This article is about a low volume car manufacturer that survived by manufacturing military vehicles and aircraft engines. T.G. John founded a company in his name in 1919 as a supplier of engines and scooter style motorised bikes. He set up his company in Coventry in the UK, which was at the heart of the British industry. The following year John used a new four cylinder engine design by Geoffrey de Freville in an all-new car. It was a great success from its launch and it prompted the company to change its name to the Alvis Car and Engineering Company.
The car, the 10/30 was made alongside the Buckingham car – a short lived contract for vehicle assembly. The engine in the 10/30 became the foundation for the company throughout the 1920s and early 1930s being fitted to the 12/50 with some updates.
In the 1930s, Alvis released a new six cylinder engine that would replace the four and would become the only car engine used until World War 2. With their Chief Engineer, Captain GT Smith-Clarke, poached from Daimler, the company had a very innovative decade. They introduced several features on their models that are now commonplace: front wheel drive, independent suspension, all-synchromesh gearboxes and power assisted brakes.
The company was building sports and luxury models: the sports cars had names like the Speed 20 and Speed 25. The luxury models were called the Silver Eagle, the Crested Eagle, the Firebird and the Silver Crest. Alvis specialised in building rolling chassis and then having coach-builders fit bodies based on their own designs or a customer request.
One such coach-builder was Vanden Plas who would later join Alvis in the British Motor Corporation. With the cars being successful through an economically depressed decade, the company changed its name again – simplifying it to Alvis Ltd. They also expanded into aero engines and other equipment. This may have been a planned decision with another war looming and the company seeing a market for equipment other than civilian cars. With car production halted, the factory was bombed during the war however that didn’t stop the production of aero engines on behalf of Rolls-Royce.
With the war ending, car production was started again with a new numbering system, akin to MGs and other manufacturers, so the pre-war 12/70 became the TA14 which used many of the components that dated back to the 1920s. The problem that Alvis had was that many of the pre-war coach-builders had failed and the remaining ones were being gobbled up by the bigger manufacturers.
In 1950, Alvis released a new 3 litre six cylinder engine that became the engine for all future Alvis models. The TA14 was replaced by the TA21 and Alvis used two different coach-builders: Mulliner of Birmingham built the luxury saloons and Tickford made the convertibles. Both of these coach-builders would soon be taken over by other manufacturers that would prevent them from working with Alvis.
Alvis had heard of a Swiss coach-builder, Hermann Graber who was making bodies for Alvis chassis, so several were shipped for completion and a licence was signed to use Graber designs in the future with assembly in the UK. Over 150 cars were finished in Switzerland before the assembly was moved back to Britain. Graber had been in business since the start of the industry and had agreements with Aston Martin, Bentley and Rolls-Royce amongst others.
Park Ward who were owned by Rolls-Royce were contracted to build bodies for Alvis for their final ten years. However the cost of building them made the final Alvis models only for the very upper end of the market and they were losing business to Jaguar, Rover and other mass produced quality saloons. In fact, Rover acquired Alvis in 1965 and with the re-organisation of BMC it was soon dropped along with other low volume brands and parts divisions.
The aero engine and military vehicle manufacturing had continued alongside the car production and this didn’t fit with the constantly re-organising British Leyland as it became. In 1981 it was sold yet again to United Scientific Group and renamed Alvis Group. After a merger with Vickers in 2002, it became part of British Aerospace in 2004 who finally dropped the brand completely.
However …. that’s not the end of the story! After the marque stopped production, British Leyland sold off the rights and assets to Red Triangle in a town near Coventry who became the suppliers of parts and other components to keep the cars serviced. They also took control of the build records too, which meant that they could help every individual owner with what essentially is a bespoke car. A few years ago, they decided to build some continuation cars – something that Aston Martin and Jaguar have also started to do.
Apparently, in 1938, the Alvis Board sanctioned the build of 150 Vanden Plas tourers, however the war intervened and only 73 were made, yet the chassis numbers had already been allocated. Red Triangle are quietly building the continuation cars with these correct chassis numbers. The company is also planning to build more models in a similar fashion.
Alvis is a car that I would certainly like to have in my collection, the TF21 is a personal favourite.