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SNAPSHOT 288: 1913 Grand Prix Sunbeam

The date is 12 July 1913; the location just outside Amiens in Picardy.  The car is Kenelm Lee Guinness’s Sunbeam.  He crashed into this stream on lap 15 of the 29-lap race; a spectator was killed in the accident.  According to the race report in The Car Illustrated, a tyre apparently burst at the Boves bridge.  The car went through some railings, struck down an unfortunate spectator and ended in “a shallow brook.”  Guinness escaped with bruises and his mechanic with a ducking in the stream, but the spectator was taken to hospital “in a hopeless condition.”  Our Snapshot shows three sentries guarding the car after the crash.

This was a race marred by five fatalities: before the event, Bigio was killed testing his Itala and Paul Zuccarelli died when his Peugeot crashed into a cart.  Two other people had been killed while testing on the circuit’s roads during May.  After this race, the circuit, which included an 8-mile-long straight (now the D934) was never used again for motor racing.

The Sunbeam cars designed by Louis Coatalen had significant success in the 1912 Coupe de l’Auto at Dieppe, where they were limited to 3-litre capacity.  Rigal finished in first place, Resta second, and Medinger third. The race was run at the same time and on the same circuit as the French Grand Prix, with no limit on engine size.  Due to the speed of the Sunbeams, they also placed third, fourth, and fifth in the Grand Prix itself, beating many more powerful machines.

Coatalen decided to enter Sunbeams in the 1913 French Grand Prix at Amiens.  Four special cars were built for the race, each powered by a 4½-litre 6-cylinder engine. Jean Chassagne, driving one of the Sunbeams finished in 3rd place at an average speed of 70.3m.p.h. over the 579 miles – but, as we can see here, Guinness crashed.

However, the 1913 Coupe de L’Auto was held as a separate event and Sunbeam set out to defend their 1912 victory with three cars similar to the ones used in 1912. They were driven by Jean Chassagne, Dario Resta, and Kenelm Lee Guinness, on a more difficult course near Boulogne. This time, both Chassagne and Resta retired with broken rear axles, but Guinness finished third, nine minutes behind the winner at an average speed of 61.45m.p.h.

Kenelm Edward Lee Guinness MBE (14 August 1887 – 10 April 1937) was an Irish-born racing driver closely associated with Sunbeam racing cars. He set a new Land Speed Record in 1922 and invented and manufactured the KLG spark plug. He was a member of the Guinness brewing family, and a director of the company.

His first major race as a driver was the 1907 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. His Darracq retired early from axle failure.

After the First World War, Louis Coatalen built the 350hp Sunbeam, powered by a V12 Manitou engine.  On 18 May 1922, Guinness used the car to set new land speed records at Brooklands: the Brooklands lap record at 121.54 mph, and the flying-start land speed records over a half-mile, kilometre, mile and two miles. The fastest of these was 136.05 mph for the half-mile.  These were the last land speed records to be set on a circuit rather than a beach or salt flat.

Picture courtesy of the Richard Roberts Archive


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