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LOUIS COATALEN – Engineering Impresario of Humber, Sunbeam, Talbot and Darracq

by Oliver Heal


2020 review by Malcolm Bobbitt

Sunbeam is one of the best known names in British automotive history and synonymous with drivers of the like of Sir Henry Segrave, Dario Resta. George Duller and Kenelm Lee Guinness. For decades, the backbone of Sunbeam was Louis Coatalen, the firm’s chief engineer who gave the marque its luxury and sporting status along with its revered place in the league of World Speed Record attempts.

A detailed biography of Coatalen has been wanting for all too long, and there’s no one better than Oliver Heal with his close associations with Sunbeam and the Coatalen family to provide a comprehensive insight into this complex individual. Anthony Heal, the author’s father, was a devoted Sunbeam enthusiast whose collection of ephemera relating to the marque was truly impressive, and what is more, his son Oliver married one of Louis Coatalen’s granddaughters. The considerable archive amassed by father and son Anthony and Oliver Heal, and indeed that of the Sunbeam Talbot Darracq Register along with the Coatalen family papers, has inspired, enabled and encouraged the author to produce an exceptionally balanced and informative biography as well as a dedicated Sunbeam history. The work also unravels the complicated affair which saw the British elements of Talbot and Darracq come within the STD (Sunbeam, Talbot and Darracq) Motors umbrella.

The author, who is a member of the SAHB, provides an exclusive background to Louis Coatalen’s early life in his native Brittany. He explains his career with some of the most notable French motor manufacturers and his move to England in 1901 at the age of 22 to work for Charles Crowden who is recognised as being responsible, with Edward Butler, for designing and building the first motorised tricycle. Heal records that Coatalen, who was with Crowden for only a few months, moved to Humber where, by early 1902, he had designed a 12hp car which gave the company its reputation for quality engineering. An interlude with Hillman is recalled before Coatalen took up his appointment with Sunbeam.

Oliver Heal’s portrayal of Coatalen makes for compelling reading but do not assume he has been completely kind to him. While Coatalen, who adopted British citizenship, was a gifted engineer and a spirited racing driver whose exploits at Brooklands and Le Mans were heroic, and his efforts during WW1 greatly helped the nation both on land and in the air, his private life was a different matter. Coatalen claimed not to have remembered his first wife’s name, and thereafter had three further marriages. He suffered alcohol and drug addiction and became embroiled in some injudicious investments.

Notwithstanding Louis Coatalen’s edgy private life – the author confesses that his father-in-law Hervé, one of Coatalen’s sons, did not share the admiration shown to his father – his dedication to British engineering and his talents spent on designing and preparing Sunbeam’s World Speed Record cars is nothing but remarkable. He never stopped working, even in his final years, and the author tells how at last with his fourth wife he found true happiness.

This is a landmark book which reveals for the first time the life of Louis Coatalen and his fine achievements which critically benefited British engineering and the nation’s automotive industry. It is beautifully written and produced and contains a wealth of photographs and illustrations, many of which have not been previously seen. The work is published with the support of the Michael Sedgwick Memorial Trust.

Highly recommended.

Publisher: Unicorn, 5 Newburgh Street, London W1F 7RG.

Price: £40.

Description: Hardback in dustjacket (275mm x 235mm), 288 pages, printed on gloss art paper.

ISBN: 9781912690695

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