They Came From The East (Riding)

The story of Armstrong Dampers.

Image: isaydingdong

New Year’s Day: Normally a time of headaches, compromised hand/eye co-ordination and the avoidance of anything remotely complicated. Perhaps using a shoe horn to ease into the day, but certainly no haste or sudden movements. Definitely not one for starting a business. But 117 years ago, twenty two year old Fullerton George Gordon Armstrong, who clearly hadn’t indulged in anything intoxicating the night before, did just that. With initial plans to build cars bearing his surname, his venture would eventually lead to a global empire which followed the path of many a British enterprise, with a dash of turmoil thrown in.

Whether aware of the Chinese proverb of the long walk beginning with the first step or not, Gordon had inculcated his younger self with an engineering apprenticeship, twelve months spent at sea as a marine engineer, chief mechanic, then proprietor at a larger, land-based garage. His opening gambit in the auto business would take place in a small rented workshop in Beverley, East Yorkshire, entitled The East Riding Garage & Engineering Works. On Whit Monday 1912, competing with his own 8hp car, Armstrong won both Scarborough speed trials and hill climb on the same day, but had to settle for the ignominy of fourth position in the 90-Mile reliability run, owing to a puncture. Mechanically, the car proved sound.

Image: themgtsociety

On something of a roll, Armstrong produced some three hundred cars before the Great War. Using the enforced hiatus (where his workshop made gun tractors along with ever in-demand ammunition), he began to fully develop his ideas for not just his own creations but in supplying rival manufacturers with a better ride. 1926 bore witness to the creation of F.G. Gordon Armstrong of Eastgate, Beverley, manufacturers of shock absorbers. Four years later the Armstrong Patent Co, a private company (going public in 1935), became Armstrong Shock Absorbers Ltd. On the eve of the Second World War a 450-strong workforce were producing 4000 dampers per day.

In between all of this and now clearly a man of means, FGG Armstrong diversified, combining older names Siddeley (Coventry), Deasey (once of Wolseley), creating a depth of engineering with Armstrong-Siddeley who built lorries, aircraft engines, tank gearboxes along with devices to propel rockets as well as luxurious cars. Their emblem being the Sphinx[1], along with the over-slick “cars for the gentlemen’s daughter” slogan, alluding to the pre-selector gearbox.

Armstrong’s primary interest was in what we today know as ride and he invested heavily into shock absorber research. Indubitably paying off, for by his demise, his company’s 1960 portfolio (now run by his family) included practically all of the major manufacturers. That roster included many long gone names but when did that ever stop the publicity machine? Bond Cars, Dove, Lloyd, Marcos, Frisky, TVR, SAAB and the myriad badges swallowed up into the British Leyland Motor Company were all once Armstrong customers. Armstrong’s biggest clients were the Blue Oval and the BLMC collective – the Austin Three Litre with Auto Levelling garnering highly positive press.

Keen on expansion from the wilds of East Yorkshire, Armstrong also took in English speaking, commonwealth countries; Montreal in 1951, Melbourne in ‘55. Warehousing and workshops could be found in Chicago, New Jersey and Port Elizabeth, South Africa. By the 1970s, Armstrong products could be obtained in over a hundred countries with an Eastern European push on the cards.

Ford’s increasing demand equated to a new Armstrong factory in nearby Hull, purely devoted to shockers for Dagenham and Halewood’s finest, with over five million made in twelve months. Where once the idea of pricing fell under a Dutch Auction where prices were reduced or rounded down until a buyer could be found, the freshly strong sales team had shifted to a more scientific approach, using computers. Dividends were high, leading to innovations, promoting new products; the MacPherson strut precipitating a Midas touch. 

One Earle S. MacPherson had been tinkering with GM suspension units until his Chevrolet Cadet project was canned in 1949. Annoyed, a move to Dearborn soon heralded a design that literally rocked the suspension world. 1950 saw the British Ford Consul (soon followed by the Zephyr) becoming the first mass produced car to benefit from Earle’s device. Armstrong took up the supply baton and ran. Spare parts meant (in those pre-internet days) literature printed in over a dozen languages, meaning a MacPherson strut could be purchased in a Jyvaskala garage as easily as one in downtown Tokyo, with no need for pointing and shouting.

The man himself. Image: gracesguide

The 1960s boom of course led to the eighties bust with some additional assistance from British Leyland. Foreign competition had already led Armstrong down the redundancy path. BL took Armstrong to court in 1986 over the Marina’s exhaust pipe – Hull selling aftermarket exact copies without royalty payments made to BL – the lower court found in BL’s favour. Armstrong appealed to the High Court – and won (in 1986) but the writing was by then on the wall. 

Unprofitable businesses were sold off, yet losses remained high. Out of twenty nine British based companies, half were sold in 1988. Tenneco snapped up the suspension division, Armstrongs blaming “excessively high” development costs for the world market, whereas Caparo Industries, already with a 30% share bought up the remainder in 1989. Armstrong’s involvements with surface smoothing had come to an end. 

[1] The old Siddeley-Deasey logo was “As Silent as the Sphinx”.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

10 thoughts on “They Came From The East (Riding)”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Thank you, a nice potted (and to me completely unknown) history of the company that made the lever arm shock absorbers fitted at Longbridge to my Austin A30. However I don’t think there was any direct connection between Mr F.G.G Armstrong and Armstrong Siddeley.

    1. Ah, Armstrong Siddeley. One of those cars I almost never see here. I was happy to see this three weeks ago.

    2. First prize to Neil for spotting the deliberate mistake – Andrew was wondering how long it would take anyone to notice it! Lever arm shock absorbers could produce some interesting behaviour as they deteriorated and a common sight in my youth was Austin A40s of the Devon & Somerset model with worn shocks bounding down the road like nodding dogs while their front wheels chattered violently up and down. Alright until you tried to turn a corner. A30s didn’t seem quite so prone to such behaviour.

  2. Good morning, Andrew. When I think of British shocks Girling somehow comes to mind before Armstrong. I must have come across the Armstrong brand plenty of times, but never realized the history behind it, so a big thanks to you for uncovering this piece of automotive history.

  3. In another life, I had dealing with Armstrong Patents 40+ years ago, relating to their Heli-Coil business, and I certainly visited the Beverley factory at least once. I remember they visited my place of work in Kerry one winter, sending several engineers/executives in their company plane. Since the pilot saw snow on the runway he contacted Kerry Airport to ask how deep it was, and the only contact was with the girl in the airport bar….
    I never did like lever-arm dampers, by the way.

  4. Morning Andrew
    A cracking article so thanks for posting. It has reminded me that the shockers on the Mercedes were recently identified as slightly less than effective. Not surprising with the state of some of our roads…

  5. Here’s a film they made to demonstrate their products. It looks like they were a pretty sophisticated set-up. Nice shots of an FB Victor and a Saab, too.

  6. Good morning Andrew and thank you for this very educational piece, and especially for explaining the origins of the ubiquitous MacPherson strut. I guessed that there was a Mr MacPherson behind it, but had been too lazy to investigate further!

    That’s a delightful portrait of Armstrong. It has a lovely 1930s period feel, rather less formal (in attire, at least) than earlier generations would have been painted.

  7. Thank you Andrew for a very interesting and enlightening article. Lever arm shocks were still being used by BL into the eighties, on the likes of tge Marina and MGBs. Why, I never knew. There was a big after sales in telescopic conversions I seem to remember.

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