(first posted 3/16/2017) Welcome one and all to the second edition of the British Deadly Sins, this time dedicated to the swinging ‘60s, the decade that those of us who weren’t there apparently remember best. British industry was in the midst of another round of mergers in this decade: Daimler were gobbled up by Jaguar, Chrysler bought out Rootes, BMC and Leyland got married and Rover (before becoming part of BL) got a hold of Alvis. Let’s start our journey through the ‘60s British Deadly Sins by having a look at how this last one came about.
Alvis is a completely made-up name. It was dreamed up in 1920 by its founders, Thomas G. John and Geoffrey de Freville, when looking for a moniker that would be easy to pronounce in several languages (Japanese not being one of them, obviously). In the interwar years, Alvis became a byword for technological innovation: they pioneered FWD cars in the ‘20s. They were also renowned for being sporty and luxurious cars – Bentley were direct competitors – though smaller cars were also part of the range. Alvis branched out into aero engines and APCs in the ‘30s, which proved to be a shrewd move. The military side of the business quickly flourished and grew much bigger than the original civilian side.
After the Second World War, Alvis restarted car production with a smaller model. The TA 14 was a 2-litre 4-cyl. with pre-war underpinnings (mechanical brakes and leaf-sprung rigid axles front and rear), rather slow but very well built and in tune with the market – except the ungainly roadster. The company saw that the economy was looking promising for the ‘50s and thus came out with a completely new 3-litre 6-cyl. model for 1951, the TA 21. The mechanicals were gradually brought up to date and by 1953, Alvis were producing a very good chassis.
Note that the word here is “chassis”, not “car”: Alvis never had the capacity to produce their own bodies, which were farmed out to various coachbuilders, which soon became a big problem. By the mid-‘50s, Alvis’ main seller was the “Gray Lady” four-door saloon, bodied by Mulliners, but by 1955 that coachbuilder was coming under the influence of Standard-Triumph. It also became clear that Alvis could no longer work with Tickford, which was bought by David Brown and would focus on Astons and Lagondas instead. Ford got a hold of Briggs (causing the end of Jowett) a couple of years earlier and BMC now controlled Fisher & Ludlow. This spate of acquisitions was occurring at a time when Alvis were doing a bit of soul-searching anyhow.
The question was: should Alvis remain a small maker of luxury chassis, or should they try to grow out of the artisan stage and produce a more ambitious product? Alec Issigonis was on the Alvis engineering staff since 1952, and he had lofty ideas of a modern V8-powered saloon with a sophisticated suspension that would compete with Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz. Alvis’ bean-counters added up the investment and manpower needs and threw up their hands: there was no way for the firm to take on the TA 350 without changing the entire scale of the company and a massive bank loan. Furthermore, besides Pressed Steel, no independent British firm had the capacity to manufacture the large amount of bodies needed for the project to make a profit. So instead of the TA 350, Alvis went back to their 3-litre chassis and gave it another round of updates, and Issigonis went back to BMC.
The issue now was finding someone to style the new Alvis. The answer came from an unlikely place: Switzerland. In the ‘50s, Swiss coachbuilders were still thriving. Worblaufen, Beutler, Ghia-Aigle or Langenthal were busy making very high-quality work on a dizzying variety of chassis – anything from Peugeots and VWs to Lancias and Jaguars. One Swiss carrossier that had caught Alvis’ eye was Hermann Graber. Based in Wichtrach (Canton of Bern), Graber had an impressive portfolio since he started making bodies in 1925, with a penchant for convertibles.
Graber started importing Alvis chassis to Switzerland in 1948 and became the marque’s official Swiss representative in 1953. Graber-bodied cars (especially Alvises) were a fixture of the Geneva Motor Shows in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Compared to the British-bodied cars, Grabers had a much more modern and pleasant styling that suited the 3-litre chassis very well. Alvis therefore commissioned Graber to clothe their new TC 21 108/G with his usual panache, but with a view to license the design. Graber readily obliged, though he reserved the right to make specials for sale on the Continent. Now, all Alvis needed was a British coachbuilder who could follow Graber’s blueprints.
Alvis took the design to Willowbrook, but that firm’s workmanship left a lot to be desired. Very few TC 21 “production” cars like the one above were made due to Willowbrook’s ineptitude. Graber picked up the slack a bit, but did not have the capacity to make Alvis bodies in sufficient amounts – and UK import duties would have made it uneconomical anyhow. Only 37 Alvis chassis were built in 1956-58 due to this lack of adequate body supply.
Alvis decided to put the TC experience behind them and launched the TD 21. This time, Alvis managed to find a British coachbuilder that was up to snuff. Park Ward, owned by Rolls-Royce, was happy to make the TD 21 coupés and convertibles to their customary high standard. The design, still penned by Graber, would remain essentially unchanged from the greenhouse to the rear bumpers until the end.
The TD 21 debuted at the Earl’s Court Motor Show in October 1958 and was a very successful car for Alvis. The chassis and the engine (mated to a BMC gearbox) were already well-known and dependable, but the workmanship and presentation of the coachwork now matched the mechanicals. Alvis cars were never cheap, and the TD 21 was certainly competing with Bristol, Jaguar or Jensen. The image that the TD 21 had was more sedate though, more of a dignified grand tourer than a brash sports car like an XK150.
By 1959, servo-assisted front disc brakes and Rolls-Royce’s Borg-Warner-derived 4-speed automatic transmission were on the options list. In 1961, the Series II cars were introduced, with several changes including a 5-speed ZF gearbox and integrated foglamps.
While most of the 1069 TD 21 chassis made from 1958 to 1963 wore Park Ward bodies, about 50 were specials made by Graber with several variations in styling. By this point, Graber was focused almost exclusively on Alvis – the last Bentleys bodied in Wichtrach were made in 1957. When Alvis decided to update the TD 21 in 1963, they called upon Graber again.
The TE 21 – also dubbed Series III by Alvis – was immediately recognizable by its stacked quad headlamps. It gave the new model a bit of a Facel-Vega / Mercedes-Benz appearance, but was well received overall. Other details also changes here and there (such as rear disc brakes), but fundamentally, the TE 21 was pretty much a TD 21 with a new face and an extra 15 bhp.
This led a few critics to lament Alvis’ lack of innovation. And they were right: Alvis itself saw no future in car-making. They were making money with armoured vehicles, not passenger car chassis. At best, the cars were now a vanity PR exercise. As long as a few customers were buying them, Alvis were happy to keep on selling them, but the automobile branch was clearly not going to go on forever.
That’s not to say that Alvis’ car division had just been sitting idly. Indeed, the engineering staff had explored many different avenues for the marque’s civilian branch. Engine-wise, everything from a 4-cyl. to a V8 was looked into, along with using the new Lagonda 4-litre straight-6. David Brown tried to make a deal with Alvis for them to manufacture Aston Martin and Lagonda engines (which could also be used in Alvis cars), but Alvis declined and were left stuck with their ageing 3-litre six.
By 1965, the writing was on the wall. Alvis Motor Cars were still operating, but the branch had become irrelevant to its parent company. The TE 21 added ZF power steering to its options list, but little else was newsworthy on that front. Alvis decided to sell its civilian branch and its small Coventry factory to Rover.
The buyout went smoothly, as most of the Alvis staff were long aware of the inevitability of their fate. Rover, a reputable automaker in its own right, were keen to use the Alvis marque to its advantage. Plans were soon drawn for a new Alvis coupé, based on the Rover P6. The car, nicknamed “Gladys”, was designed by Rover stalwart David Bache in 1966 and built by Radford. Bache used it as his personal mode of transport from January 1967. Perhaps Alvis might survive after all?
Around the same time, Alvis and Rover engineers also worked together under the aegis of Spen King on a completely new project, a mid-engined sports car using the Buick-sourced 3.5 litre aluminum V8. Unlike the Gladys prototype, there were no plans to ever use the Alvis name on this car, however. Alas, the P6BS project was nixed when Rover merged with BMC, at the insistence of Jaguar boss William Lyons.
Meanwhile, there was a factory to run, so Alvis continued to churn out its old 3-litre chassis. By 1966, that was called the TF 21 (or Series IV) and the 3-litre engine now produced 150 bhp, allowing the latest Alvis to reach a top speed in excess of 120 mph. It was, in almost all respects, still very similar to its previous iteration, which means it was essentially a 1958 body on a 1951 chassis.
Fewer and fewer people were persuaded to part with over £3200 to sample the unique delights of driving a 3-litre Alvis. The death knell for the car came in late 1966, when Park Ward told Alvis that they intended to stop body production next year.
There was no solution to this particular problem: there were no independent body-makers around anymore in Britain. The few that remained either had very limited capacity or no experience with high-end body and interior work. And to compound the matter, Rover themselves were bought out in early 1967 by Leyland-Triumph, who were already in advanced merger talks with British Motor Holdings (BMC/Jaguar) to create a slow-motion, multi-marque car crash called British Leyland. The cancellation of the Park Ward contract was a perfect excuse to quietly finish off Alvis – for the sake of Jaguar/Daimler’s continued dominance in the luxury car field. Altogether, Alvis had produced 1631 of the TD/TE/TF 21 chassis in nine years.
A knock-on effect of Alvis’ extinction was the end of Carrosserie Graber. The Swiss coachbuilder sold the few remaining Alvis specials still in his inventory until early 1968, but Hermann Graber knew there would be no more after that. Graber had become the Rover distributor for Switzerland when Alvis were taken over and exposed a pair of Rover P6 coupés at the 1967 Geneva Motor Show, following his Rover 2000 cabriolet of 1965. These, along with the last few TF 21s, were the last Graber-bodied cars. Hermann Graber died in 1970.
So how were the ‘60s Alvises Deadly Sins? They represented an automaker that was brimming with talent, but petrified by indecision, underinvestment and a lack of vision. The 3-litre models were very good cars, but they were stuck in the early ‘50s in many ways. While Jaguar launched its 2.5 litre Mark 1, Rolls-Royce created its V8 and Aston Martin made ultra-cool thoroughbreds, Alvis struggled to find a way to clothe its chassis and dithered with various projects and ended up committing to none.
The fact that Alvis’ car branch lasted as long as it did was pretty extraordinary. Alvis were perhaps the last true chassis-maker, like Delahaye in France or Alfa Romeo before the 1900 – most had disappeared by the mid-‘50s, or (like Rolls and Aston) had bought out a coachbuilder to safeguard their source of quality bodies. By the time the TD 21 came out in 1958, Alvis’ future was unsustainable without either a merger with another automaker, an ambitious cash injection from the military vehicles side to create a modern factory and a new product, or sinking into obscurity. The Rover buyout came a bit late to avoid the latter.
Join us tomorrow as we take a gander at one of the biggest British flops of the ‘60s, the Lagonda Rapide.