The V12 aero engine in the Sunbeam Blue Bird car that famed British racer Sir Malcolm Campbell used in 1925 to set a world speed record has roared into life – almost 50 years since it was last heard in public.
At the wheel of the rebuilt 260kW flyer outside Britain’s National Motor Museum workshop was engineer Ian Stanfield, who helped rebuild the engine. Racer Don Wales, Campbell’s grandson, also took a turn.
The Sunbeam was one of a number of so-called Blue Bird racers in which Campbell set speed records. It is said he borrowed the name around 1910 from a Belgian play on stage in London.
The car in question was built in 1919-20 at the Sunbeam factory in Wolverhampton. Power came from an 18.3-litre V12 modified Manitou Arab aero engine, a type used on naval seaplanes.
It was first raced at the Brooklands circuit in 1922 by Irishman Kenelm Lee Guinness – of the family of brewers – who set a then record speed of
216km/h. Campbell bought the car, painted and renamed it Blue Bird, and in 1924 recorded 236km/h on a beach in Wales. A year later he raised it to 244km/h on the same beach.
Campbell then sold the Sunbeam and it passed through a number of owners for almost 20 years before being bought by Rootes Ltd (makers of Hillman, Humber and so on), which had taken over the Sunbeam company.
Rootes held on to it until 1957 when National Motor Museum founder Lord Montagu restored it to working order. Its last outing was at the British Automobile Racing Club Festival of Motoring at Goodwood in July 1962, when Campbell’s son (Sir) Donald did a lap of honour. (Donald died in 1967 trying to set a world water speed record in England’s Lake District).
Lord Montagu held on to the Sunbeam until 1972 when it moved into the national museum.
In 1993, engineers cranked it up but the engine quickly seized. A few years later they decided to rebuild the entire car. The museum turned to the Sunbeam Talbot Darracq Register for help.
Now, after 2000 hours of restoration work, there is just one thing left: recreating the original gearbox. Meantime, the Sunbeam will be fired up again at the Retromobile classic car show in Paris between February 5-9. Then it’s back to the museum to take its place in a new display.
• The Blue Bird name nearly found a place in New Zealand motoring history. Campbell toyed in the late 1920s and early ‘30s with using Northland’s Ninety Mile Beach (it’s actually 55 miles) as a speed base. Australian speedster Norm ‘Wizard’ Smith had used the beach and the aristocratic Campbell liked the idea of doing the same, ‘for king, country and empire.’ But Campbell instead went back to Florida’s Daytona Beach, where he had set earlier records. Campbell was the first man to break the 300mph (486km/h) barrier, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, on September 3, 1935.