Beaulieu Rebuilds Campbells Bluebird

The overcast skies and constant drizzle bothered me not a ‘jot’ and the flooded new forest concerned me for only a few seconds, I was on a mission. On Wednesday 29th at high noon the National Motor Museum had promised to start the V12 Sunbeam engine that had been silent for over 50 years. To explain the reason for my excitement it is best to start from the beginning, before WW1. Frenchman Louis Coatalen had worked in the fledgling automobile industry at Humber Car Company before going into partnership with William Hillman; this collaboration failed and saw Coatalen join Sunbeam. During the war, under the Sunbeam banner, he designed aircraft engines but when peace time came he took one of his designs, modified it and the company built a Land Speed Record Challenger. Now Chief Engineer and Race Team Manager, Louis decided on a Manitou Arab power plant from a Navy seaplane as a base, from this he was able to summon 350HP from its 18.3 litres. Sunbeam wanted the record so works driver, Kenelm Lee Guinness (famous Irish brewing family), who appropriately lived in a Putney pub was given the task. Brooklands saw the record taken at a speed of 133.75mph in 1922, this would be the last Land Speed Record taken on a race track, from now on long beaches or salt flats would be the choice. The Sunbeam was then sold to Malcolm Campbell, renamed ‘Bluebird’ and along with improving performance he repainted the car to match the name. In September 1924 at Pendine Sands the Bluebird pushed the record higher at 146.16mph, and returning to Wales a year later it broke the 150mph barrier by 0.7 of a second, cementing the car and driver into the history books. The Sunbeam was then sold on to a Ralph Aspden who paid £250 plus his 1914 Vauxhall Grand Prix car; he raced Campbell’s Bluebird at the Southport Speeds Trials. Another of a long list of owners was band leader and Brentford FC player Billy Cotton and it is believed he was the last to drive in competition, achieving 121mph, also at Southport in 1936. After mysteriously disappearing for years, in 1944 the car was traced to Lancashire and unearthed in a poor state by a Harold Pratley and the Rootes Group restored and used the Sunbeam for promotional events. Finally in 1957 Beaulieu took custody of the car and began a rebuild the following year. Bluebird last ran at Goodwood in 1962 with Lord Montagu and Donald Campbell driving. When the National Motor Museum opened in 1972 the Sunbeam was on display and remains to this day; but disaster struck in 1993. After restoration work had been carried out the engine was test fired and a catastrophic failure occurred; suspected oil starvation caused one of its 12 pistons to punch a hole through the engines block. Considering the age and highly bespoke internals of the V12 the rebuild would take specialist engineering expertise plus over 2000 man hours from the Beaulieu team. Twenty years have passed since the teams Senior Engineer, Ian Stanfield, sat in the driver’s seat on that fateful day in 1993; back in the car again he showed no nerves as two of the team cranked the starting handle. The mighty 18.3 litre, 12 cylinder burst into life, a light blue oil haze and the occasional flame from the exhaust and within a minute she ran perfectly; when switched off spontaneous applause could be heard from the 100 or so press gathering. Chief Engineer, Doug Hill, joined Lord Montagu and it was all smiles from the Beaulieu team, they were accompanied by Don Wales, Sir Malcolm Campbell’s grandson and a record breaker himself with electric and steam vehicles.