The unloved Armstrong-Siddeley that had a feature in common with a car of the future, the Le Mans-winning McLaren F1
Back in 1988 Gordon Murray invited me to become involved with McLaren Cars, building what emerged as the McLaren F1 – the centre-drive three-seat coupé that is now talked about as the ultimate road-cum-racing car for collectors, the mega-valuable Ferrari 250 GTO of future decades.
Gordon’s centre-drive concept became the project’s most jealously guarded secret before the new car’s launch in the Monte Carlo Sporting Club on Monaco GP weekend in May 1992. The night before in the Loews Hotel, Denny Hulme had been pumping me for information about the design. I was able then to turn the tables on him. For donkey’s years he’d habitually stonewalled press questions – now it was my turn.
He rightly predicted the F1 would feature centre drive, but I never knew whether he’d worked that out or it came from some leak. The Bear had been on really good form, tittering away in his characteristic manner like an amused Desperate Dan. But I noticed he ate hardly anything, and drank only water. It was only five months later that he suffered his fatal heart attack in a BMW M3 at Bathurst, and I suspect he was already an ailing man.
There were quite obscure centre-drive production car precedents for the F1 – including the Wimille and so on – but in a long-forgotten photo file the other day I found another. May I commend posterity to the 1922 prototype Armstrong-Siddeley Stoneleigh. I kid you not, Armstrong-Siddeley, hardly a marque I would ever have considered as a McLaren F1 ancestor but so – at least in terms of seating layout – it proves to be.
Marque historian Bill Smith writes most entertainingly, and in his book Armstrong-Siddeley Motors he relates how the Stoneleigh Motor Company was a subisidiary of Armstrong-Siddeley, and how they had toyed with development of the BSA Light Car, under their own name, before World War I. The recession of the early 1920s subsequently convinced J D Siddeley that there should be a market for an inexpensive competitor to the Austin, Morris and Bean basic models. He promoted his original 9hp Stoneleigh as a utility, with centred driver’s seat and a wrap-around upholstered rear shelf for two passengers, their legs each side of the driver à la future McLaren F1. His catalogue explained “In this way the driver’s attention will not be distracted by nervous or talkative passengers.”
Smith relates how Ernest Siddeley fell quiet on being shown the new model for the first time, before asking “Is that the thing with which the Old Man is going to revolutionise the car world?” Among employees more accustomed to building quality cars for the rich and famous, its factory nickname became “The wash-tub” while outsiders lampooned Siddeley as “The man who made walking a pleasure…”
His utility light car was offered with a wooden chassis frame, aluminium bodywork and a dummy radiator up front, behind which nestled an air-cooled 998cc vee-twin engine. Kerb weight was little more than half a ton. The van versions proved prone to breaking their backs if overloaded, but a pair of Stoneleighs won their class in the 1922 Scottish Six-Day Trial (and one competed against a Rover 8 in ascending Snowdon).
But I believe these were offset-driver four-seaters. They were, rather oddly, advertised as ‘Motor Cars for Civil Servants’ – the Stoneleigh ‘9hp Chummy Model’ priced at £165 while its three-seater alternative cost £155. Commercially the programme flopped.
It appears there were no takers for the centre-seater and only 364 9hp Stoneleighs sold overall.
Failure it might have been – but this forgotten pioneer still outsold its latter-day centre-seat successor, the McLaren F1.