Tuesday, February 10, 2009


John Jennings from Perth sent the above photograph, which piqued my interest; "Don Chesson was telling me about a photo of a Sunbeam he had been sent sometime ago. An I.o.M. racer according to the photographer. The photo was taken in the early 50's outside a shop in Elizabeth St Melbourne. It is for sale (see seat). On the high res scan I can make out R-95 or similar. It is road registered at that stage of its unknown but no doubt illustrious career." A close look at the photo reveals an alloy top end, which Sunbeam never produced - so the bike has clearly been modernized by some enterprising Colonial mechanic. The petrol and oil tanks are larger than the originals as well, and neither looks particularly Sunbeam, although they are handsome. Most significantly, the frame looks to be Velocette, and given the steep front downtube, I will guess it's from a Mk7 KTT (the rear frame section isn't Velo though). There was never an 'R-95' model, but as this Sunbeam racer was a pretty obscure by the early 1950s, the confusion is understandable.

Sunbeam introduced the Model 95 in 1934, ending the run of the illustrious Model 90 after eight years. The '95' retained the 80x98mm bore and stroke of the earlier model, as well as the open rockers and iron top end, but the new machine used only a single exhaust port, and a downdraught TT carb which bolted to a flange, rather than clamping on a manifold. The gearchange had moved down to a rocking foot pedal for the four-speed gearbox, and the saddle tank was especially large and beautiful. The '95' designation referred to a nominal top speed...it's interesting to note that my '28 TT90 'Beam has a single-port cylinder head (a Harry Weslake item) and four-speed gearbox (Sunbeam produced these for their sidecar haulers - it was easily transferred to a racer).

The Model 95 was the last motorcycle laid out by John Greenwood, Sunbeam's long time designer, and it was the swan song of Sunbeam's 20-year racing career, which included 4 outright wins in the Isle of Man TT, as well as four Team Prizes there, among countless other race wins in Britain and beyond. The sidevalve Longstroke and the OHV Model 90 were very popular on the Continent in the 1920s among wealthy sportsmen like Achille Varzi. The '95' was a sound design, firmly in the racing tradition of the Company, meaning it was reliable, extremely well-made, and fast, with impeccable handling. But, by 1934 a racing motorcycle with an OHV cylinder head was no longer competitive in the top ranks of Grand Prix racing, although a privateer might still find the Model 95 a useful tool.

In 1935, the range was bifurcated, and you could buy the Model 95 'L', with lights, a roadster with all the appeal of a contemporary Norton International, while the racer became the 'Model 95R'. With only two years' production, either machine is a rarity these days, and are much sought after. At the end of the racing line, John Greenwood produced yet another elegant machine for the track, which was always a Sunbeam specialty.

Photos are taken from Robert Gordon Champ's two excellent Sunbeam books: 'The Sunbeam', Haynes 1980; and 'The Illustrated History of Sunbeam Bicycles and Motorcycles', Haynes 1989.


Anonymous said...


For your archive, attached are a couple of pictures that I have scavenged off of eBay over the years. That 95R sure is a handsome beast.



Anonymous said...

Hello Paul,

I have recently become a regular reader of the Vintagent and always enjoy
anything about real Sunbeam motorcycles. It's surprising our paths haven't
crossed in the past as we seem to have much common ground. Apart from dalliances
with obscure Italian marques, my interests seldom stray far from the quartet of
Sunbeam, Velocette, Norton and Rudge.

It was also good to see mention of the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group as I
was a founding member of the club way back when. My 600 cc OHV Sunbeam Model 9A
appeared at many CVMG rallies until it finally went to another club member a few
years ago. While well worn with 61,000 miles on the odometer, it remained a
sweet-running bike that would tick over beautifully and was a joy to ride.

Your note on the 95R was well received, as I have owned a 95L for many years. As
you can see from the photo, it combines some elements of the 95R such as the
rearsets and open primary. It came to me in race trim, the way it had been
supplied to the previous owner by Charles Mortimer Sr., the pre-war competitor.
The bike came to Canada about 1967 and still has a huge Brooklands muffler on it
that would not look out of place on a Bentley.

While Model 95s are pretty rare, another one lives 50 miles from me here in
Ontario. It is taking shape again after serious crash damage at a race track put
it out of commission many years ago. Parts have been painstakingly recreated
using my bike as a pattern and it should be back in action within the next year
or so.

While I have seen other Model 95s in Sammy Miller's museum and the National
Motorcycle Museum before the fire (don't know whether those were rebuilt) I have
never seen a Little 90 or Little 95, the 250 racers. One was raced in the
Bayview TT, an event held on public roads north of Toronto in the early 1930s,
but has vanished without trace. It would be interesting to know how many of
those are about. Perhaps your blog will bring forward some news of these.

Best regards,
John C

Craig said...

Hi Paul - did you see the one that sold at Stafford this April?

Vintage said...

Hello all,
I have a 1922 3 1/2 hp and a 1928 M8 Sunbeam and just yesterday had someone offer me a "Little 90", though I really am a "flat tank" Beamer!! So there are some around still!

Michael from Austria