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the history of Alvis

our thanks to the Alvis owners club

 

T.G. John Ltd., the company which became Alvis, was founded by Welshman TG John, a naval architect and highly qualified engineer, in 1919. From the start the company was based in the Midlands city of Coventry, already a major centre of motor vehicle manufacture. Early products were stationary and scooter engines, stop-gap products until the first Alvis car appeared early in 1920, based on designs by Geoffrey de Freville, who had earlier been associated with the Bentley brothers. Late in 1921 TG John Ltd. became The Alvis Car & Engineering Co. Ltd. The origin of the name Alvis is obscure, although it seems to have come from de Freville. Key figures in the Alvis story G.T. Smith-Clarke and W.M. Dunn joined the firm in 1922, Smith-Clarke as Chief Engineer and Works Manager, Dunn as Chief Draughtsman.


1928 TG 12/50 Alvista fabric saloon

Smith-Clarke was responsible for all engineering matters until his retirement from the firm in 1950, and he and Dunn kept Alvis in the forefront of technological advance throughout. TG John remained a major shareholder and looked after the financial and business affairs of the company. The market for sporting and luxury cars is at best an uncertain one, and Alvis' early history is not without its financial ups and downs, but the directors stuck to their philosophy of making as much of the car as possible on the premises, with their own iron and aluminium foundries, and comprehensively equipped machine shops. These factors, allied to sometimes idiosyncratic design features, gives Alvis cars, especially those from the pre-war years, more than their fair share of individuality and character. Despite sometimes being in a financially precarious state, the management team at Alvis were far-sighted, imaginative men, and never shrank from investing in experimentation, or, as it is now known, research and development.


1927 TG 12/50 Carbodies Doctor's Coupé

Front-wheel drive, all-independent suspension, the all synchromesh gearbox and then independent front suspension were only the better known developments. All of this activity took place in the Holyhead Road works. The directors foresaw the need to diversify from car production, and moved to enter aero engine and armoured fighting vehicle production. The first step in this direction came with the purchase of more land on the Holyhead Road, further along from the existing car factory. A new factory for aero engine manufacture was built here, and a licence for radial engines taken out from Gnome et Rhône of France, but orders proved hard to find. Much development work took place on tanks and armoured cars, and the company title was shortened to Alvis Ltd. in 1936.


1933 Firefly SB Cross & Ellis 6-light saloon

George Lanchester worked for Alvis for some years in the late 30s, and he was responsible for the design of the 12/70 and Silver Crest cars. Alvis began to develop their own aero engine designs, the famous Leonides making its first flight in early 1939 Alvis made a tremendous contribution to the war effort, much of it sub-contract work on Rolls-Royce aero engines. The car factory was severely damaged in the Luftwaffe raid on Coventry in 1940, but the aero engine factory escaped almost unscathed. Armoured vehicle production was not yet significant.


1937 Silver Crest Cross & Ellis DHC

TG John retired in 1944, and the bulk of the responsibility for running the company fell upon G.T. Smith-Clarke, W.M. Dunn and A. Varney. Government interference and high taxation levels on expensive cars made the change back to peace-time operation difficult for the company. The TA 14 was put into production, developed from the 12/70, but there were persistent problems with the supply of bodies, something which was to dog Alvis for the remaining years of car production. For a time the firm made printing presses, but the success of the Leonides 9 cylinder radial aero engine assured the future. Helicopters became widely used post-war and many were Leonides powered, the engine proving particularly suitable for this application.


1948 TA 14 Airflow Streamline "Woodland" saloon

Later the 14 cylinder Leonides Major was developed. Many drawings of the prewar car designs had been burned during the air raid in 1940, but Alvis' commitment to supporting the owners of already aged Alvis cars never wavered. Owners were asked to supply their worn parts so that new drawings could be produced, and new parts made. Meanwhile design of the first wholly new postwar car was in progress. Armoured car production began, and J.J. Parkes joined as Managing Director. It was soon apparent that car production was only going to be a minor part of Alvis' business in the postwar years, and the body supply question really decided the issue. The independent coachbuilders gradually either went out of business or were bought over by other manufacturers.


1959 TD 21 Graber coupé

Alvis looked at acquiring their own facility, but the volumes necessary to secure an adequate return on the investment made this unfeasible. It had been proposed to use a body from Pressed Steel on the new Three Litre, but costs ruled this out for the proposed chassis numbers, and in the end a traditional bodies from Mulliners and Tickford were fitted. Significantly some TA 14 chassis were exported to Switzerland where three found their way into the hands of Hermann Graber, a top-flight coachbuilder. From 1952 to 1955 Alec Issigonis worked for Alvis, designing an innovative new car with alternate 4 cylinder and V8 engines and rubber suspension conceived by Alex Moulton. Yet again costs prevented realisation of this ingenious design to production, it was a fascinating car, and it is greatly regretted that, apparently, no photographs of it exist. By 1955 Mulliners were exclusively contracted to produce bodies for Standard, indeed they were taken over by that firm only a few years later


1958 TC 108G Graber coupé

The Alvis car division was consistently losing money and had become more or less a public relations exercise and the TC 21/100 was looking very dated. Further investment in car production looked unlikely given the success of the other divisions. No-one would have believed that the Three Litre would simply refuse to die, and that it had over ten years of production and development life left in it yet. It was Hermann Graber who came to the rescue. He had been building small numbers of very elegant bodies on Three Litre chassis since the early 1950s, for sale to his Swiss customers at high prices. These cars were more or less "one-offs", and were light, strong and modern looking. Alvis hoped that they would be able to have bodies built in series to Graber's design in the UK substantially cheaper than the Swiss articles. Accordingly two cars were sent to Switzerland for prototype bodies to be built, then returned to the UK, complete with the necessary jigs and patterns for series production.


Stalwart amphibious load carrier

A few cars were made, but whilst they were much admired and discussed, they were simply too expensive. The situation was only retrieved by going to Rolls-Royce subsidiary Mulliner Park Ward to redesign the body to enable its production, suitably modified for the British market, at a lower price. This was achieved in no uncertain manner and the cars sold well. Alvis' independence came to an end in 1965 when the company was taken over by Rover, and in turn became part of the British Leyland empire a couple of years later. By now most of the company's production was their highly successful ranges of armoured vehicles. The car division carried on until 1967, along with the Aero Engine department, which had gradually lost ground as more and more aircraft became powered by gas turbine engines.


1957 TC 108G Graber Saloon

New armoured vehicles were developed, including light tanks, and Alvis remain suppliers of precision engineering products to the aircraft industry. Sold off by BL, Alvis became part of United Scientific Holdings in 1981, and more recently became known as Alvis Holdings, a measure of the regard in which the Alvis name is still held. In 1994 Alvis left Holyhead Road for a new factory at Walsgrave on the outskirts of Coventry, and then in 1999 the link with Coventry was broken when "The Alvis" was moved to Telford, where production continues.