Factory methods in the Vintage era



No. 10: Armstrong Siddeley

The Armstrong Siddeley has gone out of production but a plentiful supply of post-war examples, mostly Sapphire models, are still in service. Around the year 1923 Armstrong Siddeley Motors Ltd. was a flourishing concern, its head office and factory in Coventry, its showrooms in Old Bond Street, London, and King Street West, Manchester. It was making the 18-h.p. and 30-h.p. cars, Jaguar radial aero-engines and the Armstrong Whitworth Siskin fighters powered by these engines. Armstrong Siddeley was then allied to Sir A. G. Armstrong Whitworth Ltd., from whom they obtained their supplies of steel, although this did not prevent them from testing every consignment for quality and tensile strength.

The factory at Parkside, Coventry, covered 25 acres of ground in 1923 and employed 3,000 people. The machine shops, with the machine tools driven by belts from overhead shafting, were known as the Lower, Middle and Top shop. Here, 17 operations were performed on each crankshaft, after which it was set up on a balancing machine and expected to be no more out of balance than could be cured by weighting it with a 1/2-oz. lump of Plasticine. In fact, this balancing check was known as “The Plasticine Test.”

Each crankcase underwent 28 different machining operations, in contrast to the ring casing for the Jaguar radial aero-engine, which was in the Parkside shops for a month, undergoing 36 separate and delicate machining operations. Careful inspection of completed parts was undertaken and there used to be a legend to the effect that it was easier for a 5-ton lorry to garage itself in the scullery of a semi-detached villa than for a defective unit of an Armstrong Siddeley car to enter its chassis after the Chief Inspectors had done their work. Gauges checked working tolerances to a 10,000th part of an inch.

Bodies were made in the works of the Burlington Carriage Company, a subsidiary organisation whose works adjoined those of the parent company. Here, coachbuilt bodies were constructed on the jig system from English ash and oak, no foreign timber being used. Twenty different types of body were built. The finished bodies were first coated with red lead and then given six coats of filling. After this the surfaces were rubbed down until no red patches were visible, after which a light coat of grey facing matter was applied. Next, a day was spent applying stopping to the joints and facing the surfaces with a fine brick to get absolute smoothness. It was only then that the paint was applied, four coats being the minimum. Spray painting had been adopted, as being equally as effective as brush-painting but occupying one-eighth of the time. A coat of hard-drying varnish followed, was rubbed down all over with cuttlefish and pumice-stone, and then a final coat of hard-drying varnish was put on. Some colours called for even more care.

The body war then upholstered, in all-wool or real buffalo hide leather, all cloth used being lined with wadding and calico to obviate the horsehair used for padding from coming through. The seats were built up on Buoyant “springs sunk on springs ” and the silk tapestries of the Pullman bodies fitted. The output of Armstrong Siddeley cars at this time was claimed to be at the average rate of 60 a week.

The makers presumably based their statement “You cannot Buy a Better Car” on the list of eminent people, headed by H.R.H. the Duke of York, K.G., who ordered them, and on the fact that an 18-h.p. Armstrong Siddeley tourer had been run continuously, day arid night, Sundays excepted, under R.A.C. observation, and had completed 10,000 miles in 23 days carrying three people; at 24.64 m.p.g. of petrol and 13,347 m.p.g. of oil, while a 30-h.p. interior-drive limousine had completed 15,000 miles in 34 days, similarly observed, at 21.2 m.p.g. of fuel and 6,667 m.p.g. of lubricant, as recorded in the Armstrong Siddeley history published in the issues of Motor Sport dated November and December 1958. – W. B.


Vintage postbag



Having owned examples of both the Alvis 12/50 and Firefly, I don’t consider the latter really deserves the hard words bestowed on it in Vintage Notes in the March issue, which I read with great interest.

In many ways the Firefly was a better car than the 12/50. The engine was quieter, smoother, proportionately slightly more powerful, had a stronger crank and a shorter stroke, and didn’t suffer from pinch-bolt trouble in the little-ends, as did the 12/50. The gearbox was nicer, the transmission less prone to judder, and although the road-holding of the 12/50 was very good, that of the Firefly was even better.

You claim that the earlier Speed 20 was in the Vintage tradition, but the earlier Firefly was virtually a Speed 20 minus two pots. Unfortunately, the chassis and other parts were not scaled down to suit, with the result that the Firefly was much too heavy and took a long time to get wound up. I know of one Firefly that was subjected to drastic weight reduction, resulting in vastly improved performance, comparable even to the average Speed 20.

The bodywork may have been slightly inferior in quality to that of the vintage 12/50, but it was pretty solid all the same, as I found out when I had to break one up. The blame really lies with the body designs then current. The lack of compactness, over-heavy doors and chassis, enveloping features of the post-vintage bodies made them more vulnerable in many ways, and much more difficult and expensive to keep in repair.

Nevertheless, in spite of all its drawbacks, I think the Firefly deserves its p.v.t. ranking.

Leamington Spa. – R. P. Gilbert.



Your article “Thoughts about P.V.T.” prompts me to write to you not to disagree with your idea of a general discussion of the p.v.t. ruling, but to disagree strongly with your remarks about a marque with which I am familiar – Riley. There will be many who rush to defend their favourites from your often disparaging remarks, but in this case pause to consider your error.

You write “if any post-1930 Riley is a thoroughbred . . .” May I commend the Riley M.P.H., Imp and Sprite to you, models which are beyond doubt thoroughbreds. I specifically mention these three as I have owned both an Imp and an M.P.H., and I have seldom been so impressed with the original engineering thought, long-lasting qualities of coachwork and machinery, beautiful lines, etc. The similarity in lines to the Zagato-bodied Alfa Romeos can certainly be no criticism as they are acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful ever produced.

My M.P.H. (Reg. No. BLN 39) was car No. 10 of only 12 produced (I was assured of this by Mr. Stanley Burville, a noted Riley expert, whose untimely death was recorded in the last issue of Motor Sport; he will be greatly missed by all lovers of Riley cars). For high-speed touring, delightful handling, braking (16-in. elektron-backed drums as standard) and acceleration, it is hard to find an equal for this model in vintage or p.v.t. years. My car had the original 12-h.p., 1,500-c.c., 6-cylinder engine and would reach 90 m.p.h. with formidable acceleration, thanks to the preselector gearbox. Utterly reliable, she several times completed more than 500 miles in 24 hours to compete in V.S.C.C. fixtures. Is this car not a thoroughbred?

The Riley Imp which I owned prior to the M.P.H. was also a beautifully engineered little sports car, of equally pleasing appearance, some 10 in. shorter in the bonnet and without the shapely tail of the M.P.H., although just as reliable. Unfortunately performance was not up to the M.P.H.’s standard, the engines of both cars being in original unmodified form. I also own a half share in a modified 1931 Riley Nine, which car is in the vintage sports tradition, and I am extremely glad that its being p.v.t. ensures its preservation and participation in events.

Whereas Mr. Pomeroy may have criticised Riley cars in 1937, I hope that by now he has undergone a change of heart. If not I can arrange for him to inspect the M.P.H. and would be most interested in his comments. Must one recall the “White Riley” of Mr. Raymond Mays and the fantastic achievements of the Riley 6-cylinder engine in modified form, not to mention the p.v.t. Brooklands, Adelphi, lovable Monaco, etc. I am completely unaware as to the relevance of “Buzz Box” and “Anglo-American bastard” to any real Riley car.

In conclusion, I would mention that as a V.S.C.C. Club member I consider your remarks on the Club’s finances misleading and highly irrelevant. You will perhaps be surprised to know that several times the Club has refunded to me the entrance money for race meetings at which I competed; I have every confidence in the financial soundness of the Club, which, together with Motor Sport, represents the finest value in the sphere of motoring.

Stockholm, Sweden. – Christopher Mann.