An 87-year-old car is like an older person; you certainly don’t expect them to run and jump with the young folks, but they can be fascinating to be around
For 1922 and the following three seasons, the Automobile Club of France elected to limit engine capacity to two liters for cars competing in Grand Prix events. The 1922 race was to take place west of Strasbourg on a triangular course.
Director and Chief Engineer of Sunbeam Talbot Darraq Motors Ltd, Louis Hervé Coatalen, hired Ernest Henry, late of Peugeot and Ballot and at the high point of his career, to design the Sunbeam entry for this event. Henry’s engine design followed mostly conventional practice-a four-cylinder engine with fixed-head cylinder block and separate crankcase, four valves per cylinder, operated by two overhead gear-driven camshafts.
The crankshaft was a built-up unit turning in rolling element main bearings but with white metal-lined connecting rods. A major and innovative change lay in the asymmetrical disposition of the valves. A respectable 88 hp was measured at 4,200 rpm. The remainder of the car was quite conventional, utilizing an arched chassis frame with underslung axles.
One car was completed and was tested at Brooklands and at the Tourist Trophy circuit on the Isle of Man, where it was found to be quite as fast as the Sunbeam 3-liter, 8-cylinder cars that won the event. The results gave management every confidence that they had produced a very quick car for the French Grand Prix, and three more cars were built. All four cars were dispatched to Strasbourg for further testing and practice.
During one of the practice periods, the car driven by Segrave sustained damage after a major carburetor fire and spilled petrol. Attempts to contain the blaze were unsuccessful and worse, the hot engine cylinder block was cracked by well-meaning bystanders with buckets of cold water.
The spirit of the team must have been further dampened by the arrival of their arch-competitor Fiat; it was clear the Italian cars were superior. The team decided to lower the axle ratio in order to improve the acceleration of the Sunbeams, but the change caused the failure of all three cars during the race when the engines were over-revved and the inlet valves fractured.