Buying the Sunbeam 1: I am tempted

‘Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain!  I had heard of it as I had of manna or of ambrosia, but no further.  How unmeaning a sound was it at that time: what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances!  Reverting for a moment to these, I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters.  It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London.  My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near “the stately Pantheon” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist’s shop.  The druggist—unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!—as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do, and furthermore, out of my shilling returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer.  Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.’

–Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater


Screenshot 2014-05-30 13.57.21


Bicycles, I am quite sure, are better for you than opium, though there is an addictive element there: how else to account for the small cupboard downstairs in which I have enough bicycles to attempt a calendar with one for every month, and some bits and pieces to spare? (Not all of them are mine, of course, but most of them are) Who it was that was responsible for drawing my attention to Brightwell’s auction I know not, though it was someone in the Slow Bicycle Movement; but I have come to think of him as like de Quincey’s immortal druggist, ‘sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.’

My own bicycle addiction takes a very definite form: the machine should be old (and as far as I am concerned, nothing built since the Second War really counts as old, and indeed the thirties barely scrapes in; the twenties are tolerable, but the true Golden Age is the Edwardian era, in its broad sense of the first dozen years or so of the twentieth century); it should be an ‘Imperial Roadster’ (I admit the beauty of slender lightweight racing machines and graceful yet sturdy French tourers but they are not for me); and, as to make, it should be a Sunbeam. Why a Sunbeam and not – say – a Lea and Francis, such as this particular magnificence owned by my friend Tim Dawson? As well ask why a man prefers to own a Bentley (I mean a proper, W.O. Bentley) than an Hispano-Suiza, a Bugatti or a Rolls-Royce: he will allow that these other marques have their charms, may even admire them greatly, but they do not have his heart. It is love, which is ever mysterious.

I am fond of quoting Robert Cordon Champ’s resounding line (in his Illustrated History of Sunbeam Bicycles and Motorcycles)

‘An example of a product made deliberately to the highest standards, the pre-1918 Sunbeam is undoubtedly the finest production cycle ever made’

though I accept that any claim containing the word ‘undoubtedly’ is open to contention. What is certainly true is that the early part of the twentieth century was the zenith of a particular kind of manufacturing in Britain, not only of cycles but other articles, and that the Sunbeam (among others) epitomises the idea of building up to a standard rather than down to a price (by the time the thirties came round, things were viewed differently, and Cordon Champ records a factory memo from that time which states ‘One of Martson’s troubles is that they make too good a product.’)

1918 is a significant year in Sunbeam history as it marks the end of the true Marston era, when the company was owned and run by John Marston. Marston, born in 1836, trained in his youth in japanning, the production of black-enamelled metalware, and that undoubtedly influenced the wonderful rich black finish that became the hallmark of Sunbeam bicycles. In true Victorian fashion, Marston prospered sufficiently to take over the firm in which he had served as an apprentice, and in 1888, like many others, decided to try his hand in the emerging bicycle market.

(There is a book to be written, I think, on the various routes that led companies from quite different fields into bicycle manufacture, and the extent to which their previous background is embodied in their particular products: some (like Rudge, Ariel, Singer and Humber) already made Ordinary bicycles (‘Penny-farthings’ or ‘Hi(gh)-wheelers’) as did the Starley family, who began by making sewing machines and went on to produce the Rover, the first true ‘safety’ bicycle – but it was the boom that followed that invention which drew many others: BSA (originally Birmingham Small Arms) made guns, and presumably had a capacity for light precision engineering that was ideally suited to making bicycles and their components; Peugeot made pepper mills; Marston’s, as we have seen, were japanners – which I guess influenced not only the quality of finish on their bicycles (the classic Sunbeam is ‘all-black’ with no plated parts) but that other characteristic feature, ‘the little oil-bath’ chaincase, which clearly called for some skill in sheet-metal work.)

1923 Royal Sunbeam

My first Sunbeam – no 141812 – dates from around 1923 or 4 and belongs to the period when Marston’s were a subsidiary of Nobel Industries, who took them over in 1918 when John Marston died; my second (P.468.O.625) dates from about ten years later, by which time Nobel had become part of the giant ICI conglomerate, who ‘rationalised’ bicycle production (i.e. made it cheaper). This period – 1918-1936 – is a second phase of the ‘Marston’ era – a silver, rather than a golden age, if you will – when the bicycles were still made in Wolverhampton by the company that bore Marston’s name, and still (but to a decreasing extent as time wore on) to a high standard.

1934 Royal Sunbeam

1934 Royal Sunbeam frame no. P.468.O.625

1937 marks the final end of that era, when the bicycle and motorcycle business was acquired by AMC, Associated Motor Cycles, who transferred production to London.

Although they always made a range of cycles, the ideal that Sunbeam stood for is embodied in one model, in much the same way as Rolls-Royce is epitomised by the Silver Ghost. (Their histories are comparable: the 40/50hp model (strictly, ‘Silver Ghost’ is a specific car, AX201, built in 1907) was introduced in 1906, and the model continued in production virtually unchanged (apart from the addition of front brakes) till 1926- by which time, of course, the car industry had moved on. Sunbeam’s design A1 of 1898, designated ‘The Royal’ is to a large extent the same machine that continued at the top of their range for the next thirty-four years.

Scan 17

(Although there was an A1 Royal in 1896, retailing at an eyewatering £27-0s -0d (with oil bath) – the equivalent of £2560 today, by the lowest calculation – it still retained the upward sloping top tube (now fashionable once more) and different diameter wheels – 30” front, 28” rear – that characterised ‘safeties’ of the first period. It is odd to think that these vestiges – the big front wheel, the tall frames – must have been an attempt to counteract the perceived lowness (and implied inferiority) of the Safety in comparison to the lordly Ordinary, with its towering wheel of anything from 50” to even 60” in diameter).

The Sunbeam roadster acquired its characteristic two-speed bottom bracket gear in 1903 and that was fitted till 1932; the top of the range model was called ‘The Golden Sunbeam’ from 1908, though the name had been used on and off since at least 1898, but ‘The Royal Sunbeam’ designated the top of the range till 1907. Taking the two-speed roadster as the characteristic model, we could say that its era began in 1903 and ended in 1932, by which time it could be termed old-fashioned, though certainly not obsolete – after all, the ‘imperial roadster’ design continues in service today, for the very good reason that it still works well.

Any design that endures so long, regardless of the prevailing fashion, can be ranked as ‘timeless’ and you could argue that an example from a later period, such as my 1934 Royal Sunbeam, is much the same as one from earlier times; and yet, and yet – I have always had a hankering to own a Sunbeam from that first ‘Golden Age’ up to 1918, and in buying my 1934 machine (at an auction, locally) I had actually broken the rule I set myself not to buy any bicycle newer than the one I bought first, my 1923 Royal. I had also lately refrained from bidding on a rather interesting green Sunbeam on eBay, from around 1912, and had regretted it, as it went for a not-unreasonable price.

Screenshot 2014-05-28 13.10.53

(A word or two on Sunbeam prices: it seems to be a rule that whatever I take an interest in is immediately subject to absurd inflation or else becomes unobtainable. My first Sunbeam cost me £175, though I had to travel to Preston to get it; my next (a later one, so less desirable) was £100, but that was bought locally, at a general auction (I actually got a second bicycle – a little Ladies Raleigh – thrown in). Following prices on eBay and elsewhere I have resigned myself to the fact that the likelihood of obtaining an early Sunbeam for less than several hundred pounds is slight.)

So when on the Slow Bicycle movement that link to the Brightwell’s auction appeared (thank you, whoever it was!) I found in quick succession this ( lot 299):

 Screenshot 2014-05-02 22.40.01

this ( lot 326):



Screenshot 2014-05-02 22.41.30

and this (lot 454):

Screenshot 2014-05-02 22.47.38


I began to drool, then to scheme. Where was Leominster (and how did you pronounce it?) what were the possibilities of bidding on one at least of the Sunbeams I fancied?

The feeling began to grow on me that this was an opportunity I should not pass up if there was any way of taking advantage of it: if I tried but failed, well and good; if I passed it up, I would regret it. But how to go about it? and which to choose? If you take an intense interest in anything, one of the things you develop is an eye for detail: and of course with bicycles – which look so much the same – it is the details that make the difference. It is remarkable what you can glean from a photograph when you know where and how to look. In terms of desirability, the three lots had different claims to make.

All belonged to the Marston era proper, being pre 1918, though I had doubts about 299’s being as early as 1913 as was claimed; the record everyone goes by is found in ‘Sunbeam Cycles: The Story from the Catalogues’ by Pinkerton et al. an invaluable resource for the aficionado.

Scan 22

This shows 130148 to date from 1915, and 120470 from 31.3.1914, so it was reasonable (though not infallible) to assume that 129403 lay somewhere in between. I had a notion (I am not sure from where) that as a war-time bike it was less likely to have alloy fittings ( pre-war Golden Sunbeams could be had with aluminium pedals and rack and of course the celebrated ‘Romanium’ aluminium alloy wheel-rims). On the other hand, it looked in remarkably original condition and unusually complete, having retained its chainwheel disc and rear quadrant on the chaincase – frequently lost – as well as one screw-off handlegrip cap, complete with contents:

Scan 29

(though no mention of that other neat bit of storage, the seat-post oiler:)

Scan 23

It also had the classic bottom-bracket two speed gear. It looked to be my beau ideal as far as frame size went, namely 26” (the thing to look at here is the length of the head tube, and the general proportion of the bike: to my eye, anything larger than 26” looks unwieldy, while 24” is just a little too low. (This has nothing to do with my height – I am about 5’ 11’’ – but has everything to do with appearance.)

Lot 326 had frame no 108878, so its date looked accurate; it could even be earlier, since 111642 was dated to 19.10.1912. That in itself made it more desirable, and it had Sunbeam’s own ‘stepped’ 3 speed hub, designed by William Newill, which I like [see articles here and here]. It also had the pedal-actuated rear brake (note the long cylinder at the top of the brake mechanism behind the seat-tube, and the fact there is only one brake-lever). This is not a conventional ‘coaster’ brake – it acts on the rim, not the hub – though it is operated by back-pedalling.:

Scan 27

326 looked to be in good condition, but the absence of any coachlining suggested that it might have been repainted and the chainwheel disc was missing. I judged that this, too was a 26” frame (as the evaluation report subsequently confirmed).

Lot 454, modestly billed as ‘A Sunbeam Gentlemans Bicycle, with rare two speed bottom bracket gear’ was in many ways the most interesting of the three. Though there was no frame number given, the lack of a forward extension to the front mudguard immediately suggested an early date – forward extensions were introduced in 1910. Closer examination (and the aid of a zoom) suggested external springs on the brakes; these were discontinued in 1907. The style of handlebar also suggested an earlier model.

The evaluation report told me the frame number was 71695 (a five-figure frame number in itself is enough to give a Sunbeam enthusiast palpitations) and this one lay somewhere between 1903 (when the two-speed gear was first offered in the catalogue) and 4.6.1907 to which 84386 has been dated. With 51649 being 26.4.1902, a quick bit of rough and ready arithmetic suggests a monthly production over that period of 536.5 units giving lot 454 a date somewhere around July 1905 (the same sort of calculation puts 129403 – lot 299 – somewhere about September 1915*).

I had wondered if the description ‘rare’ had any significance when applied to the two-speed gear, which as we have seen, was in production for near thirty years; it is the case that the very earliest versions gave a 25% increase, but by 1904 that had already become 33%, so it is likely that this particular machine had the later (not uncommon) version.   Again, this model has the pedal-activated rear rim brake, though I judged the frame to be slightly smaller (which the report confirmed: 25”) and although it looked complete, the rear quadrant on the chaincase did not look right and was probably a later addition. On age alone, (an important criterion for me, so in love with the Edwardian age) 454 was probably the most desirable; it also had an unassuming quality that rather appealed to me: it didn’t look like anything special, yet it was.

On the other hand, 299 was up first, and did have that charming intact handlegrip. Once you have set your heart on something, you cast around for ways to make it possible. The ideal would be to attend the auction, enabling me to view the lots close to and bid on the day; but while living in Perth has many advantages, ease in attendance at bicycle auctions – which tend to be in the English midlands or further south – is not one of them. In my day, I have driven the length of the country – to Somerset, in fact – to attend the fine TCA auction , where I bought my Dursley Pedersen,

1905 Dursley Pedersen

but in addition to two overnight stays (we drove down the day before, and stopped halfway on the way back) the combination of driving long distances and the tension of the auction itself left me with a headache that lasted, quite literally, for several months. That was not something I was eager to repeat.

Nor (sadly, for I like to travel so) was taking the train a practical alternative: too expensive at short notice, and not practicable without an overnight stop – and in any case, taking a bicycle (or two, if I was lucky!) on a train is no longer the straightforward matter it was in the sensible days of my youth, when they had guard’s vans. Of course any actual attendance entailed the possibility that I might not succeed in any bid and return empty-handed, making the whole thing a costly waste of time.

Making a commission bid – asking the auctioneers to bid on my behalf up to a certain limit – was a more attractive option, but I did not want to commit to bidding on all three lots I was interested in: if I secured the first at the maximum I was prepared to pay, I could not afford to pursue the others, but if I missed out on the first I would be willing to go higher on the second or third.

Telephone bidding was a possibility, but sounded laborious: you had to book a line beforehand, and the number available was limited; and in any case, I dislike telephones.

Then I discovered that, for a small additional premium, I could bid online. The 2% this added to the buyer’s premium (17.5%) seem well worth it: it allowed me to bid live and make my own decisions on the day, yet meant I would only travel in the event of success, which I was sure would greatly offset the effort involved. The only other cost involved is that you have to make a £500 deposit beforehand, which is of course returnable if you do not succeed in any bids. So if I failed, I could console myself that the experience had cost me nothing but my time, and that I had saved the extravagant sums I had been prepared to spend, as well as having the satisfaction of knowing that I had at least given it a go; and if I succeeded, well –

that seems a good place to break off, for now; in my next post, I will deal with the auction itself, and what followed.

* Since, according to Pinkerton et al,  ‘civilian production (of bicycles, motorcycles, or both – it is not clear from the context) stopped nationally on 31 December 1915’ then lot 299 may be one of the last Golden Sunbeams of the true Marston era.

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