John Davenport Siddeley (87), Lord Kenilworth, Chairman of the Armstrong-Siddeley Motors Ltd

Saturday 3rd November 1956

John Davenport Siddeley (87), Lord Kenilworth, Chairman of the Armstrong-Siddeley Motors Ltd., died in Jersey, Channel Islands.

He was born on August 5, 1866 at Chorlton upon Medlock, an inner suburb of Manchester, the eldest son of William Siddeley and Elizabeth, née Davenport. Leavng school at 15, he worked in his father’s business as an apprentice hosier but meantime attended classes at Manchester Technical College and afterwards at Owens (now Manchester University), where he developed his mechanical acumen to the extent that in 1885 he began designing bicycles.

In 1892 he went to Coventry as the only draftsman and designer at the Humber Cycle Works. From the Humber Works he went to the Dunlop organisation and was appointed sales manager in Belfast, before returning to the midlands to run Dunlop’s subsidiary, the Clipper Tyre Company. For publicity, Siddeley became the first person to ride a bicycle from John o’ Groats to Land’s End. He then became involved with motor cars, at first through pneumatic tyres, which led him to form the Siddeley Autocar Company in 1902, utilizing Peugeot designs under licence. His success persuaded the Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Company, which was part of Vickers Sons & Maxim, to hire him and there he honed his management skills before resigning as general manager in 1909. He became managing director of the struggling Deasy Motor Car Manufacturing Company in Parkside, Coventry and so transformed its position that the marque was renamed Siddeley-Deasy.

The war was the making of the company, leading first to government orders for lorries and motor cars and then, most significantly, to aero-engine and airframe production. Siddeley persuaded the directors to sanction a move into the aviation field. Siddeley’s engineers resolved the teething problems of the B.H.P. (Beardmore-Halford-Pullinger) aero-engine and it became the Siddeley Puma; it proved so reliable that it was the principal design in use by British bombers at the war’s conclusion. The engineering staff was considerably strengthened when a number of distinguished personnel arrived from the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough in 1917.

To support his ambitious post-war plans, Siddeley arranged a take-over by the armaments and shipbuilding giant Armstrong Whitworth, in April 1919, with Siddeley-Deasy becoming Armstrong Siddeley Motors. Later, in July 1920, Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth Aircraft Ltd was formed. Both companies were under the umbrella of a holding company, the Armstrong Whitworth Development Company. Siddeley made successful strides into the armaments field, receiving a knighthood in 1932 for the tank engine supplied to Vickers.

The major success story of the decade was with the Jaguar air-cooled aero-engine, which was developed from a Farnborough design with Siddeley insistently prodding on the project. Its success was such that until the late 1920s Armstrong Siddeley was the major recipient of government orders for military aero-engines. Siddeley utilized this position to full advantage by having Armstrong Whitworth airframes designed around the Jaguar. The Siskin single-seater fighter and Argosy airliner were notable outcomes.

In 1926 when he was at last elected to the board of the parent company, he discovered that it was in a most unsatisfactory financial state. This provided Siddeley with the opportunity to gain control of his companies and by February 1927 he was chairman of all three, with the holding company renamed the Armstrong Siddeley Development Company. In his final years, Siddeley expanded his business empire through a number of astute take-overs, which included the aeronautics firm A. V. Roe, the piston supplier Peter Hooker (which became High Duty Alloys), and Improved Gears Ltd (later Self-Changing Gears), whose gearbox was highly successful.

While Siddeley was enjoying his success with the Jaguar engine his rivals, especially Bristol and Rolls-Royce, were busy producing high-power designs which Armstrong Siddeley was unable to match in the 1930s. Siddeley has been accused of complacency, of not devoting sufficient funds to research and development, and of undue interference with engine design, which led two of his major designers to leave. The death of two other critical engine staff was also crucial in diminishing Armstrong Siddeley’s design capabilities, while Siddeley’s reputation as a domineering employer deterred others of similar calibre from filling the vacancies. A major blow was sustained in 1934 when the Air Ministry preferred the Bristol-powered Gloster Gauntlet to the Armstrong Whitworth Scimitar.

By 1935 Siddeley was nearing seventy. He had accumulated a large personal fortune and had no need to continue working. He arranged a merger with Hawker, for which he received £1 million and numerous benefits, officially retiring from his executive positions on 30 September 1936. Siddeley became a tax exile in Jersey, while maintaining several British homes. In 1937 he purchased Kenilworth Castle and the same year was created Baron Kenilworth.

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