cars from 1920 - 1967. Alvis cars were never produced in large
numbers and therefore, they are very exclusive
. Before World War II
, the cars were raced
and competitive appearences continued well into the fifties.
Alvis never made their own bodies. Each car was built as a complete chassis before being sent to the coachbuilder of the customer's choice, usually with a list of special requirements. As every body was made to this individual order, it is an accepted truism that no two Alvis cars are exactly the same.
The company began life as Tom G. John Ltd, (founded by Welshman Tom G. John, a naval architect and highly qualified engineer) which, after aquiring the business of Holley Brothers, Coventry in 1919, built a 50cc motor scooter known as the Stafford Mobile Pup. The company was also an agent for stationary engines from the Hillman Motor Car Company, this agency survived until 1921.
Shortly after starting his business, Tom John was approached by Geoffrey de Freville (who had earlier been associated with the Bentley brothers) with designs for a 4-cylinder car The first Alvis car appeared as a result in early 1920. The design called for aluminium pistons and pressure lubrication, unusual for the period. Although Freville (founder of Aluminium Alloy Piston Company) had no further connections with Alvis, it is suggested that he thought of renaming the company from TG John Ltd. to The Alvis Car & Engineering Co. Ltd. late in 1921. The origin of the name Alvis is obscure, although it seems that Freville suggested it as it had a more international flavour.
The company soon moved to Holyhead Road, Coventry. The first Alvis was the 10/30 and soon set the reputation for quality and performance for which the company became famous. In 1922 the Buckingham cyclecar was produced as an attempt to enter the lower end of the market but this project was soon abandoned.
Other key figures in the Alvis story, G.T. Smith-Clarke and W.M. Dunn, joined the firm in 1922. Captain Smith-Clarke (from the firm Daimler) joined as Chief Engineer & Works Manager and Dunn as Chief Draughtsman. Smith-Clarke was responsible for all engineering matters until his retirement from the firm in 1950, and he and Dunn kept Alvis at the forefront of technological advance throughout, a partnership which lasted for 25 years.
Despite the quality of their products Alvis went into receivership in June 1924 and the Board was reorganised with Sir Arthur Lowes Dickinson, an accountant, as chairman while Tom John remained as Managing Director and a major shareholder. Tom John also looked after the financial and business affairs of the company.
Even through this, the directors stuck to their philosophy of making as much of the car as possible on the premises, with their own iron and aluminium foundries, and comprehensively equipped machine shops. These factors, allied to sometimes idiosyncratic design features, gives Alvis cars (especially those from the pre-war years) more than their fair share of individuality and character.
During the 1930's the Speed20 led to a series of sporting cars capable of 90mph, and eventually to the fastest pre-war Alvis, the 4.3 litre six-cylinder model of 1936-1940 which could reach 100 mph (161 kph). For ease, the company title was shortened to Alvis Ltd. in 1936
During the Second World War, Alvis moved to aero engine and armoured fighting vehicle production and for a time the firm made printing presses. The first step in this direction came with the purchase of more land on the Holyhead Road, further along from the existing car factory. A new factory for aero engine manufacture was built here, and a licence for radial engines taken out from Gnome et Rhône of France, but orders proved hard to find. Much development work took place on tanks and armoured cars, with the famous Leonides 9 cylinder radial aero engine making its first flight in early 1939, assuring the future of the company.
Helicopters became widely used post-war and many were Leonides powered, the engine proving particularly suitable for this application. Later the 14 cylinder Leonides Major was developed. Alvis made a tremendous contribution to the war effort, much of it sub-contract work on Rolls-Royce aero engines.
The car factory was severely damaged in the Luftwaffe raid on Coventry in 1940, but the aero engine factory escaped almost unscathed. Many drawings of the pre-war car designs had been burned during this air raid but the company's commitment to supporting the owners of already aged Alvis cars never wavered. And in return, owners were asked to supply their worn parts so that new drawings could be produced and new parts made. Meanwhile design of the first wholly new postwar car was already in progress. Armoured car production began, and J.J. Parkes joined as Managing Director.
TG John retired in 1944, and the bulk of the responsibility for running the company fell upon G.T. Smith-Clarke, W.M. Dunn and A. Varney. Government interference and high taxation levels on expensive cars made the change back to peace-time operation difficult for the company.
After the war, the market for cars such as the 4.3 litre was gone and a car designed before the war, the 1892 cc 12/70, was renamed the TA14. There were persistent problems with the supply of bodies as the independent coachbuilders that Alvis used gradually went out of business or were bought out by other manufacturers. Alvis looked at acquiring their own facility, but the volumes necessary to secure an adequate return on the investment made this unfeasible. This problem of supply was something which was to dog Alvis for its remaining years of car production.
Most bodies were built by Cross and Ellis or by Carbodies but other companies were used occasionally. A comprehensive range of designs was available. Typically this would include 2/3 seaters, 4 seater tourers, four and six light saloons and the 3/4 or Doctor's Coupe. Fabric "Alvista" bodies were made as well as the traditional aluminium panel on ash framed "coachbuilt" bodies. Most bodies could be fitted to both four and six cylinder chassis, but the sports models were generally given a polished aluminium "Duck's Back" or a painted "Beetle Back" two seater with a small dickey seat in the tail.
In 1950, a new chassis and six-cylinder 3 litre engine was announced. This engine was used until the company ceased car production in 1967.
Significantly, some TA14 chassis were exported to Switzerland where three found their way into the hands of Hermann Graber, a top-flight coachbuilder. He built small numbers of very elegant bodies on three litre chassis in the early 1950s, for sale to his Swiss customers at high prices. These cars were more or less "one-offs", and were light, strong and modern looking. Alvis hoped that they would be able to have bodies built similar to Graber's design in the UK for substantially less. Accordingly two cars were sent to Switzerland for prototype bodies to be built, then returned to the UK, complete with the necessary jigs and patterns for series production.
A few cars were made, but whilst they were much admired and discussed, they were simply too expensive. The situation was only retrieved by going to Rolls-Royce subsidiary, Mulliner Park Ward, to redesign the body to enable its production, suitably modified for the British market, at a lower price. This was achieved in no uncertain manner and the cars sold well.
The Alvis car division was consistently losing money and had become more or less a public relations exercise, the TC 21/100 was looking very dated, so no one would have been surprised if the Alvis car had just quietly faded from production, a hangover from before the war.
From 1952 to 1955 Alec Issigonis worked for Alvis, designing an innovative new car with alternate 4 cylinder and V8 engines and rubber suspension conceived by Alex Moulton. Yet again, costs prevented realisation of this ingenious design to production, it was a fascinating car but sadly no photographs of it exist.
Alvis' independence came to an end in 1965 when the company was taken over by Rover, and in turn became part of the British Leyland empire a couple of years later. By now most of the company's production was their highly successful ranges of armoured vehicles. The car division carried on until 1967, along with the Aero Engine department, which had gradually lost ground as more and more aircraft became powered by gas turbine engines. Alvis built a P6BS mid-engined V8 coupe prototype in 1968.
New armoured vehicles were developed, including light tanks, and Alvis remained suppliers of precision engineering products to the aircraft industry. Sold off by British Leyland, Alvis became part of United Scientific Holdings in 1981, and more recently became known as Alvis Holdings, a measure of the regard in which the Alvis name is still held.
In 1994, Alvis left Holyhead Road for a new factory at Walsgrave on the outskirts of Coventry, and then in 1999 the link with Coventry was broken when "The Alvis" was moved to Telford, where production continues. The Holyhead Road site is now a shopping mall.
Despite sometimes being in a financially precarious state, the management team at Alvis were far-sighted, imaginative men, and never shrank from investing in experimentation, something which - even today - brings the Alvis car an avid following.
Dates and models of car produced
Pre - War
The Side Valve Cars: 10/30, 11/40 and 12/40: 1920 - 1925
The 12/50 and 12/60: 1923-1932
The 14.75 hp and Silver Eagle: 1927 - 1933
The Front Wheel Drive: 1928 - 1930
The Speed 20: 1932 - 1936
The Firefly, Firebird, Sixteen and later Silver Eagle: 1932 - 1936
The Crested Eagle: 1933 - 1939
The 3½ Litre, Speed 25 and 4.3 Litre: 1935 - 1940
The Seventeen and Silver Crest: 1937 - 1940
The 12/70: 1937 - 1940
TA and TB 14: 1945 - 1950
Three Litre Models TA, TB, TC 21, TC 21/100 and TC 108G: 1950 - 1957
Three Litre Models TD, TE and TF 21: 1958 - 1967