“Too fast for its chassis.” That damning-with-faint-praise label has often been attached to this Sunbeam. Jean Chassagne and Sammy Davis might have argued the point after their second-place finish in the 1925 Le Mans race. Their Three-Liter Twin-Cam Sunbeam had upheld British prestige as none of the robustly-constructed team Bentleys went the distance.
During the twenties double overhead cams were rare outside Grand Prix racers, and 90 mph was very fast motoring indeed for a production automobile. This Sunbeam offered both. When Major (later Sir) Henry Segrave became the first man to raise the Land Speed Record to over 200 mph in Florida in 1927 with the twin-engined 44.9-liter 1000-hp Sunbeam, he used his 1926 3-liter Sunbeam for personal transport and shocked the local speed cops by holding over 90 mph on the road to Daytona.
But one paid for such performance… dearly. Introduced in 1925, the Three-Liter Twin-Cam was marketed through 1930. At that time, the U.S.-delivered price of the Super Sport was $6,750, which would have bought a dozen Model A Fords, and was significantly pricier than all of America’s prestige marques – save for the Locomobile, then in its last year of production, and the brand-new double-overhead-cam Model J Duesenberg. That sales of such a costly automobile moved at a snail’s pace may be inferred by the display car’s “production” record: its engine was built in 1926, the chassis in 1927. The car itself was assembled in 1928 but did not find a customer until early the following year.
Commented famed racing manager John Wyer, who served his apprenticeship with Sunbeam in the 1920s: “My long-held view is that the 3-liter design was hopelessly compromised from the start by the conflicting concepts of (a) a refined high-performance touring car in the typically Sunbeam manner and (b) a Le Mans-winning sports-racing car. It is ironic that it so nearly succeeded in being both!”
Around forty Three-Liter Twin-Cams remain in existence today out of 315 built. In 1949, Englishman Richard Farley drove the display car against the three-liter Bentley team in the Vintage Sports Car Club races at Silverstone – and provided a reprise of the 1925 Le Mans race. Such a result was entirely satisfactory to enthusiasts of the Super Sport. It’s been suggested that Sunbeam’s reason for building the Twin-Cam in the first place was to out-Bentley W.O. himself.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more