With Great British hot rodding predominantly taking its styles from across the Atlantic, it’s often easy to forget we have a very rich culture of customising in the UK, too. The Industrial Revolution itself started over here, and that rich vein of engineering and innovation extends right through to this day, no starin more so than in messing about with cars to make them go fast.
As always, it is horses for courses, and terrain and culture shapes the technology. With large, flat open spaces, early hot rods in the States were designed to be fast in a straight line (and eventually morphing into needing to also look cool and pull girls), whereas in England’s green and pleasant land, our specials were created to climb twisty hills in competitions, and stopping and steering were more important than outright top speed. But those famous hillclimbs weren’t the only proving grounds, and if we didn’t have salt lakes we did at least have beaches. Even a cursory glance through the land speed record book reveals an extremely long list of British names: Campbell, Cobb and Parry-Thomas from the 1920s, and closer to home let’s not forget Tony Densham’s 207.6 MPH run in the Commuter dragster at Elvington in 1970, breaking Campbell’s UK flying kilometre record which had stood since 1927.
That same book also records Henry Segrave, who on the 16th of March, 1926, drove his Sunbeam Tiger “Ladybird” down Ainsdale beach in Southport to a new land speed record of 152.33 MPH, beating Campbell’s record of 150.86 set the previous July. Going fast is the same anywhere, and “ya can’t beat cubes,” translates easily into “more capacity, Stanley.” So Sunbeam took their successful 2-litre inline six racing engine of 1925, and for 1926 they mated two top ends to a V12 crankcase, adding a blower for good measure. The resulting 3976 c.c. and 306 horsepower was not to be sniffed at.
Segrave’s record was short lived, such was the febrile atmosphere of the time that only a month later Parry-Thomas raised the record to 171.01 MPH at Pendine Sands, and the following year Campbell upped it to 174.883 MPH. But it was a record none-the-less, and another small but important piece in the UK’s rich automotive history.
To commemorate the event, Southport Speed Week took the exact same car down the exact same measured mile of sand on the exact same day 90 years later. Exactly. Accompanied by another 50 vintage cars, mostly Sunbeams but a smattering of all sorts, and including, er, “Bluebird” of the same era. Okay, it was a replica, but an extremely faithful and accurate one, built from genuine period vintage parts, including the correct Napier Lion engine, technologically advanced with its three banks of four giant cylinders arranged in a W-12 formation, with twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder giving 1460 c.i. and 500 BHP, and all of this back in the 1920s. Crikey! So even though it wasn’t the real thing, we got as close as it’s possible to get to seeing the actual 1927 Bluebird run.
If Bluebird was the star, then the “take me home” car of the day was a cut-down 1911 Sunbeam 16/20 owned by Wicky Winkling (I kid you not). The facts are it held the Shelsey Walsh hillclimb record in 1912, is good for 100 MPH (if you’re brave enough – no suspension damping and rear brakes only), and is still used for hillclimbing and racing. But the emotions take in the decades of patina, those wicker seats and that hand formed alloy bodywork, and even if it didn’t run, you’d take it home and cuddle it forever.
Southport Speed Week was a blast. And as a celebration of the eternal hot rodders’ philosophy of “strip it down, make it lighter, then stick a ridiculously large engine in it.” it was nigh-on perfect.