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Armstrong Siddeley vc Jaguar MK7-9

Published: 17th Jul 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

According to the excellent Armstrong Siddeley Owners’ Club ( “Mechanically, there’s very little the Club cannot help with. In terms of body parts, these can be more difficult to come by; the boots do tend to rot from the bottom but we are looking to have the sills re-manufactured. Every part is numbered on an Armstrong Siddeley and the pre-selector box is very robust while the four-speed automatic box is possibly better suited to the Sapphire 346 than to a Rolls-Royce or Bentley.” Nick Bale also notes that ‘the Star Sapphire tweaked everything that bit better” and that some customers, “specified some offbeat paint finishes and trims; the car I’m currently restoring has West of England cloth headlining.”

Simon of Whitworth, of Worcester Classic Spares Ltd, http://www.worcesterclassicspares. com the Jaguar specialists, remarks that “there is no great problem with spares for the big cats and quite a few of the parts are interchangeable between the models,” Simon also points out that the MkVIII is possibly the most overlooked of the range: “the MkVII is often seen as the pioneer and the MkIX as the ultimate refinement of the line yet the MkVIII is the rarest”, he says.

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No disrespect intended and whatever floats your boat – but the price of classic cars today bears no relation to the metal that you get for your money. After all, a 50’s ‘bubble car’ can cost more to buy than a XJ6 or modern Bentley Mulsanne and you only have to read our Lotus Cortina guide to see how the market is moving.

Until fairly recently, big old Jags from the same decade of the bubble car (of which could probably fit in the boot), could be bought for banger money but the market’s cottoned on to them.

Not so, the Armstrong Siddeley, a rival when contemporary and now a big barge bargain which can be for at least half the price. Should you be tempted by this cultured classic from Coventry, too?

Which model to buy?

All down to what’s around

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the Jaguar MkVII when it débuted at the 1950 Earls Court Motor Show – that svelte coachwork, that 3.4-litre XK engine, a top speed of over 100mph with 0-60 in under 14 seconds – all for just £1693 inclusive of Purchase Tax. Sixty seven years ago, this was a steep yet not unattainable figure, and incredibly low in comparison with a contemporary Bentley. The Jag’s extensive list of standard equipment included a sliding roof, adjustable steering column, and fog lamps. Naturally, the cabin was trimmed in hide and walnut veneer.

Jaguar continually modified the specification of the MkVII, adding two-speed wipers and optional overdrive. In 1952, an automatic transmission became available on US export models; the Borg Warner equipped cars had a bench front seat and dashboard-mounted gear selector. The 1954 MkVIIM facelift gave flashing indicators on UK market cars (these were already fitted to the US spec models) and an enhanced 190bhp engine. Two years later, the MVIII, which was identifiable via its single piece windscreen, extra brightwork and cutaway rear spats, sported a modified cylinder head for more go. Two-tone paint was now available, the even more extensive list of fittings included a nylon rug and picnic tables for the rear passengers and the MkVIII automatic even featured a second clock for the rear seat passengers. Later models had the very welcome option of power steering.

In late 1958, it was succeeded by the MkIX (although the two models were produced in tandem for a year) with power now from a 3.8-litre as seen in the XK150. PAS was now a standard fitting plus, for the first time on a Jaguar, there were servo-assisted disc brakes all round. The automatic box now had an intermediate gear hold on second and the late versions had a new rear light cluster with amber indicators.

Production ended in 1961 when the MkIX was succeeded by the big, bulbous and slightly brash MkX which was the last of the Big Cats.

The Jaguar’s fellow Coventry product and rival, the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 346, was launched in late 1952 as the ideal car for those trips to Glyndebourne. Beneath the dignified, but never pompous, coachwork was a new chassis with front independent coil springs while the engine was a 3435cc straight six with inclined overhead valves operated by pushrods.

The coachwork could be ordered in either six or four window guise. Inside, there was an exquisitely trimmed cabin with a choice of individual or bench seating at the front. The transmission was by either a fourspeed manual box with a steering column change or, as an extra, a Wilson electricallycontrolled pre-selector gearbox.

For the well-heeled chap in a bit of a hurry, 1954 saw the welcome option of twin Stromberg carburettors were available, and these usefully raised the power output to 150bhp; US export Armstrongs were always so-equipped. The Sapphire MkII was launched in the following year; it dispensed with semaphore trafficators while chain-driven electric windows, power assisted steering and adjustable rear shock absorbers were now available as extras. Another option was Rolls-Royce four-speed automatic transmission and 1955 also saw the introduction of the longer wheelbase Sapphire Limousine.

Armstrong Siddeley’s last incarnation, the Star Sapphire, was launched in October 1958. It was instantly recognisable via its modified radiator grille, new fascia and front doors hinged from the A-pillars. Under the bonnet, the power plant had been expanded to 3990cc with twin carburettors and there were servo-assisted disc brakes at the front. The transmission was a Borg Warner DG box with an intermediate gear hold and there was no longer a manual option. The Star Sapphire’s specification included PAS and the interior was even more elaborately equipped with a separate heater for the rear passengers, complete with a back-screen demister, and such charming details as adjustable front door armrests.

The Star Sapphire’s price of £2646 was nearly £500 more than a Jaguar MkIX automatic; only 902 were made in two years. In 1960, Armstrong introduced a Star Sapphire limousine with manual transmission and a single carburettor engine plus built a twin-headlamp MkII saloon prototype which survives to this day. Sadly, 1960 was also the year that the parent company, Bristol Siddeley Engines, decided to cease the manufacture of cars and concentrate on Alpines and that sort of thing instead.

There’s a fraction more choice with the Brown Lane product as only around 10,000 Sapphires, of all declinations, were made, less than a quarter of the total production of the Jag line up although survival rate is good with a few hundred still surviving. In contrast the vast majority of the big cats were scrapped long ago due to their low values and high repair costs. What to pay? Even the most super Sapphire won’t relieve you of 20 grand where a similar will be double this and perhaps more. If you’re on tightish budget, then the Armstrong sells itself as ten grand will net a very tidy runner.

What’s the best to drive?

JAG is the sports saloon

Starting with the Jaguar MkVII/VIIM against the Sapphire 346, the former does have a strong racing pedigree and by the standards of the early 1950s, its road manners were stupendous.

A 1952 Autocar test concluded that “the Mark VII is an outstanding car. It has extremely good performance, is very comfortable to drive and ride in, is very completely equipped, has a modern yet dignified appearance…”.

The automatic versions were not only seen by many drivers as more comfortable than the manual MkVIIs with their Moss boxes, the bench front seat made them even more spacious.

The Jaguar also had rather more room for back seat passengers than its Armstrong rival while the Sapphire’s cabin is even better finished than that of the MkVII. The four-speed column change is smooth and polished – although the pre-selector gearbox may be novel to some modern drivers. Yet, it is intriguing to operate, with a miniature ‘electric arm’ mounted on the left of the steering wheel. In terms of the subjective issue of appearance, SPHINX vs BIG CAT the Jaguar may look the more dynamic (shades of all those B-film car chases) but a twin-carb fed Sapphire is certainly no slouch on a dual carriageway, either and braking performance is adequate.

As we approach the late 1950s, power steering makes the MkVIII a more adroit town car while the Sapphire MkII is well-suited to the fully automatic transmission. Perhaps the most attractive variants of each car, from the perspective of creature comforts, stopping power and performance are the MkIX and the Star Sapphire respectively. The blend of the Jaguar’s 3.8-litre engine, PAS, disc braking and optional automatic is a very tempting one and when it was new the fellows at Motor Sport were most enthused:

“Here is the business executive’s ideal motor-car, handsome, impressive, able to hurry to the tune of 0-60mph in under 19secs, and a top speed of over 115mph when called upon yet luxuriously and sensibly appointed and equipped”. As compared with the Browns Lane offering, its Armstrong rival still suffered from cramped rear accommodation and one test report noted that “top hats would have to be removed”; the 1950s really was another world!

However, while the Star Sapphire’s body may have conveyed a certain Joyce Grenfell-like dignity but on the road, it was far from being as stately as a galleon. The 4-litre engine was capable of more low-speed torque than found on the 346 while Autocar thought that the Star Sapphire had “few equals, even beyond its price range”. More recently, the late Brian Sewell noted that “Its suspension was the perfect match of boulevard ride and highspeed chuckability, and the car achieved that peculiarly English ideal of mechanical refinement and appeal as a sporting driver’s carriage.” Overall, the Jag is the sportier car, the Armstrong the stature alternative with Rolls-Like civility but sans the snobbery.

Owning and running

JAG – but by a short head

You’d think that being a Jaguar, it’s a done deal in terms of ease of running, but these big saloons aren’t half as well accommodated for as the Mk1/Mk2 and, apart from the engine and certain other oily bits, nothing is interchangeable, not even with the XK sports cars which were in production at the same time. This Jaguar was not renowned for its rust resistance, and bodges over the decades are a given.

Disc brakes are a popular aftermarket conversion for the pre-MkIX as they give that extra sense of reassurance while the Jag fitted with PAS, should be inspected for leaks. The automatic versions are known to suffer from oil problems and from going out of adjustment. If the Borg Warner box’s fluid levels have not been correctly maintained, the Jaguar can be virtually undriveable.

The Armstrong Siddeley’s energetic and friendly owners’ club has sheds full of spares and running one shouldn’t pose any major problems and these cars were praised for Rolls-like build quality. For modern road conditions, 205/80-16R Michelin tyres make the Armstrong more drivable than a model fitted with cross plies. Suspension in a poor state of repair can result in very poor handling indeed.

And The Winner Is...

As to which car is the better to buy, we shall ignore the tired cliché of “New Money versus Old Money”; Armstrong Siddeley was formed in 1919, only eight years before William Lyons made his first Austin Seven Swallow. That said, the Jaguars do have a more arguably louche image yet in the 1950s their appeal was more contemporary than that of the Armstrong Siddeley – the business magnate as opposed to the gentleman of leisure. They also have a famous competition pedigree winning the International Trophy Production Touring Car trophy for five years in succession, in addition to coming first in the 1956 Monte Carlo rally – and today, the Big Jaguars are still highly popular on the classic racing scene; they certainly are a sight to see at full pelt!

Yet the Sapphire 346 is no sluggard and it moves with an easy grace that is the marques’s hallmark, with an engine that is equally happy at low speeds in urban traffic as it was for A-road cruising. The early models of the Jaguar and the Armstrong both combine very considerable abilities with some charming period details; the MkVII’s split windshield and the Sapphire 346’s ‘suicide’ front doors. For those enthusiasts who seek that ideal blend of classic motoring with decadent luxury, the most appealing choices are the MkIX and the Star Sapphire. The Jaguar is wonderfully glamorous without ever being brash but, if you are a fan of Q-Cars, you might ultimately opt for the understatement of the Star Sapphire. But it will be a very tough decision…

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