The story behind the name: Sunbeam

September 18, 2020
Alec Bennett on a Sunbeam
Alec Bennett on a Sunbeam. Photo: Mortons Archive

It is a wonderfully provocative and positive name, Sunbeam, isn’t it?

It is said that William Marston’s good lady wife looked at a bicycle he had made and commented on the sun glistening in the black and gold finish; possibly down to the quality from the training and experience he had gained as a Japanner (like modern powder-coat or enamelling but better).

After mastering this trade, in 1877 Marston built a successful bicycle company and even started making cars. And the name of the factory in Wolverhampton? Sunbeamland, of course.

After early tests with motorised bicycles had ended in tragedy, Marston disliked motorcycles. But when the car trade slumped, there was little choice.

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The name was quickly associated with quality machines, well built and cleverly thought out. Competition successes helped this, with trials and road racing triumphs around the globe. The TT especially helped; the Isle of Man course known as a true test of strength and reliability in the early days. Howard Davies (who went on to found HRD) came second as early as 1914, while the first win came in 1920, for Tommy de La Hay. After that, Sunbeam became one of the bikes to have, with Alec Bennett winning in 1922 and Charlie Dodson in 1928, as well as a string of top 10 places.

Sales were good, but fine build quality backed up with sporting pedigree was not enough – the First World War changed everything for everyone, as did the following years. The Marston family suffered from illness and both his eldest son and William Marston died in 1918.

In 1919 the company became part of Nobel Industries, a company that made dynamite amongst other things, started by the creator of the Nobel peace prize, Alfred Nobel. Why did they buy Sunbeam? Who knows. Sunbeam continued well through the Twenties, when in 1928 Nobel became part of a new conglomerate of chemical companies to be known as ICI. To them, Sunbeam must have been a tiny concern, but bikes and cycles in smaller and smaller numbers kept being made until 1937, when what was left was sold to AMC.

And still that wasn’t enough to stop the Sunbeam radiating. Erling Poppe designed the S7, with an unusual, inline car-type engine, complete with wet sump and shaft drive. It was expensive, but nicely finished and must have looked very, very different to the other bikes around in 1946. The S7 and later S8 had issues, but continued until 1956, with many still to be seen ridden today.

The Sunbeam story is no fairytale, but get the chance to ride one and enjoy – the Sunbeam still shines.


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