Sapphires are Forever – Ian Fleming’s 1954 Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 346 Mark II

Article by Igor Solarisov

If diamonds are forever; then so are sapphires. Armstrong Siddeley Sapphires, that is. If looked after, they last a long time. Such as this 1954 six-window saloon once owned by the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming. In the spirit of its original owner’s fiction, I have agreed not to reveal the identity of the current custodians and to meet at a secret location for interview and photo-shoot.

Royal Navy Commander Ian Fleming had served in the Special Branch of the RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve) as an intelligence officer during World War II. This service branch was the same as that of Commander James Bond, his famous fictional character and arguably, an alter-ego. Unlike Bond, however, Fleming had been mostly a desk spy; as a spymaster, he saw limited action during the war. What Fleming had to draw on was a rich experience in counter-intelligence operational planning and knowledge of strategic spy-craft.

Fact or Fiction: Ian Fleming and His Alter-Ego

After the war, Ian Fleming became a journalist, rising to the position of Foreign Manager at the Sunday Times. He was able to travel abroad on the newspaper account, enjoying a luxury that few Britons did at the time.

With the publication of Casino Royale (1953) Fleming introduced a sophisticated, cultured man who was also a killer spy. This and the sensuous descriptions of luxury foods and exotic locations, together with a unique blend of sex, violence, sadism and intrigue, made for a best-seller in postwar austerity Britain. One newspaper critic writing about Dr. No put it this way: “[It] appealed to all my worst instincts and appealed to them successfully.”

Part of Bond’s popularity was simple escapism for a nation which was tasting defeat in the midst of victory.

From a plot standpoint, Ian Fleming’s popular spy stories were always based on some kernel of truth he was privy to as an intelligence operative. While he couldn’t reveal state secrets, he could disguise his facts as fiction. After all, the plot lines were just too strange to be true.

Weren’t they?

Bentleys for Bond, a Sapphire for Fleming

In the books, Bond drove a series of special Bentleys, starting with a supercharged 4 ½ Litre, followed by a modified Mark VI and a Continental Mark II. His Aston Martin was actually issued to him by Q Division (in the novel Goldfinger). While Bond was an avowed Bentley man, Fleming made a different choice.

After releasing a sequel (Live and Let Die), Fleming’s income from the best-selling Bond books must have encouraged him to splurge on a new car. He bought an Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire 346 Mark II 6-window Saloon from dealers Pass & Joyce of London, which was registered as PGY411 on 1 November 1954.

Though James Bond’s operational cover was being an overseas representative for ‘Universal Exports’ (a front company for British intelligence), spies have usually posed as journalists. As a foreign correspondent, it is possible that Ian Fleming still ‘kept his hand in’ the intelligence-gathering game during the 1950’s. He cut an intriguing figure wearing his signature bow tie while smoking through a cigarette holder. Equally at ease in a sports jacket or tuxedo, Fleming knew his way around a luxury hotel or casino and was an expert gambler.

So does this flamboyant man’s personal car have any spy gadgets? In this confidential report (for your eyes only), I can reveal that this Sapphire has none of the following: machine guns, oil slick, tyre slashers, licence plate changer, or bullet-proof shield, let alone an ejector seat. There’s not even a sunroof.

For his £1,722 purchase price, Fleming acquired a car of English conservative styling, with flowing fender lines and upright grille, standing 63” (1.6m) high, 72” (1.829m) wide and 93” (4.9m) long. The six-window Saloon was painted Elephant Grey, as specified by Ian Fleming, who (like the literary Bond) drove grey coloured cars. The body lines allow for a multitude of possible two-tone paint options should they be desired. PGY411 merely sports a white coach-line from the shoulder of the bonnet along a full-length crease that tapers off towards the rear bumper. Spats cover the rear wheels and a black rubber shield protects the leading surface of the rear fenders from ‘gravel rash.’

The frontal visage houses the stately grille, Lucas PL headlamps, amber indicators and parking lights. An additional fog lamp and driving light appear identical, though only one lights up on high-beam position.

Exterior amber indicator lights on the B-pillars were another Mark II factory upgrade, replacing trafficators. It was thought that the repeater lights would help the winking red tail-lights. Unfortunately, the bulk of the car hides the pillar signals when a driver is close behind, they can be seen only when much further away. The current owner has added a brake light repeater strip in the rear window, on the theory that Australian drivers are unused to seeing little brake light lenses down low over the bumper.

The Sapphire shared its name with a turbojet engine built for aircraft by the Hawker Siddeley aircraft conglomerate, so the hood ornament depicts a jet-powered sphinx. This is an uneasy combination, as a sphinx is a symbol of silence (at least the Sphinx in classical Greek mythology) but turbojets are notoriously loud.

There is a Bentley connection here after all, as the straight-6 engine was designed by W.O. Bentley himself, its crackle-finished valve cover hiding an advanced hemispherical-head with overhead valve arrangement. Unequal-length pushrods operate the valve train from a camshaft in the block. An identical bore and stroke of 90 mm displaces 3.435 Litres (209.1 cid). Efficient exhaust manifolds allow the engine to display a dual character, where it may be driven sedately or willingly rev up to its 5000 rpm maximum. Fleming’s car came standard with a single Stromberg carburettor, giving out 125 bhp (93 kW) for a top speed of 87 mph (140 km/h), and an estimated 0-60 mph time of about 15 seconds.

This was no slouch by 1954 standards but one wonders why Fleming did not pay an extra few quid to buy the even more potent twin-carburettor version. The optional twin-Stromberg setup increased power to 150 bhp (112 kW) @ 4250 rpm, with a torque of 230 lb. ft. @ 2000 rpm allowing the 3640 lbs. (1651 kg) car to reach 60 mph in about 12 seconds and to exceed 100 mph.

Ian Fleming ordered his Sapphire with a 4-speed manual transmission, though during its early 1970s restoration, the car was upgraded with a Wilson pre-selector. An especial feature of the Sapphires is their use of the optional (£30 extra) 4-speed Wilson pre-selector gearbox. With fingertip control by a toggle switch on a housing extending from the steering column, the driver can select the next gear ratio he desires, then simply press the clutch pedal as if it was a pushbutton. The electric solenoids of the Wilson box do the rest, declutching and changing gear as needed. Of course, one should not forget what ratio one is already in! The pre-selector gearbox requires some getting used to, as the toggle and gear-change gates are not backlit at night, so sometimes the driver has to feel the way into the correct slot.

Introduced in 1953, the 346 Sapphire was upgraded with a Mark II version the following year. Changes included power-assisted brakes, optional power steering (a first in Britain), electric windows, and adjustable rear shock absorbers. Another transmission choice for the Mark II Sapphire buyer was a full automatic, being the excellent Hydra-Matic 4-speed (as supplied by Rolls-Royce). Many of the power-assist features were aimed perhaps at making the car more appealing to the American market.

The chassis of the 346 was designed with progressive deformation in mind, so that should a car crash, the chassis would help to absorb some of the impact. The rest of the 346 Sapphire’s mechanicals are conventional but well-sorted. Front suspension is independent by wishbones, coil springs and telescopic shocks, with an anti-roll bar keeping sway under control. A rigid rear axle is suspended on leaf springs with telescopic shocks. Girling hydraulic brakes serve to wash off speed as needed, with drums of 11” diameter both front and rear.

The Sapphire runs on 16” wheels, modestly decorated with trim rings and relatively simple hub caps, and are shod with original style Olympic Air Ride cross-ply tyres. The 6.70 x 16” cross-plies are good in the dry, but lose traction in the wet, perhaps because they have hardened slightly over time. Radials are definitely the way to go for an everyday-use classic car, as they make the most of the car’s performance abilities.

Interior a Fast Gentleman’s Club

Saloons were offered either in a 4-light or 6-light style, with the latter allowing for ventilator windows to be fitted front and rear to maximise the flow of fresh air. A driver’s door plastic weather-shield was a popular option in Australia of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It allowed the window to be kept open to help cool non-air-conditioned cars while keeping rain and wind out.

Uncovered door hinges spoil the otherwise smooth flanks of the car, with a central pair serving both doors on a side. The front door opens suicide-style, a most elegant way of entry and egress. The doors hide a tall sill which one needs to ascend in order to step into this mobile gentleman’s club. You do not ride in an Armstrong Siddeley but on it. Every entry but the driver is provided with a chrome assist handle on a roof pillar to help in hauling oneself up or down.

The buyer could select either a single front bench or individual seats in the front. Fleming’s car has the bench, with a useful folding centre armrest. Apparently, the individual-seat versions are quite rare. The upholstery is leather of course, in an attractive blue with cream piping. Carpets are also blue though now rather faded.

Generous pieces of burled walnut veneer cover the dashboard, door cappings and window surrounds. The front door cappings house a handy ashtray which swivels smoothly open for use. All veneers are in superb condition, with a mottled pattern and rich colour.

The big Bakelite steering wheel has parallel spring spokes. Its fixed centre hub is decorated with the Sphinx (with no jets this time) and a chrome switch for the blinkers. The Smiths instrument gauges include a clock, a 120 mph speedometer and a cluster with amps, fuel, oil pressure and water temperature readings. Dashboard knobs are marked with mysterious single letters and give no other clue to their function. You need to study your owner’s manual in order to break this particular secret code. Four warning lamps are clustered above the steering column; they too are unmarked and an enigma to unschooled drivers.

An oval speaker sits over a medium-wave/long-wave radio, which in turn rests above the heater/demister controls (a heater was standard). Lastly, there are under-dash handles which open the scuttle ventilator for even more fresh air and operate the pull-out handbrake.

While explaining some spy gadget to a distracted Bond, an exasperated Q was usually forced to say, “Pay attention, Double-Oh Seven.” I paid attention to the front doors with their very generous door pockets accessed under spring-loaded flaps, which my informant told me, “could hold four wine bottles.” Or possibly a holster for a Walther PPK handgun, with lots of extra room for ammunition, miniature camera and a short-wave radio transceiver. Just a thought.

The 114” wheelbase makes for generous legroom in the rear. A central ashtray mounted on the front seat squab greets the rear occupants, who enjoy excellent visibility outside from the six-light window configuration. The living daylights, you might say. The back seat is extremely soft and comfortable, with armrests on each side and a pull-down rest in the middle.

Front-seat occupants are not so fortunate, with a firmer bench and less legroom. It could be that the front seat springs have been affected, but the lack of room upfront is unmistakable. A pull-down centre armrest does not make up for the proximity of the big steering wheel to the seat. For a tall man, driving this car forces him to splay his knees apart so as not to interfere with turning that wheel.  Minor adjustments in steering column length, front/rear seat travel and even door armrest positioning improve matters, but one gets the idea that the Sapphire is meant to be chauffeur-driven, not owner-driven.

The trunk space is generous and easily accessible with an unusually wide boot-lid from this bustle-back era of cars, and yes, you can hide a body in there if circumstances demand. Below the carpeted floor there is a separate compartment space for the spare wheel, tyre tools and pump. Armstrong Siddeley Motors Limited did not skimp on a standard toolkit, as a pull-out tray is replete with fine tools. If you wanted any more gadgets, you had to approach the Q Division.

The Sapphire and its Competitors

The British car magazine ‘The Motor’ obtained a top speed of 100.1 mph (162 km/h) and an 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint of 13.0 seconds, both using a twin-carburettor Sapphire. A fuel consumption of 18.7 mpg (Imperial) (15.1 L/100km) was also recorded. The test vehicle cost £1,757 (tax paid) in 1953.

All this was firmly in Jaguar territory, and a challenge to costlier rivals like the Lagonda 2 ½ Litre, Alvis TC21, Daimler Regency and Bentley R-Type. The Sapphire 346 was arguably as good as any standard Bentley R-Type, with only the well-developed Bentley Continental being a better performer. The Sapphire cost a mere fraction of the Bentley’s asking price (the Standard Sports Saloon was £4,392, while an R-type Continental could reach £6,928).

Sapphires were capable, comfortable and fast cars. Like a well-mixed vodka Martini, the suspension gave a smooth ride, so that you were neither shaken nor stirred. For the asking price, nobody did it better than Armstrong Siddeley.

A good history of the marque may be found in the ‘Restored Cars’, issue of March-April 2019, so there is no need to expand upon it here. Suffice to say that a longer wheelbase limousine version of the Sapphire 346 was also offered as well as a pair of smaller companion saloons in the Sapphire 234 and 236 (all from 1955 onwards). The Sapphire 346 was built from 1953 through 1958, with a total of 7,697 made.

The improved Star Sapphire of 1958-60 was the marque’s swan-song, as production was halted due to a merger of Hawker Siddeley with Bristol Aero Engines. This and other disruptions in the British aviation industry followed the UK government’s decision to force the various companies to merge into larger conglomerates. In a case of live and let die, while the Armstrong Siddeley was no more, at least the Bristol personal luxury car continued to be made, though in small numbers.

Fleming Moves On

Ian Fleming wrote about his postwar cars, claiming ownership of a very second-hand Renault 8cv, pre-war Hillman Minx and new Riley 2 ½ Litre. The Riley developed expensive faults after running out of warranty, so Fleming sold it and bought his Armstrong Siddeley. The Sapphire was, he said, a “fast, comfortable car, but one which made me feel too elderly when it was going too slowly and too nervous when it was going fast.”

He sold the Armstrong Siddeley on 25 April, 1956 after only about 17 months of ownership. A Daimler Super Sports convertible also disappointed and was soon gone, to be replaced by a two-seat Ford Thunderbird, which Fleming loved. The black sports car never let him down.

Ian and Anne Fleming were spending more and more time living at ‘Goldeneye,’ situated in the convivial tropics of Jamaica; less and less at their house in Dover, on the Channel coast. (The Jamaican home was named after Operation Golden Eye, which was a World War II intelligence effort to keep Spain out of the war). The Flemings built a final residence in Swindon to accompany their ‘winter’ home in Jamaica.

Ian Fleming did not die violently but suffered a heart attack at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital in Britain on 12 August 1964, dying at the early age of 56. He had lived to see the first Bond films carry on his legacy of success with spy thrillers.

What Became of PGY411?

A registration document shows that Ian Fleming sold his Sapphire 346 to a John Lyonel Jameson of 16 St. Peters Rd., Croydon, Surrey, who registered his ownership on 25 April 1956. The car was sold on to Henry William Warner, of 158 Battersea High St., Battersea, SW11, who registered his ownership on 28 August 1959.

The next sale documented was on 24 August 1961, to Helmut Kolsen, then residing at Norfolk House, London Rd., Stanmore, Middlesex, but giving his official address as care of The Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, 48 Berkeley St., London, W1. The car then had 42,000 miles on the clock. The last date visible on the registration paper is 16 April 1963. Later that year, Mr. Kolsen brought the Sapphire with him when he moved to Australia, as the UK registration expired on 31 August. The car was registered in Sydney, in the state of NSW, as DBR 208.

Helmut Kolsen later moved to a suburb of Brisbane, Qld., and ran the car until 27 July 1968, when it was sold to Tom Thomson, a professor of engineering at Sydney University. By the time the Fleming car came into Tom Thomson’s expert hands, it was a worn-out, 160,000-mile car in a sorry state. Tom was a self-taught prodigy in such widespread areas as aeronautical engineering, metallurgy, cabinet-making and lectured on propeller and turbine design and manufacture. Over the next four years, Tom Thomson restored the Fleming Sapphire, attending to panel beating, veneer laying, and refurbishing the mechanicals.

The restored car was driven by Prof. Thomson until 23 May 1978, when he sold it to Armstrong Siddeley authority Robert Penn Bradley, who has written books on the marque. Bradley only kept it for two weeks, when, 500-odd miles later, he sold it to Armidale, NSW neighbour and fellow club member Darrel Urquhart. Darrel kept the car meticulously maintained and used it sparingly until his death in 2014. Due to his poor health, the car had been idle for several years before his passing and afterwards.

The current owners have invested in some repairs and maintenance upon acquiring the car in 2016, and since then it has been garaged, well maintained and well enjoyed. The Fleming legacy–brief as it is–has been preserved and is in good hands.

You Only Live Twice

Source: Wikimedia

As we leave the murky espionage world of Fleming and Bond, where the line between fact and fiction blurs, we behold a vision. We see Commander James Bond (or is it Commander Ian Fleming?) at the wheel of this grey Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. In a double-take, like a cinematic split-screen, we see both men at once. One is real; one is imaginary; both are larger than life. Bond looks dapper in navy serge suit and black knitted silk tie, smoking a cigarette custom-made for him by Morland & Company; Fleming is smart in a single-breasted suit by his Mayfair tailor, with his trademark bow-tie, lightly clenching a cigarette holder in his teeth.

Both are briskly but safely crossing the Continent at speeds approaching 90 mph. Bond is on his way to a rendezvous with a Soviet Bloc defector, and perhaps, later, also to meet with a beautiful Polish countess living in exile on the Riviera. Fleming is dashing to meet with a secret informer, gathering intelligence for the Sunday Times at least, if not for the British government itself.

That past still lives in the present. And tomorrow never dies.

Former Owners’ List

  1. Com. Ian Fleming, 16 Victoria Square, London, England
  2. John L. Jameson, 16 St Peters Rd, Croydon, Surrey, England
  3. Henry W. Warner, 158 Battersea High St, Battersea, England
  4. Helmut M. Kolsen, Prior Pockets Rd, Moggill, Queensland, Australia
  5. Prof. Tom A. Thomson, 33 Lovell Rd, Eastwood, NSW, Australia
  6. Robert P. Bradly, ‘Lindfield,’ Dangarsleigh Rd, Armidale, NSW, Australia
  7. Darrel & Eunice Urquhart, 156 Brown St, Armidale, NSW, Australia

Acknowledgements

My thanks to the current owners for agreeing to present their Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire, and its unique history.

I would also like to thank the webmaster of Artistic Licence Renewed, for providing much of the information about Ian Fleming. I highly recommend the site for all Bond buffs.

I would also like to thank the people of the Armstrong Siddeley Car Club of Australia for all their efforts in substantiating the provenance of this car and help in preserving it in its current condition.

Armstrong Siddeley and many other classic cars are featured in Restored Cars Australia, the southern hemisphere’s premier collector car magazine. Back issues can be bought through the web site at: https://restoredcarsmagazine.com/

[A more expanded version of the article will be published in an Australian classic car magazine (Restored Cars Australia).]

Incidental Intelligence

Under various aliases, Igor Solarisov has contributed feature articles to Restored Cars, the Australian classic car magazine, for about 25 years. His article exploring the electric car experiments of Nikola Tesla in Nexus magazine (the real ‘Tesla’) has been translated into several languages. Igor has also published books on Amazon’s Kindle platform on vintage car maintenance and science fiction history. A sometimes amateur astronomer, he once saw Goldfinger on TV, before turning to the telescope to observe a lunar eclipse later that night.

Car restoration books

James Bond Exhibition at Jack Barclay Bentley

Bond and Bentley: A Match Made by Fleming

3 thoughts on “Sapphires are Forever – Ian Fleming’s 1954 Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 346 Mark II

  1. Fascinating article, thrilling to see this beautiful car restored to its original condition.
    Interesting to read about Flemings car history.
    Many thanks
    Fraser

  2. What a great article.
    Armstrong Siddeley is another fabulous British brand that no longer exists. We really know how to burn through them !
    Regards,
    David

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