||The company was founded by John
Marston, a native of Ludlow, where his father had been Mayor
of the borough and a Justice of the Peace. John’s education
began at Ludlow Grammar School and continued at Christ’s
Hospital School in London. On leaving school in 1851 he came
to Wolverhampton as an apprentice to Edward Perry, tin plate
worker and japanner at Jeddo works.
At the end of his apprenticeship in
1859 he purchased a japanning business at Bilston from
Daniel Smith Lester. This venture proved to be a great
success, so much so that two years after Edward Perry's
death in 1869, John purchased Jeddo Works and returned to business life in Wolverhampton.
All kinds of domestic products were produced and the company
became one of the two largest makers of black enamelled ware
in the country.
John was a keen
cyclist and became interested in trying to improve the
machines of the day. Around 1887 he constructed a rather
crude and heavy bicycle with solid tyres. At the time,
William Newill, the works foreman, built a much improved
machine for his boss, with a special low frame because John
Marston had short legs. The cycle had been finished in the
usual japanning colours of black and gold leaf, and to the
same high standard as Marston products of the time.
The story is told
that John's wife, Ellen saw the sun reflected in the high
gloss finish, and so the bicycle became known as 'The
Sunbeam', the name being registered in 1888. John was so
pleased with the cycle that he decided to manufacture them
and gave William Newill a partnership in the new venture.
|Read about John
Marston and the company.
The first Sunbeam
bicycles were exhibited at the Stanley Show in London during
February 1889. There were 13 bicycles and tricycles on
display at the company's stand, including a ladies tricycle
and a safety bicycle that included the first part to be
patented by Sunbeam; an eccentric crank bracket for
adjusting the chain. Another exhibit at the show that would
soon become a prominent feature of all Sunbeam machines was
J. Harrison Carter’s oil tight chain lubricator and gear
cover. The casing contained a small oil bath which
lubricated the chain to reduce wear, kept it clean and
improved power transmission. This was adopted by Sunbeam and
from 1897 onwards would become known throughout the world as
'The Little Oil Bath'.
In May 1889 the
company opened a London showroom and depot at 38 Holborn
Viaduct and soon moved to larger premises at 51 Holborn
Viaduct. William Travers, a famous bicycle racer was
recruited as the London Agent and also acted as a consultant
in future bicycle design. A. Gilbert, another bicycle racer
became finishing shop foreman.
The following is a short description from "Bicycles &
Tricycles of the Year 1889" by Harry Hewitt Griffin:
Dwarf Safety Roadster. John Marston, Paul Street Works,
eccentric chain adjustment is a leading feature in this
group of machines. This takes the form of an axle bracket,
the upper shank of which is brazed into the foot of the seat
pillar. Attached to this is a collar, forming a case
carrying the eccentric flange, through the shoulder of which
the axle passes. If the chain requires adjustment, the nut
holding together the split lugs of the case is slackened,
and the eccentric, by gripping the shoulder with a spanner,
is turned forward or backward as desired. The total scope of
the adjustment is equal to a link of the chain, so that if
the chain becomes very slack, the eccentric can be turned
back to enable a link to be removed; it can then be
tightened up again.
Marston's patent eccentric chain
|Stay rods from the rear axle run
into the butterfly flanges shown at the foot; a single
stay runs from a flange at the other side up to the neck
of the backbone. This very handy means of adjustment
does away with the uncertainty of adjusting both sides
alike, and permits a fixed rear axle.
The back frame forms a sort of
triangle, the upper round fork tubes running into a sort
of cap near the top of the taper seat pillar, the whole
fitting being very neat. An Arab or other comfortable
spring and saddle are fitted, and there is a good direct
plunger brake acting on the pilot wheel. Instead of
abrupt bends, the handlebar is brought back in a gradual
curve. To the wheels are put direct spokes, crescent
rims, and ¾in. smooth white tyres of an extra good
quality (so good, in fact, that if the ordinary rubber
is used instead, an allowance of 10s. is made), fixed on
by Hookam's patented spring-wire process.
All the usual details are well
carried out, and the Sunbeam deserves rank as a
first-class machine at certainly a first-class price.
Ball bearings are put to all parts; the square block
pedals have adjustable cranks. Both wheels are 30in.
List price: £21.
The Sunbeam Dwarf Safety Semi-Racer.
|The Sunbeam Dwarf Safety
The lines of framework very much resemble those of the noted
Demon Racer. The seat-pillar is stayed by slanting tubes
from top and bottom direct to the centres, thus relieving
the backbone of any strain. Adjustment is made by the usual
rear fork slot. As in the stronger pattern, it has 30in.
wheels, geared to 60in., hollow felloes, and wired-on ⅝in.
tyres; the direct plunger brake is retained, but the whole
framing is very light. Price: £18.10s.”
From "Cycling" magazine.
The following is a short description of a
Sunbeam tricycle from "Bicycles & Tricycles of the Year
1889" by Harry Hewitt Griffin:
Lady's Direct Steering Roadster. John Marston, Paul Street
Works, Wolverhampton. A light and pretty machine. It has
32in. driving and 28in. pilot wheel. The frame is of the
drop or “V” pattern, and the whole of the chain, and gear
box at the back, is covered in by a leather guard. A slight
help is given to the steerer by a couple of flat steel
springs, fixed to the front pillar, and acting against a
stud below the backbone. Although not a strong spring, like
the old automatic steerers, the guides are sufficient to
keep the wheel straight, an assistance to novices.
Tyres of the very
best quality, fixed by Hookam's process, and a direct
plunger spoon brake, are fitted, and the machine is a
first-class one. The list price, with the usual fittings,
balls all parts, and finished enamelled and plated, is £24.
There is also a stronger Sunbeam, at the same price, for
In 1890 Sunbeam
exhibited some interesting new models at the Stanley Show.
Their lightweight road racer weighed only 16 lbs, and the
Light Roadster weighed 29 lbs. Also on display was the
spring frame Sunbeam, an anti-vibration model. Unfortunately
the idea did not prove to be successful due to the launch of
J. B. Dunlop's pneumatic tyre.
At the 1893 show
Marston's launched the Sunbeam-Carter gear case after
acquiring a manufacturing license from Harrison Carter.
William Newill also had the idea of making the gear case
fill a gap in the frame. The rear offside lower chain-stay
was removed and soldered into the inside of the chain case.
In 1895 the business
was incorporated under the Companies Act as John Marston
Limited, and in the following year three more depots were
opened. One at 157 Sloane Street, London, a second at 168
Deansgate, Manchester, and a third at 37 George Street,
|1896 saw the introduction of a new
range of models, the only survivor from the previous year
being the Ladies’ V.R.831, now called the 853.
The Royal Sunbeam was introduced in
black, olive green, dark cherry, or dark navy blue. The
catalogue listed four ladies models, the 853, 854, 856 and
the “Gentlewoman’s Touring Sunbeam” with an upward sloping
top tube starting from just below the seat lug.
A new rim with staggered spoking also
appeared as did a head-lock, and for the first time a
Sunbeam spanner was supplied free with every bicycle, along
with a new design of oil can (except with the Sunbeam
Also in 1896 John Marston patented a
method of filling and emptying the gear case without
The 1896 catalogue.
Some Sunbeam models
An advert from 1896.
||A second London depot, in Sloane
Street, opened in 1897, and the straight upper down tubes on
the 853 & 854 were replaced by curved tubes, and became
known as a loop frame bicycle, which remained popular for
A new seat pillar was fitted to the
Royal Sunbeams that allowed more adjustment and a more
comfortable ride, and 3 spanners were supplied free of
charge with each bicycle.
|During 1897 the bicycle gear
case was advertised as the 'Little Oil Bath' and a Carter
patent label placed on the inside of the case, under the
pedal bracket where it couldn't easily be seen.
The 'Little Oil Bath'. Courtesy of Jim
|Sales rocketed and by 1898 there was
an urgent need for expansion, particularly in the
manufacture of components such as pedals. This resulted in
the setting up of the Villiers Cycle Components Company to
||“The Scorching Sunbeam” appeared in
1899. It was a cheap machine without brakes, mudguards, or
gear case. An important introduction in 1900 was the roller
type free-wheel, with the bearings continuously lubricated
by oil dripping from the cog and splashing up from the
chain. The introduction of the free-wheel meant that more
effective braking was required, so two brakes were
introduced, a rod operated front rim brake and a pedal
operated (back-pedalling) rear brake. Free-wheel and
back-pedalling brake were an optional extra on all models.
|1901 saw the appearance of the
bicycle trailer, a device patented by J. Marston & J.
Herbert, called the Sunbeam Cycle Ricksha. It first appeared
at the National Cycle Show in November and had a wicker body
on a steel tube frame, resting on elliptical steel springs.
The trailer fastened to the cycle by a
clip on the seat pillar, with a ball and socket joint that
attached to an adjustable connecting arm, so that the
Ricksha remained upright even when the bicycle fell over. It
weighed 33lb and could be purchased from the Sunbeam Cycle
Agency, 95 Western Rd, Hove, Sussex.
||In 1902 the “Featherwieght, Ladies
Sunbeam” (design H.R.H.) was the first Sunbeam machine
fitted with Roman rims as standard.
They were invented by Dr. R.I. Roman
of the Roman Cycle Co., Lombard Street, London in 1897, and
were joint-less alloy rims made from an aluminium alloy he
|Bicycle sales continued to rise and
in 1903 over 1,000 “Royal” Sunbeams were sold, one customer
being Sir Edward Elgar who purchased two of the machines
with 28inch frames and three brakes.
He called them both 'Mr. Phoeus' and
was an enthusiastic cyclist, often going to the works for a
'tuning'. The 'Gent's Royal' model sold for 16 guineas.
Sir Edward Elgar and one of his 'Royal' Sunbeams.
The epicyclic gear.
|The same year saw the introduction of
the famous silent 2 speed epicyclic gear, mounted inside the
front chain wheel and fully enclosed and lubricated inside
the gear case.
It was operated by a thumb lever to
give a 25 percent increase above normal speed, later
increased to 30 percent. It became the best epicyclic gear
to be produced and was far better than the equivalent gear
fitted by Sunbeam's competitors.
|The only disadvantage caused by the
fitting of the 'Little Oil Bath' was the difficulty of
removing the inner tube on the rear wheel. Punctures in
those days could happen frequently because of the poor state
of the roads and the thin tyres then in use.
To overcome this problem Sunbeam
acquired the exclusive right to use Professor Sharp's
patented tyre removal system consisting of a divided axle, a
spacer and a bolt. When the bolt and spacer were removed the
wheel was only attached on the chain-stay side and so the
inner tube could easily be slipped off. The new system
appeared on machines in 1905
||Sunbeam machines were several times
more expensive than some of the competition and in order to
secure sales, the emphasis on quality was essential. In 1907
the company launched a new top of the range model, the
'Golden' Sunbeam, costing between £17 and £25 and famous for
its lining in real gold leaf.
Also that year's catalogue included
the 'Featherweight Sunbeam' racing machine, weighing only
25lbs., and the “Royal Sunbeam tricycle”.
|Also during 1907 Sunbeam obtained a
patent for a better oil retention system for the 'Little Oil
Bath' and William Newill's three speed hub was introduced.
This in conjunction with a 2 speed
bottom bracket gear made the six speed Sunbeams possible.
||Another of Sunbeam's innovations
was the "almost" leak-proof oilcan. It seems that the
company wasn't confident enough to declare the device fully
|The Sunbeam Golden Tricycle.
saw the launch of a sales campaign aimed at dealers. A 72
page booklet was issued to all agents, called “Hints for
selling Sunbeam Cycles”. It stressed that Sunbeams were
aimed at the top end of the market.
In the same year, a cheap model, the
“Special Sunbeam” was introduced. It had no gear case, but
came with a Villiers two-speed hub gear.
|In 1909 Roman aluminium alloy rims
were fitted to all models and the “All-Black Sunbeam” model
was introduced in the autumn.
The following year all models were fitted
with gear cases and without offside chain-stays, which were
replaced by stays that were soldered onto the inside of the
gear case. The “Special Sunbeam” was discontinued.
An early 20th century view of Sunbeamland.
A new patent head-lock
first saw the light of day in 1911 and new aluminium and
rubber pedals were fitted to the
The 1913 Sunbeam tricycle. Courtesy of
By 1913 Sunbeam bicycles
had reached their final form.
The highest standards of
construction were used along with the best materials and the
highest quality finish of any make of machine.
|At the outbreak of World War One,
Sunbeam and other manufacturers were put on limited war
production by the Government and 'The Military Sunbeam' was
made in large numbers for the French Government and sold in
smaller quantities here.
The standard military machine had no oil
bath, was finished in WD green and fitted with a front
carrier. Extras included Joseph Lucas rifle clips and a rear
Sunbeamland, as portrayed in the 1914
|The patent aluminium pedals for
the Golden Sunbeams.
Courtesy of Jim Boulton.
Courtesy of Jim Boulton.
|After John Marston's death in 1918
the company was acquired by a conglomeration of arms
manufacturers who merged to become Nobel Industries Ltd.
Over the next few years a lot of
investment took place which resulted in new buildings and
machinery. Bicycle production continued much as before with
the same models and high standards.
In 1921 the 'Golden' Sunbeam sold for
23 guineas and the 'Royal' sold for £21.
|The “Special Sunbeam Light Roadster”
was introduced in 1923, and sold for £19.18s.
The single geared machine was fitted with a gear case and
26inch wheels as standard.
Also a fixed wheel version with thumb
lever brake was available for £17.17s and a free wheel
version with two rim brakes, cost £18.18s.
||Over the next few years there were
noticeable price reductions and in 1926 the “New low-built
Sunbeam” was introduced with 26inch wheels and an 11inch
The same year saw the introduction of
the Sunbeam dismounting clutch.
|More changes occurred at the end of
1927 when Nobel Industries joined forces with several other
chemical companies to form Imperial Chemical Industries.
Production continued at Wolverhampton
but it was now difficult to sell the expensive quality
machines in the face of fierce competition from other
A Lady's Golden Sunbeam, on display outside the National Cycle
Collection at Llandrindod Wells.
||By 1928 there were many cycling clubs
with enthusiastic riders and to cater for this market
Sunbeam introduced the “R.R. Sporting Sunbeam”.
In 1930 the 'Royal' sold for 12
guineas and the 'Golden' sold for 16 guineas. Price
reductions in the following year brought the price of the
'Royal' down to 10 guineas.
In 1935 ICI decided
to dispose of the cycle and motorcycle side of the business.
Profits were very low and a lot of investment would be
needed to update the old methods of production that were
still in use.
In 1937 the cycle
and motorcycle business was purchased by Associated
motorcycles, who moved manufacturing to their works at
Plumstead in North London.
Luckily for the
workforce ICI retained the works and concentrated on the
production of car radiators.
This turn of the
century poster was sold at Christies, South Kensington, in
October 2001. The spectators are watching a bicycle
race, though it does not look like Molineux. Picture
copyright, Christies Images 2001, by courtesy of Christie's
George Peck's Memories
||Look at the 1936
models from the Sunbeam catalogue
If you are interested in Sunbeam bicycle patents
take a look at
John Ward's excellent Flickr pages.
Cycles and Cycling” by Jim Boulton. Published in 1988 by
Motorcycle” by Robert Cordon Champ. Published in 1980 and
reprinted in 1986 by the Haynes Publishing Group.
Unless otherwise credited, the black and white images are
from various Sunbeam cycle catalogues.
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