A thoroughly British kind of perfection

When Armstrong-Siddeley closed its factory doors on the last Friday of July 1960, a marque that had never quite been a match for Rolls-Royce or Daimler in prestige, nor a match for Jaguar in performance, quietly died - a pity, for the Star Sapphire, its final car, was the best it ever made, and the next, well into the development stage, promised to be even better.

It was not an old marque; cobbled together in 1919, the Armstrong half a builder of aircraft, the John Siddeley half rooted in Wolseley, Stoneleigh and Deasy (with engines bought from Daimler), it seemed unable to establish whether it wanted its cars to be thought upper-middle, lower-upper or even upper class and compromised by "having an indefinable atmosphere about them that belongs only to the better kind of British car''.

In the 20 years before the outbreak of war in 1939, Armstrong-Siddeley developed more than 20 engines and almost as many derivatives, ranging from the 12 of 1,236cc through the 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20 and 20/25 models to the 30 of 4,960cc, all of six cylinders.

Most were fitted to long, short and "normal'' versions of each chassis, on each of which was fitted a wide variety of bodies, almost all weighing too much - it should surprise no one were a seven-seater limousine on a 12ft chassis with the 12 engine discovered in a barn, for every chassis was available to coachbuilders for special bodies. Performance was very rarely spirited.

At the lower end of the market after the Depression, Armstrong-Siddeley competed directly with Lanchester and the smaller Daimlers, even to sharing with them the pre-selector gearbox that was the earliest (1928) and arguably the most friendly form of automatic transmission ever for the enthusiastic driver. At the upper end it again competed with Daimler and was considered by the impoverished aristocracy to be an alternative to the Rolls 20 and its derivatives, of which the chassis alone, without a body, was more than twice the price. George VI, before he became King, had an Armstrong-Siddeley 20 limousine that cost him only £550.

They were the sort of cars that impressed Joyce Grenfell and John Betjeman, stately as a galleon and with the right sort of name. Only two could be described as having a level of performance that might interest the driver of a Derby Bentley or a Continental Rolls: the Atalanta 20/25, a sports saloon that had an engine of the same dimensions as the Rolls 20/25, but was, with a maximum speed of 85mph, 10 miles faster (and at £625, cheaper by £1,000), and the Siddeley Special.

This was very special; it had an engine of 5 litres that was not an iron lump but cast in Hiduminium, a lightweight metal developed by Rolls for aircraft engines; and it developed the then exceptional figure of 145bhp at only 2,700rpm and was exceptionally flexible - all the Rolls-Daimler-Hispano talk of starting in top gear without a hiccup and never changing down was true of this car too.

Had its chassis been shorter than 12 feet (more than a Rolls Phantom III) and not burdened with bodies that increased its weight beyond two tons, it might have been a car of very high performance - George Eyston, a great racing driver of the 1930s, thought that, properly bodied, it should be entered for speed records and the Le Mans endurance race - but it was not. Never did it dent the Rolls and Bentley market, though made with similar care and almost as expensive; between 1932 and 1937 only 252 were made (at an appalling loss), and not until 1958 did it, in the Star Sapphire, have a worthy successor.

The early post-war years again brought a confusion of models - 16 and 18 hp, Hurricane, Typhoon, Whitley, Lancaster and Limousine, 234 and 236 saloons - and even when Armstrong-Siddeley realised that its best chance for survival lay in the production of a single model, the first Sapphire, it offered it with four- and six-light versions of the saloon as well as a limousine.

The Star Sapphire was a development of this car, a subtle tidying of flowing lines heightened by contrasting colours, with much of the classic elegance that characterised the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, a demure sphinx the enigmatic mascot on the forward point of the lofty radiator. Under the bon-net lay an ultra-modern engine of 4 litres, its six over-square cylinders in line, its 165bhp able to take the more than two tons of metal, passengers, fuel and luggage to 60mph in 14 seconds, and on to over 100mph.

It was one of the earlier British cars to be equipped with fully automatic transmission (it shared the Rolls-Royce American derivative), without the option of a manual alternative, and killed off the pre-selector box that had served the marque so well for 30 years. Its suspension was the perfect match of boulevard ride and high-speed chuckability, and the car achieved that peculiarly English ideal of mechanical refinement and appeal as a sporting driver's carriage.

Alas, such perfection came too late. If, in 1953, the first Sapphire had a place in the hierarchy of class, it was on nodding terms with Bentley, for Daimler was messing about with smaller cars and vast barouches, and Jaguar was perceived as very much a flash machine not for gentlemen.

By 1958, however, the least expensive Bentley had grown much larger, Daimler had its 104 and Majestic and was about to launch its 4.5-litre V-8 engine, and Jaguar had its Mark VIII and IX, all of which matched or marginally exceeded the Star's performance and, with the exception of the Bentley, significantly undercut its price.

Not even its magnificent interiors could save it from adverse comparisons; these were symphonies of parti-coloured leather of medieval gaiety, with contrasting inserts in the seats and contrasting panels in the doors; these were a cabinetmaker's ecstasy, an apotheosis of veneers, for not only were the door-cappings and dashboards riots of figured walnut, but it framed the windscreen and the windows too, and stood tall between the doors.

Only on the bodies of the most dashing Italian motorcyclists does one now see leather in such flamboyant combinations, and only on the cases of treasured antique radio cabinets can one find such florid marquetry.

The Institute of British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturers awarded the Star Sapphire both its Gold Medal and its first prize for 1958, but this mattered not at all to a British public besotted with the Jaguar. Between October 1958 and July 1960, Armstrong-Siddeley struggled to build 1,284 Star Sapphire Salons, the price £2,490, the profit only £57 a car; within the first week of August 1960, accountants and their minions wiped away all trace that the firm had ever made such a car in Coventry - indeed they wiped away the firm.

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