Racing the red triangle. Alvis developed its early models by taking part in everything from hillclimbs to Le Mans. James Page drives three cars designed for the white heat of competition. Photography Tony Baker.
Ask an enthusiast to name the foremost British racing teams of the inter-war period and chances are they will go for Bentley, MG and Sunbeam. But Alvis was also a major motor-sport presence through the 1920s, despite the fact that its early years were beset by financial difficulties. While restructuring was taking place in the boardroom, William Dunn and Captain George Thomas Smith-Clarke – who both joined from Daimler in July 1922 – were providing the engineering inspiration that enabled Alvis to race with the best of them.
The original 10/30 had been used in competition, but it wasn’t until the overhead-valve 12/50 was introduced that the firm’s motor-sport programme really took off. The first overhead-valve Alvis was actually the 1460cc 10/30 Super Sports prototype of 1923, but that remained a one-off. The production 12/50 appeared later that year with a 1496cc engine, and ‘Racing Car Number One’ was one of three factory competition models based upon it. This is the only one to survive, making it the oldest Alvis racing car.
‘Number One’ was given the registration HP 6161 and, as well as being used in hillclimbs, became a test bed for the other two, which would compete in the Brooklands 200 Miles race. Everything possible was done to reduce weight. The chassis was liberally drilled, and the front cross member and engine were relocated further back to improve weight distribution. Bodywork was minimal, especially behind the driver, and echoed the stripped 10/30 that Major Harvey had driven in the 1921 Coupe des Voiturettes.
Clockwise: steering is a delight; Boyce MotoMeter on rad; Hartford dampers and semi-elliptics; uprated 12/50 engine; offset seat for riding mechanic.
While the engine started life as a standard 12/50 unit, the crankshaft and conrods were lightened, and high-compression pistons were fitted along with a modified cylinder head. Dry-sump lubrication was employed, too.
HP 6161 made its debut on 28 July 1923 at South Harting hillclimb. It also acted as a backup car for the 200 Miles race later in the year, and was nearly pressed into service when Harvey’s works entry was fire-damaged. It was hastily fitted with knock-on wheels and a bolster tank, then driven down to Brooklands – by which time the racer had been repaired. The hard work was rewarded when Harvey took a famous victory.
Officially, HP 6161 was sold to Tommy Simister on 1 December 1923, but there are press reports that mention Harvey driving ‘a much-drilled’ Alvis at Kop Hill in 1924, so it is possible that there was still some factory involvement at that point. At the end of the ’24 season, it was acquired by Jack Linnell and remained in regular use until 1930. Present custodian Robert Hunt describes how, during WW2, the car was put out to grass and retrieved following hostilities, “with the help of a mine detector and a scythe.”
Linnell’s good friend Robert Wicksteed – who eventually took over ownership of HP 6161 — hillclimbed the car throughout the 1970s, but in the early ’80s it threw a rod and was garaged for 20 years. Wicksteed died just after the engine had been rebuilt, which is where Hunt comes into the picture: “We completely stripped the car down and started again. The engine is now bulletproof. We still have the original internals, but fitted a new crankshaft, cam and conrods.
“Restoring it took four years; 4500 hours in total. I didn’t want to wreck the original body – which is hanging on my garage wall – so this is a millimetre-perfect reconstruction. It’s a hoot on the road; I’ve even taken it shopping. It grips well and goes well, but it doesn’t stop.”
With direct steering and a propensity forsliding atevery opportunity, the 1924 200 Miles car is an absolute joy to drive.
There is no electric starter so firing it up is not the work of a moment: pressurise the tank; turn on the petrol feed; prime the carb; fully retard the ignition; open the hand throttle a touch; give the handle two turns with the ignition off and turn on the ignition. A sharp quarter-turn on the handle then fires the car into life. Easy.
HP 6161 feels as if it still has one foot firmly in the Edwardian era. The huge steering wheel, which I have to look around or through, is close at hand – putting it in direct contrast to the external right-hand gearlever and handbrake, both of which are a good stretch away.
It picks up well in that effortless way so characteristic of cars from this era, and pulls strongly – no doubt due to its lack of weight. There is no springing to the gearchange so you need to be deliberate with your movements and time them well. The ’box is from the sidevalve 12/40 model, but is fitted with straight-cut close-ratio gears; top gives just under 20mph per 1000rpm.
The steering is beautifully light; press a little harder into turns and the tyres squeal almost at once, but the roadholding is perfectly acceptable. As is the handbrake – at least from modest speeds – which operates via rods on the rear axle only. There is a footbrake if you really get into trouble, but it tends to lock everything up.
It is testament to the pace of development at the time that HP 6161 and Julian Taylor’s 1924 200 Miles car are separated by only a year. If you were told that the gap between them was a decade or so, it would seem entirely believable.
On 22 August 1924, The Autocar carried details of: ‘A redesigned chassis of which much is expected.’ The frame was modified to lower the centre of gravity, while the wheelbase was shorter and the body wider. A cruciform cross-member boosted torsional rigidity, and the propshaft was enclosed in a torque tube that ran to the crown-and-bevel casing. The engine was a 1496cc 12/50 unit with a 6.6:1 compression ratio and high-lift cam, plus dry-sump lubrication. It was claimed to give 70bhp, although 55bhp is probably a more realistic figure.
Two cars were built with two-seater bodies: chassis number 2929 was the first; Taylor’s car is 2931. A single-seater was also made and given the number 2930. Most of the early events were tackled in 2929, with the first outing for 2931 coming at Caerphilly hillclimb with Harvey once again at the wheel. He set the third-fastest time in his class behind Raymond Mays’ Bugatti Brescia and JA Joyce’s AC.
The main aim for the new cars was, of course, the 1924 200 Miles race, where Alvis would find itself up against Darracq, which had entered a team of its latest 1466cc machines. With more than 100bhp on offer from their supercharged twin-cam engines, they were the firm favourites.
Much of the huge crowd was still trying to get into Brooklands when the race started, therefore missing the only brief moment at which a Darracq did not lead – Harvey made a blinding start in 2929, but was overhauled before the end of the first lap. He was soon joined by Frank Halford in 2931, the pair circulating together in fourth and fifth. They ran with no problems but also no chance of catching the French cars, which in the words of The Autocar, ‘continued to circle [with] majestic disdain and [in] haughty isolation.’
The crowd soon lost track of proceedings, mostly due to the shortcomings of Brooklands’ new scoreboard – ‘a hopeless failure’ – but the winners were never in doubt. The Darracqs crossed the line in formation, with Kenelm Lee Guinness first followed by George Duller and Henry Segrave. JA Joyce moved up into fourth aboard his AC, with Halford finishing sixth behind Leon Cushman’s Bugatti.
Once 2931 had come to the end of its time as a works racer it was bought by Dunlop, which had set up a racing research and experimental department and used the car from 1925-’27.
“It has continuous history,” says Taylor. “Eric Benfield restored it in the 1960s-’70s, and he had the foresight to keep a lot of the period parts. He campaigned it for many years and it would have been easy for him to modify the car to make it more competitive, but he presented it exactly how Alvis would have run it.
“The original cylinder head was on the car, but it leaked. The crank and rods were with it, too. Its crankcase and gearbox castings are totally different from the 12/50 – as are the mounts – plus the gearbox is in unit with the engine rather than being separate.”
Taylor freely admits that he’s not keen on damaging the car, so limits his use to hillclimbs and sprints rather than circuit racing. “Also,” he says with a grin, “it’s got no brakes.”
Suitably warned, I climb aboard. Where HP 6161 felt like a highly tuned road car, this is a pure-bred racer – low and compact. The pedals are tightly spaced, so much so that even my little size-sevens risk getting more than one at a time and I therefore drive it in bare feet.
Taylor cranks the engine into life and it settles to a deep, hollow-sounding chug, the vibrations coursing through the entire car. Even with a rev limit of 4000rpm imposed in deference to the freshly rebuilt engine, progress is brisk, the small ‘four’ spinning quickly and smoothly.
The single inboard rear drum is, as Taylor had advised, utterly useless – brakes were not a priority around Brooklands’ Outer Circuit. You can apply it just to show willing, but speed can also be shed simply by turning into a corner. With no differential, it wants to slide almost immediately. Combined with the beautifully direct steering, it’s an incredibly amusing way to go around.
Horner’s 12/75 is a short- wheelbase, supercharged FD model. Below: Harvey/ Purdy entry with sister car of Davis/Urquhart Dykes in the Le Mans pits, 1928
“It’s fantastic to drive,” agrees Taylor. “Just like a kart.” In period, Harvey was apparently so convinced of the car’s roadholding abilities that he said if it did 150mph he would feel perfectly confident in it. He clearly wasn’t bargaining on having to stop the thing in a hurry.
Having been shown the way by Darracq, Alvis entered 1925 with two major developments in mind – front-wheel drive and supercharging. Dunn did the drawings for the latter, having sent his secretary to Coventry library to borrow an engineering encyclopaedia and then asking her to copy the section on fans and blowers.
The debut for a front-wheel-drive Alvis came at Kop Hill on 28 March 1925. That first car had a 12/50 engine placed back-to-front and super-charged to give in the region of 85bhp. For 1926 and 1927, Alvis mated the drivetrain to a straight- eight unit for its works cars, before introducing the roadgoing 12/75 version in May 1928. The press raved about this 1482cc, 50bhp four-cylinder model, which boasted all-round independent suspension. For an extra £50, a supercharger could be added to boost power to 75bhp.
‘Care will be taken in distribution to see that the cars reach only the right type of driver as they will require skilled handling,’ reported Light Car & Cyclecar. It was a wise policy but it didn’t stop a clergyman from buying a blown saloon in which to potter around his parish.
Perhaps in order to tie-in with the road cars, the works racers reverted to four-cylinder power for 1928. Two unsupercharged variants – driven by Harvey/HW Purdy and SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis/William Urquhart Dykes – were entered for Le Mans, and towed across to France at high speed by 14.75 saloons.
Practice did not bode well. The road was rough, causing springs to fail. Heavier ones were sent out, and bolts made on-site from steel rod – the mechanics worked all night to make and fit them. The race itself went more smoothly, with Harvey/Purdy finishing sixth (and first in class) and Davis/Urquhart Dykes ninth (second in class). Following the eventful outing to La Sarthe, a raft of changes was made to the steering and suspension of the roadgoing 12/75s.
Five cars were sent to Belfast for the TT, a 410-mile handicap race. It soon became apparent that the big cars – including ‘Tim’ Birkin’s Bentley-were too heavily handicapped, and the winner would likely come from the 1 1/2-litre class. Unfortunately, Harvey crashed while lying second, and Urquhart Dykes did the same while leading. Of the Alvis team, only Leon Cushman finished. He was gaining rapidly on the Lea- Francis of eventual winner Kaye Don before he went off, recovering to come a close second.
Our representative for the FWD era is Ian Horner’s superb Le Mans replica, which wasn’t quite in the same condition when he acquired it 33 years ago: “I bought a pile of bits with no body. I had written an advert saying that I wanted an interesting vintage car for restoration. I had something like a Lagonda in mind, but then I got a call from someone saying that they had an Alvis for sale, which sounded attractive. I was aware of the FWD cars but had little knowledge of them.
‘AFTER AN EVENTFUL LE MANS, A RAFTOF CHANGES WASMADE TOTHEROADCARS’
“The car left the works in December 1928. By the 1950s, it was owned by a student and was later sold to a publican – who ruined the gearbox. It was left laid-up from that point with the gearbox open to the elements.
“Barry Cook was rebuilding one of the genuine Le Mans cars and he gave me the original wood frame to make a pattern. I did the woodwork and Rod Jolley did the aluminium bits – and the engine is still the original.”
This fabric-bodied example is somewhere between a low-slung racer and an upright tourer in style. With its roadgoing intentions, it comes as no surprise that the interior is more luxuriously appointed than in 2931, but the gearlever is once again on the right-hand side, which feels like something of an anachronism.
The change itself is super, though, and once on the move this is a genuinely sporting car. The supercharged engine offers impressive acceleration and it even stops well, with four- wheel brakes and twin leading shoes on the front. Thanks to a quirk of the FWD layout that means that there is no in-built camber or caster angle, the steering is light but doesn’t self-centre.
Road-car production ceased in 1929 after only 142 had been built, but the racers continued to be developed. That year, they reverted to straight-eight power, but failed to make an impression in the big events. The 1930 Ulster TT would be the last hurrah for the FWD, and for Alvis as a works entrant. Cyril Paul made sure that the Coventry firm went out on a high by winning his class and finishing fourth overall behind the crack Alfa Romeo squad of Tazio Nuvolari, Giuseppe Campari and Achille Varzi.
At the height of his company’s racing programme, TG John stated that: ‘We, like other British manufacturers who compete in these very strenuous international events, do so partly to gain experience for improving our products, partly from an innate sense of duty to keep the British flag flying, but more than all, perhaps, because of the publicity which it should give to our products.’
By 1930, he no longer felt that the return justified the effort, and seemed resentful that the press preferred to concentate on ‘silly Motor Show twaddle’ than sporting prowess. Alvis had gained some prestigious victories, but from there on it would be down to an enthusiastic band of privateers to ‘keep the flag flying’.
Thanks to The Alvis Owner Club (olvisoc.org); Bicester Heritage (bicesterheritage. co.uk); The Alvis Register (alvisregister.com)
In 1926 and 1927, Alvis developed a front-wheel- drive straight-eight challenger for the 1 1/2-litre Grand Prix formula. The supercharged 1497cc machine made its debut at Shelsley Walsh in September 1926, but suffered various problems during practice for the British GP and was withdrawn. It proved its potential in the 200 Miles race, however, with Major Harvey running fourth before an accident forced his retirement.
Alvis built two heavily redesigned cars for the following year’s British GP, with a front- suspension set-up that would make its way on to the 12/75. Sadly, engine damage sustained during practice meant that the entry was once again withdrawn. William Urquhart Dykes salvaged some honour by finishing third in the 200 Miles, but that would be the last time Alvis raced a Grand Prix machine, preferring to concentrate on sports-car events.
One of the 1927 GP racers survives and retains its original chassis, body and front axle. It is being restored by Alan Stote and Tony Cox.
Harvey in the FWD straight-eight at Brooklands, 1926
When you read about Alvis’ racing exploits, one name jumps out. Cyril Maurice Harvey joined the Coventry firm in 1921 as its chief competition driver, and was a mainstay of the works team. He served in the Royal Field Artillery during WW1, then briefly worked for Eric-Campbell cars in north London. Always impeccably turned out, he was a popular figure at Alvis and had a high degree of mechanical sympathy. He was no mechanic, however, apparently being better at describing symptoms than suggesting a cure.
Harvey’s racing career ended in 1932 after a serious crash. His first wife died in a road accident, and after his second marriage failed he took his own life in 1936.