Preparing a 346 or Star Sapphire for use as a daily driver
by Hugh Boulter
Given that the first of the 346 Sapphires were built in 1952 and the last of the Star Sapphires were built in 1960, is it possible to use these elderly classics on a regular basis in the modern world?
The answer is a definitive yes, for a number of reasons. First, modern traffic has slowed over the last decade due to the increased volume of vehicles on the road and ever more prevalent speed cameras. These days, cars are not allowed to cruise much above 120kph on Australian Freeways and Motorways and low speed limits in busy areas are enforced. In these conditions all Sapphires are able to keep up, particularly the Star Sapphires, which are still quick cars.
Armstrong Siddeleys were always built up to a standard and not down to a price like other motor car manufacturers. These are motorcars that had a very high standard of engineering and design and were built by hand. In simple terms they were ¾ of the price of a Rolls Royce and twice the price of a Jaguar or Rover and only sold in low numbers. Mind you they are not without their faults. Sapphires are popular in Britain, on the Continent, New Zealand and of course Australia, so a significant spare parts reserve is held by the various Car Clubs usually at realistic prices. Whilst being beautifully engineered, Sapphires are in fact simple to work on and in many respects, more simple than a similarly aged Jaguar. The Sapphire has a strong chassis and solid bumpers to cope with other people touch parking. Second hand body panels are readily available.
If you intend to drive a Sapphire on a regular basis, the Mk1 Sapphire could use some subtle upgrades that are advisable. These include indicators (rather than the semaphore trafficators). This can be done by deleting the extra reversing lights in the light binnacles, leaving one centrally located in the boot plinth and replacing the clear bulbs with amber bulbs. Adding a small brake booster completes the modifications that were introduced in the Mk2 and Star Sapphires.
A well maintained cooling system will cope without any problem in Australia’s busiest city, Sydney or other very built-up areas, but it is worth regularly replacing the cooling hoses and having the correct mixture of glycol which will need to be replaced from time to time. There is no need for an expansion tank unless you wish to make the car totally traffic proof.
Tyres are probably the next items to look at because original specification cross-ply ones are old technology and to use a motorcar every day the tyres need to be at their best. Original specification cross-ply tyres may look nice on a concours motorcar, but you would not really want to put that type of motorcar into the traffic every day. A set of 205/80-16R Michelin tyres (original equipment for the Range Rover Classic) suit all model Sapphires, grip well, provide a comfortable ride and are quite manageable with manual steering. An alternative used by a few drivers is a set of 195/75R-16 Michelin tyres (original equipment for the Mercedes Vito Van). There is absolutely no benefit to be had maintaining crossply tyres on a daily-driver. These modern tyres keep the gearing ratios broadly the same and provide a good quality ride. They do not compromise handling whilst markedly improving steering and braking distances.
Brakes are the next item to consider. The original drums on the 346 are fine for normal work provided they are not neglected. The Star’s power assisted disc and drum set up offers excellent brake performance. The key is to make sure they are regularly serviced, pads and linings replaced as needed and brake fluid replaced regularly. Make sure that brake hoses are replaced when needed.
In respect to dampers, you should make sure that they are in good order. It is important to have a medium to soft setting so that the ride quality is preserved and the body is preserved. Holden HQ dampers are good for this purpose. A setting that is too hard will end up causing accelerated damage to the body. Welding in a small triangular strengthening plate in the top corners of the boot shut face/ gutter will strengthen the body in this weak spot.
Front and rear suspensions are long lasting if maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications. Importantly, this includes using oil in the front suspension, not grease. Appropriate replacement bushes are available to purchase* from Armstrong Siddeley Spares Australia. In terms of the rear suspension it is important that this is in good order otherwise you will get significant rear end steering assistance, which is not desirable. The rear axle is typical of many motorcars of the era; the important aspect here is to have the differential serviced by a specialist. This is not expensive and can save failure due to the bolts either being loose or even falling out.
Jokes about Joseph Lucas being the Prince of Darkness are not entirely without merit, but because of the relatively simple nature of the electrical system, problems of this nature are very limited. The areas of most risk are due to former owners "playing" with wiring under the dash or worn or failure of ancillaries. Fortunately, these days, improved ancillaries are available from specialists who advertise in classic car magazines both in Australia and the UK. Either way it repays you to ensure that the electrics have been sorted out. It is possible to obtain an Alternator conversion to replace the generator, but that is an upgrade that is more of a luxury rather than a necessity. The vehicles were manufactured as Positive to Earth. If you wish to fit a modern radio there are a limited number of retailers that specialise in converting old style radios to receive FM signals. Alternatively, you can change the polarity of the vehicle from positive to earth to negative to earth to enable the installation of a modern radio and or CD player. It is also possible to upgrade the lighting system with high intensity LED light bulbs for both front and rear lights.
Neither, the Mk1 or the Mk2 Sapphires have red rear reflectors so it is worth obtaining a set to protect your vehicle when it is parked at night.
All Sapphires will run on unleaded fuel without modification, but over time this will result in exhaust valve and seat recession. It is quite easy for your engine workshop to put a set of hardened seats and exhaust valves in the head of a Sapphire engine when you are next overhauling the head of the engine. Also, it is worth purchasing either a spare fuel pump or having an overhaul kit in the boot of the car. Similarly, you can purchase* from Armstrong Siddeley Spares Australia, a "Get You Home" Box.
It is important to keep the engine and gearbox mounts in good order as a failure of the front mount will result in the engine cooling fan moving forward into the radiator resulting in the need to get it re-cored.
With the above attention to detail and some of these improvements it serves to make for a fast and comfortable motorcar. These lovely old cars deserve to run well and to be driven as often as possible.
Please also refer to technical books available from this web site for further reading.