Curbside Capsule: 1956 Sunbeam S7 – Their Last, My First

There’s a first time for everything they say. And to prove it, last Thursday, I took photographs of a motorcycle, parked in a field as the sun set. And why? Well, it just caught my eye – we don’t see many older motor bikes these days and this one just seemed to have that special something, and to be in an unexpected spot, that deserved a little attention.

I admit to never having been a motor bike fan, though MotoGP can be an exciting watch. I blame too many stories of people coming home with broken and missing limbs (or worse).

This bike though seemed to be a bit special, somehow. The appearance and stance, the balloon tyres, the full colour and the obvious age marked it as something a bit different from the regular Japanese, German or British bikes we see, and it seemed to deserve some attention. Basic investigation showed it to be 1957 registered Sunbeam S7.

The Sunbeam motorbike company, officially Sunbeam Cycles Ltd, was founded in Wolverhampton in 1887 and although formally unrelated to Sunbeam cars, was founded by the same entrepreneur, John Marston. Marston allowed the businesses to go their separate ways – Sunbeam Cycles ended up as part of the BSA conglomerate, owner of many British motorbike brands, and Sunbeam cars was eventually absorbed into the Rootes Group, through the acquisition of Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq. In all, the Sunbeam name was used on bikes, motorbikes, cars, buses and trucks, Grand Prix cars and aero-engines, in what I believe is an uniquely wide range.

The S7 and related S8 were first introduced in 1948 and were openly based on the design of the wartime BMW R75, which featured shaft drive, and on versions with a sidecar, a differential and a driven third wheel. Is that still a motorbike, I wonder? Your call, but its ability on rough ground was unmatched by any other motorbike.

The design came to Sunbeam, based in Redditch in the English Midlands, as war reparations and the engineering was developed further. This was not a direct copy, but did retain some typical BMW features including the shaft drive. Sunbeam used a parallel twin, four stroke, overhead cam engine, rather than the flat twin familiar on the BMW, reportedly so it didn’t look German. One suspects that commonality with other BSA brands and compatibility with manufacturing equipment and expertise also contributed to that decision.

Sunbeam had various technical issues in getting satisfactory performance out of the S7 – the power had to be reined in to prevent transmission damage and the engine mountings extensively adapted to handle the vibrations.

There was another related model, known as the S8 also built – this was shorn of some of the expensive features of the S7, and intended to a more sports, less touring oriented product. Both versions lasted until 1956 when the Sunbeam brand was switched to scooters, with the BSA Sunbeam being a badge engineered Triumph scooter, until it was closed in 1964.

And why we were in a field at sunset? To watch the lighting of one the 3000 Platinum Jubilee beacons lit across the UK last Thursday evening.

And riding a motorbike? I once rode pillion in Mumbai; that was more than enough, thank you.