She was simultaneously different and yet exactly as I should have expected her to be. A beautiful 1925 Sunbeam motorcar, affectionately named Ladybird thanks to her deep red paintwork, sat in front of me as she awaited her opportunity to once again take to the sands of Ainsdale Beach, by Southport. This morning, as the central attraction of the Southport Festival of Speed, this special Sunbeam was due to perform a re-enactment of one of the best moments of her long and varied motoring career – when ninety years ago she successfully claimed a Land Speed Record with Sir Henry Segrave at a speed of 152.33 mph over a measured kilometre.
Organised by The Atkinson Museum, Sefton Council and the Aintree Circuit Club, the Southport Festival of Speed was a week-long event containing a wide assortment of speed-related activities including a film night, a Concours d’ Elegance and special talks by Neville Hay, Stephen Segrave and Gina Campbell. These activities aimed to both educate and enthuse event attendees on Southport’s role in the pioneering years of British motor racing and in particular, inform of the life and achievements of Sir Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave.
I was in attendance at the Southport Festival of Speed as a freelance motoring writer and photographer but more so simply as an enthusiast for speed records. I had driven several hundred miles from my home in Scotland to see Ladybird, to hear her engine and to watch her in action. Initially it proved a little difficult for me to get a clean and considered look at her thanks to the many journalists, photographers, television crews and curious members of the public that surrounded her but even in limited glimpses I was immediately struck by her grace.
Like many of the record attempts I’ve keenly read about in recent years, my knowledge on the subject has developed at good speed and that’s a surprise given that I somewhat stumbled into the world of the Land Speed Record without even realising I’d done it. During a visit to the Lakeland Motor Museum, I naively walked into the Campbell-Bluebird room where I was at once greeted by the sight of a full-sized replica of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 1935 Blue Bird. At the time I didn’t know anything about speed records but I instantly found myself in awe of this huge vehicle, which filled the room and represented the original car that had been the first to break 300 mph. I didn’t fully understand its design but I sensed purposefulness in everything about it. This bright-blue enormity was ridiculous but for that I truly loved it and speed records have been a core interest of mine ever since.
Segrave’s red Sunbeam was now on the move. She slowly crept past the dunes lining the coast and proceeded down onto the golden sands of Ainsdale. She looked so small and delicate as she was gently towed along by a modern-day pick-up and it was here that I realised how she differed from my expectations.
As I walked along in Ladybird’s tyre tracks, I recalled the vast 1935 Blue Bird which had kick-started my interest in Land Speed Records. I then thought of all the comprehensive LSR literature I’d been absorbing since then and I could also recall the many photographs I had seen of what looked like small people standing next to enormous vehicles. Following Segrave’s Sunbeam through the crowd, it was suddenly clear, that until now, I’d never associated the word ‘delicate’ with a Land Speed Record car. In all the photographs I had encountered, it was usually the driver who had looked like the fragile component, not the other way around.
An enthusiastic crowd had now gathered on the beach. The Sunbeam looked elegant and composed, ready for her big moment, whilst people moved and talked and moved some more all around her. She was joined by a replica of the 1927 Campbell-Napier Bluebird as well as a varied selection of vintage motors, most of whom were attending as part of the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq register.
The Sunbeam was fired up and the crowd quickly lined up along the sands. Her driver Malcolm Page, in leather racing cap and dark glasses, brought her down to the start on the firm, compact stretch of beach and off she sped on her way down Ainsdale. Her engine sounded clean and purposeful and it didn’t take long for her to look very small indeed as she disappeared in the direction of Southport.
At this point I could remember an article from the April 1926 edition of Motorsport Magazine in which the Sunbeam was described to have shown a “most surprising turn of speed” and here something else occurred to me - I was not at all surprised that she was as quick as she was.
Only a few weeks before had I spent an afternoon in the library reading Henry Segrave’s 1928 book The Lure of Speed in which he had explained how the principles of lightness, combined with a super-efficient engine, had been fundamental in the construction of this particular Sunbeam. On his bid to claim the Land Speed Record in 1926, Segrave said:
“For the flying kilometre and flying mile I had to beat 150.778 mph and 150.766 mph, these records having been set up by Captain Campbell on a 350 hp Sunbeam … it was therefore no easy task to defeat the standing figures …”.
Louis Coatalen and the engineers of the Sunbeam Motor Company believed their best chance of success in taking the Land Speed Record within the limited 7-mile space of Ainsdale Beach was to possess an excellent power-to-weight ratio which, in turn, would get her up to speed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Ladybird developed a total of 306 bhp with her super-charged engine, some 44 bhp less than the Sunbeam Blue Bird with which Malcolm Campbell had achieved the Land Speed Record with at Pendine Sands in July 1925.
Despite Ladybird possessing neither the equivalent horsepower nor maximum speed of Campbell’s Blue Bird, the Sunbeam engineers believed the key to her success would lie in whether she were able to get up to speed more quickly. The thinking was that if she could enter the timed course for the attempt at a higher speed, she might well have been capable of claiming the record too. In addition, it was hoped that Segrave would also be able to push harder within any limited stretch of UK beach as he would require a lesser braking area due to Ladybird being so much lighter and potentially able to come to a stop better than Campbell’s Blue Bird.
I watched Ladybird return after her first re-enactment run on Ainsdale. Despite her lightness, she looked steady and unflustered on the sand. Some people in the crowd applauded as she glided past. Next the 1927 Campbell-Napier replica thundered up the beach, flames and noise belching in its wake – a noticeable contrast to the somewhat more subtle drive from the Sunbeam.
Next the vintage motors took their turn to parade in front of the spectating crowd, most of whom seemed quite invigorated by what they were seeing before Ladybird once again came out for another run up the beach and back prior to being positioned perfectly near the starting area for the press.
I made my way over to photograph Ladybird at the end of her very successful morning. She looked perfect with just a slight spray of sand over her tyres and the morning sun bringing out the best of her vibrant red bodywork.
Segrave’s 1925 Sunbeam had been a car of many contrasts to me – she had been very different to what I would have normally expected from a Land Speed Record car and yet she fitted perfectly both the descriptions and principles I had read in Segrave’s book The Lure of Speed – she was subtle yet powerful, delicate but fast.
I had come to Ainsdale as a keen enthusiast of speed records. I guess I’d also arrived as a dedicated, somewhat biased admirer of Campbell and his many Blue Birds - where all of my interest in speed records stems from - and yet here I was in full respect of this beautiful Sunbeam motorcar once driven by Sir Henry Segrave whilst I myself stood on Ainsdale Beach where together they’d claimed the Land Speed Record back in 1926. Although I hadn’t hoped for anything other than an enjoyable time at the Southport Festival of Speed and a few LSR related photographs to add to my portfolio, it seemed I’d had to, and easily managed, to find a space in my heart for a very surprising little red Sunbeam.
Many thanks go to Gemma Halleran of The Atkinson Art Gallery & Library for organising my press access to the Southport Festival of Speed. Thanks also go to the marshals of the Aintree Circuit Club for lending me a high-vis jacket on the sands and for kindly taking my photograph with the replica 1927 Campbell-Napier Bluebird (something to perhaps proudly show the grandchildren one day!). Thanks to David Simister of Classic Car Weekly & partner Natalie Bassling for a bit of light-hearted banter about classic cars. Thanks to Anthony Stuchbury for a very enthusiastic discussion on the beach about photography and all things Bluebird. Thanks to Nick Benwell of Phoenix Green Garage for a passenger ride around Southport in a 1929 Sunbeam 3 Litre S/C Tourer, once driven by Sir Malcolm Campbell in the 1929 Irish Grand Prix. Thanks to 'the voice of the night' Neville Hay for a lengthy chat about the Sunbeam Motor Company and what it's like to report on the 24 Heures Le Mans in the middle of the night (the best bit!) as well as letting me in on some helpful journalistic advice. Thanks to Keith Hick for being such a wonderful artist & for letting me buy a lovely print of Bluebird CN7. Thanks go to David & Judith Wynn of the Bowden Lodge Hotel for putting me up during my stay in Southport. Special thanks go to Gina Campbell - for your time, for not laughing at me whilst I was dressed as your grandfather at the afternoon talks, for your incredibly kind words of encouragement, for the secret message written in my copy of your book and the impromptu invitation to an extra event relating to Bluebird K7 - it was so nice to meet you. Thanks to Phil Evans of the Speed Record Club for taking my photograph beside the very lovely Sunbeam Ladybird and thanks also to Malcolm & Jane Pittwood for publishing my article in the May 2016 edition of FAST FACTS (newsletter for the Speed Record Club).