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Pictures from the Heritage Archives

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Monte Carlo Rally – Part two.

Persuasion, Preparation, Perspiration.

Despite the successes of the 1931 entry it would be some 21 years before Armstrong Siddeley cars would again feature in the rally.

Shortly after the introduction of the all new Sapphire 346, Ron Lancaster of Pass & Joyce, the main Distributor of Armstrong Siddeley cars for the London region, persuaded Mike Couper, their North London area agent based in St Albans, to take up the challenge and to enter the 1954 Monte Carlo Rally. Mike Couper being an enthusiastic motor sports and rally entrant was no stranger to the Monte Carlo Rally having taken part in all six held since 1939.

The Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 346 selected for the task was a four light model fitted with synchromesh gearbox and the factory option twin carburettors. At Mike’s request a change of pistons raised the compression ratio to 8.1 and with a little attention to the cam profile this squeezed another 33 horses under the bonnet making the total 183. Headlamp wipers were constructed and the fog lights mounted on extending arms. Modifications were made to chassis and steering. The passenger seat reclined to provide a sleeping area, the rear section of which could be curtained off. Other later preparations included sand boxes, swivelling spot light fitted inside the car, flashing semaphore turning signal arms and strategic use of reflective tape. Hub caps and rear wheel spats were kept in soft bags in the boot of the car. This aided wheel changing which was practiced and gave a best claimed time for changing two rear wheels of 3 minutes and five seconds. Choice of tyre was Michelin X and two spares were carried.

Mike insisted that the next step was to make a trip to check out the published special sections of the course, to see how the car performed, and thus familiarise himself with both. To achieve this, while the rally car was being made ready, he was allocated the use of an identical car. The reconnaissance went well and after a week of driving the team returned having calculated the distance covered as 1,813 miles and a fuel consumption of 19.32 mpg.

The entry fee being paid the Rally number 234 was issued for Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 346, registration RAR 700 and listed the team as - Driver Mike Couper, Co Drivers, Peter Tabor and Nevil Lloyd Leslie Seyd.

Picture of the car as shown to press and public over 7th to 9th January 1954

At this point the old tale of waiting upon buses comes to mind.

Born in Australia Donald Bennet joined the RAAF in 1930 and at outbreak of war joined the RAF flying Whitley aircraft out of RAF Leeming. Briefly, he earned several decorations and was promoted to Air vice Marshall, the youngest officer ever to hold that rank. Post war he became a director of an airline, an MP and designed and built aircraft and cars. In the autumn of 1953 he was driving an Armstrong Siddeley, four light Sapphire 346 and decided with his wife Elsa as navigator to enter the 1954 Monte Carlo Rally. So now after all these years we have two Armstrong Siddeleys taking part.

The 24thRallye Automobile de Monte-Carlo 1954 commenced from six different starting points in Europe on the afternoon of 18th January. There were 363 entrants who made it to the start line. Mike Couper joined 74 others in Blythswood Square, Glasgow, while Donald Bennet was one of 55 setting off from Lisbon. His car registration was UPB 229 and his rally number 437.

Picture of Couper car boarding the Dover to Boulogne car ferry.

The Cooper car coming into Paris Control with the Arch de Triomphe in the background.

The fact that 329 of the 363 teams who started arrived at Monte Carlo tells its own story. Although still a challenging run the unseasonal mild weather bringing heavy rain and strong winds rather than snow and ice played its part.

Both Armstrong Siddeley competitors arrived at Monte Carlo in the first 100. As the number completing the course was so large only the first 103 arrivals were entered for the final section of the event, the Monaco two mile speed section. Both cars were eligible but unfortunately the starter on the Bennet car chose to pack up and consequently he was disqualified.

Mike Couper completed the course successfully and gained the position of 82nd overall. However he also secured two awards. Best equipped car for road safety, and best equipped car placed highest in the rally.

Co drivers Peter Tabor and Leslie Seyd chose to return home by air to keep appointments. The twin engine plane in which they were flying ‘lost’ an engine which resulted in a bit of a scare as it had to make a forced landing near Paris. Mike’s wife joined him in Monaco and after the dinner which closed the event they drove home together. Though never having previously driven the car Mike persuaded her to drive so that he could catch up on lost sleep. Very quickly she felt confident with the car, which was good, as the mild spell passed and it started to snow quite heavily. Perhaps an omen of what the weather would be in 1955 for the next Monte Carlo Rally.


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