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Alvis competition history

Alvis competition history
our thanks to the Alvis owners club


Alvis cars have been driven in competition ever since there have been Alvis cars. The make has a continuous consistently successful competition history few other marques can approach, extending to the present day. Even the 10/30 appeared with success in the trials, hill climbs and sand races of the day, and a special version prepared by the Works lapped Brooklands track at 87 mph. The Works actively raced until 1930, and private owners entered their cars in all manner of events, suitable and otherwise, with great success. In the limited space here, it is impossible to do more than mention some of the more significant or interesting events.

Leon Cushman on the straight eight FWD in the very wet 1929 Ulster TT

Real success did not come until the advent of the 12/50. In 1923 Works driver Maurice Harvey won the 200 miles race at Brooklands track in a special 12/50, averaging over 93 mph. The engine was only mildly tuned and still relied on a single carburettor. The supercharged Fiats, a pure racing design, had been expected to win, but both retired. In the same event the next year Alvis again fielded special 12/50 engined cars of ingenious lightweight design, but the best placed finisher was 6th. One of the cars was used for record breaking at Brooklands, 39 records were broken in one day, some of these were unbroken until the 1960s.One of the 1924 cars survives, in magnificent condition. Another was supercharged and exported to Australia where it achieved tremendous success in the hands of the legendary R.G. "Phil" Garlick. It was once timed at 115 mph.

Charles Follett's TL 12/60 racing special

For 1925 the company adopted front wheel drive for racing. The first effort was a hill-climb/sprint car with a supercharged 12/50 engine mounted back to front in a very low duralumin chassis, featuring a de Dion type suspension/drive shaft design, at the front of course. It secured a class win at Shelsley Walsh. Two cars developed from this design were prepared for the 200 miles race, still with pushrod 12/50 derived engines. Harvey managed to get one into second place behind Segrave's "invincible" twin overhead camshaft Talbot-Darracq on the first lap, but brake related problems eventually defeated the Alvises. Next year Alvis retained front wheel drive, but gave up trying to beat twin ohc rivals with pushrods. The new cars had roller bearing fixed head straight eight engines with horizontal valves, the latter giving a rather odd combustion chamber shape and exhaust manifold position on top of the engine.

1932 SA Speed 20 van den Plas tourer competing in the 1933 Coupe des Alpes

In the 200 miles Harvey held third place until an accident forced his retirement. These cars were built to comply with the then current 1½ litre Grand Prix formula. For 1927 the design was altered to a conventional twin overhead camshaft layout, but success again eluded these very complex cars. It was apparent that Alvis did not have the resources to develop them, and therefore they decided to concentrate on sports-car racing. They did, however, persevere with the roller bearing straight-eights in these events, with some success. Alvis achieved better results with their production designs, for instance when a team of 12/50 beetlebacks, led by journalist S.C.H. Davis, finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd in their class in the Essex Six Hour race at Brooklands. 1928 saw the use of four-cylinder FWD cars in sports-car events. Two were sent to Le Mans where they won the 1½ litre class and finished 6th and 9th overall.

Clinkard's supercharged 4.3 litre special
(while racing an Alta in Silverstone, I watched with horror as Clink's Alvis took to the air, somersaulted and crashed. Clink had to be dead. Worse, they could not find him at all! He was later found in a complete daze wandering around the paddock!....ed)

Later, in the Ulster TT (a handicap race), Leon Cushman's FWD finished second to a Lea-Francis, but it is said that the race was mistimed and he actually won. Privateers Bill and Ruth Urquhart-Dykes competed extensively in their Beetleback 12/50 (they also drove for the Works). At Brooklands they took international records in the second-hand car, including the 12 hours at over 81 mph and the 200 miles at over 86 mph. This car survives, still fitted with its non-standard "dry sump" lubrication system. For 1929 the straight eight engine appeared, in modified form, in the FWD sports car. Again real success eluded them, although one won a handicap race at Brooklands. In the TT they were impressively fast and noisy until rain caused misfiring when sucked in through the carburetters. The highest placed Alvis was that driven by Cushman, who finished eighth. Later a single seat version of the straight eight FWD took yet more records, including the 200 miles at over 99 mph and the 1,000 miles at over 95 mph.

The Urquhart-Dykes' 1927 SD 12/50 "Beetleback" after restoration

1930 was the last year the Works raced, and they finally developed the Straight Eight FWD into a reliable racing car. In the TT they were 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the 1½ litre class, Cyril Paul bringing his car into sixth place on handicap. One of the 1927 Grand Prix cars survives in modified form, fitted with a 1930 sports car engine. The straight eights must have cost the company a fortune in development for very little return. That said, they pushed technology to the very limit, especially the foundry work, and remain one of the great "might-have-beens" of racing.

Alvis then became alive to the possibilities of developing the Silver Eagle for racing, and a team of three cars, with the engines linered down to 65 mm bore to bring them under 2 litres was entered for the "Double Twelve" at Brooklands.

Firefly/Speed 20 special - Routledge

They did not meet with conspicuous success. By now the privateers were ready to pick up the baton and the Works retired from racing as a very chill financial wind was blowing through the motor industry. At one time Alvis alone of all British manufacturers supported international racing, holding up British honour even though they didn't win. Of the privateers, Michael May competed in Alvises right up to the war, usually in a very special Silver Eagle which lapped Brooklands at nearly 114 mph. Earlier, driven by Philip Fotheringham-Parker, it had gone over the top of the Brooklands banking, without serious injury to the driver, and survived to race again (it survives yet, a monument to Alvis strength!). May's most notable success was winning the 1938 Irish Grand Prix at the Phœnix Park in Dublin, believed to be the only Grand Prix won by an Alvis!

Michael May competing in a 12/70 tourer at Brooklands

The three generations of the Dunham family have one of the longest continuous associations with Alvis cars. Dunham and Haines of Luton were one of the earliest Alvis agents, from 1921 in fact. Racing started with a beam axle Speed 20 in 1932, later, much modified into a single seater, it had a top speed of around 125 mph. Dunham saw the possibilities offered by the lighter 12/70 with its strong engine, and had a single-seater version built for racing. Its fastest Brooklands lap was 114mph, and with it C.G.H. Dunham won the Brooklands Outer Circuit Trophy for 1939.

12/70 special on the banking at Montlhéry in 2000

This car holds the distinction of recording the fastest lap in the last race ever held at Brooklands. After the war the engine from the Speed 20 was shoehorned in, and, in the hands of C.G.H.F. Dunham, it won the 1951 Manx Cup race. Until recently, it was still actively raced in historic events by C.G.H. Dunham's grandson.

Antony Powys-Lybbe competed pre-war in 12/60 and Silver Eagle cars, notably beating Hans Stück in the supercharged 5.3 litre V16 Grand Prix Auto Union at Shelsley Walsh in 1936. It has to be said that conditions were appallingly wet.

TA 14 with body by F.J. Bidée of Brussels

After the war, a special bodied TA 14 appeared at the Le Mans 24 hour race, a Belgian entry, but retired. From the early 1950s, Three Litre cars appeared in the production car races and major rallies of the day. With the advent of historic racing, prewar Alvises began to appear regularly, and with success. Most of the cars now competing are "specials", often with 4.3 litre engines in beam axle chassis, or much modified 12/70s, sometimes blown. FWD cars have also been campaigned, notably by Tony Cox, Peter Livesey and Ian Horner. Two of the Works' 12/50 racing cars have made regular appearances until recently. Probably the fastest vintage Alvis currently in use is the much modified, supercharged 20 hp Silver Eagle of Mac Hulbert. This car has undergone a long development programme and is very competitive indeed.

Hulbert's very successful Silver Eagle 20 supercharged special

Many Alvis drivers also compete in historic rallying, in anything from 12/50s to late Three Litres. Here they are following a long tradition of enthusiastic Alvis drivers competing in rallies of all types. Standard, or near-standard, 12/50s, especially SD beetlebacks, have done well in all forms of competition, and the premier award in the tough Le Jog Land's End to John o' Groats endurance rally has been won twice in succession by teams of pre-1934 Alvises. In the 11th Classic Marathon Biarritz finish in 1999, a 4.3 Litre car finished first in class. At least one hero competes in a standard 4.3 Litre Charlesworth saloon.

1937 SB Speed 25 Charlesworth DHC competing in an international rally