On Yer Bike – The Sunbeam

FMM curator Wayne Harley is a self-confessed motorcycle enthusiast and this month we start a series of features on some of the museum’s classic two-wheeled machines, preceded by a touch of nostalgia…
If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, then I’m going to have a problem explaining what riding is all about. I can still remember my first bike ride as if it was yesterday. It was at the Rand Easter Show, and I could not have been more than 5- or 6-years-old. There were mini-bikes going round a short oval and I pestered my dad to let me have a go. It was a very short-lived event as I came off two or three laps into my turn around a short, hay bale-lined circuit, but I walked away knowing this was something I would like to do for the rest of my life. I owned my first bike before I could legally ride it, having swopped it for a skateboard. Today, every time I get the opportunity to go for a ride the feeling is still the same, no matter whether it is a 1 000 cm3 superbike or a 50 cm3 “helpmytrap”.

However, riding a pre-war British flat-tank bike is the ultimate experience. One can’t help imagining being a WW1 pilot wearing a cap and goggles racing down a country lane, and riding this 1922 Sunbeam Model 7 inspires this kind of vision. It is by no means the fastest ride you will ever have, but this is where it all started. Although the Germans Hildebrand & Wolfmüller with their ‘motorrad’ actually produced the first commercially available motorcycle, I think it was the British who turned it into a lifestyle with the likes of Excelsior, Norton, Sunbeam, Triumph and BSA to name only a few, quickly followed by the USA with Indian and Harley-Davidson. But to get back to what I’m trying to say, sitting on this Sunbeam is a real joy and a testament to some brave men and clever engineering.

The Model 7 is a 598 cm3 4¼-horsepower (3 kW) machine and, something I only found out while researching it for this article, was that it was intended to be used as a sidecar bike – which were affectionately dubbed ‘tugs’. This is noticeable by the wider-than-normal handlebars, which makes the rider look like Icarus on final approach. The Model 7 also has the heavier leaf-spring front suspension that only appeared on the sidecar model – the standard bike with its 500 cm3 3-hp engine used a lighter coil spring system. The lack of any rear suspension is nullified by the well-made sprung leather seat.

The gearing is strange, with a very short low gear followed by a second gear that could pull a plough, before a massive gap to third. This is something you do get on some older British bikes but the really strong lower gears can only be for hauling a sidecar, with or without passengers: one up you need to use only second and third. Once you get used to the bike it becomes a pleasure to ride and with so much low-down torque you’ll find yourself bopping along at no more than 700 or 800 r/min. But pull back on the accelerator lever and you know you have a 600 under your butt (BIG SMILE).

The basic drip oiling system takes a little getting used to and is commonly known as a total loss system. It’s a bit of a black art figuring out how much oil is required, for too much is just as bad as too little, so every so often I found myself draining the crankcase just to be sure. The rest of the machine is beautiful and so well made. One feature which is pure Sunbeam and dates back to the 1890s is the use of the chain oil bath, first seen on Sunbeam bicycles and known as ‘the little oil bath chain case’. Sunbeam had the reputation for building its bicycles and motorcycles to the highest standards and it is clear in this 95-year-old example, finished in the customary gloss black with gold letters and pinstripes.

The only place one would fault this remarkable bike is its brakes. They are terrible. For a sidecar machine you would expect good stoppers. I’ve ridden older bikes and they stop much better and it is not for a lack of trying to set them up to improve them: they are just not there. But if you ride this machine with that in mind and don’t get too carried away with the accelerator, you are safe to enjoy a totally amazing trip back in time.

So ‘Tally-ho’ and off to meet the Baron over France…