Siddeley Special Safari
The preface to this study of motoring white-elephantitis was published last month, so I can embark without further palaver to tell of a safari I went on recently in an exotic specimen of the breed, in the form of a well-preserved Siddeley Special.
The car in question has been owned for the past five years by Mr. D. W. Brown, B.Sc., of Epsom; prior to that he drove a Singer Nine, so he has had the experience of contrast. Why did Mr. Brown embark on white-elephantism? Because, when he sought to rid himself of his rather rickety Singer he could afford either a worn-out, used small car of the immediate post-war period or an earlier, real, motor car. He wisely invested in the latter.
It is a short-chassis (no joke implied — the Siddeley Special came in three wheelbase-lengths and this is the shortest, measuring 11 feet) close-coupled four-door Burlington sports saloon, the lines of which are extremely well balanced. The painted vee-radiator with plated beading, behind high-mounted Lucas P.100 headlamps, gives the car a fine air of dignity. Here may I digress to remark that I do not think post-war luxury cars, with their comparatively short bonnets, possess anything like the dignity of their pre-Hitler forebears. In those days the engine capacity of such monsters was some 5 to 7-litres, so they had to have lengthy bonnets. But this gave them a true air of affluence as they glided to a standstill in front of ceremonial red carpets and sun-awninged porches. I know that today long bonnets are thought to promote poor visibility, which may cause driver-fatigue on long journeys at the sports-car speeds modern luxury cars are required to achieve but that they cause danger was firmly refuted by the adroit manner in which Mr. Brown swung his big carriage through narrow traffic-gaps and past close-set obstructions with mere millimetres to spare. And he likes to take care of his car’s wings, for they, like that long broad bonnet, are of aluminium and, although deeply flanged, by nature venerable, being protected from road-stones by wire-mesh underscreens.
This great motor car in which we set out on safari to Coventry in order to meet its designer was first registered in 1938 but is more likely to have been built — built is the word — in 1934/5. Before Mr. Brown caged it, it had apparently been in captivity before, because someone has endowed it with a remarkable 1946 radio set and a crude interior heater. Incidently, it was found in North London, in generally good condition, on which the present owner has improved, relining the brakes, fitting a new silencer, re-treading one of the 19 by 6.50 tyres, etc.
As I settled in the low-set deep leather seat beside the driver I was projected back to an age of less limited leisure, an age of quality and refinement. The Siddeley’s dashboard is of wood, not the highly-veneered facias of today’s expensive and pseudo-expensive cars but an unpolished piece of real walnut, as English as cricket, Ascot and afternoon tea. On it the Smiths speedometer and rev. counter record speeds with clear simplicity, white needles moving sedately in the same plane. Smaller, matching dials give the dynamo charge, water heat, oil-pressure and contents of the 20-gallon petrol reservoir. Electrical switches confront the driver directly, the front-seat passenger is faced by a cubby-hole whose lid matches the dashboard and shuts with precision, minor controls and the preselector gear lever protrude from the steering-wheel boss.
Pondering on the simplicity of this dashboard I realised that this pre-war Siddeley Special is no sluggard. It cruises at 60 m.p.h. with the 5-litre six-cylinder push-rod o.h.v. light-alloy engine turning over at less than 2,500 r.p.m. Mr. Brown has had it up to 85 m.p.h. . . Water temperature sits at about 73 deg. C.; oil pressure, in spite of the sump being filled with 3½ gallons of Viscostatic, read 11-12 lb./ sq. in.
This is a D-batch car. Apparently the hiduminium-engined Siddeley Specials were produced in batches of 25, until about 200 closed models, and a few open tourers, had been made — not 400 as we stated in last year’s Armstrong Siddeley history (Motor Sport, November and December 1958), to which, however, you are respectfully referred for technical details. Mr. Brown’s car has a 4.2 to 1 axle-ratio; early Siddeley Specials were even more restful, being geared at 3.8 to 1.
We cruised ruggedly towards Park Side for lunch with Selwyn Sharp and Jack Hart, our carriage silent save for a sibilant hiss from the twin S.U.s, which are devoid of the original-pancake air-filters. On bends the top-hamper sets up some wallowing, caught easily on the high-geared steering. Brakes? They are Dewandre vacuum-servo self-wrapping Bendix, capable of locking the wheels of this 2 ton 7 cwt. motor carriage in an emergency, not only with the pedal but with the hand lever, which operates also on all four wheels.
This brings us to enquire whether white-elephants are tame and safe for the public to mingle with. Speaking with reference to this particular specimen, it is obvious that it is likely to be done more harm at the hands of the public (in their new L-plated mechanised tin travelling-boxes) than it is ever likely to do to them. What justification? Well, Mr. Brown submitted his car to the Ministry of Transport test-station at Hendon, where the braking system astonished them and the only fault they could find was maladjustment of the near-side P.100, which had been purposely deflected to cope with fog .
Spares problem? Not really, because Vic Peters at Armstrong Siddeley’s Hendon Service Depot has found quite a number of spares for Mr. Brown.
So we bowled in state into the A.S. factory, where a cheerful commissionaire greeted us both by name before even the front window had been lowered (it slides back as well, for those to whom variety is the spice) and waved the handsome Siddeley Special into a reserved bay within.
It was our privilege to lunch with Mr. Fred Allard, who when Sir John Siddeley said “I want a light-alloy car,” set to and evolved the Siddeley Special back in 1932. He recalled how cylinder block and head were done as castings in RR 50, using wet cast-iron cylinder liners sealed at the base by a clever diaphragm which Mr. Allard patented. The connecting-rods were RR 56 stampings, even the cooling fan was of light-alloy, the only ferrous parts of the engine being the 7-bearing crankshaft and the exhaust manifold. The push-rods were of RR 56 dural. Sir John would walk through the factory expressing his firm opinions — Mr. Allard remarked thoughtfully how difficult it was when the boss insisted on retaining a flywheel fan on Armstrong Siddeleys after the radiator had gone forward from the scuttle mounting used on the Siddeley Deasys, it being difficult to get any air flow unless the bonnet was sealed. And he told us that oil leaks were the ultimate crime, in the eyes of a man who wouldn’t allow bumpers to be fitted to his cars, because, he said, Armstrong Siddeley drivers should never make parking or driving errors!
After lunch we repaired to an aerodrome to take the Siddeley Special’s portrait — posing in company with a Star Sapphire and a 1904 one-cylinder Siddeley. When the bonnet was thrown open there was the big hiduminium power unit (125 b.h.p. at 3,200 r.p.m.) in all its glory, an engine of individual lines and clean — Mr. Allard, whose father made Rex motor-cycles when he was a nipper (he is now a young lad of 70) and later the Allard car (no connection with the later Ford-engined Allards), and who went to Swift at the time of the 1913 cyclecar, then joined A.S. in 1926, remarked that it was an engine you could wipe-down easily, without getting the cotton-waste caught up . . . This one is Eng-. No. 174 and has the baffle plate behind the carburetters to prevent an early shortcoming of vapour lock.
I do not know how many others of these fine cars survive but I think I can account for five. They give all the charm that white-elephant lovers crave — granted the qualities of quality, craftsmanship, comfort, stately progression and individuality are found in smaller more practical cars such as Sunbeam, Talbot, Rolls Twenty, etc., but a white-elephant should he BIG — with worthwhile performance into the bargain. The self-change gearbox makes for reasonable acceleration and restful control but the Siddeley’s weight and bulk, the very qualities of this elephant-cult, have to be paid for. On a long run Mr. Brown may get 16 m.p.g. but this decreases all too readily to 11 m.p.g. and a taste of London congestion pulls this down to 8 or 9 m.p.g. No doubt the conservative compression-ratio (5.2 to 1) is to blame but that was as high as Sir John Siddeley would let Mr. Allard go! We drove back to Banbury — full marks to this fascinating old country town for allowing eight-hours free parking between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., which must bring much business to the shops and hotels — and I got back in a-Twin-Cam M.G . . . a different world. . .–W.B.
Postscript: I don’t want to let this elephant-disease get a hold on me but if any readers have specimens which they think I should sample we might, I feel, devote a column to such cars from time to time. — Ed.