Veteran Edwardian Vintage, October 1980


Talking with Ernest Siddeley

MR. ERNEST Siddeley, younger son of Sir John Davenport Siddeley (later the Rt. Hon. Lord Kenilworth OBE, FRAeS), talked to me the other day about Armstrong Siddeley Motors of Coventry, which made fine motor-cars, “to aero-engine standards”, from 1919 to 1960. The first of these cars was the massive 30 h.p. model, which was based on the American car of Howard Marmon, as detailed in the history of the make which I wrote for MOTOR SPORT in 1958 (November and December issues). It was this car that established the Armstrong Siddeley tradition of pointed radiators and its deep chassis side-members, etc. were copied from those of the Marmon. The Armstrong Siddeley Thirty had a six-cylinder push-rod o.h.v. power unit, with the cylinder blocks in three pairs. It was designed by F. R. Smith, who had been Napier’s Chief Engineer. He stayed with Armstrong Siddeley to design their Puma aero-engine, etc. Miles Thomas (later Baron Thomas of Remingham) is recalled as the first motoring writer, when he was working for The Motor, to be allowed to road test the Thirty. This model was soon being produced at the Parkside factory in Coventry, at the rate of about 20 a week and was, of course, a car favoured by HRH The Duke of York. Ernest Siddeley remembers the Duke taking a trial run at Cambridge on a test chassis, with wooden box for a seat! There was an occasion when the Duke was extremely angry, being displeased with the car, so Ernest Siddeley, who from flying Maurice Farman short and long-horns in the RFC in 1915, had returned from the war to assist his father on the engineering side of the Company (his elder brother, the Hon. Cyril Siddeley, looked after sales) went post-haste to Chesterfield House, to discuss with Wood, the Duke’s Personal chauffeur (who used to race motorcycles entered by the Duke at Brooklands) what the trouble was. It turned out that HRH could not reach the car’s accelerator pedal! Mr. Siddeley, using an adjustable spanner that Lucas had given away as a Christmas present, put that right on the spot and, from raging at the car, the Duke came out to try it again, and was delighted.

When front-wheel-brakes were deemed desirable for 1924, a Perrot installation was devised, which Sir John Siddeley tested on the Continent. Incidentally, Sir John Siddeley was a true pioneer. He had driven a 6 h.p. Daimler in the 1,000 Mile Trial of 1900, built his first Siddeley car in 1903, and was responsible for the Wolseley-Siddeley, and the Siddeley-Deasy after that Company had fused with Armstrong-Whitworth. They used to buy the sleeve-valve engines from the Daimler’s but made their own Lanchester-type worm-drive back axles.

When Armstrong Siddeley adopted the Wilson self-change gearbox, this was first tested in a Thirty chassis. Daimler decided on the fluid flywheel in 1930 and Percy Martin asked if he could borrow an Armstrong Siddeley Thirty for three days, when they were experimenting with it. Sir John Siddeley was happy to comply, telling him to keep the car as long as he wanted it—these gentlemen lived opposite one another in Kenilworth at the time and were close friends. Percy Martin said three days should be sufficient and enquired when Sir John Siddeley would be returning from London. He was told by which train and said he would meet it, with the borrowed Thirty. Having put Sir John Siddeley in it he drove the car into the wall at Coventry Station — it had been fitted with a fluid flywheel and this was Percy Martin’s way of demonstrating it! So the first practical fluid flywheel in conjunction with the Wilson box was tested, not on a Daimler, but on an Armstrong Siddeley. Armstrong’s never cared much for this but they were later to use the Newton centrifugal clutch with their famed self-change gearbox, to enable the engine to idle with first gear engaged. Ernest Siddeley recalls that the adoption of the Wilson box was a quick decision on his father’s part. around 1928/29; he was in London at that time but, as the works manager had died suddenly, was told “to return to Coventry tomorrow” to deal with this development, and as he was also required to build torpedo engines for the Admiralty, this was a busy period for him. Incidentally, apart from the Wilson box being used for racing, by ERA, MG, Connaught, and HWM and by Sir Malcolm Campbell for the rebuilt V12 4-litre Sunbeams and Whitney Straight for his Maseratis, AS sent boxes to Auto-Union (who never raced them, however) and even Ettore Bugatti sent them a car for such conversion. Around 1935 a man called Lewis begged to show them a Lanchester Ten on which he had contrived automatic selection of the gears of a Wilson box, by coupling the lever to the pedal, which was adopted later by London Transport for their ‘buses.

When the first self-change Armstrong Siddeley was being tested an inadvertent change into reverse gear sheared the nose-piece off the back axle. The car was towed in and the next day Walter Wilson came up to Coventry to look into the problem. He solved it by moving the control of the brake bands to the other side of the epicyclic box, so that it had an unlapping, instead of a wind-up, action. K. Lee Guinness, who was an Armstrong Siddeley Director, asked about this when going out in a Thirty but it was shown to him, by changing immediately into reverse, that there was no problem. On another occasion, when Ernest Siddeley and his wife were on the Continent testing a car, the self-change box jammed in top gear at the gates of a level-crossing near Paris. Mr. Siddeley knew Mr. Ainsworth of the Hotchkiss factory, and they drove into St. Denis on the starter, to the nearby Hotchkiss works. Next day Walter Wilson’s son Gordon came out and found that a pin had broken off, jamming the box; a pleasant week was spent in Paris while a new spindle was machined and fitted! Thus were the early difficulties of this “fool-proof” transmission eradicated…

Ernest Siddeley, as Engineering Director of the Company, did a considerable amount of test-driving on the Continent. He liked to drive across France, trying to reach Biarritz in a day, after crossing on the night boat, and he would cover 2,000 miles or so in the week, often taking his wife with him and contriving to return by the opposite route, if it were the week of Le Mans, in order to watch the race. One such test-run they had got as far as Bordeaux when a terrible noise developed in the engine of the Seventeen he was driving.

The pistons were suspected, so oil was inserted into the cylinders (as had once cured scuffing problems when starting up a Panther aero-engine), but to no avail. So the car was driven to an hotel. During the night the solution was thought out and going down to the garage in his pyjamas, Ernest Siddeley scraped up some grease from the floor and with it lubricated the ball-joint at the flywheel-end of the transmission, and all was well. . . .

Another problem which they had, particularly with the Armstrong Siddeley Seventeen, was vapour locks in the fuel system. This was especially prevalent in cars used in Australia and South Africa, and a Service Representative was sent out to investigate. Even in England, the problem was not unknown. Lord Chief Justice Goddard (as he became) experienced much trouble of this sort with his Seventeen, but “he was very patient about it”. His car was taken back to Coventry and thoroughly tested, by coupling both rear wheels to Heenan & Froud dynamometers and using glass petrol-pipes. The fault was traced as having its source in the Claudel Hobson triple-diffuser carburetter. After rectification, Mr. Siddeley had another car taken to Brooklands, so that it could be driven at full-throttle for a long time, to prove the cure. Reverting to earlier days, cars like a Chevrolet, an Essex, the little 5 c.v. cloverleaf Citroen, and a Model-T Ford were investigated at the Parkside factory, before the rugged £360 Armstrong Siddeley Fourteen was being evolved, a car which sold well all over the World, made at the rate of 100 a week. The Twelve which followed “was not a success”, recalled Mr. Siddeley, “as the small side-valve six-cylinder engine had very little power”. Again he was called back from London to Coventry to develop it and Sir John Siddeley even called in Ricardo to try to inprove its performance. Even so, many owners enthused over the smallest Armstrong Siddeley, including H. S. Linfield of The Autocar, and the smart coupe version, intended for “The Daughters of Gentlemen”, sold well. Eventually, Ernest Siddeley told me, his father went for quite high-performance models, such as the 20/25 h.p. which would exceed 80 m.p.h., largely as a result of the good showing made in the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally by S. C. H. Davis. Although Armstrong Siddeley’s didn’t race, they competed in more rallies and Alpine Trials than may be remembered. Douglas Scott was responsible for the rally cars, in which something like a hundredweight was saved by Inglis of the body shop, by using aluminium panels and the engine given a high compression-ratio, etc., so that a short 17 Armstrong Siddeley, driven in the Torquay Rally by Douglas Scott, was a match for Aldington’s Frazer Nash BMW. The red, white and blue team of Fourteens that toured England for publicity purposes in 1925 was remembered, and we talked of pre-war celebrities who had driven Armstrong Siddeleys, including Sir Strenson Cooke of the AA, W. G. McMinnies of Morgan 3-wheeler memory, who in 1929 took a Twelve tourer to Le Mans and on to Nice at some 25 m.p.g. of petrol, C. G. Grey. Editor of The Aeroplane (“His bark was worse than his bite” said Mr. Siddeley) who had a number of these cars (he once told me that he took delivery of a new one and on enquiring how far he should run it in, he was told “just as far as the factory-gates, Sir; it’s already been run-in” and that Cyril Siddeley thought bumpers were very definitely for careless drivers only), and W. F. Bradley, who drove a Siddeley Special from London to Istanbul — Mr. Siddeley still has a nice memento of this long journey….

Mr. Siddeley also mentioned some of the old workforce at Coventry, like the difficult Chapman whom the Car-Section wanted to “sack” but who, at Mr. Siddeley’s instigation. went to the Aero Engine side, to become the General Manager and then Managing Director of the Company, Norman Payne, Ernest Siddeley’s Engineering Assistant, Astbury, the Works Manager, who came from Wolseley’s, etc. I was told that an attempt was made to render the famous Sphinx mascot more authentic; these were made by Mole’s of Birmingham, who sent a beautiful boxed one, in silver, to Mr. Siddeley (which he still posses) in appreciation of the order. There are five variants, including sitting, lying and head-only Sphinx mascots, by the way.

The hiduminium-alloy-engined 5-litre Siddeley Special was again Sir John Siddeley’s idea. This fine car led to some interesting times with three Michelin-shod Railcars running on pneumatic tyres and powered with Siddeley Special engines — perhaps the French were running short of Bugatti Royale engines! What I did not know was that a lot of work had been done, before the war intervened, on a Siddeley Special intended to attack the World’s 24-hour record under the leadership of Capt. George Eyston; presumably they were after Abe Jenkins’ 127 m.p.h. run at Utah, with his Jenkins Special, which he later put out of reach. “Eyston would sometimes arrive at the factory at 3 a.m. in the morning, in top hat, white tie and tails from some official function”. Mr. Siddeley recalled, “and the night-shift loved it”. As the open-bodied Siddeley Specials could exceed 90 m.p.h. in standard form, this long-distance record bid might well have succeeded. . . .

It was Mr. Ernest Siddeley who introduced final chassis testing after the body had been fitted, as more expeditious than doing a separate chassis test-run; Armstrong Siddeley made their own coachwork, of course, and their own Wilson gearboxes. It is felt that, while the cars were made to aero-engine standards, there was not much connection between the two, inasmuch as car-engine tolerances were the finer. Thinking back to before the 1914/18 war, the Stoneleigh lorry chassis — it had a very difficult gear-change — used a Daimler engine. The name was revived in 1922 for the two-cylinder air-cooled Stoneleigh light-car but it became known as “Siddeley’s Failure” and worse. . . . At the opposite extreme, the Siddeley Special was a most impressive car — it was remembered that Jack Barclay borrowed one to try, taking it to the South of France, and on his return he wanted the agency but was dissuaded by Rolls-Royce.

I was interested to learn that Mr. Ernest Siddeley visited America and Canada in 1919, when no doubt the secret importation of that Marmon was arranged. When hydraulic tappets were needed for the Siddeley Special engine Henry Royce did his best to obtain the details from Ernest Siddeley, — no doubt for the Phantom III R-R — who told him to work it out for himself and, thus frustrated, Royce tried to get Wallace of Iliffes, who published The Autocar, to obtain the drawings for him. Very interesting, too, was the information that when Armstrong Siddeley decided to use i.f.s. for their post-war cars, Mr. Ernest Siddeley went to Stuttgart, warned by his father to be cautious, and secured the Mercedes Benz design. Daimler-Benz were quite co-operative, charging about £400 and a small royalty on each suspension unit built in England, but AS had to buy a small part for each one from Mercedes, so that Germany could keep a check on how many cars were made!. At the time of the Hawker-Siddeley merger Mr. Siddeley was asked to look after Fred Sigrist, when he and Sopwith and Spriggs came to inspect the Coventry factory— Sigrist, like Owen Clegg, could smell “if a thing wasn’t right”. Apparently Sigrist liked what he saw and when Mr. Siddeley asked Tom Sopwith how the gearbox of his Rolls-Royce was behaving, the great man replied “All Synch and no mesh”. . . One up perhaps, for Armstrong’s self-change system!

I concluded this fascinating conversation by enquiring about the motor-cars Ernest Siddeley has owned. He had, naturally, almost every kind of Armstrong Siddeley, starting with a Thirty two-door “Sociable”, which he took over the Pyrenees in 1925 equipped by Dunlop with their balloon tyres. These quickly wore out but fresh ones were sent, by air, for collection at the end of the outward run. Of all these Armstrongs, which Mr. and Mrs. Siddeley named after different Greek gods or godesses, his favourite one was the Twenty. After car manufacture ceased at Armstrong Siddeley’s, Ernest Siddeley was told that a Bentley gave one “a new kick in life”, so he had a 4 1/4-litre. When these Derby-built Bentleys were first announced, though, he had tried both models at Sidgreave’s request, and thought the 3 1/2-litre the better-balanced car. After the Bentley he had two Mercedes-Benz in succession, a 230 coupe and a 2.8 saloon. His present car is a Renault 30 Automatic and for local runs Mrs. Siddeley uses a Renault 5. — W.B.