The company which made eventually made 'The Sunbeam' is listed as being established in 1790, although it is possible to claim origins 50 years before this date. The original company made tinplate and later japanned or black-enamelled ware. The Sunbeam name was registered by John Marston in 1888 (born 1836) after he decided to enter into the booming new bicycle industry. John Marston had solely owned the company since 1871 when his previous employer, under whom he had served his engineering and metal craft apprenticeship, died.
Sunbeam Motorcycles production began production in 1911/1912 and by 1914 Sunbeam Motorcycles who's image of high quality finish and superb engineering were being used for racing, almost winning the first TT they entered. Sunbeam enjoyed a very successful racing campaign up until the start of the war in 1939.
John Marston was also responsible for building 'Seagull' outboard engines for marine use and also for starting the Villiers engineering company... here is a quote from 'The Classic Motorcycle' magazine:
"The Sunbeam Villiers Connection"
In 1898 John Marston of Sunbeamland, maker of cycles, and later, motorcycles, established a new company next door to make cycle fittings and later, cycle freewheels.
As part of the premises faced Villiers Street in Wolverhampton, England (named after local MP Charles Pelham Villiers), John Marston named the new company Villiers Cycle Components, and it soon became a successful company in its own right.
Villiers had the financial clout and engineering expertise to develop and manufacture their own engines and by around 1910 were selling four stroke engines, however in 1913 at the Olympia show they displayed the first in their long line of two stroke engines, the MK1, a 269cc single cylinder motorcycle unit."
May 6th 1916 saw John Marston retire, he died in 1918 aged 82 and in 1918 the company became the property of Nobel Industries which in 1928 the property the chemical company ICI, who continued building motorcycles until 1937.
The brand name of Sunbeam Motorcycles then became the property of AMC who designed a completely new new range of Sunbeam motorcycles, keeping the quality and engineering standards for which Sunbeam were renowned. The War stopped Sunbeam production as AMC became a producer of military WD machines.
John Marston Ltd was wound up in 1943, to become 'Marston Excelsior' in amalgamation with 'Excelsior Motor Radiator Co. of Leeds' later becoming 'I.M.I Marston Ltd' and eventually 'Marston Palmer' who still exist to this day. In 1943 the Sunbeam trademarks were acquired by the mighty BSA group who produced low quality 'war-grade' Sunbeams until the introduction of the new Sunbeam S7 in 1946 dubbed the 'Gentlemen's Tourer'.
S Series Sunbeams were produced from 1946 until 1956 when all Sunbeam motorcycle production Stopped. BSA did however use the Sunbeam name on a couple of scooters in 1959, a sad end to an historic heritage. During all this time the Sunbeam bicycles continued production and the Sunbeam Cycle rights were sold to Raleigh in 1956/7 who now also own the rights to BSA Cycles.
The S' Series Sunbeams were the only shaft drive Sunbeam motorcycles and were sold as the S7, the S7 de-luxe and the S8. Sunbeam's were not produced at BSA's mighty Small Heath factory but at BSA Redditch where they were also designed.
Around 16,000 Sunbeam S7, S7 Deluxe and S8 motorcycles were produced and it is thought that around 10,000! of these still exist, mainly due to the fact that since production started in 1946 there has never been a time when spares were not available, even when the Sunbeam was not a classic motorcycle and production had ended. How many other production line motorcycles can claim this kind of survival rate.
It is quoted that Sunbeam rear drive units are weak and unreliable, this however is not true and was caused by a printing error in a run of the Sunbeam motorcycle handbook. The error stated the wrong oil type which started to degrade the internal phosphor bronze worm gear components. The previous editions and those printed since have all given the correct oil type. With the correct oil the rear drive can last upto 100,000 miles or more, dependant on type of use.
Some parts for Sunbeams can be hard to find or expensive. When viewing a potential purchase look out for...
- A working or at least complete dynamo
- A working or at least complete distributor - a replacement cap will cost around £50!
- A complete set of tinware, mudguards and toolboxes are only available in fibreglass
- A working and complete rear drive unit - to overhaul will cost around £200!
- A clean and working Lucas Altette horn - Replacements cost around £100
- A straight frame - Many of these bikes have been used to haul sidecars!