Daimler Special Sports, Jaguar MkV or Alvis TA21?

2016 / 2017 Drive-My

Drophead gorgeous Style from Alvis, Daimler and Jaguar. They seemed to carry the promise that life could be good again. Does Buckley pick Daimler Special Sports, Jaguar MkV or Alvis TA21? Post-war Britain wasn’t all rationing and gloom, says Martin Buckley, as he samples alluring dropheads from Daimler, Alvisand Jaguar. Photography Tony Baker.

There is a certain monochrome period somewhere between VE Day and the Festival of Britain that doesn’t seem to be much celebrated in the English old-car world. Motoring was a non-essential activity in a Britain of bombsites and rickets, where you could still get hanged and where almost everything you might have wanted – even if you could afford it – was rationed more perniciously than it had been during the previous six years of war.

Daimler Special Sports, Jaguar MkV or Alvis TA21 - giant road test

All three were well suited to export markets. Below, from left: MkV’s toolkit; neat detailing on the TA21; Daimler’s column-mounted preselector quadrant.

This was a world of Spam and powdered egg, of one bath a week, copious and virtually compulsory smoking, and insipient smog. Men sporting voluminous high-waisted trousers scuttled around in miserable little sidevalve family saloons (if they were lucky), but more likely went to work on a bicycle or a bus. The roads were relatively empty compared to today, the sounds and sights very different – the shrill whine of non-synchronised gears and thin wisps of blue smoke from almost every car.

If you were very rich and very patient – this being the period of Stafford Cripps and ‘export or die’ – then you might eventually have taken delivery in the UK of one of these glamorous Jaguar, Daimler or Alvis drophead coupés. They featured most of the latest luxuries, six-cylinder performance and handsome yet almost generically British lines that hedged their bets between tradition (all three have rear-hinged ‘suicide’ doors) and the hesitant modernity of headlamps faired into the wings. To us, in an age obsessed with the cult of personality, the Daimler and Alvis were designed by faceless teams. Only William Lyons saw the publicity value in linking himself personally with his Jaguar cars, whereas the engineers and stylists who created the Special Sports and the Tickford Alvis are totally anonymous nearly 70 years on.

The Special Sports, MkV and TA21 all had more familiar four-door saloon equivalents. In drophead form, however, they seem more colonial than home market in their target clientele. Given the unpredictable nature of the British climate even then, it is easier to picture them pounding the dusty roads of a fading outpost of Empire – cars for plantation owners and the last vestiges of the G&T-swilling White Mischief set.

The Daimler lends itself to this imagery particularly easily – a high proportion of the Barkers were exported and the featured car went out to Hong Kong new – whereas the Jaguar would seem more at home on the boulevards of Hollywood. Every dollar-hungry British carmaker had an eye on the requirements of wealthy Americans, but the MkV drophead showed that Jaguar knew its constituency better than most. Celebrities as varied as Carmen Miranda and Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock’s favourite composer) were noted customers for theTA21. The MkV was the last of the pushrod-engined cars, and probably had a better image abroad than it did at home. It was the final Jaguar to suffer from the ‘Wardour Street Bentley’ syndrome, although technical advances in its new chassis and William Heynes’ torsion-bar front suspension (shared with the XK120) meant that the car had more credibility than any of the company’s previous saloons.

In drophead form, it is one of the rarest postwar Jaguars (972 3½-litre cars and just 29 2½-litres) and represents the firm’s last four-seat convertible offering. Quite how William Lyons managed to sell this ash-framed and largely handbuilt piece of decadence for the same £1200 price-tag as the saloon is a mystery. New in 1948, it was nearly half the price of its Alvis and Daimler competitors yet it seems to be every bit as well detailed and finished.

Its squat, slinky shape appears to have leapt directly off Lyons’ sketchpad, his thoughts transferred into the metal with no compromises. For me, it is at its most elegant with the hood raised, showing off its massive chrome Landau bars. It looks great in the de Ville position, too, with the front seats open and the rears enclosed by the fat hood. The rear window is a small, private slit and there is more room in the back than in the other cars because the front seats are slender semi buckets.

Hood up or down, rear vision is inevitably poor, but the trade-off is that the folded hood doesn’t eat into legroom. Like all these cars, the MkV has trafficators, plus robust-looking double bumpers (which seem to hint at Jaguar’s North American ambitions for the model) and 15in pressed-steel wheels; its predecessor featured 16in rims with ‘Ace’ discs and full spats at the rear. The bootlid is hinged at the bottom and opens to reveal a beautiful green baize tray with inlaid tools, while the glazed rear numberplate gives the MkVa touch of coachbuilt sophistication.

The only element missing is the 3.4-litre XK engine (which was still being trialled in the much lower-volume XK120), but the Standard derived pushrod unit, its cylinder head reworked by Harry Weslake, could still push it beyond 90mph. Behind the wheel today it remains a lively, easy-to-drive car with quiet and flexible pick-up in top gear. Neither does it disgrace itself through the in directs – it has the urge of a 1970s saloon. The smoothness and silence of its Moss gearbox totally belies the later reputation of the unit; it’s the best I have ever encountered. Limitations in the handling are as much down to driving position and your perception of the Jaguar’s extremities as anything else. You sit low, as in a bath, very close to the massive steering wheel – which requires 4½ turns between locks – and the windscreen, with the pleasing walnut facia somewhere around your knees. There is also limited room for your right elbow to flail around as you manipulate the wheel.

The Jaguar is softly sprung with a quiet, sophisticated ride – the rear leaf springs had a longer travel than those on the SS – and shuffles benignly through roundabouts and open-road curves in a state of gentle understeer. It doesn’t make any particular noise but just quietly aspirates through its SU carburettors.

If the MkV drophead would have been eyed suspiciously by some as a car for cads and counter-jumpers, there is something more square-jawed about the no-nonsense Alvis, which counted the likes of Douglas Bader and James Mason among its adherents. The Speed 25s and 4.3s were warmly recalled 1930s supercars of recent-enough memory to make any new post-war Alvis important and much anticipated by a faithful and enthusiastic set of customers.

At just under £2000, the 3-litre TA21 of 1950 was the last all-new Alvis – each subsequent model through to the end of production in 1967 was a derivative of it – but even so it was hardly a revolution with its ‘conventional’ rear suspension, a new and stiffer box-section chassis and the first fully hydraulic brakes – by Lockheed – to be found on an Alvis. Its rugged coil-spring and double-wishbone front suspension was a welcome return to independence after the beam-axle TA14. Mulliner’s of Birmingham built the saloons, Tickford the unpretentiously handsome drophead. The company made 500 of them, the last 100 in TC21 ‘Grey Lady’ form.

Broadly similar to the superseded TA14, the main steel panels were interchangeable with the saloon but the body tub was alloy panelled over a hardwood frame. The appointments inside are solidly clubland, with a well-stuffed sofa in the rear and armchairs in the front with rather short cushions. Scattered white knobs look slightly incongruous against the walnut facia, the featured car’s rev counter to the right of the steering column being a later addition.

The original 90bhp engine in restricted single-Solex carburettor form (later changed to twin SUs) would have taken it to about 90mph but majored on torque, flexibility and quiet running. The neatly presented straight-six has a plug-lead cover and anti-rattle springs on its pushrods as added refinements.With its triple-carb TF cylinder head, this 150bhp TA is a bit of a hot-rod: it romps away from the Jaguar and the Daimler, taking steep inclines in its stride. It must halve the original car’s 20-second 0-60mph time and take the top speed to well over 100mph.

Its racy throttle response (you need the rev counter) suggests a lightened flywheel but this exacerbates the sense that the pedal angle is uncomfortable and slightly awkward to modulate; it is tricky to drive the Alvis discreetly thanks to its fruity exhaust note. The throttle itself is a roller and the pedals are closely grouped. Alvis pioneered synchromesh but an older design of ’box witha crashfirst was used the TA21, its stubby lever positive and accurate.

Not so the steering. The large wheel moves independently of the hub, with its proud Alvis Eagle crest, but doesn’t give fine control. There’s a vague springiness about it that spoils your enjoyment of an otherwise fun car that must make a fine high-speed cruiser in (non-standard) overdrive. It is hard to separate impressions of handling from steering, but it would be fair to say that the Alvis has less understeer than the other two so the steering problem is a shame.

Daimler’s Barker Special Sports was something quite new and daring for the company, withits jealously guarded Royal patronage and reputation for making rather stodgy and unexciting cars, although its straight-eight Green Goddess models were undeniably fabulous. Introduced in 1949, the Special Sports, with its trademark sideways-facing rear seat, ran through to 1953 and a total of 608 examples, which made it a relative success in Daimler terms.

Most cars, such as the featured example, had the 2½-litre 85bhp engine (only a handful of Special Sports had the 3-litre 100bhp unit) with an overdriven top in the preselector ’box allowing effortless cruising and a top speed of around 86mph. Priced at £2661, the Special Sports came in a special range of duotone colours and included such luxuries as a heater and demister, built-in jacks and a mechanism for lowering the spare-wheel cradle without disturbing your luggage. It had twin fuel tanks – one in each rear wing – and the body featured a seasoned ash frame over which alloy panels were fitted, the exceptions being the steel front wings.

This car is 59th from last, built in 1952. It was imported back from Hong Kong to the UK in 1969, and has had three owners since its return. It seems that the first of these kept it in its original state, and the second had it restored to a very high standard in the mid-1990s.

If you can’t afford a Docker car then surely this is the next best thing. Its designers favoured boot space over seat room, and although this one has been converted to a rear bench, it could easily be reverted to the original layout. Inside, it has walnut trim and cheerful white-faced instruments that include a rev counter.Alever marked ‘mixture’ is a reminder of the variable fuel quality in the early ’50s, particularly in the far-flung outposts in which this car may have found itself.

The Daimler has a more comfortable and commanding driving position than the other cars with the possibility of sitting three snugly because the controls for the preselector are on the steering column. Its engine makes reassuringly smooth six-cylinder noises with a gentle burble from the exhaust. It doesn’t really accelerate but gathers pace smoothly and unexcitingly once you have acclimatised to the gearbox, remembering to think ahead and kick the selector pedal (it isn’t a clutch) fairly determinedly.

One advantage is the ability to select second, for example, well ahead of a roundabout so full attention can be given to the steering; the gearchange requires foot movement only at the appropriate time.You can also skip ratios – third could be bypassed altogether in this situation – and of course the car will run down to low speeds in traffic without having to juggle gears, which is probably its main benefit. The Daimler has the most ponderous steering and brakes of our trio and requires the most conscious effort, which isn’t to say it drives badly – it just feels more of an antique somehow, but this may be an impression that disappears over time. Its previous owner had two homes 100 miles apart and regularly used the Special Sports to commute between them, covering about 4000 miles in all.

That such luxurious products as these Alvis, Daimler and Jaguar dropheads existed at all in the late 1940s and early ’50s can only have rung a cheerful note in an otherwise murky period. They were cars that seemed to recapture something of the lighter mood of the days before the war. They had luxury, real performance from overhead-valve six-cylinder powerplants and seemed to carry with them the promise that life could be good again.

Which would I have chosen had I been the Luckymanin the trilby and voluminous trousers? It’s hard to say. The Jaguar tempts with its suave looks and elegant detailing and it’s hard not to love the Daimler, which doesn’t just arrive but makes an entrance. It is a theatrical car and, like most ’50s Daimlers, is ever so slightly pompous, verging on the camp. In the end, I think my money might have been spent on the Alvis, which just has the edge in driver appeal and looks important without being flash.

Thanks to Hurst Park (www.hurstpark.co.uk) for the Alvis and Jaguar; Robert Hughes Automobiles (www.roberthughes.co.uk) for the Daimler. The Jaguar and Daimler are currently for sale.

Daimler Special Sports

Clockwise, from main: extrovert styling; simple wheel discs; Daimler’s fluted grille surround; commanding driving position; smooth ‘six’.


The Alvis majors on understated elegance. Below, from left: nonstandard twin-carb ‘six’; well-appointed interior; imposing mascot.

Jaguar MkV

Clockwise, from main: hood is minor blemish on suave lines; famous Leaper; you sit low behind large wheel; last outing for pushrod powerplant.


Sold/number built 1948-1951/972

Construction steel chassis and body panels, ash frame

Engine all-iron, ohv 3485cc ‘six’, twin SU carburettors;

Max power 125bhp @4250rpm;

Max torque 180lb ft @2300rpm

Transmission four-speed manual, RWD

Suspension: front independent, torsion bars, a-r bar rear live axle, semi-elliptics

Steering Burman recirculating ball

Brakes drums

Length 15ft 7in (4749mm)

Width 5ft 9in (1752mm)

Height 5ft 2 ½ in (1585mm)

Wheelbase 10ft (3048mm)

Weight 3500Ib (1587kg)

0-60mph 14.5 secs

Top speed 90mph

Mpg 18

Price new £1263

Now £60,000


Sold/number built 1950-1953/1316 (all)

Construction steel chassis, ash frame, aluminium/steel panels

Engine all-iron, ohv 2993cc ‘six’, single Solex carburettor;

Max power 90bhp @ 4300rpm;

Max torque 150Ib ft @ 2500rpm

Transmission four-speed manual, RWD

Suspension: front wishbones and coil springs rear live axle, leaf springs.

Steering Burman worm and nut

Brakes drums

Length 15ft 2in (4622mm)

Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)

Height 5ft (1524mm)

Wheelbase 9ft 3 ½ in (2832mm)

Weight 3000Ib (1360kg)

0-60mph 19 secs

Top speed 90mph

Mpg 20

Price new £1945

Now £60,000


Sold/number built 1948-1953/608

Construction steel chassis, ash frame, aluminium/steel panels

Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 2522cc ‘six’, twin SU carbs;

Max power 85bhp @ 4000rpm;

Max torque 120lb ft @ 2200rpm

Transmission four-speed preselector, RWD

Suspension: front independent, coils, wishbones rear live axle, semi-elliptics

Steering worm and Roller

Brakes drums

Length 15ft 6 ½ in (4736mm)

Width 5ft 4 ½ in (1638mm)

Height 5ft 1in (1549mm)

Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2895mm)

Weight 3600Ib (1632kg)

0-60mph 20.6 secs

Top speed 86mph

Mpg 23

Price new £2102

Now £45,000

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