals, quality engineered machines costing an identical £650.

Because the car had to be developed in record time, Sunbeam’s model was derived from new sister brand Darracq’s recently launched 12hp, so while it was called the ‘Fourteen’, its 72mm bore size meant a 12.8hp rating.

But, like the Vauxhall, its all-new four-cylinder engine was in-unit with the gearbox and clutch, and while its bore and output soon grew to 75mm and 14hp, its shorter 120mm stroke still meant 176cc less capacity.

With development led by Sunbeam’s chief engineer Louis Coatalen, based at the group’s new Paris design studio, the Fourteen’s overhead valvetrain spoke of higher tech, versus Vauxhall’s sidevalve set-up.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
The Fourteen (left) and M-type (right) were equally matched in many ways

The model also evolved far more quickly than the M-type: at the 1923 Olympia motor show, Sunbeam had not only increased its engine block’s bore size, but also manufactured it from cast iron rather than aluminium, for greater durability.

Sunbeam introduced a ‘sports’ engine option, too, with an uprated inlet manifold and carburettor, and high-compression pistons.

And for an extra £35 it offered the option of four-wheel brakes, which weren’t available on the Vauxhall until the later LM-type 14/40 was introduced in 1925.

But in many other respects the dimensionally similar rivals were equally matched, the Sunbeam being only marginally larger than the Vauxhall.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
NU 2525 was a gift to its first keeper from his mother

Clothed with standard touring bodies, their weights were separated by just 22lb.

Today, we’ve congregated in Cheshire at Manor Park Classics, temporary custodian for the Vauxhall, where we meet Mike Dancer, who has brought his Sunbeam 14/40 up from Halesowen, not a million miles from where it was originally manufactured.

Both cars, it transpires, have interesting backstories.

NU 2525, this Sunbeam’s original number, was first registered to Sydney Grimshaw Taylor of Nottingham on 28 February 1924, the car having been a gift from Taylor’s mother after he’d qualified as a solicitor.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
This rare Sunbeam is in essence an early Fourteen, but with the four-wheel brakes that would appear on later models

This model is rare now, and one of just two ‘transitional’ examples that are thought to survive, having the basic appearance and underpinnings of a Fourteen but with some of the features of the later 14/40, such as linked four-wheel brakes.

It also retains the earlier model’s shorter radiator and lower bonnet line, with upward-sloping scuttle.

Incredibly, Dancer believes that he’s only the car’s third owner in its 97-year life.

The previous keeper, Ken Wilson, found it in a sorry state living under a lean-to on a farm in Derbyshire in 1957.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
New wire wheels were among the modifications made by the Sunbeam’s previous owner, Ken Wilson

Wilson was told by the farmer that the Sunbeam had been stored there by its soldier owner in 1939, but that he’d never returned for it after WW2, so he assumed he’d been killed.

Wilson paid the princely sum of £12 for the Sunbeam and slowly recommissioned the car, at the same time fitting a wider 1926 rear axle to improve the handling, plus wire wheels to replace the original artillery-spoked items.

Some years later, a chance meeting brought Wilson into contact with local motorcycle enthusiast Eric O’Dell, who owned a collection of motoring ephemera.

Wilson happened to notice a Sunbeam handbook and was amazed to see it contained his car’s registration, chassis and engine numbers.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
Mike Dancer bought the Fourteen in 1994, forging a lasting friendship with Wilson in the process

O’Dell explained that in 1946 he’d been travelling home after the war with his commanding officer, one Captain Sydney Taylor, who generously gifted him his old Sunbeam: “I’ll send you its papers when I get home…”

He duly did, but Eric forgot all about the car, and hence it remained under the farmer’s lean-to until Wilson found it.

Dancer bought the Sunbeam in 1994 and stayed in contact with Wilson, the duo regularly attending rallies together in the car until his death in 2001.

The Vauxhall’s story is equally interesting.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
The ‘downsized’ M-type shared its quality workmanship with larger Vauxhalls

Owned by Vauxhall Motors for the past 52 years and now a valuable part of its heritage collection, OK 9076 – otherwise known as ‘Emma’– was originally purchased by a Devon farming family in 1923.

Officially a 14hp M-type, although now fitted with the later four-wheel brakes from the 1925-onwards LM-type 14/40, plus wire wheels to replace the original Michelin disc rims, the car was supplied with Princeton Tourer bodywork, which it retains today.

Three generations of the Gibson family used Emma through their 46-year tenure, racking up an impressive 250,000 miles.

In the late ’60s, Vauxhall was starting to recognise the importance of its pre-war heritage and Emma’s history file reveals correspondence from Vauxhall to the Gibsons encouraging them to part with the car, which even then was a rare survivor.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
This particular M-type, ‘Emma’, was owned by the Gibson family for 46 years until 1969

In December 1969 the family relented, a deal was struck and Thomas Gibson made his final journey in the car from Tiverton to Vauxhall’s design and engineering offices – latterly the Griffin House HQ – on Osborne Road in Luton.

But this was no ordinary transaction: waiting in the office’s showroom was a brand-new Viva HB 1600 ready for Gibson to drive home in.

Naturally, Vauxhall’s PR machine went into overdrive, and the story was well documented in the local press.

We’re blessed with a pleasantly warm day, and never has there been a more appropriate location in which to drive two century-old cars than the rural lanes around Runcorn.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
The M-type’s gearlever and handbrake are both located to the right of the driving seat

Despite the near uniformity of their specifications, these 14hp survivors are markedly different to drive, and you can imagine how they would have polarised enthusiasts’ opinions in period.

Into the Vauxhall first, and you quickly realise that being compact in form is a benefit.

As was the norm in almost every Luton-built car until the late ’20s, the gearlever (and in the M-type’s case the handbrake, too) was located inboard, next to your right knee, with first towards the body and forward, working inboard towards third and top.

Unlike the Sunbeam, Vauxhall maintained a centre throttle for all of its models until much later in the decade, so a certain amount of focus is needed before you move off.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
The Autovac makes for easy starting

With Autovac, starting is simply a case of switching on the ignition and pressing a button to welcome a sharp initial bark from the exhaust.

The controls are, for a car of this age, light and quite delicate, the gears slotting into place quietly, but only after a slow double-declutch to allow revs to drop sufficiently between changes.

For a car with less than sporting pretensions, the Vauxhall’s steering has a quick, high-geared ratio.

It is exaggerated by a relatively small steering wheel, which is light enough to turn at anything over 15mph but only favours the musclebound at lower speeds.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
The Sunbeam’s controls feel more substantial; the steering is heavy, but the large wheel makes this less of an issue

Vintage Vauxhall brakes were renowned for being fairly woeful, so it’s with some trepidation that you attempt to shed speed for the first time, only to discover that you needn’t have worried: even depending solely on the handbrake (the foot pedal was recommended purely for emergency stops), the Vauxhall pulls up keenly and without drama.

Given a good prod of advance the 14hp cruises easily at 45mph, but while it turns into bends crisply, any surface imperfections make the undamped rear axle quite skittish.

Step aboard the Sunbeam and the first impression is of a more substantial car, both in the weight of its controls and, when you’re on the move, in the way its chassis deals with gnarled and potholed surfaces.

A far larger steering wheel greets you, and it is appreciated due to the extra heft required at all speeds.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
The Fourteen is a better tourer than the Vauxhall, with extra passenger room and a more composed ride

Pull away and the Sunbeam’s gears mesh with less effort than the Vauxhall’s, but while top gear feels higher (on paper, it’s actually the same at 4.5:1), you find that you need to lean on the revs in second, to bridge the sizeable gap into top.

The Sunbeam is an excellent tourer, with its more muted exhaust, relaxed gait and general feeling of imperviousness.

There’s more width across the front of the cabin, making rides with passengers a less intimate experience, and the slightly longer wheelbase and Hartford-damped rear axle give more composure through bends.

The Sunbeam’s four-wheel brakes, which were so well regarded in the day, give strong and progressive retardation through the conventionally positioned pedal and are more reassuring than those of the Vauxhall in traffic.

Classic & Sports Car – On the up: Vauxhall vs Sunbeam
‘These dimensionally similar rivals were equally matched: with standard touring bodies they were separated by just 22lb’

A century ago, these 14hp upstarts were far from being a compromise for drivers who had previously enjoyed more extravagant machinery.

Downsizing in both companies’ ranges had produced a level of technical innovation that might otherwise have been many more years in the making, and while Vauxhall and Sunbeam approached the challenge of making tax-efficient models in a similar fashion, the end results were gratifyingly different enough to offer buyers a genuine breadth of choice.

Images: Olgun Kordal

Thanks to Manor Park Classics; David Kirke, the STD Register


Factfiles

Sunbeam Fourteen

  • Sold/number built 1922-’26/4350 (including 14/40)
  • Construction pressed-steel chassis, steel/aluminium body
  • Engine alloy-block, iron-head, ohv 2121cc ‘four’, Claudel-Hobson carburettor
  • Max power 40bhp @ 2800rpm
  • Max torque n/a
  • Transmission three-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension at front semi-elliptic springs rear live axle, cantilever springs, Hartford shock absorbers
  • Steering worm and sector
  • Brakes rear drums (all-wheel from 1923)
  • Length 13ft 10in (4216mm)
  • Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
  • Height 5ft 4in (1625mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 10½in (3010mm)
  • Weight 2447lb (1110kg)
  • Top speed 60mph
  • Mpg 28-30
  • Price new £650
  • Price now £25-30,000*

 

Vauxhall 14hp M-type

  • Sold/number built 1921-’27/5419 (including LM-type 14/40)
  • Construction pressed-steel chassis, steel/aluminium body
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, side valve 2297cc ‘four’, Zenith 30F carburettor
  • Max power 43bhp @ 3000rpm
  • Max torque n/a
  • Transmission three-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension at front semi-elliptic springs rear live axle, cantilever springs
  • Steering worm and sector
  • Brakes rear drums (all-wheel from 1925)
  • Length 13ft 9in (4200mm)
  • Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
  • Height n/a
  • Wheelbase 9ft 9in (2972mm)
  • Weight 2425lb (1100kg)
  • Top speed 55mph
  • Mpg 22-24
  • Price new £650
  • Price now £25-35,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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