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Motoring in the 1950s, like so much else about post-war Britain, was an activity that bears almost no relationship to our modern, highly regulated experience.
No speed limits out of town, few parking restrictions and a fraction of the traffic and population density; it sounds like a kind of utopia.
Imagine, if you will, a world where you didn’t want to smash your car radio to bits with a lump hammer whenever you tuned in to the BBC.
Where you were not made to feel guilty about every past supposed misdeed of a country that, rather than being hobbled by self-loathing (and despite having been smashed and bankrupted by a World War), still believed in itself as an industrial entity that actually made things, while at the same time leading the world in the technologies that would come to define the second half of the century: jet engines and computers.
Sound good? But before you fire up the time machine it’s worth pointing out that the ’50s had its frustrations.
With every plucky, morale-boosting triumph, such as the conquering of Everest or Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile, there seemingly followed a correspondingly humiliating kick in the goolies, be it a spy scandal, Suez or Comet aircraft falling from the sky.
But let’s say, having dodged the choking smog, polio, National Service and capital punishment, you manage to get yourself a modest family saloon.
Petrol is off the ration and you can go where you please in this under-geared nightmare with Rexine seats and glacial acceleration.
It’s better than a pushbike, and more convenient than British Railways, but faced with the realities of Britain’s roads circa 1953 it would be a vehicle you would find severely wanting.
With only 30% of journeys being taken by car in the early ’50s, very little money had been spent on any road infrastructure that supported the increasingly numerous private motor car as a mass means of travel.
Motorways were years away, and with few bypasses drivers had to motor straight through the middle of our already congested towns and cities on the way to somewhere else.
Journeys that take a few hours on our modern high-speed roads could be a day’s slog in the ’50s, as you dodged the cyclists, grindingly slow heavy goods vehicles, buses and coaches (which accounted for 40% of trips) and bumbling ageing pre-war saloons.
Fighting for every inch of road put comfort and acceleration at a premium for the long-distance motorist who didn’t have to worry much about fuel economy or initial outlay.
Thus, to own a MkVI Bentley or an Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 346 was the wealthy man’s passport out of this ’50s motoring strife.
These were not merely status symbols but necessities of life for the managing directors and company chairmen for whom long-distance travel was a requirement before email and conference calls.
Imposing enough to be chauffeured in, yet handy enough to be owner-driven when the mood or moment was right, these saloons were the pinnacle of boardroom ambition in early ’50s Britain.
If the appeal and prestige of the Bentley is still understood today, it’s harder to get a sense of the Armstrong’s place in the hierarchy of British luxury cars; well up-scale of a Humber or a Wolseley, it came with a hard-earned reputation for sound engineering and construction but lacked the instant recognition of the Bentley as a glamour car. Then again, it wasn’t really in the Bentley’s price bracket.
The MkVI, first of the Standard Steel Crewe saloons based on the rationalised chassis and B60 F-head straight-six, had a £4500 price-tag that could buy you two Armstrong Siddeleys and leave enough change for a new MkVII Jaguar, Britain’s other 100mph luxury saloon.
It was also the car that ushered-in the demise of Armstrong, Alvis and other luxury makes that simply couldn’t compete on a car-for-the-money basis.
Actually, in the case of Armstrong Siddeley, that is not quite fair: with a pedigree as long as Bentley’s, the car-making part of the Hawker-Siddeley empire at Parkside, Coventry, was still making money when the axe fell in 1960.
So there must have remained a good upper-middle-class market for the sort of solid worth, patrician good taste and long-life potential that these cars represented.
Armstrong had been the first into production with a new post-war car in 1945, but by the end of the 1940s had begun to see the need for something larger and faster than its somewhat pedestrian 16 and 18hp models.
WO Bentley was hired as a consultant to design a new 3-litre car but his twin-cam engine was deemed too sporty for Armstrong customers, who wanted mid-range torque and smoothness.
With de Dion rear suspension it was doubtless felt too similar to the 2.6-litre saloon Bentley had already designed for Lagonda.
The all-new 346 that appeared at the 1952 Motor Show was created along more traditional lines but with important modern features, chief among them a ‘square’ crossflow 3.4-litre ‘six’ with hemispherical combustion chambers that would sweep this substantial five/six-seater carriage along at 90mph in single-carburettor form, or the magic ton with the twin-Stromberg 150bhp option.
And 100 miles per hour was a big deal then: consider that in 1954 The Motor only tested six cars that could manage it.
Beneath all versions was a box-section chassis that showed signs of WO influence, although the only noteworthy thing about the classical suspension was the fact that anti-roll bars featured at both ends.
You could choose from column-change four-speed manual or preselector transmission; or, from 1954, the Rolls-Royce Hydramatic full auto, built under licence from GM at Crewe.
Four- or six-light in-house bodywork (the latter being far more numerous) was offered and, later on, a long-wheelbase Sapphire limousine.
Our featured Sapphire and MkVI compare nicely in originality and history. They come from the stable of enthusiast and Jaguar specialist Robert Hughes, who has gone to extraordinary lengths to capture and preserve two highly original cars – possibly uniquely so in the case of the 14,000-miles-from-new Sapphire.
Last used in the early ’90s, the green six-light 346 automatic was still in the hands of its original owner when he died.
It was then passed on to his daughter and laid up for years until 2015, when Hughes acquired the car via the village garage that had maintained it for the family.
Having had the engine rebuilt, the underbonnet refurbished and the dull paint stripped and refinished, the interior was sensitively brought back to life; the wood was carefully rejuvenated using the best original pieces to work from, so as not to over polish.
The leather had been protected from new by tailored covers, but moths had attacked some of the original carpets. At huge cost, Hughes took them to an oriental carpet and rug restorer rather than renewing.
The car attended The Armstrong Siddeley Owners’ Club Centenary Rally in July 2019 where, out of 103 cars, it scooped trophies for best Sapphire and also best post-war Siddeley.
The Bentley came along six years ago, a 1952, 62,000-mile, one-family-ownership example that is also fairly unusual in being a small-boot/big-bore car.
In other words, a crossover MkVI with a 4.6-litre siamesed-bore engine (giving 156bhp, although this was never confirmed at the time) and running a full-flow oil filter.
The man who bought the MkVI new in 1952 sadly died shortly after it was delivered, having endured the three-year wait that was the norm in those export-or-die years.
The Bentley was passed to his brother and then his brother’s son. There are photos of the car taken in the ’50s while on family holidays in Hove and Scotland, and letters from the supplying dealer in its history file.
Still showing few signs of its near 70 years, the Bentley was acquired by Hughes via a friend in 2013 and he used it as his own car for three years.
Steeling himself not to retrim the MkVI’s front seats, Hughes relented when he managed to get his hands on an original 1952 hide in the right colour by chance. “It still looked too new,” he says. “So I rolled it into a ball, wrapped it up in a blanket and parked the car on it for a few days.”
Despite being slightly shorter and narrower than the Sapphire, the MkVI looks the more imposing and purposeful vehicle.
Both cars have strong aeronautical connections, but the Armstrong pushes the point home by having its sphinx bonnet mascot adorned with jet-engine housings. Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, famously owned a Sapphire.
Under the bonnet the Armstrong’s engine, with its central spark plugs, looks more modern and compact than the enamel-black Bentley unit, which is Edwardian in its appearance beneath a centre-hinged hood.
These two would be among the last cars built anywhere to have rear-hinged ‘suicide’ front doors, linking them strongly to their pre-war ancestors, but the faired-in headlights of the MkVI caused quite a stir in 1946. So too did its lack of running boards.
The Bentley continues the ’30s theme inside with central instrumentation, a large steering wheel, separate front seats and a level of detail, fit and finish that was not really attainable elsewhere – from the smooth, solid action of the fully engineered switchgear to the picnic tables for the back seats and the vanity sets in the rear quarters.
The Armstrong panders to the contemporary taste for bench front seats, and generic plastic knobs and buttons, handles and heater controls tell the story of its lower price.
Yet its wood and leather are hard to fault and it is wider and less gloomy inside than the MkVI, its instruments set more attractively in front of the driver.
A homely looking speaker grille is the centrepiece of its walnut fascia, the sort you can only imagine the warm tones of Test Match Special or the shipping forecast emanating from.
The floors are flat and clear in both cars, with no footwells and comparably lavish rear legroom. The Armstrong has a much larger boot.
The Siddeley being a single-carburettor 346, held back by the gloopy churnings of its automatic gearbox, means this is not quite a fair fight: the MkVI is almost one litre and 30hp up on the Sapphire, as well as being a manual.
On the road that is the difference between a car that can still hold its own in modern traffic compared with something that feels very period.
The Sapphire flows cheerfully along the road, making remote, generic straight-six noises, but refuses to be hurried.
It gets into top gear quickly and seems to stay there until checked down to a walking pace by drum brakes that give no cause for concern but are not as potent as the Bentley’s.
With a sidevalve Ford on hand for comparison, you would soon appreciate how well the Sapphire was really going; but in the cut-and-thrust of modern driving the 346 is best regarded as a stately island of calm.
There is very little road noise and it has a solidly comfortable ride on its 16in crossply tyres, which make the steering weave slightly at anything above 50mph. On radials the steering would probably be unacceptably heavy; as it is, ’50s-style wheel-feeding is the order of the day at low speeds.
To its credit it is not a sloppy, wallowy car as such, but rough handling doesn’t seem appropriate for an old lady that has been cherished for almost seven decades now.
The Bentley feels a more assertive vehicle, with more ‘margin’ built in, and its big engine is both smoother and brawnier than the Armstrong’s.
It will glide you along with limousine refinement at low speeds or urge you up into the 80s and beyond as a natural cruising gait. In fact, it would give you 80mph+ in third gear.
It romps along with torque everywhere, the only pity being that you have less excuse to handle the mechanically delightful right-handed change.
Although similarly geared, the action of the Bentley’s steering is silkier and more positive than the Armstrong’s and the car will negotiate a smooth, twisty road at a rate that defies its matronly bearing.
Only steering kickback, and a lack of friction between backside and seat, mar the driving experience.
Both cars are about atmosphere and ambience; the aroma of the leather, the views out along their bonnets and the patina of originality.
Their size and weight give them a mechanical physicality to drive that would not endear them to anybody as modern shopping cars, but they were never about that.
Even now you can see how these cars eased the anxieties of those wealthy ’50s motorists who could afford to buy in to the sort of refinement that made long journeys shorter and less fatiguing.
This pair offered speed and civility of an order beyond most people’s experience, and a level of general superiority over the average tin box that you cannot duplicate today.
For the man for whom time really was money, cars such as these were almost an essential of business life that made long trips to a board meeting or building site a pleasure rather than a chore.
Today, both represent good value at a wide range of prices, the Bentley in particular surviving in large numbers despite the rusty reputation of its Pressed Steel-supplied body.
Siddeleys, on the other hand, are thinner on the ground but still out there, supported by an excellent club and surprisingly good spares supply.
Coming up with a figure that would part Hughes from these two is a different game. Both cars have their price but are not actively for sale, primarily because Hughes has to be sure they go to the right sort of customer.
He talked the Bentley’s last suitor out of a deal when it turned out it was going to be used for long-distance rallying (a criminal thing to subject a car such as this to when there are so many much less specimen examples available) and is very anxious that the Armstrong, perhaps the lowest-mileage and most original of its type anywhere, stays that way.
Who knows, as saloons such as these become increasingly rare, especially in such as-new condition, is the era of the classic-car preservation order almost upon us?
Images: Luc Lacey
This feature was originally published in our October 2019 issue
Armstrong Siddeley 3.4/346
- Sold/no built 1953-’59/7680 (all)
- Construction steel body, steel chassis
- Engine all-iron, ohv 3453cc straight-six, with single carburettor
- Max power 125bhp @ 4200rpm
- Max torque 177Ib ft @ 2000rpm
- Transmission four-speed auto, preselector or manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent, by coil springs and wishbones rear live axle, half-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers, antiroll bar f/r
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes drums (with servo from Mk2)
- Length 16ft 1in (4902mm)
- Width 6ft (1830mm)
- Height 5ft 2¼in (1600mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 5in (2896mm)
- Weight 3472Ib (1575kg)
- 0-60mph 15.5 secs (manual)
- Top speed 91mph
- Mpg 17-20
- Price new £1728 (1953)
- Price now £9-19,000*
- Sold/no built 1946-’52/5201
- Construction steel chassis, Pressed Steel body
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, inlet-over-exhaust 4257cc straight-six (4566cc from mid-’51), twin SU HD4 (H6) carburettors
- Max power not disclosed
- Max torque not disclosed
- Transmission four-speed, three-synchro manual or Hydramatic four-speed auto with fluid coupling, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; lever-arm dampers f/r
- Steering cam and roller
- Brakes drums all round, hydraulic at front, with mechanical servo
- Length 15ft 11½in (4864mm)
- Width 5ft 9in (1753mm)
- Height 5ft 4½in (1638mm)
- Wheelbase 10ft (2743mm)
- Weight 3954lb (1793kg)
- Mpg 17
- 0-60mph 15.2 secs
- Top speed 100mph
- Price new £2997 (’46)
- Price now £17-40,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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Transatlantic hybrids: Bristol 407, Jensen C-V8 and Gordon-Keeble GK1