A brief history of John Davenport Siddeley and his cars.
Armstrong Siddeley cars were made from 1919 until 1960. They are generally thought of as being interesting, perhaps a little staid, of good quality - and didn't they have unusual gear boxes?
The truth is endlessly fascinating, a story of a car company that was often at the cutting edge of automotive technology. There are not so many of the cars left now, but they still cut a dash on the open road or on display at car shows.
For their owners the chief pleasure is derived from driving a well engineered, comfortable and individual automobile.
Part one, how Armstrong Siddeley came into existence.
The founder of the company was John Davenport Siddeley, born in 1866. As an adult in late Victorian times he was a keen cyclist working for the Humber Cycle Company. He worked as a draughtsman but also managed their racing department. In 1893 he joined the Pneumatic Tyre company, which 5 years later became the Dunlop Tyre Company, which was when Siddeley left and set up the rival Clipper Tyre Company (now the Continental Tyre Company).
Siddeley was at heart an engineering entrepreneur, and realised that a good product was not enough by itself, it needed promoting in the public eye. In 1898 he arranged for a well known racing cyclist to ride a Humber bicycle fitted with Clipper tyres from Lands End to John O'Groats and ensured that the run achieved maximum publicity.
When he started making car tyres he arranged for two British made Daimlers on Clipper tyres to enter a 1000 mile reliability trial. He drove one of them and the Hon. John Scott Montagu drove the other, and Siddeley's car completed the entire event without any punctures. This was excellent publicity, and would certainly have drawn the attention of the other entrants that included C.S.Rolls and S.F Edge.
This event turned John Siddeley into an enthusiastic motorist. In 1901 he won a trophy driving a Daimler in the Spion Kop Hill Climb, but more importantly he realised the enormous commercial potential of car manufacturing. So in 1902 he started Siddeley Autocars, importing Peugeot mechanical parts and clothing them in his own British built car bodies.
By 1904 he was designing his own mechanical components, which were made by the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company Ltd and assembled by Vickers Son and Maxim in Crayford, and these Siddeley Autocars really marked the beginning of a great car maker.
In 1905 Siddeley Autocars amalgamated with Wolseley to form the Wolseley Siddeley marque. John Siddeley was the sales manager and Herbert Austin was the works manager. The merger was not entirely smooth, Wolseley cars used horizontal engines, whereas Siddeley cars had vertical engines. Herbert Austin resigned in 1906 (and is thought to have later started his own car company), and Siddeley took over as works manager.
Two years later he resigned from Wolseley and joined the Deasy Motor Car Manufacturing Company. Ironically Wolseley initially retained Siddeley's name, while he worked for the Deasy company from which Captain Deasy had already resigned.
During this period some Deasy cars were marketed as JDS-Type Deasys, but after some legal wrangling Wolseley dropped Siddeley's name, which he promptly added to Deasy to make Siddeley-Deasy cars. A wide range of cars was produced during this period with design influences drawn from Wolseley and Deasy as well as from Siddeley's hand.
Likewise engines were sourced from various makers. In 1912 a journalist reviewed a Siddeley-Deasy fitted with a Silent Knight sleeve valve engine, describing it as being "as silent and inscrutable as the sphinx". John Siddeley liked the phrase and adopted the sphinx as both mascot and logo for his cars from then on. The sphinx mascot was nothing if not active, initially portrayed sitting down until around 1931 when it was produced lying down.
After the second world war the sphinx was first produced in a stylised Art Deco form, but in1952 it sprouted winglets with 2 miniature Sapphire jet engines on the car of the same name, before finally reverting to its lying down position on the last Armstrong Siddeley model produced, the Star Sapphire.
Although the early model range lacked uniformity it was united with an aura of quality which Siddeley continually strived to achieve.
In 1912 he decided to enter the market for more economical vehicles, but rather than risk reducing the reputation of the Siddeley name he called these vehicles Stoneleighs. This turned out to be a wise move as Stoneleigh cars and commercial vehicles were never particularly successful, and the last Stoneleigh produced, a 9hp light car was soundly beaten in the market place by Herbert Austin's 7hp car. There are no known surviving Stoneleigh commercial vehicles and only three of the 9hp cars known to exist.
During WW1 Siddeley- Deasy turned largely to the production of air frames and aero engines. The workforce increased tenfold from 500 to 5000 and from then on avionics were the mainstay of John Siddeley's companies, with his name living on today while there are still Hawker-Siddeleys flying.
Part two, the cars from 1919 - 1960.
In 1919 Siddeley Deasy became part of Armstrong Whitworth. The Armstrong Whitworth Development Company emerged which concentrated on avionics, and although John Siddeley was heavily involved with this company he did not get a seat on the board for some years.
Another product of the merger was Armstrong Siddeley Motors Limited with Siddeley the managing director. The first new car released, in 1919, was a 30 hp with a 5 litre engine. This was a car for the aristocracy and the upper echelons of the carriage trade. Having the Duke of York (later King George VI) as a customer was a sound endorsement of both the car and the marque.
An 18hp model was introduced in 1921, and in 1923 a 14hp model. Armstrong Siddeley regarded the 14hp as a small car although almost everyone else thought it was at least medium sized, but either way it sold very well indeed with over14,000 leaving the factory. Its reputation for rugged construction ensured that many were exported.
In 1925 all three models were improved in mark 2 versions, in 1927 a 15hp model was added to the range, and in 1928 the range was further expanded to include a 12hp model. Although this may seem like a sensible range of 5 models, in fact it was vast.
Armstrong Siddeley owned the Burlington Carriage Company and they produced a choice of bodies for all the company's models., but customers could also elect to have coachwork made by any other coachbuilder.
In 1928 the Wilson-Epicyclical gearbox was introduced as an option on the 30hp & 18hp models and it was soon available throughout the model range. It rapidly became the transmission favoured by most customers. This semi-automatic gearbox, often called a pre-selector gearbox, enables the driver to choose his next gear at any time, but it is not engaged until the 'clutch' pedal is depressed, at which time the chosen gear is automatically engaged without the risk of grating gears or sudden variations in speed. Although chiefly used on Armstrong Siddeleys it was also used on tanks, buses, Daimlers, Rileys and even some ERA and other racing cars.
It is a strong and reliable system and continues in trouble free use on the majority of Armstrong Siddeleys today.
In 1928 the 18hp was replaced by a 20hp which was further improved in 1932, and three short chassis versions with Wilson gearboxes were entered in the 1932 Alpine trial. They all won Glacier Cups, perhaps Armstrong Siddeley's staid reputation was a little unfair.
1932 marked the introduction of what many people consider to be Armstrong Siddeley's finest model, the Siddeley Special. It was a replacement for the 30hp, but a generation apart. It was powered by a new 5 litre engine with a Hiduminium (a lightweight aluminium alloy developed for aircraft engines) block. This engine gave a very respectable performance, with 100mph said to be possible if a light touring body was fitted. Coachbuilders made a variety of different styles of body, and these expensive cars were the epitome of quality, luxury and performance at the time. Sadly of the 253 Specials produced only 22 remain because most of the cars were given up during WW2 as the alloy of their engines and some body parts were sought for the war effort.
Various new models and modifications of existing models were introduced during the 1930s, with an all new 16hp introduced in 1938 being the last innovation before the onset of war, but by this time John Siddeley was no longer chairman of the board. In 1935 he was 69 years old, and the world was rapidly changing. Siddeley had decided that his sons were not the men to take the helm, and both Armstrong Siddeley Motors (cars) and the Armstrong Siddeley Development Company (avionics) were sold to Hawker Aviation which was chaired by Tom Sopwith. Some of the financial aspects of this takeover were perhaps a little murky as Tom Sopwith was said not to have the £2,000,000 which was paid. Suffice it to say Tom Sopwith produced many Hawker Hurricane aircraft ready for the onset of war, while the War Department dithered over placing orders, and John Siddeley used much of his reputed £1,000,000 share of the deal on charitable works, including the purchase of Kenilworth Castle, which he gave to the nation. The results of an Inland Revenue investigation of the take-over are not due to be made public until 2047, at which time this history may need to be updated.
During WW2 Armstrong Siddeley was devoted entirely to war work, with commercial work being forbidden until the cessation of hostilities. It was therefore something of a surprise when the company was the first British car maker to announce the introduction of an all new model, in May 1945, and the first 12 cars were delivered in December of that year.
The new car was the 16hp, available as a four seat, 2 door drop-head Hurricane, or 4 door fixed head Lancaster, with Typhoon and Whitley models becoming available later on. During the production run the 16hp engine, which was basically a pre-war design, was enlarged from 2.0 litre to 2,3 litre. These cars were designed for the well heeled owner driver. The large luxury chauffeur driven cars of the 1930s had little place in an austere post war society and so for eight years the 16/18hp cars were the only models made by Armstrong Siddeley.
In 1952 they introduced the 346 Sapphire which reflected the company's belief that austerity was easing. This larger 3.4 litre car had more luxury, it was built by craftsmen and aimed at the professional classes, as well as the carriage trade, and had enough dignity to be chauffeur driven without looking silly. Its performance was good, and its quality beyond question, but the competition from the likes of Bentley, Jaguar and Rover was good too. The market for cars like the Sapphire was diminishing.
In 1955 the smaller 234 and 236 Sapphires were introduced. These cars had little in common with the big 346 Sapphire, they had the most modern body design that the company could come up with, but it lacked elegance, and although the performance was certainly good these "baby" Sapphires were not a commercial success.
Armstrong Siddeley was losing its place in the market because it just did not have a model that equalled the competition. An entirely new model was being prepared which would have probably fitted in between the latest Alvises and Bentleys, but the money to continue the development was difficult to justify because Armstrong Siddeley cars were returning low profits and the aviation side of the business needed ever larger development budgets. As a stop gap the Star Sapphire was introduced in 1958. It was a modernised version of the 346 Sapphire, lower, sleeker and faster with a 4.0 litre engine. It was a very good car indeed but suited to a small niche market. In the end it was all too late, the accountants stepped in and car production was stopped dead in 1960.
The aviation side of the business continued through various government induced crises, and the Ansty factory outside Coventry where aircraft engines were made still makes aircraft engines, but now in the hands of Rolls-Royce. The car making Parkside factory in Coventry has been demolished and a technology park now occupies the space, and just a little way away there is a large site where Peugeots sit awaiting distribution to dealers.
The great thing about surviving Armstrong Siddeley cars is that there is a model for just about any veteran/vintage/classic car enthusiast, and mostly at very reasonable prices. Siddeleys take part in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run each year.
Pre WW2 cars often come up for sale, ranging from little 12hp cars to ponderous carriages. All of the post war cars can be found, although the sought after Star Sapphires are less common as not many were produced. If you cannot find what you want on the open market then join the club where many cars change hands without ever being advertised outside. They are not difficult cars to maintain and the availability of spare parts for post war cars is excellent as the Armstrong Siddeley Owners' Club operates an impressive stores that is owned by the members so that prices are kept at reasonable levels.