Car Show Classic: 1965 Alvis TE21 – Give Me Aristocracy Or Give Me Death

This week will be dedicated to the last great decade of British cars (i.e. the ‘60s), with a particular focus on luxury – something of a British specialty, at least in automobiles. And what better way to kick things off than with a carmaker that was so traditional and exclusive that they never bodied any of their own chassis?

The story of Alvis is a long and distinguished one, which I covered in some detail in a European Deadly Sins post. To recap, before the war, the Coventry-based firm produced a wide variety of interesting designs, from the small-ish 1.5 litre 4-cyl. 12/50 to the Bentley-esque 4.3 litre. In the late ‘20s Alvis also produced the highly advanced 12/75, featuring FWD, an OHC engine and in-board brakes.

Despite the destruction of their factory in a late 1940 bombing raid, Alvis managed to resume production by 1946 with a single warmed-over 4-cyl. chassis, the TA 14. It sold well enough that the company could envisage a truly new car, this time with a 3-litre six.

The TA 21 was launched in 1950 and also did quite well – even as far afield as the Land of the Rising Sun, it seems. But the issue was not with the engine or chassis, it was with Alvis’ lack of a reliable body supply.

This was a common issue among British automakers at the time. Larger automakers like Ford, Austin or Rootes, had the means to manufacture complete cars, but most of the smaller firms did not and had to scrounge around for deals with various coachbuilders. In the early ‘50s, Alvis got saloon bodies from Mulliners and the open cars were made by Tickford, but soon those firms got bought out by other carmakers (Standard-Triumph and Aston Martin-Lagonda, respectively), leaving Alvis in a bind.

1956 Alvis TC/108 3-Litre Special by Graber.


There was a related issue to do with styling. The TA 21 was very traditional-looking for 1950; by 1955, it was downright ancient. On that front though, there was a solution: Swiss coachbuilder Hermann Graber had started designing very attractive and modern two-door Alvis specials after the war, and by the early ‘50s he had a standing order of 30-plus chassis per year – pretty substantial, for such a small market.

Alvis contracted Graber to design a new “production” 3-litre body, which he did all the while continuing to manufacture his own series of more bespoke specials. There was no way for the Swiss coachbuilder to actually manufacture the design, though – that would have been prohibitively expensive, even if Carrosserie Graber had been able to do it (which they were not).

Finding a way to produce the new body proved very difficult, and production dropped to alarming levels in the mid-to-late ‘50s for that reason. Fortunately, Alvis had other means of income, having become a trusted maker of military vehicles and aero-engines, including as a parts supplier for Rolls-Royce.

And that is where the solution to the persistent body problem finally came: Park Ward, R-R’s in-house coachbuilder, ended up manufacturing the Graber design for Alvis, starting in late 1958 with the TD 21 two-door saloon and drophead coupé. Prices came back to viable levels and quality control was now ensured at all levels of the manufacturing process.

There were two series of the TD 21 before the launch of the TE 21 in late 1963. But as far as Alvis were concerned, the TE 21 was just a continuation of the same model (which it certainly was), so they officially referred to it as the Series III.

The main technical innovation of the Series III was the 3-litre’s power increasing to 130hp thanks to redesigned exhaust manifolds and larger diameter valves. Otherwise, very little changed from the 1962-63 Series II, which had brought the four-wheel disc brakes and 5-speed ZF gearbox that enabled the Alvis chassis to stay in the game in the swinging Sixties.

The Series III / TE 21 kept the 111.5-inch wheelbase that all 3-Litres had had since 1950 and the overall look of the TD 21, but there was one big aesthetic change: the Alvis’ face got a set of vertical quad headlamps, not unlike the contemporary Facel-Véga.

The interior had a few minor revisions, but the bulk of it remained as was. Our feature car has the optional Borg-Warner 3-speed auto, as were one in every four TE 21s produced. Being a 1965 car, it may also have the ZF power steering that made a welcomed appearance on the options list that year.

The great benefit of being made by Rolls-Royce’s body shop was that the quality of the interior in these cars is about as fine as can be. Compared to a Big Healey, or even a Jensen or a Jaguar, the Alvis feels truly and expertly hand-made – because it was.

It’s quite snug at the back – no surprise there. But at least, the somewhat upright greenhouse provides decent headroom. If you wanted more headroom, the drop-top was available. More legroom was a harder ask, but not impossible: Graber made at least a couple TE 21 four-doors. Price would have been a factor for getting one of those, though.

Speaking of which, how did the Alvis TE 21 compare to other luxury two-door cars in 1965 Britain, its main market? Well, it so happens that I did a comparative table for my Gordon-Keeble Deadly Sins post ages ago that could be aptly recycled here (and for most of the week, really).

Several things can be deduced from this table. One is that the brave Alvis 6-cyl. was hopelessly outgunned on all sides – both by other British sixes and by the growing popularity of American V8s. With only 130hp to offer, the venerable 3-litre was stuck in the previous decade. However, the Alvis’ saving grace was its (relative) affordability, compared to Aston or Bristol. This also explains why R-R were fine with manufacturing bodies for Alvis: the two carmakers were not really in the same league, price-wise.

There was no way for Alvis to survive without either a completely new chassis, or some sort of partner. The first solution was, given the car branch’s diminishing returns, unlikely. Alvis had tried very hard to develop a modern car – with the talent of none other than Alec Issigonis, no less – back in the mid-‘50s, but the project hit too many snags. Now the coffers were empty, and Issigonis had gone back to BMC. The inevitable “alliance” had to happen, then. In 1965, even as this car was being made, Alvis were bought by Rover.

It wasn’t game over just yet. Rover saw the potential in the Alvis marque, even if their cars were now looking increasingly irrelevant. Work on a brand new mid-engined model started, as well as a Rover P6-based luxury coupé. Meanwhile, the old 3-Litre chassis was given one final once-over to squeeze out yet more power, as well as a completely new dashboard, leading to the Series IV (TF 21) launched in 1966.

The TF 21 was always going to be a short-lived last-stand model, given that Mulliner-Park Ward indicated even before its launch that they were going to stop making Alvis bodies soon. The last 3-Litre chassis was made in August 1967 and was registered by November; the final Graber special was delivered in early 1968. Sadly, the mid-engined concept and the P6 coupé were lost in the turmoil of Rover’s integration within British Leyland, so the Alvis car branch died out.

Between 1963 and 1966, Alvis made 352 units of the TE 21 chassis, of which only 66 were two-door saloons with an automatic transmission like our feature car. Production numbers like these certainly made the 3-Litre something of an aristocrat within the British automotive pecking order – unsustainably so. The difference between automotive aristocracy and fin de race is measured in pounds, shillings and pence. Nevertheless, the Alvis name and the quality of their products stood the test of time, with the marque being resurrected as Red Triangle a few years ago, resuming production of some of the marque’s classic designs, virtually unchanged. A good reputation goes a long way.


Related post:


Automotive History: British Deadly Sins (‘60s Edition, Part 1): Alvis TD/TE/TF 21, by T87