Automotive History: British Deadly Sins (‘50s Edition, Part 2) – Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 234 / 236

The Jowetts we saw yesterday were a case of an automaker biting off more than they could chew – going too far and too fast into a new market segment. Armstrong Siddeley did the opposite kind of Deadly Sin: timidly going into a segment they had plenty of experience in, and getting the product completely wrong.

Armstrong Siddeley came to be just after the First World War through the merger of Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft and Siddeley-Deasy Motors. Not unlike Rolls-Royce, BMW, Hispano-Suiza or Isotta Fraschini, Armstrong Siddeley was therefore both a high-end automaker and an aero engine manufacturer – precision engineering being the hallmark of both trades. The first Armstrong Siddeley car, developed by John Siddeley, was a 5-litre (30 HP) luxury model, soon followed by smaller 18 HP and 14 HP chassis. Over a dozen different models were produced up to 1940, all of them powered by 6-cyl. engines of varying displacements. By then, Armstrong Siddeley was part of the Hawker Siddeley Group, which was chiefly focused on aero engines and aircraft – the automotive side was always a much smaller branch in terms of the group’s bottom line.

1946-49 Armstrong Siddeley Typhoon, the coupé version of the 2-litre Lancaster.

 

After the Second World War, during which its aeronautic division played a significant part in the victory over the Axis, Armstrong Siddeley were quick to propose a new car, the 2-litre (14 HP) Lancaster. The car was soon declined in coupé, limousine and convertible forms, all named after wartime aircraft. These were a notch or two below Bentleys and Daimlers, not as flashy as Jaguars and better-bred than Wolseleys or Humbers. The late ‘40s were a boom time for British automakers and Armstrong Siddeleys were being sold hand over fist both at home and abroad, though quantities never exceeded 3000 chassis in any given year.

By the early ‘50s, the 2.3 litre (18 HP) Whitley, still very much based off the 1945 models, was a sedate saloon battling within the mid-range market. Its engine and Wilson pre-selector gearbox were very similar to what Armstrong Siddeleys were back in the mid-‘30s, but the firm was about to change its strategy.

The Sapphire 346 was available as a standard saloon (above) as well as a LWB limousine (below).

A new big car, the Sapphire 346, was launched as a 1953 model with Jaguar, Daimler, Alvis and Lagonda in its sights. It featured a completely new chassis and a 3.5 litre hemi-headed 6-cyl. engine wrapped in traditional British luxury and styling. It was essentially a Bentley for less than half price.

1952 Armstrong Siddeley Whitley coupé by Ghia

 

The 346 was an outstanding success, being a high-performance 100-mph car under the guise of a bulbous and heavy saloon. Armstrong Siddeley wisely kept the 346 as it was while giving it more modern internal features, such as an optional 4-speed fully automatic gearbox. Meanwhile, the Whitley was languishing with its heavy body and outdated looks. Perhaps the Whitley coupé that Ghia made for the 1952 Turin Motor Show gave Armstrong Siddeley something to ponder on…

1955 ad for the Double Mamba turboprop engine, a far more profitable side of the firm…

 

The plan for a new low-range car was put in motion in 1953. But internal discussions regarding the new car’s engine were something of a stumbling block. Some felt that the car had to have a 6-cyl., which would have to be the Whitley’s rather anemic plant. Others felt that a new large 4-cyl. could be extrapolated from the 346’s engine, reducing costs and development time while ensuring the new car would be a brilliant performer.

As both factions seemed to have a point, Armstrong Siddeley’s top brass decided to go ahead with both ideas. The new car would end up with two engines of a very similar size, one 6-cyl. and one 4-cyl., but the latter would be the sporting engine, developing far more power than the former. By 1954, the Sapphire 234 and 236 were being tested in chassis form in Coventry. The suspension would be based on the Whitley’s capable leftovers. The standard 4-speed all-synchromesh gearbox would be available on both cars with optional overdrive, and was complimented as one of the finest of the period. A new clutchless “Manumatic” would be made available on the 236 only.

Above: two-tone Sapphire 234; Below: fine interior, pipe and fedora recommended.

The next challenge lay in the 234/236’s styling. Traditional cues such as the high vertical grille would remain, but Armstrong Siddeley’s new small car would aim to be as contemporary as possible. Small rear fins were even part of the line-up, as were fully-integrated front fenders.

1957 Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 234 — Source: Simoncars.co.uk

 

But something went badly wrong in between the two. The problem was a familiar one: company boss Cyril Siddeley demanded that the cabin should accommodate well-heeled gentlemen such as himself – top hat included. The roof was therefore raised by over two inches, with catastrophic consequences on the car’s looks, particularly from the side and rear three quarters.

The Sapphire 234 and 236 twins were launched at the London Motor Show in October 1955 and promptly bombed. At the same event, Jaguar was launching its new small car too, now retrospectively known as the Mark 1 – and comparing the two models was definitely to the Sapphires’ detriment in virtually every aspect. Not only that, but there were plenty of other strong contenders within the British four-door 2-litre-plus market, most of them cheaper and better-looking than Armstrong-Siddeley’s latest.

This comparative table does not take into account such pedestrian vehicles as the Austin A90, the Ford Zephyr Zodiac or the Vauxhall Cresta E – which would all have been tut-tuted by the average Armstrong Siddeley client in those days. But those also presented a formidable threat to the Sapphires, as they were usually well-appointed and far cheaper within the 2.2-2.6 litre range. Not to mention foreign cars, which could be fearsome competitors given the Sapphires’ high price.

Above: not the Sapphire 234’s best angle; below: a handsome proposed redesign by Michelotti, circa 1957.

The Sapphire 234 / 236 were sold for two model years – the 236 going it alone for 1958, most likely to get rid of the stock. The sales figures speak for themselves: 601 of the 236 and 806 of the 234 were made. The larger Sapphire 346, by comparison, had sold over 7000 units in five years.

Above: rear deck-lid emblem — Source: Simoncars.co.uk; below: Sapphire 236

The failure of the Sapphire 234 / 236 was due to questionable styling and a confusing image: having two radically different temperaments and engines with near identical displacements in the same car was not a shrewd move. Few understood the reason why the 4-cyl. was the quicker and better engine – aren’t sixes supposed to be better than fours?

The Star Sapphire was built in about 1700 units in three years – too little, too late.

 

Stunned by this defeat, Armstrong Siddeley nevertheless produced a new model, the Star Sapphire, which was a lightly modified 346 with a 4 litre engine at a price that should have given Jaguar reasons for concern. But the demands of the aero engine side of the business for more investment and factory space ultimately doomed the automobile branch, which was not making money. Hawker Siddeley merged with Bristol, another aircraft maker with a luxury car line, in 1959. It was soon decided that Bristol Siddeley should focus on aircraft and aero engines exclusively, so Bristol Cars were sold off and Star Sapphire production was terminated in the summer of 1960.

 

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, we shall explore the very top of the British automotive market – Daimler, the automaker that went from the cream of the crop to the bargain bin in under ten years…