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30th International Classic Motorcycle Show
Stafford County Showground, Saturday 24th & Sunday 25th April 2010

The sun shone. Well it did on Saturday, thankfully, which is when I decided to visit the show. The crowds turned up too. Some 30,000 is the norm for the weekend’s event. In the main hall of the County Showground was the Marston Sunbeam Register stand – back to back with the new Norton Motorcycles’ stand. Old rivals!

It is an exciting time for the Register. They are currently expanding their activities from an informal organisation based around HS (formerly IMI) Marston – the successor company to John Marston Ltd that made the Sunbeam – to a fully-fledged marque club. There certainly was a great deal of interest if activity around the stand was anything to go by. It was manned by a half dozen Register members who were there to explain the new club arrangements, answer technical queries and describe the seven marvellous machines on display.

An almost continuous stream of members seemed to turn up, eager to renew their membership for what looks like a positive year ahead. The first of the club’s new-style quarterly magazine, called appropriately 'Beaming, also seemed to be well-received.

But what of the motorcycles on display? The earliest surviving Sunbeam, a little 350cc, two-speed from 1913, was there (above). I was told it had been bought at auction at Stafford by the Register some years back – against fierce bidding by a German museum. It rightly went to the Marston Sunbeam Register, who subsequently transferred it to the Marston Heritage Trust. It was under the trust’s supervision that it was restored at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley (West Midlands) where it now resides.

The other half-dozen machines included a couple of very fine flat-tank machines from the mid-1920s: a 3½ h.p. (500cc) model and a 4½  h.p. (600cc) Model 7 (above).

The saddle-tank machines included a pair of rare sporting models from the mid-1930s: a 500cc Model 95 and the extremely rare 250cc ‘Little 90’ (above) – interestingly the auction included its even rarer successor, the ‘Little 95’ but I will come on to that later. There was also a very fine Model 9 and Model 90 from around 1930. Nothing from the saddle-tank era for the side-valve fan!

Sunbeam delights were not restricted to the club stand. Amongst the machines put forward for judging was a 1931 Model 9 (above). Superbly restored, it sported the correct chrome-finished tank introduced that year, and generally not seen on restored machines. It proved unpopular with the motorcycle-buying public of the time and was dropped for 1932, with a return to traditional Sunbeam all-black.

Also, unusually, the machine was adorned with a set of Amal’s ‘clean ‘bars’ (above) – a style of handle bar also used by Marston for that one year only. The ‘bars include a double twist grip and various welded-on fittings to tidy the usual array of levers and cables.

1931 was a tumultuous year for Marston; a year when the world economic depression and the take-over by ICI first started to take effect. Notably, this was manifest in the much-reduced model range for 1931 (the side-valves reduced down to a single 500cc, cut-price ‘Lion’ model). But, also details such as bought-in welded tanks and Amal clean ‘bars were a sign of changes from the old ethos of maintaining quality-controlled manufacture in-house.

Elsewhere, a well-used 3½ h.p. (500cc) veteran of 1914 (above) was tucked away, to be caught by the Sunbeamsidevalve camera before heading towards the Bonhams’ auction to cast an eye over Sunbeam goodies up for sale.

Bonhams' Auction

Entrance to Bonhams’ auction to view the lots for sale requires purchase of the hefty sales catalogue at £20 – but it allows two to enter the auction rooms and with its fine collection of coloured photos and expert commentary on the machines, isn’t as bad a deal as it first seemed. Once I was able to draw my eyes away from such fascinating lots as the c.1896 Hildebrand und Wolfmüller (side-by-side with a modern replica also up for sale) plus a number of veterans, including two in-line four cylinder FNs, I was able to concentrate on the 'Beams.

In the rarity stakes, a 250cc 'Little 95' (above) with a possible racing history was top of the list. Its price estimated reflected it at £14,000 - £16,000. The successor to the 'Little 90', an example of which was on the Marston Sunbeam Register stand.

It was closely followed by a WW1 General Service model (above). A closer look showed very badly misaligned valves in the cylinder head with rods and tappets in the crank cases - barely catching one another. Plus the badly rusted, pitted and damaged condition of the cylinder was not reflected in the better-condition alloy cases - which had a huge welding scar adjacent to the timing chest. All of this cast doubts in my mind but never-the-less it had a good price estimate at £8,500 - £10,500.

A couple of flat-tank 'Longstrokes' were also up for sale: TX 6544 from 1929 looked a reasonable late example of the much-appreciated side-valve Model 6 (above). It had been in the seller's ownership for the past 25 years and was estimated at £4,000 - £6,000.

The second Longstroke, UK 5098, with its Wolverhampton registration - and hence the possibility of a factory association - looked marginally the better-sorted (above). The current M.O.T. helped. It dated from 1928 and had been in single ownership since 1965 with, we were told in the catalogue, regular use. Its estimate was £8,500 - £10,500. Sunbeam flat-tank side-valves are becoming increasingly expensive which reflects their status as probably the best handling and performing examples of the the type from the 1920s.

Other Sunbeams included UC 3656, a 1932 Model 90 with the interesting addition of a later Model 95 petrol tank (above). The distinctively large '95' tank is notable for its cut-out around the saddle. The catalogue alludes to the Sunbeam Racing Department's continuing development of the T.T. winning Model 90 as a possible explanation - the Model 95 was introduced in 1933 to replace the '90'. After I.C.I.'s control of the company reduced Sunbeam's racing activities, the Racing Department's work is less-recorded in contemporary photos but it did progress - the foot-change four-speed gearbox being a notable example of their work. The estimate for this machine is £12,000 - £16,000.

What appeared to be an over-head valve Model 9, VK 6659, of c.1931-32 was included in the sale but seemingly not in the catalogue (above); whilst the rare 1937 Light Sports Solo in the catalogue did not appear to be amongst auction machines. But, perhaps I was just suffering Sunbeam fatigue and missed them!

An AMC-built 'high camshaft' Sunbeam from 1939 was also up for sale (above). The Bert Collier designed 500cc Model B24 was restored by its last owner c.1980. Its estimate was a respectable £8,500 - £10,500 putting it on par with equivalent Marston Sunbeams. It certainly is an uncommon machine, with estimates that AMC produced only 600-or-so of its 'high camshaft' range of 250, 350, 500 and 600cc models before sale of the Sunbeam name to BSA in 1943.

For Ajay aficionados who look over the website, Sunbeam's Wolverhampton rivals A.J.S. did not do too badly in terms of interesting machines in the auction. A 'cammy' racer and 1920s' 'Big Port' looked particularly attractive ... bank balance notwithstanding! The AJS & Matchless Owners' Club stand (above) also featured Ajays from veterans to today's current Chinese model - a celebration of the marque's centenary year in 2009-10. Plus, there was a well-restored 'Big Port' amongst machines on display (below).

Thankfully, I was not around for the Sunday auction and so able to avoid the temptation of the sidevalve finances being plunged into debt. Camera card full to over-flowing with pics, it was time to head home - not even a chance to scour the autojumble for that elusive piece of Marston ephemera to adorn the shelves.

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