What a very British story!
William George Armstrong, a grammar school boy, son of a Mayor, who having pondered the inefficiency of a waterwheel he’d seen whilst fishing in the Pennine Hills, became interested in engineering at a young age.
By 1837 he’d founded the Elwick works, to manufacture cranes, bridges and artillery pieces. By 1902, the company, now Armstrong Whitworth, after merging with Joseph Whitworth engineering, began to make cars and trucks...and aircraft engines! AW’s first car was noted as being “...remarkably silent and smooth running”. Shortly thereafter, AW motor cars carried a bonnet mascot of a Sphynx, their advertising copy included the line ‘Silent as the Sphynx’
In 1919, Siddeley Deasy, who made the very best ( and very expensive ) motor cars for the aristocracy, merged with AS to become Armstrong Siddeley.
Soon enough, motor car manufacture became the little brother in a huge concern, turning out ships, warplanes, civil aircraft, industrial machines, railway locomotives and weapons.
Armstrong Siddeley Motors continued to produce upper market cars throughout the inter war period, and by the mid 30’s had merged with Tommy Sopwith’s Hawker Aircraft concern and became part of Hawker Siddeley, makers of the famous Battle of Britain fighter, the Hurricane. Armstrong Siddeley brought with it it’s previous acquisition of AVRO aircraft, makers of the Lancaster bomber of WWII fame.
In keeping with their upper market position, Armstrong Siddeley had partnered with the makers of the Wilson Preselector gearbox, a predecessor of the automatic gearbox. ( With the ease of driving brought about by the Wilson box and their well respected position in the more expensive market sector, they even started using the tagline, “Cars for the daughters of gentlemen”
During the war, AS were committed to the war effort, making aircraft radial engines, but as the war ended, AS launched a new range or cars, all named after wartime aircraft, including the Hurricane drophead coupe and Lancaster saloon!...things were changing though. Behind the scenes of all this overt engineering output, AS had been working on gas turbines, or jet engines, as early as 1939. By the time the company decided to develop what was to become their last motor cars, the Sapphire series, the writing was already on the wall, the board saw the future and decided to kill off AS Motors and concentrate on the jet engines. Was it the right thing to do? who can say, but certainly the company was in good fettle when it merged with Bristol Aircraft engines, then Rolls Royce Engines. The Siddeley name lived on for a while in Hawker Siddeley aircraft before they too where absorbed into what finally became BAE Systems, a company with over 85000 employees and a turnover of nearly £20billion a year!
The Last cars, the Sapphires.
Replacing the immediate post war cars, the Sapphire series included the 346 Sapphire, a high quality luxury motor car, aimed directly at buyers who might otherwise go for a Bentley. It was a great success and sold nearly 8000 cars between 1952 and 1958, many abroad as part of Britain’s ‘Export or Die’ drive as the country, broken by war, struggled to get the economy back on its feet. As the 346 Sapphire sold well, AS poured resources into a new car, a no compromises machine, which whilst still designed to appear dignified needed to sell to an unadventurous British gentlemen buyer ...it was nonetheless astonishingly modern under the skin. With an automatic gearbox, independent front suspension, power steering, hydraulic servo assisted brakes ( withs disc on the front!) and refinements such as a heater under the rear seat, the car was enough of a Star to command a price of nearly £2500 in 1959, the same as the average price of a house in the UK! The Star also demonstrated what were for the time, exceptional road manners for such a car, which significantly better than expected handling and perhaps most importantly, 150hp from it’s modern 6 cylinder 4 liter twin carburettor engine. A manual gearbox Star could just top a 100mph!
Sadly, the last Star rolled off the production line in 1960. How many are left is debatable, but many were fortunately exported to New Zealand and Australia where the kinder, drier weather has preserved a good number. Of the mere 970 built, maybe 30 are still being used in the UK.
URD 158..a journey in itself!
So, there I was, at the Beaulieu International Autojumble in 2014. It’s a kind of Woodstock for middle aged men with a classic car problem, 2400 stands and over 35000 visitors to the fields surrounding the fabulous national treasure that is the home of Baron Ralph Douglas-Scott-Montagu and most importantly of all, the National Motor Museum. I was with a pal, and really wasn’t looking for another project, but there was a space in the garage...and that...is fatal! I saw URD 158 sat on a trailer looking fairly forlorn and sad, but essentially complete. I didn’t know much about them and walked on by. On the Sunday, it was still there, maybe I’d had too good a lunch, but I was feeling reckless and a deal was done to have the car delivered to my home, 400 miles away. When it got to me, it wouldn’t start and had to be towed in to the shed. So, the mechanical fuel pump was broken, easy fixed. The bigger issue was the outer sills of the body ( The real strength of the car is in the chassis, but the body has it’s own ‘chassis rails’ hidden behind the rusty sills ) ...Oh dear...what a mistake I’d made, a week later I went to cut away the sill only to discover to my horror the inner body chassis rails had all but turned to dust! Someone had welded a second skin over them at some point and I wasn’t familiar enough with the car to spot what had been done. Well, anyway, to cut a very long story short, I had a lot of welding to do. It’s taken three years and there’s still things to do, but, with my long suffering wife Tina, we’ve returned the car to structural health, got the motor running sweetly, fixed the heaters, most of the broken dials, recoloured the interior and repainted the just lower half of the exterior. The doors were rotten and required quite a lot of new metal and all the window winders were jammed. The brakes were completely rebuilt. I eventually replaced the fuel pump with a more reliable electric one!
URD 158 was supplied by coach builders Vincents of Reading, a town in the south of England. Incredibly, URD 153 and URD 154 , also Star Sapphires supplied by Vincents are still on the road today.