The original Sunbeam company was founded by John Marston in 1899 and based in Wolverhampton. Its position in the market was akin to the present day Jaguar.
Sunbeam was one of the premier marques of British car achieving its peak of fame during the 1920s. It first came to prominence following the appointment of Louis Coatalen as chief engineer in 1909 and Coatalen designed cars were soon setting new records of all types at Brooklands race track in Surrey. In 1912 the 3 litre Sunbeams caused a sensation when they came 1st, 2nd and 3rd in Coupe de l'Auto for touring cars run at Dieppe. So good were they, that they achieved 3rd, 4th, and 5th places in the French Grand Prix run concurrently! The cars which came 1st and 2nd achieved their places with engines which were 3 and 5 times the size of the Sunbeams! The almost identical touring model sold very well as a result.
In a famous race against Bugattis and Fiats, among others, Sunbeams came 1st, 2nd and 4th in the 1923 French Grand Prix and won the Spanish Grand Prix the following year. Sunbeam was the only British make to win a Grand Prix in the first half of the 20th century. Many of the features taken for granted on modern cars were first developed and tested by Sunbeam on the race track and then introduced to their ordinary touring cars. Among features pioneered by Sunbeam were overhead valve engines, brakes on all four wheels, power assisted brakes and twin overhead camshaft engines. Twin cam engines were standard on the 3 litre Super Sports models from 1924.
Sunbeam also held the world land speed record on several occasions as commemorated on British stamps issued in 1998. Malcolm Campbell's first "Bluebird" was a Sunbeam and in 1924 he achieved 146mph on an 18 litre 12 cyl Sunbeam developing 350hp. He had achieved the same speed a year earlier but the timing equipment had not been approved. In 1925 he was the first to reach 150mph on a similar car.
In 1926 Maj. Henry Segrave beat this on a new 4 litre 12 cyl Sunbeam when he reached 152 mph. The final triumph came in 1927 when Major Segrave, driving a twin engined 1000 hp Sunbeam, again broke the World's Record with a speed over 200mph for the first time.
In 1925 Sunbeam entered the new 3 litre Super Sports car for the Grand Prix d'Endurance (24 hours) at Le Mans. Sunbeam was the only British make to finish and won 2nd place overall and came first in its 3 litre class.
The STD Group, which came about with the merger of Sunbeam with Talbot-Darracq in 1920, was in fact badly mismanaged. It failed to rationalise its model range so that, at double the development cost, its own cars were often competing against each other for sales. The Sunbeam 16 and Talbot 14/45 for example were fairly similar cars aimed at the same market. Not only this, but there was virtually no standardisation or interchangeability of parts within the group which would have reduced costs. From about 1927 Coatalen spent most of his time in France and Sunbeam innovation more or less ceased. Sunbeam which had been the saviour of the Talbot company hitherto, now increasingly depended on the success of the Roesch Talbots. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the depression of the 1930s set in and when in 1935 a large loan, taken out ten years earlier, could not be repaid, STD Motors went into receivership. The Rootes Group outbid the fledgling Jaguar company and bought Sunbeam and also Talbot. Both plants were closed and Rootes merely used the name to sell cheaper, badge engineered Hillmans. The Sunbeam-Talbot name was nevertheless to achieve much success in the 1950s & 60s in its new guise.
Makers of Sunbeam bicycles John Marston Ltd of Wolverhampton experimented with a number of motorcars before going into production late in 1901 with the Sunbeam-Mabley. This small vehicle had the appearance of a Victorian serpentine sofa mounted on four wheels disposed in a diamond layout, with the driver seated at the rear, whilst a single-cylinder De Dion-Bouton engine hung over the front wheel drove the central axle by belt. Even in a period when there was still considerable diversity in motorcar design the Mabley was an oddity.
Early in 1903 Sunbeam started selling conventional four-cylinder cars, these being bought from Berliet of Lyon. Opinions differ as to how much of these early Sunbeams was made in Wolverhampton, how much in Lyon, and when exactly they became 'all British'. It was not really until 1909 when Louis Coatalen joined the firm as chief engineer and combined the introduction of new production models with a highly successful policy of motor racing that Sunbeam began its rise to the respected status in the British motor industry that it held for many years.