Words: Dave Smith, images: various
A reputation for quality and performance made Alvis one of the most British names ever to adorn a car
If you join the dots of Greater Birmingham, Luton, Dagenham, Cowley and back to Birmingham, you’ll have a very long, thin diamond shape. Going back a few decades, most of the UK’s motor car production happened within that narrow rhomboid, and one of the liveliest spots within it was Coventry. One of the names the city was most proud of was Alvis, although the company was a relative latecomer to the party.
Thomas George John founded TG John and Co Ltd in 1919 to make stationary engines and motor scooters. The company logo was originally a winged green triangle, but the Manchester-based aircraft company, Avro, harrumphed that it was rather similar to their own logo, so John changed his to an inverted red triangle.
Soon, John teamed up with Geoffrey de Freville, who had designed his own four-cylinder engine, and their first product was the Alvis 10/30. This used a long-stroke 1,460cc side-valve engine based on de Freville’s design, and came with a range of factory bodies or coachbuilt options. Right from the start, the 10/30 was marketed as “The Car for the Connoisseur,” and lived up to it, giving the company a reputation for build quality and performance that they were naturally keen to maintain.
The Alvis Car And Engineering Company was born in late 1921. There are many apocryphal stories about where the name ‘Alvis’ came from, but de Freville always maintained that it was a meaningless word, purely chosen because it was easily pronounced by speakers of any language. The newly named company took on a new factory in Coventry, headhunted some talented staff – including a chief engineer and chief draughtsman from nearby Daimler – and set about making improvements.
The range was expanded with the 11/40 – which used an even longer stroke to bring the engine up to 1,598cc – and later 12/40, but the new chief engineer, Cpt George Thomas Smith-Clarke, modified de Freville’s engine with overhead valves to create the 12/50 in late 1923.
The new 12/50 used a 1,496cc version of the new OHV engine, and came in 108″ (SA) or 112″ (SB) wheelbase chassis. The SA was mostly seen with a two-seat, boat-tailed sports roadster body, while many of the SBs were sporting 2+2s. Later models had the long-stroke engine as an optional extra, and this became standard when the SC arrived in late 1924. Throughout the Twenties, the model was constantly refined and updated until it went out of production in 1932, by which time Alvis had become synonymous with refined, sporting cars for discerning gentlemen.
Meanwhile, those engineers weren’t resting on their laurels, and by 1927 they had debuted the six-cylinder, 1,870cc Alvis 14.75, which later became the 16.95 with a 2,148cc engine. This big, handsome cruiser was also refined throughout its long life, and featured a number of firsts and breakthroughs, including independent front suspension, all-synchromesh transmission, a duplex cam chain with sprung tensioner and, later, servo-assisted all-round brakes. This model was renamed the Silver Eagle in 1929, and the range later incorporated a short-chassis sportster, plus a wider track and lower-slung body for weekend racers.
Once again, there was no time for those engineers to relax, as the next model – the 1928 12.75 sportster – was a technological tour de force. They were definitely sports cars, most having two-seat or 2+2 bodywork, but up front was a 1,481cc motor with overhead cam, an optional supercharger… and front-wheel drive.
The factory had been racing four- and eight-cylinder front-wheel drive cars for a couple of years, and two of the four-cylinders came home sixth and ninth overall in the 1928 running of Le Mans to sweep the under-1,500cc class. Another supercharged 12.75 came second in the 1928 Ards TT race, just 13 seconds behind the similarly powered local Coventry rival, Lea-Francis. After a gruelling 400 miles in this new Tourist Trophy road race around Northern Ireland, the Alvis ran out of fuel a few hundred feet after the finish line…
All this did nothing to hurt Alvis’ sporting pedigree, naturally, but the front-wheel drive 12.75 may have been a technological bridge too far for the mainstream motoring world, and only around 150 were built. That makes them highly sought after today, of course.
Production and innovation continued through the Thirties, with the 2.8 and 3.5-litre six-cylinder Speed 20, followed by the seven-bearing 3.5-litre Speed 25 and 4.3 Litre flying the flag for both performance and luxury. In 1936, the company shortened its name to simply Alvis Ltd, and, with a degree of prescience, branched out into aircraft engine and armoured vehicle manufacture. After a brief hiatus when war was declared in 1939, production of the 12/70, Speed 25, 4.3 Litre and Crested Eagle model continued until 1940.
Naturally, with Coventry being a major manufacturing city, this attracted the attention of Herr Hitler and his Luftwaffe, and the Alvis factory was severely damaged during the Coventry Blitz of November 1940. Amazingly, this misfortune barely caused a missed step in Alvis’ military manufacturing, and all car production was halted so that all hands could move to the war machine production lines. Most of this work was building aero engines for Rolls-Royce, but after hostilities ceased, tanks and other armoured vehicles would become an increasingly large part of Alvis’s workload. One very successful venture was the Alvis Leonides nine-cylinder radial aero engine, which found its niche in the growing post-war helicopter market.
It would be 1946 before Alvis finally returned to car production, but this wouldn’t be without its own issues. First, many of the pre-war designs and blueprints were lost in the Blitz, but Alvis’ stiff upper lip never wobbled, and they continued to supply parts and service to owners, even if that meant making new parts using the owner’s worn or broken part as a blueprint. Second, not only were materials in short supply, so were manufacturers. Other, larger car companies quickly acquired those coachbuilders that survived the war, so Alvis struggled to get bodywork. Third, an increased tax on cars in the Alvis price bracket during the post-war austerity years made many buyers think twice. Had it not been for the military side of the business, Alvis would almost certainly have been sunk.
The first car out of the post-war gate was the TA14, a Mulliner- or Tickford-bodied sports saloon or drophead based on the pre-war 12/70. Some TA14 chassis went to Switzerland to be bodied by the biggest name in the game, Graber. The later TB14 was a modern, swoopy two-seater bodied by AP Metalcraft, but its high price restricted sales.
With John having retired in 1944, and Smith-Clarke following six years later to be replaced by Willie Dunn as chief engineer, 1950 would prove to be a pivotal year for Alvis cars. A new chassis, carrying a 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine, was under the new TA21 Mulliner saloon, Tickford drophead coupe or TB21 AP Metalcraft two-seater, when they debuted at the 1950 Geneva show. This chassis had independent, coil-sprung front end, a live axle on leaf springs at the rear, and Lockheed hydraulic drum brakes. Little did Dunn know at the time, but this chassis and straight-six engine would see the company through to the end almost two decades later.
The TC21 came along in 1953, but without the two-seater option. It wasn’t the success that Alvis needed. The TC21/100 Grey Lady followed shortly after, so named as the 3.0 engine had been tuned to give a guaranteed top speed of 100mph. This may have been a ruse or PR exercise to divert attention away from the fact that, while other companies were borrowing flashy, transatlantic styling by the barrowload, the stately Grey Lady was looking distinctly out of fashion.
Over the next couple of years, Mulliners were exclusively contracted to (and subsequently bought out by) Standard Triumph, and Tickford went the same way to Aston Martin, leaving Alvis high and dry. In a bold move, they turned to Graber, asking for a licence to reproduce his designs in the UK. Graber agreed and built a couple of prototypes, which were returned to the UK to be patterned and the bodies built by Willowbrook of Loughborough. The result was the TC108G, a modern and beautiful GT coupe, in 1955. It was cost prohibitive, though – Willowbrook only built 15 or so examples, against Graber’s 22 over the following two years – and never really got on track until Park Ward took over the coachbuilding in 1958.
This model was renamed the TD21, available in 2+2 coupe or drophead styles, and was everything Alvis had been waiting for. Tuned up to 115bhp, and with either a four-speed manual or three-speed BW auto, it was a true British GT. In 1959, it gained front disc brakes, with the 1962 Series II version getting Dunlop discs all round. It struggled for sales, though, especially when Jaguar’s stunning new E-Type debuted in 1961, at two-thirds the price of a TD21.
They stuck at it, however, and 1963 witnessed the launch of the TE21, or Three Litre Series III, with the stacked quad headlamps. An update of the TD21’s Graber design, the Park Ward (now Mulliner Park Ward) body was clean, modern, and instantly classic. The updated version, the 1966 TF21 or Three Litre Series IV, looked identical but had further tweaks to offer a 127mph top speed to match its looks. Oddly, the TE21 remained available for special order.
The biggest changes, however, were taking place in the boardroom. In 1965, Alvis lost its independence when Rover bought a controlling interest. A new mid-engined V8 design, codenamed P6BS was on the drawing board and was tipped to be the replacement for the TF21. However, the Wilson government was slowly shepherding Rover’s parent, the Leyland Motor Corporation, into the same pen as British Motor Holdings, to form the ill-starred British Leyland. The slow-selling Alvis had no place in the new regime (although the military division was doing rather well, and kept going separately), and car production was halted in 1967.
There was a management buyout of remaining stock, tooling and assets, and a new company, called Red Triangle, set up just down the road in Kenilworth to supply Alvis owners. Alvis’ military division moved to a site in Walsgrave, Coventry, in 1990, and later all the way to Telford in 1990. It was absorbed into defence giant BAE Systems in 2004, when the famous red triangle logo disappeared. These days, ask a Coventrian under the age of maybe 30 about Alvis, and they’ll probably direct you to the Alvis Retail Park, a large suburban shopping centre on the site of the old factory on Holyhead Road. Alvis truly has left the building… or has it?
The Red Triangle Returns
In this, Alvis’ centenary year, the famous red triangle is far from deceased. The Alvis Car Company are building The Continuation Series, a limited run of famous Alvis models, built using original works drawings, yet fully compliant with current emissions standards. Each is craftsman-built to special order in Kenilworth, to the bespoke requirements of the customer, and production time is usually between 18 and 20 months, depending upon the specification.
You could have yourself a Van Den Plas tourer, a Bertelli sports coupe or a superbly Art Deco styled Lancefield convertible, all based on the 4.3. Or you could have one of the sleek and sexy Park Ward or Graber coupes or dropheads, powered by the 3.0. The 4.3 engine is faithful to the 1936 original but uses modern technology to ensure it meets today’s emissions standards. This is quite an achievement, but also means that Alvis is the only British-owned car manufacturer to design and build its own engine… I can’t quite decide whether this is something to be proud of, or a fact to be ashamed about.
Naturally, you don’t buy a bespoke, hand-built classic motor car for Dacia money, and the bottom line varies according to customer specification, but expect prices to begin at ‘house’ and end at ‘palace’. See www.thealviscarcompany.co.uk for more details.