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Sunbeam S7

Our bikes - 1947 Sunbeam S7

(from MT #322, June 2017, revised May 2020)

Ed's note: see part 1 of the story here

Sunbeam S7

Back on the road

by Guy 'Guido' Allen; pics by Ben Galli Photography

After a long and sometimes painful and expensive journey, Winston the Sunbeam S7 is up and rolling, better than ever

Maybe it’s a question of taste. Years ago, I remember seeing this balloon-tyred thing, a Sunbeam. Or Bumseam according to a sardonic mate. No matter, it was clearly an exercise in post World War II optimism styling.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s 14 years since I was sitting in the bar at the Tintaldra Hotel with the rest of the fools from the Lemmings Motorcycle Club (motto: Death before Courtesy) and was negotiating the purchase of a motorcycle from then publican Alf Wilson. Rule number 1: Do not, under any circumstances, negotiate the purchase of a motorcycle at one o’clock in the morning when you’re well into your second or third bottle of red.

Partner Ms M snr was not pleased, when I finally summoned up the courage to tell her. The concern? That I’d end up like some of the classic bike nutters she’d met, and spend the rest of my life standing in the shed arguing with real or imaginary friends over the virtues of left-threaded thermongrommets on some obscure motorcycle no-one’s ever heard of.

Anyway, Spannerman, then Motorcycle Trader mag Ed Greg Leech and I went on a little trip to pick up my 1947 Sunbeam S7, aka Winston, and Spannerman’s partly-rebuilt Norton in another part of country Victoria. Which was on fire at the time – it was summer and bushfire season.

Sunbeam S7

Winston is the very first model of this series – the best-looking with reverse handlevers, but notoriously difficult to own. As one owner web site opined, you need deep pockets to live with one. Maybe I should have read that before I bought the bike.

In the end, the designer departed Sunbeam and the company (by now owned by BSA) re-engineered it, painted it green and called it the S7 Deluxe.

Stewart Engineering in the UK, which is the only parts supplier on the planet for these things, estimates there are less than 200 of the first-generation S7 left in the world. And only a fraction of them are running.

Winston was a going concern at the time and had work done over the years, but anything nearing what was then its 60th birthday was going to need care.

It was bought strictly because of the looks. I love that forties post-war optimism implied in the design, along with the balloon tyres straight off a Harley or Indian tourer of the period.

Sunbeam S7

Under the paint you had a 500cc tandem twin, which was a pretty advanced design for its day. All-aluminium with an overhead cam. There’s a four-speed transmission with synchro, a big single-plate car-style clutch and shaft final drive using a worm-style gear. The latter has always been the design’s Achilles heel, limiting the amount of power the engine could be allowed to produce.

In any case it’s good for about 25 horses, which gives it a happy cruising speed of 50mph (80km/h) and a top nearer 70 (110km/h). The handling is a little gothic and I thought the braking was bad, until I bought a 1947 Indian Chief!

Over the years I got some work done, most notably getting the wiring replaced and the charging system rebuilt by City Auto Electrics in Vic. Jack the owner is a long-time bike nut and his crew were a bit intrigued to be working on the auld dear. Until it caught fire. They put it out and there was no permanent damage done, but they were looking like startled rabbits the day I dropped in to check on its progress.

Move on a few years and Winston is dragged out for the occasional Sunday ride, until I finally bite the bullet and take it to the BSA Owners’ wonderful All British Rally. It was 2011.

Sunbeam S7

There I was beetling along at cruising speed, accompanied by Ms M snr on our Triumph T150, when ‘bang!’ I pulled up. The engine was still running on one lung, but the rear conrod had escaped. In fact, it fired through the crankcases (much too close to my leg for comfort) and ended up somewhere in a nearby paddock. It’s still there.

Right. That wasn’t meant to happen.

Back at our accommodation, I cracked open a bottle of red (always have one on hand in case of emergencies) and proceeded to search for Sunbeam engines on the web. Believe it or not I found one on Ebay – incredible, really. Complete, it was in Florida USA and was part of a bigger garage sale. No problem, I agreed to the price, paid the money, sat back and waited. It may not be a runner, but all I needed from it were those crankcases.

Then I got the world’s most pathetic email: “Sorry, your engine got stolen. (This was the seller.) I stopped on the way to Fedex to wet a line (fuggin what?!) and it got stolen out of the back of my pickup.”

Un-bloody-believable. The drugged-out loon that pinched it must have wondered what the hell it was when they got it home. There’s only a handful of people in the world who could correctly identify it. I imagine it’s in the bottom of a river by now.

Okay so back to square one. I eventually found a Sunbeam enthusiast in Wangaratta who was prepared to part with an early set of cases. He had several S7s, plus racks of spares, and was threatening to supercharge one. (Instant grenade, I would have thought.) We also agreed that he’d rebuild the bottom end for me.


All fine and dandy? Well, yes and no. Once I got the complete bottom end, Lemmings member Paul Newbold and I decided to have a crack at putting Winston back together. It’s a prick of a job. I’ve never had a motorcycle fight me so comprehensively, bolt by sodding bolt.

Sunbeam S7

Adding to our woes was the fact I was short of time, so we’d pull it out, get a little done, find a problem and pack it away for a future date. That’s not the way to do a rebuild, as you lose things, forget where you were up to – there’s no continuity.

In the end, another mate, this time from the Iron Indian club, suggested he might have a go at it. Meet Philip White, a former aircraft engineer, classic bike nut and talented mechanic. This was the perfect solution, as he’d just built an S7 Deluxe out of bits for himself and confessed it was the most difficult job he’d ever undertaken, until he met Winston…

It was a wonderful day when we loaded the loose assembly of bits that was my Sunbeam into Philip’s van. Suddenly a big load was off my mind.

Over the months I got regular emails from Mr W, generally headed ‘Lack of progress report’. Sometimes it was, ‘Tales from the crypt’ or ‘The horror, the horror’.

Philip had wisely decided to consult with Doug Fraser, a very clever machinist who is famous in BSA circles for building the V-twin the factory never did.

Here’s one of the resultant emails: “Doug pointed out that the new bearing shells as fitted to your conrods are not correct Sunbeam items. The one on the left is possibly a BMC item and too narrow for the rod (notice how it sits to one side). The one on the right is the correct part from Stewarts.

“Item two is the front main bearing. Doug removed this to allow blasting and welding on your cases. As you can see, it is a ball bearing. The very first S7s were indeed fitted with such a bearing but a rash of failures caused the factory to upgrade to a much stronger roller bearing.”

And, “Stewart's don't make crankshaft shims. Doug will press the rear bearing from its housing, make a shim and reassemble. Both your universal joints have been in the hands of the Philistines and Doug has salvaged enough to make one serviceable one.
“It’s all terribly exciting.”

Or on a bad day: “Hi Guy, Winston shows every sign that it wants to go back to the museum.”

Between them, Doug and Philip effectively re-engineered the entire engine.

Sunbeam S7

But it was far from over. From young Philip: “This is why your back end (the bike’s that is) doesn't work. I turned the sleeve around on the suspension and noticed it is has not seen greased since 1947. “Plus, I found the clutch problem but had to pull the motor out again. I have the motor sitting back in the frame and it gets proper travel now and is better than it was but I still think it is too heavy. It could be the friction plate is too thick and loading up the springs. I will write to Stewarts for advice, perhaps they do lighter springs.”

And on one of his more philosophical days: “There is a Buddhist saying, ‘That which is before you is your teacher’. Well, that certainly applies to Winston and my relationship, but I know we will get there.”

And as proceedings were drawing to a conclusion: “Early Sunbeam S7s are rare beasts and, in my opinion, deservedly so. Your bike is about as finished as it will ever be. I say about because the last major oil leak at time of writing appears to be from the rocker box…”

That Philip managed to finish the thing without throwing it over the back fence is a testament to his fortitude and the healing properties of Shiraz.

He did come up with one little surprise, just as he was finishing the project. It’s a well-established fact that a batch of the very first S7s was sent to South Africa as police escort motorcycles. The cops over there were so appalled by the vibration they promptly shipped them back.

Sunbeam’s solution was to fit a revised rubber-mounting system for the engine, which became part of the assembly of the production machines from S7 through to S7 Deluxe and S8. What Philip discovered with Winston was the front snubbers matched no known Sunbeam part and in fact were a hand-made set, possibly cobbled up at the factory before a production version was agreed on. It's an interesting theory.

This would fit with what I know of the bike’s history – it’s an early one but didn’t get shipped to Australia until 1948. So Philip is convinced it’s one of the infamous South African machines (which would date it closer to 1946), which got refurbished at Sunbeam and sent here. That's possible, but who knows after all this time? It's an intriguing bit of speculation - nothing more.

Sunbeam S7

So, finally, the great day arrived. Philip turns up with a complete and running Winston in the back of his truck. He turns to me and says, “This is a very rare and beautiful motorcycle. It should stay that way. You should ride it once and put it away…” Tongue-in-cheek of course (I think), but it was a timely reminder there are no guarantees with a now 70-year-old motorcycle.

We fired it up and the sound was fabulous. These things have a very distinctive rumble and it was a bit of a shock to hear it after all this time.

It ambles along happily and there’s no question it’s a far better motorcycle to ride now that the engine and suspension have been refurbished.

What I love about it is the idea as much as the reality. It was pitched to the market as a gentleman’s tourer. You can, on the right bit of road, imagine what it might have been like back in 1947, cruising down a country lane at a steady 50mph. It would have been glorious…

***

Sunbeam S7 Bedside Book


The Bedside Book

Sunbeam’s S7-S8 series seems to collect some quirky people and paraphernalia around it. None more so than the infamous The Sunbeam Owners Bedside Book.

It’s actually an invaluable guide to the care and feeding of these machines, including rebuild advice.

It can be bought quite readily through Stewart Engineering at stewartengineering.co.uk.

Why the ‘Bedside Book’? Not entirely sure, but ownership has been known to end in tears…

Sunbeam S7

Sunbeam S7

Sunbeam S7

Sunbeam S7

Sunbeam S7

Sunbeam S7

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