Speed and Power
On 4 May 2017, a new exhibition opened at Kenilworth Castle, celebrating the castle’s links with motoring and aviation pioneer Sir John Siddeley. The exhibition, ‘Speed and Power: John Siddeley, Pioneer of the Motor Age’ examines the life and work of Siddeley, the founder of Armstrong Siddeley Motors who bought the castle in 1937, the same year that he was created Baron Kenilworth.
John Davenport Siddeley
Born in Manchester in 1866, Siddeley first worked for his father, before joining the Humber Cycle Company in 1892. In 1893 he joined the Pneumatic Tyre Company and later set up the rival Clipper Tyre Company, which continues today under the name Continental. He had a keen eye for marketing and in 1898, arranged for a cyclist to ride a bicycle fitted with Clipper tyres from Land's End to John O'Groats.
In 1900, he drove a Daimler car in England's Thousand Miles Trial, completing the event without any punctures, gaining great publicity and opening his eyes to the potential of car manufacturing. By 1902 he had started his own company, Siddeley Autocars, using imported Peugeot engines, moving on to design and build his own cars. In 1937, Siddeley was created Baron Kenilworth and he bought the castle in the same year, placing it in the care of the Ministry of Works in 1938. He died in 1953 in Jersey.
Armstrong Siddeley Company
Siddeley was a clever businessman which lead to the creation of the hugely successful British engineering group Armstrong Siddeley. In the years leading up to the First World War, he entered into a series of partnerships with the other leading car manufacturers such as Wolseley and Deasy. Eventually Armstrong Siddeley Motors emerged in 1919 when the company became part of the Armstrong Whitworth Group.
Siddeley remained at the company's helm until 1935 when, at the age of 70, he arranged a merger with Hawker Aircraft, resulting in the creation of Hawker Siddeley. The deal made him an exceptionally rich man and he used much of his reputed £1 million share on charitable works, including the purchase of Kenilworth Castle.
In the interwar years, Armstrong Siddeley became famous for producing luxurious cars loved by the rich and famous. The future King George VI even famously took the Queen Mother on their honeymoon in his Siddeley in 1923. The Siddeley Special, launched in 1932 was considered the company's finest vehicle; powered by a new five-litre engine, it was capable of speeds of up to 100mph and was the epitome of quality, luxury and performance at the time.
During the First World War, the Armstrong Siddeley company's Parkside works in Coventry switched production to ambulances, lorries and aeroplane engines, increasing the workforce from 500 to 5,000 and plane engines became the mainstay of the engineering business.
During the Second World War, the Parkside production plant was devoted entirely to war work. Along with large areas of Coventry, the factory was badly damaged in German air raids on the city and some staff members lost their lives. In order that the vital work supporting the war would continue, the factory was brought back into operation and the drawing office was moved to the relative safety of the gatehouse of the castle.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a 1937 painting of Siddeley himself by Frank Salisbury, the celebrated artist known for his portraits of the Queen, Winston Churchill and six US presidents. Other highlights will include sphinx mascots from Siddeley's glamorous cars, original catalogues and equipment from the drawing office which was once housed within the castle gatehouse.
Furniture from the Board Room at the company's Parkside factory will appear including a section of a yew tree which once stood beside the factory, felled during an air raid on 14 November 1917. The exhibition has been created in association with the Armstrong Siddeley Heritage Trust which exists to advance the education of the public in the history of the UK motor industry, particularly the vehicles of Armstrong Siddeley Motors Ltd and John Davenport Siddeley.