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Lot 286: 1916 Sunbeam 3½hp Military Motorcycle

The Brian R. Verrell Collection, Bonhams (1 September 2008)

Acquired by Brian Verrall in 1998, this Sunbeam military motorcycle previously belonged to collector John Moore and while in his possession featured in The Classic Motor Cycle magazine’s Authentic & Unrestored series (December 1990 issue) in an article penned by noted Sunbeam authority (and Bonhams consultant) Bob Cordon-Champ. Bonhams is grateful to publishers Mortons for allowing us to quote extensively from the article below.

‘Large numbers of motor cycles were used by all armies (during WWI) and despatch riders on the frail machines of those days had a difficult job to do. At the end of the war huge dumps of battered machines were sold to reconditioners who fed them to the motor cycle hungry population, after repainting and reassembling them from the parts available.

‘Thus, although there are quite a few Triumph, P&M and Douglas machines of the period preserved, the WD history of most of them cannot be traced, particularly since the Forces of the period didn't keep the sort of records which enable the later owner of, say, a WD M20 to trace its provenance.

‘To find such an original and well-documented machine as this Sunbeam is, to say the least, unusual. In fact, for it to be a Sunbeam at all is even more unusual, since most of that company's production was for the Allies rather than our forces. The Imperial Russian Army ordered 1,450 Sunbeams, amongst other makes, most being delivered via Archangel until the Revolution prompted an embargo, after which halted machines were sold to other armies. France had up to 1,000 4hp belt-drive solos, only a few of which have survived, and Italy asked for 500 3½hp models, the balance of which order was cancelled in 1918.

‘Most of the war-surplus Sunbeams seem to have been bought back by the factory for rebuilding - nine were for sale at Kempton Park in 1919 at £10 each - and this, no doubt, explains why so many ‘civilian’ Sunbeams of the post-war period have the GS (General Service) engine prefix of an army machine.

‘Although some civilian-style 3½hp bikes were used by the British Army, the largest holding of Sunbeams ‘over here’ was by the Royal Navy - always buyers of the best - and their flying arm, the Royal Naval Air Service who promptly sold on three to the US Navy for use at Strathpether.

‘In those days the RNAS did not fly from aircraft carriers, but instead was as fully committed to air warfare on the Western Front as the better known Royal Flying Corps. In 1915 the RNAS ordered the 3½hp Sunbeam as ‘their’ machine. 'Theirs' differed from the civilian models in being painted drab green - over the nickel plate - with black tank lining and green handlebar grips. They were fitted with a three-compartment fuel tank, one compartment being for oil, one for petrol and one for paraffin.

‘The latter fuel, mazout in French, on which the low-compression engine would run well once warmed up on petrol, was obtainable all over the Western Front, being used for household lighting and heating as well as by the armies.’

It is at this point that the history of ‘BL 5072’, as reported in The Classic Motor Cycle, begins to unravel. The Sunbeam was sold in 1961 to John Moore, of Tilehurst in Berkshire, allegedly by local resident Lt Colonel G Dawes. ‘Dawes’ claimed to have seized the machine, which had been intended for the RNAS, in 1915 while he was commanding the Royal Flying Corps’ No. 11 Squadron in France, and said that he had owned it ever since. The Colonel is supposed to have been shot down over Ypres in 1918, losing part of a leg, and was pensioned off, so the story went, in 1919. Returning to farming, he obtained a civilian number – ‘BL 5072’ - for the Sunbeam and used it until it was ‘retired’ in 1921 in favour of an Argyll car. Forty years later, in 1961, Colonel Dawes, by then 75 years old, is said to have sold the machine to John Moore.

George William Patrick Dawes was an historical figure; indeed, he played an important role in the development of military aviation in Britain. A career soldier and much decorated Boer War veteran, Lieutenant George Dawes served with the Royal Berkshire Regiment and was one of the first Britons to learn to fly, gaining his pilot’s license (No. 17) in 1909. Promoted to Captain soon after, he was transferred to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and did indeed command No. 11 Squadron (for eight months in 1915) before being posted to the Balkans as Officer Commanding, RFC in that theatre of war, a position he held from 1916 to 1918. Mentioned in dispatches on seven occasions, Dawes was honoured by the Greek and Serbian Governments and awarded the French Croix de Guerre. However, as OC, RFC, Balkans he could not have been shot down over Ypres in 1918, and cannot have sold the Sunbeam to John Moore (as a Berkshire-resident 75-year-old in 1961) as he had died in Nottingham, aged 80, in 1960. So from whom did John Moore buy the Sunbeam? In all probability we will never know.

Fortunately, we do know something about the Sunbeam’s actual first owner. A letter on file (dated 1st May 2001) from Berkshire County Record Office states that ‘BL 5072’ was registered for private use on 25th August 1916 to one Robert Hicks Kidd, of Marlborough House, Newbury. Thus the Sunbeam cannot have been in France in 1915 or first registered for civilian use after WWI, as previously reported. Born in 1895, the son of ‘a gentleman of private means’, Robert Kidd was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge and was a member of the Officer Training Corps at both of those institutions. When the Sunbeam was first registered, in August 1916, he was still at Cambridge.

In stark contrast with that of George Dawes, Robert Kidd’s service record is dismal, to say the least. He spent most of 1917 as a ‘Gentleman Cadet’ at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, training to be an engineer. Castigated by his superiors for childish behaviour, laziness and lack of application, he failed his exams more than once and was deemed unlikely to make a good officer. Kidd’s removal was applied for and he was posted to the Signal Service Training Centre, Bedford in August 1917. On 23rd February 1918, he was given the rank of Temporary 2nd Lieutenant in the Signal Section, Royal Engineers but within 12 months had left the Army, discharged on the grounds of ‘ill health’. Robert Kidd later seemingly falsified his records at Harrow School, claiming to have won the Military Cross, an award he never received.

Robert Hicks Kidd, of Marlborough House, Newbury is recorded as owner in the Sunbeam’s accompanying old-style logbook (issued 8th January 1925 by Berkshire County Council), which shows annual licensing up to the end of 1928, not 1921 as allegedly claimed by ‘Colonel Dawes’. (Curiously, this document lists the manufacturer as ‘Ivan Marston’, with the word ‘Sunbeam’ added above). John Moore, of Tilehurst, Reading is recorded as ‘1st Change’ (entry stamped 20th June 1962). There is a (copy) photograph on file, taken from an unidentified journal, which shows a previous owner with the Sunbeam and is reproduced here. The picture was taken on what appears to be a VMCC run (note the route card and competitor number), probably in the 1950s. Is this Robert Kidd?

While in John Moore’s ownership ‘BL 5072’ featured in two BBC Television productions: Ashenden, filmed in Hungary, and House of Eliott, shot in the West Country. It also features in T E Crowley’s book Discovering Old Motor Cycles (page 33). Accompanied by two fellow VMCC members, John Moore rode the Sunbeam across Europe to Hungary for the Ashenden filming, passing through France on what was almost certainly the machine’s first visit to that country. It should be noted that the brass plaque attached to the Sunbeam’s rear, referring to its alleged Royal Flying Corps service at ‘Saint Abbrette Airfield’ is not original. The RAF Museum, Hendon has no record of an airfield of that name, and an Internet search has failed to locate a place called ‘Saint Abbrette’ in France, or anywhere else for that matter.

The Sunbeam’s next owner, from January 1998, was Andrew Bojie, of Silchester, Reading, from whom Brian Verrall acquired it in July of that same year. Brian must have had his doubts about the machine’s provenance, as evidence on file of his attempts to trace Robert Kidd and Marlborough House would appear to testify. What is surprising is that neither of the Sunbeam’s previous owners seems to have bothered to research its history, despite the existence of the aforementioned logbook and survival of Berkshire registration records. Perhaps the alleged provenance was too good a story; it was certainly too good to be true.

Presented in wonderfully original and unrestored condition, ‘BL 5072’ is offered with the aforementioned documentation; copy magazine articles; copy 1915 Sunbeam range brochure; assorted correspondence and photographs; expired MoT (1996-1997); a quantity of expired SORNs; and copy, old-style Swansea V5 and current V5C registration documents.

Despite the fact that, in all probability, it never got any nearer to France than Woolwich during WWI, ‘BL 5072’ nevertheless remains a genuine - and possibly unique - military-specification Sunbeam motorcycle owned by a serving British Army officer during The Great War, and thus is of considerable historical importance.

Lot Details
Auction The Brian R. Verrell Collection
Bonhams, New Bond Street, London
Lot Number286
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price£11000
Hammer Price (inc premium)£12650
Condition rating
Registration numberBL 5072
Chassis number4155
Engine number105/421765
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors