The front-wheel-drive Alvis

Its development and racing career

By G. N. S. Davis

Part 2: The sports cars

The Alvis Company had built their last pure racing car in 1927, but this by no means indicated that their interest in entering races as a works team was over. Largely as a result of the 24-hour race for sports cars at Le Mans, which was increasing in importance from year to year, sports-car racing was attracting a great deal of interest in this country. The idea of being able to buy, and run on the road, cars similar to those entered by works teams in classic races was already beginning to prove of no little assistance to sales, and Alvis were not slow to realise this.

Their policy for 1928, therefore, was to prepare F.W.D. sports cars for selected events, and to produce similar cars for sale to the public. Several models were offered: two-seater super sports, four-seater sports tourer, and "Alvista" fabric saloon, a supercharger being optional in each case. These F.W.D. cars, which were in addition to the well-established range of rear-drive cars, were a completely new design, although, of course, based on the earlier racing cars. Two chassis lengths were available, giving a wheelbase of either 8 ft. 6 in. or 10 ft. The newly-designed engine was a single-o.h.c. unit, of 68 mm. by 103 mm. bore and stroke, giving a capacity of 1,482 c.c., with the camshaft driven by a train of spur gears. Some of the engine parts were common to the sports 12/50, including crankshaft, valves, con.-rods (duralumin), and a Roots-type blower was again used, fed by a 40-mm. Solex carburetter.

The transmission and final-drive unit was very similar to that used on the very first F.W.D. racing car in 1925, with single-plate clutch, four-speed gearbox, and bevel final drive, in that order. The front brakes, still inboard, and bolted to the differential casing, were two-leading-shoe, and really powerful, even by today's standards. It is interesting to note that the method of linking the shoes by means of an external adjustable rod is used, in slightly modified form, on one of the very latest racing motor-cycles.

The independent front suspension was by eight transverse 1/4-elliptic springs, following the pattern of the 1927 G.P. cars, but Rudge knock-on wheels were used, and the hubs had been tidied up. Rear suspension was also independent, by means of leading 1/4-elliptics, and radius-arms, parallel with the chassis, suspended from a cross tube of large diameter. On the early cars, the radius-arms pivoted about a simple shackle pin, and when this pin wore to any extent, the behaviour of the back end became somewhat wayward. The result of this was that the springs were able to move sidewards in relation to the chassis whenever there was any tendency for the rear wheels to lose adhesion, whereupon the tail would perform a series of spring-loaded hops outwards. Provided the driver kept his right foot well down, this was seldom serious, but very few people at that time had had any opportunity to gain experience of front-wheel drive, and several owners got themselves into difficulties by lifting the foot at the wrong moment, thus gaining for the cars an unjustified reputation for instability. On later cars, in order to eliminate the shackle-pin wear, and to make the suspension more. rigid, the radius-arms were mounted on massive ball-races, which did much to cure the trouble.

The rear brakes were never very wonderful, since if for any reason the front brakes lost their efficiency, the rear springs would immediately "wind up" With very little weight on the tail, however, if the front brakes were kept up to the mark, the braking as a whole was excellent.

Alvis entered their new cars in the two premier sports-car eventsof 1928: Le Mans on June 16/17th, and the Ulster T.T. on August 18th, with which event the R.A.C. were to replace the British Grand Prix. In order to give the as yet untried car a dress rehearsal for the all-important Le Mans, a car was entered for the Essex M.C. Six-Hour Race on May 12th, but it could not be prepared in time, and the entry had to be scratched at the last minute.

For Le Mans, five cars were originally entered, but the team was later reduced to two, the drivers being C. M. Harvey/H. W. Purdy and S. C. H. Davis/W. Urquhart-Dykes. The cars were shipped to France in good time for preliminary practice, during which several detail alterations were found to be necessary. Both front and rear suspensions had to be stiffened, and brakes and steering required attention. Perhaps the biggest headache, however, was caused by the regulation requiring the hood to protect all three seats. In order to put a third seat in a two-seater car, the Alvises had been provided with a dickey seat in the tail, and to get the hood to at least appear to protect this was quite a task. Hoods acceptable to the scrutineers were, however, contrived, and the cars were ready to race.

In spite of being so new and unproved, the two cars put up a splendid performance. Harvey and Purdy took sixth, and Davis and Urquhart-Dykes ninth, place in the General Classification, and first and second in their class, after a completely trouble-free run. Both cars had beaten the previous 1-1/2-litre record for 24 hours by a comfortable margin. The performance of Harvey and Purdy was particularly notable, since the five cars which covered greater distances, two Bentleys, two Chryslers and a Stutz, were all of around 4-1/2-litre capacity. Greatly encouraged by their fine showing at Le Mans, the Alvis team were determined to enter the best possible team in the first Ulster T.T. on August 18th. The new race attracted a great deal of interest, and, when the regulations were published, several violent protests. All capacity classes, from A to H (unlimited to 750 c.c.), were to be included, with a system of credit laps for the smaller cars, thus allowing a massed start. Owing to various objections, no Bentley nor Mercedes teams appeared, but, nevertheless, nearly sixty entries assured the success of the new race.

Four works Alvises were entered, to be driven by Purdy, Harvey, Cushman and Willday, with Urquhart-Dykes as a works-supported private entry. Cushman only came into the team at the last moment, after his Bugatti had seen fit to break its crankshaft. When he asked Captain Smith-Clarke, the Alvis team chief, for a ride, the only car available was the practice car, which had taken a severe belting from all and sundry. Cushman, however, was determined to race and he gladly accepted the car. As is now history, he drove a splendid race and was credited with second place, being the only member of the team to finish, although Willday, having suffered a series of tyre and plug troubles, was still running when the race was stopped. Harvey had spun his tail into a bank, while in second place, due to a wet road; Urquhart-Dykes, while in the lead, had overturned at Bradshawes Brae, after colliding with the bank, and Purdy was forced to retire with a broken piston.

The first Ulster T.T., although a greet success, had certainly punished the machinery, only 12 cars out of 44 starters completing the course. The official results gave K. Don, driving a Lea-Francis, as the winner, at 64.06 m.p.h., and L. Cushman second, at 64.02 m.p.h., only 13 sec. behind him. The Alvis was clearly faster than the Lea-Francis, but Cushman had been troubled by the knowledge that he was short of both fuel and oil, but dare not stop; his petrol tank ran dry only a mile after crossing the finishing line!

In addition to their fine performances in races during 1928, the F.W.D. cars took several International Class F records at Brooklands: the 1,000 km. and 500 miles, and six hours at 91.77 m.p.h. Harvey also attempted the twelve-hour record, but was foiled by a series of minor troubles. A few weeks later, however, Mr. and Mrs. Urquhart-Dykes, in a works-prepared car, broke the twelve-hour record by a considerable margin, in spite of a howling gale and a bout of magneto trouble.

The four-cylinder F.W.D. was now a production car, and cars were being bought by enthusiasts in all parts of the world. A few, mainly in bare chassis form, were shipped to Australia, where one or two survivors are still running to this day. Except for detail refinements the cars were unchanged for 1929, and were in their final form. About a score still exist, although not all in original or running order.

The growing prominence of Le Mans in the sporting calendar was, by 1929, causing a demand for an event on similar lines in this country, and the ever-progressive Junior Car Club were the obvious people to organise it. Since night racing at Brooklands was forbidden, a non-stop 24-hour race was impossible, and to overcome this difficulty the race was to be run on two days, twelve hours each, with the cars in a sealed park in between. Thus, on May 10th and 11th, 1929, was held the first of the famous "Double Twelve" series.

The new race was obviously going to assume no little importance in the motoring world, and the Alvis team were going to be there if at all possible. A new and very promising sports car had been designed, and in prototype form it looked like being a most potent machine. It was based on the previous year's car, but powered by a modified version of the 1927 G.P. straight-eight engine.

Front suspension was again by the now standard arrangement of transverse 1/4-elliptics, but the rear was by means of a single transverse semi-elliptic spring and short radius-arms. This arrangement cured the problem of the springs moving in relation to the chassis, which troubled the four-cylinder cars, although the rear brakes were still none too effective. The wheelbase was rather long, being 10 ft., which added rather more weight than was desirable but was necessary to comply with various regulations.

The engine, externally very similar to the 1927 G.P. unit, and having the same bore and stroke of 55 mm. by 78.3 mm., had been much improved. Steel con.-rods, with needle roller big-ends, replaced the early duralumin ones, and the crankshaft was supported by ball and roller main bearings at each end, with needle-roller intermediates. No longer was a separate oil tank used, although the sump was "dry," the oil being contained in a separate chamber. A prototype car, fitted with a single-seater body, and driven by W. Urquhart-Dykes, made its first public appearance at the Brooklands Easter meeting, winning the Light Car Handicap at 101.64 m.p.h.

Although this new eight-cylinder F.W.D. was showing great promise, it was quite clear that the cars would be too new and untried to produce their full power in the "Double-Twelve." On the other hand, all-important Le Mans was to take place only a month later, on June 15/16th, and it was considered that without the opportunity of a trial run afforded by the "Double-Twelve" at Brooklands, their chances of repeating the previous year's fine performance would he considerably reduced.

A team of three cars, therefore, was duly entered. Major Harvey was unfortunately suffering from an illness which was to keep him out of racing for most of the season, and the drivers were: Cushman and Paul, Mr. and Mrs. Urquhart-Dykes, F. Hallam and G. Willday.

In spite of the pre-race panic, all three cars started, but none managed to complete the distance, although the Dykes' car ran for 21 hours before the collapse of a crown-wheel put them out. Cushman was forced to retire after 23 hours, with clutch trouble, having run for two hours with only top gear working; the Hallam-Willday car had been suffering oil-pump trouble, and was out after only three hours' running.

So far as Le Mans was concerned, the experience gained in the "Double Twelve" was invaluable. Although no car had finished, two had run all but the full distance, showing that, with teething troubles eliminated, the new straight-eights had sufficient stamina to compete in long-distance events.

Two cars were entered for Le Mans, to be driven by Cushman/Urquhart-Dykes and Paul/Davis. Practice showed the cars to be very fast indeed, but also brought a host of lubrication troubles. At low speeds the cars emitted clouds of smoke, and in order to combat this the mechanics opened up the high-pressure relief valves more and more, until the engines were obviously starved of oil, but still the smoke was produced. It was at last discovered that the excess oil was not getting past the piston rings, but was flowing down the valve guides. The twin camshafts were pressure fed, but the oil had to return to the sump by gravity, and the passages provided for this purpose were not quite big enough, with the result that the cam-boxes were soon flooded, and oil poured down the inlet guides. As soon, of course, as the engine was turning fast enough for the blower to produce a positive pressure, the smoke suddenly abated, but much head-scratching, to say nothing of bad language. was to be expended before the penny dropped.

Teething troubles were still plentiful, however, and only the Paul/Davis car started, only to retire with a cracked cylinder head after covering 210 miles. The cylinder head (non-detachable) and block were cast in one piece, and weight had been saved wherever possible, with the result that the metal was rather thin in places. This would not have been of any great consequence but for the regulation which forbade any replenishment of fuel, oil or water until 210 miles had been covered. When the Alvin drew into its pit, having covered the requisite distance, the engine had become seriously overheated, and as fast as water was poured into the radiator it flowed in a steady stream out of the exhaust pipe, telling the team all too plainly that their race was run.

After its success in the previous year, the Ulster T.T. was looked upon as one of the major sports-car events for 1929. Three Alvis straight-eights were entered, to be driven by Major Harvey, now fully recovered from his long illness, Leon Cushman and Cyril Paul.

The cars were fitted with two-seater bodies, with a large fuel tank in the tail, and full-width windscreens, as required by the regulations. The engines were modified versions of the Le Mans type, with needle-rollers used for both main and big-end bearings. Roots-type, Alvis-made blowers were again used, fed by 46-mm. side-draught carburetters, which protruded from the bonnets on the off side. Two B.T.H. polar-inductor magnetos, of special design and having no distributor gears, were used, each serving four cylinders.

All three cars showed great promise in practice, both in speed and roadholding, and during the race itself were well up among the leaders for the early laps. It was, however, the weather which put paid to the team's chances of doing really well. Rain, which varied from slight drizzle to a heavy downpour, was falling for most of the time, and although the wet roads didn't seriously affect the stability of the cars, water was being sucked up into the blower intakes, causing constant misfiring. All three drivers, however, put in some very fast laps during the brief dry spells, and Cushman made a particularly rapid pit stop, picking up 16 gall. of petrol and 3 gall. of oil in 50 sec. The team did finish intact, with Cushman 8th., Harvey 10th. and Paul 17th., in a particularly gruelling race, more so because of terrible weather. Out of 65 starters only 22 finished the course.

Class records at Brooktunds were of ever-growing publicity value and during the summer of 1929 Harvey and Cushman took a single-seater version of the Le Mans/T.T. straight-eight to the track, to collect for Alvis as many International Class F records as they could. In this they were very successful, and the following records fell: 200 miles at 99.39 m.p.h., 500 miles at 98.37 m.p.h., 1,000 miles at 95.24 m.p.h., with the corresponding kilometre records, and three hours at 98.13 m.p.h., six hours at 96.55 m.p.h., and 12 hours at 86 m.p.h., which last was a particularly fine performance, since a faulty fuel pump towards the end of the attempt caused a long delay, and the car broke the previous 12-hour record without actually running for 12 hours.

During 1929 the Alvis factory had concentrated almost entirely on the production of their standard four-cylinder F.W.D. cars, only a few conventional 12/50 and six-cylinder cars being built. A straight-eight F.W.D. sports car, with various types of body available, was advertised, with details and specification appearing in the various motoring publications. but no eight-cylinder cars were actually sold to the public in the normal way. These advertisements were necessary to qualify the cars as catalogue models, as required by various race regulations; the company bad no in of selling any of the cars at this stage. One or two of the Le Mans/T.T. cars did appear in private hands in the early 1930s, and one or two were built to special order for people closely connected with the works. Leon Cushman had an attractive two-seater body built onto one of the ex-team chassis, by a firm of coachbuilders in Brighton, and T. G. John, Managing Director of Alvis at that time, ran a fabric-bodied saloon for some years. This car was later to become the "one-off" six-cylinder F.W.D. car when it was fitted with a production six-cylinder Speed Twenty block mounted on a specially-cast crankcase.

The Alvis company had, for many years, suffered to a greater or lesser extent from chronic shortage of funds, but with the coming of the general depression the spectre of the Official Receiver loomed large indeed. The production had not proved to be anything like the success which had been expected and liquidation was only averted by their being discontinued, and a return made to the well-tried 12/50 and six-cylinder Silver Eagle models. Such a course must have caused many regrets, but proof of the wisdom of this change of policy is provided by the fact that the company managed to remain in business at a time when so many makers of motor cars went under.

In view of the prevailing circumstances, the continuance of works participation in racing during 1930 was in doubt for quite a time, but it was decided at length to run the new six-cylinder cars, with, of course, conventional drive, in the "Double-Twelve" at Brooklands, and at Le Mans, the F.W.D. cars now being out of production. Three six-cylinder cars were accordingly run in the 2-litre Class in the "Double-Twelve" but achieved no notable success, and the Le Mans entries were scratched.

To all intents and purposes, the F.W.D. cars now belonged to the past, but four more eight-cylinder cars were to be built, which were to prove the best of all.

Largely as a result of persuasion by Charles Follet, it was decided to build a team of special straight-eight cars for the 1930 Ulster T.T. These cars were improved versions of the 1929 cars, but with rather wider bodies. The front suspension was by two transverse semi-elliptic springs, and radius-arms which incorporated powerful Hartford shock-absorhers. Following the previous pattern, inboard, two-leading-shoe front brakes were used, but in improved form. The blower was fed by a large S.U. carburetter, covered by a bulge in the side of the bonnet, to prevent a repetition or the previous year's water troubles. This bulge caused great speculation as to what lay beneath it, and many and various were the stories thus arising.

The three cars were to be driven in the T.T. by Cushman, Paul and Harvey, with H. W. Purdy driving a fourth, entered by D. K. Mansell, of motor-cycle fame. Early in the race the Alvises began to show their worth, with several laps at over 72 m.p.h. The pace soon began to tell, however, and Cushman stopped at Dundonald with engine trouble, but managed to cure it quickly and was soon back in the race. Major Harvey had a minor crash and was considerably delayed wiring up a front wing.

In the general results Paul, Purdy and Cushman finished fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively, giving the team a splendid first, second and third in Class F; the only cars in front of Paul being the 1,750-c.c. blown Alfa-Romeos, driven by Nuvolari, Campari and Varzi.

On this successful note Alvis finally withdrew from racing, and, at the same time, abandoned for good their F.W.D. cars, which, although so full of promise, had been so costly as to all but cripple the company. A radical change of policy was on the way, and although the conventional 12/50 was to continue in production for another year or so, it served only to bridge the gap until the advent of the first of a series of new types aimed at a different market.

It is now nearly thirty years since work on the Alvis front-wheel drive ceased, and it is fortunate that at least a few of the cars are still in existence, if only to serve as a reminder that features which, in the motoring world today, are being hailed as ultra-modern developments, were proved at Brooklands, and on the road, over a quarter of a century ago.