The Alvis marque doesn’t get too much attention in the classic car scene, but it was in many ways the equal of makers such as Rolls-Royce and like the Crewe company, had a proud tradition in aero engines. Alvis entered the car manufacturing world relatively late and production was destined to last less than 50 years, but it certainly made its mark and was once the brand of choice for the very highest flyers in industry.
Like so many British brands, the beginnings of the Alvis company were to be found in Coventry, where it was established in 1919 as a component maker under the name of T G John and Company.
The company made its first car in 1920, although in those days of course a complete car was essentially a chassis and running gear, the cars being bodied by outside suppliers including local firms Cross & Ellis and Carbodies. In 1921, the first Alvis model, the 10/30, took a gold medal in the London to Holyhead trial, while the 12/50 launched in 1923 took the 200 Miles Race at Brooklands at an average speed of 93.29 mph. The same year Alvis took 39 class records in one day at the famous banked track. The company name was changed shortly afterwards to ‘Alvis’ which was not only slightly snappier, but was apparently chosen mainly so that it would appear at the front of phone directories in those days before ‘A1 drains’, ‘Aardvark taxis’ and the like. Like so many modern car badges it also had the advantage that it could be easily pronounced in almost any language.
Clearly, the new ‘Alvis Car and Engineering Company’ had ambitious plans and was very much an engineering-led concern, with a reputation for innovation. The cars were advanced for their day, employing features like full pressure engine lubrication, aluminium castings and by 1925, overhead valves. In 1926, Alvis even designed and raced a straight-eight front-wheel drive Grand Prix car.
Alvis Speed 20 Tourer by Vanden Plas 1934
All this was resulted in some well regarded products, but unavoidably pushed the cost of the Alvis product far higher than was workable for a mid-market car. Rather than compromise its engineering standards, the solution was simply to move the range upmarket to the luxury segment that was more tolerant of high pricing.
The result was the 1927 14/75 model, which alongside its six-cylinder engine boasted independent front suspension and a world first in the shape of an all-synchromesh gearbox. The 12/75 that followed shortly afterwards shocked the world with its front-wheel drive layout, servo-assisted front brakes – inboard no less – and an optional supercharger for the overhead-cam engine.
Remember, this was 1927 and that basic 76 Classic Car Mart February 2015 specification reads like that of a ‘70s hatchback. The following year, Alvis would win the 1500cc class at Le Mans with its front-drive chassis. Its increasingly sophisticated automotive engineering allowed Alvis to move sideways into areas such as military vehicles and aero engines, where it quickly gained a good reputation. Despite heavy bombing during the Coventry blitz, this in turn put the firm in a good position to weather WWII, from which it emerged relatively prosperous thanks to its control of 21 ‘shadow’ factories producing armoured vehicles, gun tractors and also aero engines for Bristol and Rolls-Royce.
Postwar, the firm could consider returning to car production and was in a healthier state financially than many of its competitors. This allowed its first new postwar model to be a genuinely all-new design, where most other makers were making do with facelifted prewar designs.
The result, launched in 1950 at the Earl’s Court show, was the ‘TA21’ Three-Litre. It may have cost five times as much as a Morris Minor but was a very modern-looking design and would in fact last the lifetime of the firm’s car production.
Under the skin it was in some ways less sophisticated than the more innovative prewar Alvises, using a rear-drive layout with a leafsprung rear axle and an 83 bhp six-cylinder overhead valve engine that was derived from the pre-war four-cylinder. Despite this, the TA21 featured coil-sprung double-wishbone front suspension and hydraulic brakes all round. Like most other upmarket brands, Alvises were bodied by outside suppliers, according to a standardised saloon and convertible body styles. The chosen coachbuilders were Mulliner for the saloon and Tickford for the convertible, although Alvis could produce chassis at a faster rate than either could manufacture the bodies.
The cars were immediately popular despite their price, buyers tending to come from engineering or industrial backgrounds where the TA21’s depth of engineering was appreciated. Owners included the chairman of the Saunders- Roe aircraft company, diesel pioneer Arthur Freeman-Sanders (who had a diesel engine of his own design installed in his car), Baron Lyle of the Tate & Lyle sugar empire and chocolate manufacturer Terry’s of York. The modernity of the Alvis, its exclusivity and its distinctively British character made it popular in America, especially in Hollywood where customers included the actress Carmen Miranda and prolific film score composer Bernard Herrmann. Closer to home, British celebrities who purchased a TA21 included Denholm Elliott and Jack Hawkins. A roadster version of the TA21 was also offered, codenamed TB21, with Mulliner bodywork and was positioned as an exclusive model, Alvis deliberately restricting supply so that in the four years it was offered for sale, just 31 examples found buyers.
In 1953, the car was upgraded to become the ‘TC21’, featuring twin SU carburettors and compression up from 7:1 to 8:1 to extract 100 bhp from the six-cylinder and allow the car to crack the magic ‘ton’.
The styling was cleaned up with internal door hinges and less ornate bumpers, while a sporting image was created with wire wheels, matching driving lamps, air scoops and louvres on the rear of the bonnet side panels. Ironically, many buyers who loved the Alvis for its understated style ordered their TC21s without the louvres and scoops. The model was known as the ‘Grey Lady’ and famous customers included flying ace Douglas Bader, who for obvious reasons had a Manumatic gearbox fitted to his TC21.
Despite its performance, the TC21 was beginning to look dated by the late ’50s and the number of traditional coachbuilders was declining too, spelling the end of production. Alvis had originally intended to replace the car with another all-new model, with input from Alec Issigonis who had joined the firm in 1952, but when this project was cancelled, the firm was left without a car.
Since car production was by then only a small part of the Alvis business, this wasn’t the disaster it might have been for other makers and so there was simply a break in full production from 1955 to 1958. A steady trickle of TC21 chassis were still produced though and were sent to Swiss coachbuilder Hermann Graber, which produced a more modern-looking streamlined body style with increased glass area and dispensing with the separate wings of previous cars. It was a popular style and was subsequently built under licence here in the UK by Willowbrook.
The Graber body proved to be the inspiration for the next generation of the Three Litre, the TD21 which was announced in 1958. With a body style based on that of the Graber cars, it included a host of mechanical upgrades, including a six-port head and was now good for 115 bhp. Disc brakes were now fitted at the front and, as a concession to modern tastes at this end of the market, the car was offered for the first time with an automatic gearbox option. Meanwhile, an off-the-shelf Austin gearbox replaced the pre-war Alvis box in manual cars, although the shift linkage itself was designed by Alvis.
The cars were now available as four-seater saloons with Willowbrook bodywork and as a convertible bodied by Park Ward. These upgrades to what was underneath it all the same car as the 1950 TA21, saw a resurgence of sales as pent-up demand from loyal Alvis customers was released: by 1963, over 780 TD21s had been built.
The TD21 became a Series II in 1962, with the main change being the introduction of Dunlop disc brakes all round and the replacement of the Austin gearbox with a ZF five-speed unit, while spotlights now replaced the air intakes either side of the front grille.
The TD was only slightly faster than the TC, but it was a much more modern car to drive and a more efficient engine improved acceleration to the point where 0-60 mph could be cracked in 13 seconds. A further 289 examples of the Series II were sold before the TD evolved into the TE21.
The well developed TD was now a match for the competition but was lagging behind in the performance stakes. A twin-cam cylinder head was developed by Alvis but never entered production, the solution instead being larger inlet and exhaust valves and redesigned manifolding which took power up to 130 bhp.
All bodies were now produced by Park Ward and the TE introduced the vertically-stacked headlights which would become the trademark of the later Alvis cars and which allowed the return of the air intakes for improved ventilation. The cars were still praised by road testers for their quiet quality and refinement but murmurs of dissent were starting to trickle through, chiefly concerning the old-fashioned body-on-chassis construction and the live rear axle when Jaguar was firmly in the monocoque camp.
The writing was on the wall for the long-serving Three-Litre, although the firm still produced yet another update at the 1966 Geneva Show in the shape of the ‘TF21’, which took the engine to its limit for a production car. Compression was now up to 9:1, induction was now by triple SU’s and a heated inlet manifold and revised camshaft profile took power up to 154 bhp. Meanwhile, criticism of the live axle’s ride quality was addressed with the addition of variable-rate leaf springs and revised damping.
An updated dashboard featured on the inside, but the TF would only be on sale for 18 months, with just 106 cars produced before the Alvis company hit something of a roadblock. Rover had acquired a majority holding in the Alvis company in 1965, the attraction being the firm’s military contracts rather than its single car model and the decision was taken in 1967 to end production of the labour-intensive and expensive single car model.
Initially the plan was to replace the Three-Litre with a coupe powered by the Rover/Buick V8 engine and a prototype was built up, based on the P6 platform and going by the codename P6BS. The arrival of British Leyland in 1968 however, saw this canned and the same year the parts stocks, designs and staff were transferred to Red Triangle, which still operates today. Meanwhile, Alvis as a company passed from British Leyland ownership in 1981 to become Alvis Plc. This firm later acquired Universal Power Drives (the remnants of truck maker Scammell) in 1994, from which point its products were branded as Alvis-Unipower. In 1998, another famous British name entered the frame in the shape of GKN Plc that was acquired by Alvis, shortly followed by Vickers Defence Systems. The entire group was purchased by BAE Systems in 2004, after which the red triangle Alvis badge was no longer used.
This neatly left the door open for Red Triangle to acquire the Alvis car trademarks, a deal that was concluded in 2009. Red Triangle continues to provide a full service for Alvis cars, from production records to full restoration, and in 2011 launched an updated ‘continuation’ model of the 4.3-litre at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
As a classic proposition today, the Alvis Three-Litre makes an intriguing alternative to the Jaguars of the period and an early ’60s example makes refined and rapid progress with an ambience somewhere between Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce.
Top left: The Graber-bodied TD21 was a stop-gap but modernised the appearance of the Alvis cars sufficiently for it to become a standard style.
Above right: 1965 TE21 pictured during a driving exercise at the Heritage Motor Centre.
The TD21, announced in 1958, took inspiration from the Graber body style to update the style of the Three Litre considerably.
The 12/70 was supplied as a four-seat saloon or drophead but with 63 bhp it was a quick car for
the ’30s and many were rebodied as racing specials like this 1940 example.
Top left: Alvis Speed 20. Top right: TA14 was the first postwar Alvis. Above left: 1934 Speed 20 Vanden
Plas coupe. Above right: The sporting TC21 gained the nickname 'Grey Lady'.
TF21 was the ultimate incarnation of the Three Litre cars.