The curious case of the FC Front-Drive Alvis

[I am delighted to publish this article about the 1928 FWD Alvis TT cars, from Hugh Torrens, of Keele University, because it throws new light on one of motor racing’s major mysteries — who really won the 1928 Tourist Trophy, that first, widely publicised and massively-supported sportscar contest over the Ards circuit? Alvis are said to have thought that the time-keeper’s charts were at fault after Cushman’s car had been awarded second place 13 sec. behind Kaye Don’s Lea-Francis in this handicap race. But good sportsmanship is alleged to have prevented them from protesting. This has always seemed unlikely to me, for there was so much at stake. A similar-sized, competitively-priced car also built in Coventry had taken the important limelight. There are others involved too—the race victory was widely advertised as having been won on Avon tyres, whereas Alvis were on Dunlops, for instance. So it seems inconceivable that no protest—even a mild post-race exposure— was ever made. Now Mr. Torrens offers a possible reason, and also makes a most interesting disclosure relating to the cylinder head design of the Alvis team-cars. From which it seems, if Mr. Torrens’ reasoning is correct, that members of the Lea-Francis Register can sleep peacefully at nights, secure in the knowledge that even if Alvis actually won the TT on handicap, they had failed to observe the spirit and letter ot the race regulations—unless, of course, anyone can make out a similar case against Kaye Don’s Lea-Francis, which hasn’t happened so far. —ED.]

It seems impossible to remain neutral about the front-wheel-drive cars Alvis made between 1925 and 1932. Leaving aside the legendary 8-cylinder racing models (of which only one hybrid, sadly incomplete and not running, survives) the more familiar 4-cylinder cars have a devoted following amongst those lucky enough to know them. But they have always had their critics and I believe the VSCC in its early days was very rude about them. This was no doubt motivated by the fact that any job on an FWD is about three times more difficult than on an ordinary contemporary car. Relining the front brakes which are inboard to reduce unsprung weight necessitates removing the engine and gearbox unit, for instance.

Nor is their temperament ideal. One driver swept on to the Thames Embankment at Blackfriars Bridge on a wet night in the days of tram-lines and was still coping with lock-to-lock slides as he passed under Waterloo Bridge. Other drivers reported the ability of the steering to seize solid on full lock, either due to the fouling of front springs on steering arms or the steering socket falling out. The gearbox also enjoyed a reputation for selecting two gears at once. In fact, in view of the theory of evolution, it seems remarkable that the cars have survived at all.

However, the FWD Alvis could also be a lot of fun. One owner’s recipe was to “select a very slippery piece of ground, engage reverse gear, and with the steering wheel at full lock, let-in the clutch smartly with the engine doing about 1,500 r.p.m. The car rotates about an axis between the back wheels one rear wheel going backwards and the other forward”, he announced. “It is not very good for the universal joints, but is highly amusing”. Possibly this is the reason for the survival rate of 25%. Now to a more detailed discourse about them.

All those who have looked into the history of the Alvis front-wheel-drive production cars of 1928-1931 will have wondered why the 4-cylinder cars bore type designations FA and FB, or FD and FE, only. The letter F signified the end to which the power went, to separate them from contemporary rear-wheel-drive 12/50s which were either T-series (touring cars) or S-series (sports cars). The FA and FD models were the short-chassis cars and the FB and FE cars the long-chassis ones.

But not a whisper of any type FC, which can either suggest that these were halfway in length between short and long, or that the Alvis management of the time was semi-literate, not realising that “C” came after “B”.

The truth is far more interesting and can be revealed thanks to some original Alvis specification blue-prints that have recently turned up. These blue-prints formerly belonged to John Cooper, Alvis apprentice in the 1930s up to the war, and later Sports Editor of The Autocar until his death in a tragic road accident in a post-war Frazer Nash in 1953. John was a confirmed Alvis enthusiast, owning at one time or another MW 1407, a 1928 SD 12/50 (which has recently rejoined the Alvis Register owned by R. D. Phillips), WM 2142 a TG 12/50 (whose present whereabouts is unknown) and TV 100, an FD (now in Australia). John wrote about his Alvis experiences in a fascinating article in The Autocar Nov. 27th, 1942 in the series Talking of Sports Cars No. 128, in which he mentions a third 12/50 he owned, as well as an Alvis Salmson Special he was then building, MY 506 (which also survives).

[He also opened the eyes of many of us to the merits of the 12/50 with his masterly discourse in Motor Sport —ED.]

The specification blue-prints include the complete specification of a mystery “FC 12/50 or Ulster-type car (front-wheel-drive)”. These are dated July 24th—July 31st, 1928 and must refer to the team of five FWD cars entered and driven in the Ulster Tourist Race on August 18th 1928. The specifications start by stating: “work to FA specification throughout” and then give exact details on seven pages of foolscap of those FA parts not required in the FC and twelve pages of parts special to the FC.

The 1928 TT FWD cars

These 1928 TT cars have long been known to show some major external differences from the standard FA short-chassis production model and the two slightly-modified versions entered for Le Mans earlier in the year (June). If WK 6948—a 1928 TT car—is compared with either WK 5491/2—the two modified FAs entered for the 1928 Le Mans race—it will be seen that the TT cars had: (a) Narrower bodies with (b) external handbrakes, (c) The radiator cowl was much shorter with (d) the battery at the base of it, (e) The top of the tail hinged forward to take the spare wheel inside, instead of this being mounted on the offside.

These are the external differences, but the specifications show that the major differences between the FA and FC cars were internal. These in the FC, not including the engine, were: (f) The steering-column and linkages, which were not of the FA type but incorporated a Hardy flexible disc, as in later FD and FE 4-cyl. FWD models, (g) Andre shock-absorbers were fitted, (h) The front of the chassis was strengthened by a chassis tie-bar, (i) The footboard was replaced by angle brackets to a similar end.

All these modifications were introduced as a direct result of the performance of the modified FA cars in the 1928 Le Mans race —”a number of these changes being actually introduced after a close study of photographs of the cars on corners during the race”, according to S. C. H. Davis.

Apart from these directly race-bred chassis changes, the gearbox was slightly modified, the constant mesh gears having been changed from 17/32 teeth to 19/30. (Thus originated the use of these ratios in special 12/50 gearboxes used by A. Powys-Lybbe, John Cooper, Michael May and currently Peter Glover, among others.)

That mysterious FC engine

The major surprise Alvis had in store in these TT cars, and it is even more of a surprise in 1974, was in the engine. These were fitted with superchargers and were, in addition, much modified. In the list of FA type parts not wanted in the FC are the cylinder block (N 6525), cylinder head (N 6526) and head gasket (N 6593), replaced in the FC by one item only— Part No. N 7082 cylinder block—the head and gasket having been dispensed with! This integral block and head must be the rarest of Alvis spares yet one has survived in Australia, owned by Rob Gunnell and is illustrated here. This item is simply a standard FC block (and head).

The next major change in the FC engine specification was the special crankshaft with roller-bearing big-ends and special connecting rods with bushed little-ends. The specification shows that 14 rollers were used per big-end, with bronze cage and cover. None of these roller cranks has survived (although at least two roller crank ordinary 12/50 engines are known to have outlasted the war).

Identification of the five TT cars is not easy. The official Programme records the Alvis entries as:

(Note: Bore-Stroke-cc= 68-103-1496 except for No. 41)

No. 23: Entrant W. Urquhart-Dykes; Driver same.

No.30: Entrant H.W. Purdy; Driver same.

No.31. Entrant T.G. John: Driver C.M. Harvey

No.32: Entrant T.G. John; Driver L. Cushman

No. 33: Entrant T.G. John; Driver G.A. Willday

No.41: Entrant Mrs. E.M.Roberts; Driver J.E. Record; Bore-Stroke-cc= 69-110-1645

No. 41, a long-stroke 12/50, non-started. The engine capacity of the five FWD cars is notable. Photos of the cars in the race can be identified by the driver’s initial on the nearside headlamp.

Of these only Willday’s and Cushman’s cars are identifiable by registration nos., the first Belfast-registered, AZ 1296. Cushman’s car, which was placed second in this historic race, survives today owned by Mrs. Russell of Northampton, with Coventry registration, WK 7343 (registered on August 3rd, 1928). The same car was entered for the Boillot Cup at Boulogne three weeks later by F. Hough (not T. G. John), for Harvey to drive.

From Alvis records which survive it seems likely that chassis numbered from 6935 to 6939 made up the TT team (chassis no, 6934 was intended for the 1928 TT team but did not race). What information is available is tabulated below (I would be grateful if anyone can add or correct anything).

(Note: Listing as follows: Chassis – Engine – Car No. – Reg. No. – Reg. Date – Remarks)

6934 – 7585 s/c, originally 7566 – 11747 – YX 6424 – n/a – Intended for 1928 TT but not raced. Raced in 1929 by J. Rooper, in 1931 by E.K. Farley. Owned in 1952 by Register member 301. Owned today by Mrs. D. Russell. It competed in the 1931 BRDC 500 Mile Race (unblown).

6935 – 7582 s/c – 11793 – WK 7343 — 3.8.28 – 2nd in TT driven by L.Cushman. Raced in recent years by D.W. Kitchener. Owned today by Mrs. D. Russell.

6936 – 7587 s/c – 11782 – WK 6948 – 2.8.28 – No remarks.

6837 and 6938; Not Traced – one or other may have been AZ 1296, Willday’s car, or may have used engine 7589 s/c, the FC engine tested on August 3rd 1928.

6939 – 7588 s/c – 11794 – WK 7344 – n/a – Alvis records simply say “Body ex-racing model 2-seater”

The above is based on photographs and the specification sheets. It is important to prove that the cars which ran in the TT were exactly as in the specifications. Just because a specification existed it does not mean the cars did too. As an example, the 1931 Alvis catalogue offered a 4-cylinder or 8-cylinder FWD built on basically the 8-cylinder chassis and incorporating spiral-bevel final drive. Alvis certainly never made these, although W. M. Dunn confirmed that they were planning to do so before the FWD programme was run down.

Evidence that the five cars driven in the TT were exactly as shown in the specifications is however compelling. First, the dates of the specification sheets are a month earlier than the TT itself. Secondly, all the changes made from the Le Mans type FA to the later TT cars that can be confirmed in photographs are also exactly as documented in these specifications. The surviving TT car, WK 7343, also confirms the specifications in many but not all major points. From an examination of the car and five views in Peter Hull’s Profile, the steering with flexible disc, the Andre Hartford shock-absorbers, the outside handbrake, and the petrol filler, are all as per FC specification.

The evidence that the TT engines were as specified comes from the sole surviving FC almost standard FA except, of course, one can’t remove the head and there is an enlarged water passage inside the block from the outlet port with two blanked-off ports at the rear. It has two stamping marks on it 7582, which is the same number as the engine and crankcase nos. of the surviving Cushman TT car, WK 7343. Rob Gunnell’s block must once have been fitted to this very car! The other mark, an RAC stamp, shows that the block was fitted for an event scrutineered by the RAC, i.e. the TT, and not, as some have supposed, for the 1928 Georges Boillot Cup at Boulogne which was not under RAC jurisdiction. The casting mark shows it was made on “6.3.28”, or 3rd July, 1928. The block itself is hardly worn, has standard diameter bores, and cannot have seen many miles. How it got to Australia is a complete mystery.

Further confirmation that the cars running in the 1928 TT did not have standard engines comes from the official TT programme (very kindly lent to me by Ian P. Macdonald, Alvis driver in 1925-27, who drove Riley No. 12 in the TT). In this the engine capacity of all the FWD Alvises is given as 1,496 c.c. (68 x 103 mm.) whereas the standard 4-cyl. FWD engine is of 1,482 c.c. with 102 mm. stroke. This figure of 1,496 c.c. capacity is confirmed by The Autocar article the day before the race which notes, cryptically: “Alvis are a great deal faster and better machines than they were at Le Mans, but again they are of a new type”. The Times report of the TT, two days after the race, also quoted the capacity as 1,496 c.c.

Some information is available on the FC engine and its performance from manuscript notes preserved with the John Cooper blueprints. These notes relate to engine no. 7589 s/c tested on August 3rd, 1928, and are tabulated below:

Compression ratio … FA: Blown 5.1; FA: Unblown 5.7 —- FC: Supercharged engine no. 7589 Blown 5.7

Engine capacity… FA: 1482 cc (68 x 102) —- FC: 1496 (68 x 103)

Carburettor SOLEX ….FA: 40 MOHD (blown) —- FC: 40 MOHD

carb. main jet…. FA: 135 —- FC: 200

carb. choke tube…. FA: 26 —- FC: 36

carb. pilot jet…. FA: 60 —- FC: 60

Fuel… FA: 50/50 Petrol/Benzole —- FC: 50/50 Petrol/Benzole

Plugs… FA: KLG 368 —- FC: KLG 341

b.h.p … FA: n/a —- FC: 72 @4470 rpm; 70.75 @ 4430 rpm

It seems an inescapable conclusion that if the car that came second in the TT driven by Cushman in full FC specification could have been got ready in time, then the team of five must have been ready. The Autocar reported that two of the cars had been to the Track for testing by August 10th, a full eight days before, and Ken Day describes Cushman’s car as being the reserve car . One can only be impressed, however, by the speed with which Alvis got the TT FWD modifications into action. The Le Mans race with two modified. FA cars was on June 16th-17th, 1928. The FC specifications were finished by the end of July, and casting of major engine components was under way by very early July, an engine being tested on August 3rd, and at least two cars had been registered by then. Also, on the same day The Autocar said the Alvis team should all be ready for the race within a week. By August 10th two of the cars had been Track-tested; the race was run on August 18th. So most of the work seems to have been done in a frantic three weeks. (In 1927 the story is even more frantic. The FWD cars for the British Grand Prix on October 1st were not out on the Track for testing until September 19th, — according to a letter written by the Earl of Cottenham — only 11 days before. If Alvis had allowed more preparation time for the FWD models entered in competition they would undoubtedly have scored more competition successes and the FWD cars might have been in production a bit longer..)

WK 7343, the surviving TT car, is definitely not now in its full TT guise: Certainly the battery has been moved back to the normal FA position on the n/s of the chassis, whereas it was under the radiator in 1928. J. Rooper who bought YX 6424, a car intended for the TT but not raced, did the same to this car after purchase. A TT replica shown in the 1931 catalogue has been similarly modified.

Since the FA and FC-type crankcases were identical, when the engine came to be rebuilt it would be much easier to rebuild it to FA specification using FA parts, since a worn roller-bearing FC crank would not be easily repaired. This has certainly happened to WK 7343, the surviving TT car, which appears in Alvis despatch records as only a supercharged FA model, despatched on January 4th, 1929 — months later. In the 1928 Boillot Cup race only three weeks after the TT it seems certain the car was not running with its FC engine. The car entered by F. Hough of Henly’s (not T. G. John) had a 1,482 c.c. engine standard FWD 4-cyl. and, as a result, Mrs. Urquhart Dykes in the other Alvis (her short-stroke unsupercharged 12/50 of 1,496 c.c.) had to give Harvey in the supercharged FWD car 3 sec. per c.c., a start of 42 seconds. Most unfair! From this it appears the FC model was not only exceedingly rare (only approx. five made) but of very short existence (three weeks)!

Alvis despatch records make no mention of any type FC and it seems certain that any other of the TT cars they sold went out as modified FA cars. Alvis probably had to sell as many cars as they could and were not averse to selling off used cars. (The first FWD made — chassis no. 6722 — was rebodied with an actual TT or a replica body and registered in Sept. 1928 as WK 7349 and survives today owned by R. W. Swain.) Some of the TT cars, though, may never have been sold to the general public. One of the TT cars, for example, was rebodied as a single-seater and took three Class F records in September, 1928 at over 91 m.p.h.

Who did win the 1928 TT?

Readers of “The Vintage Alvis” will have come across the story a senior member of the Alvis staff told George Davies about the time-keeping error that was discovered “after the results had been declared of an important handicap race”. Peter Hull has given permission to divulge that the source was Capt. G. T. Smith-Clarke, Alvis Chief Engineer, and the important handicap race he was referring to the 1928 Tourist Trophy. Alvis, according to Smith-Clarke, felt it sporting not to protest, since the results had already been declared. To add a little further mystery I wonder if the Alvis team were really so sporting? To have won such an important race would have provided good publicity for their cars and exactly the sort of publicity they had happily used before. Perhaps the reason why they did not protest was a closer reading of the regulations. Let’s quote the relevant parts:

Regulation 6: “The model of which the car entered is an example must have been described fully in a catalogue published by the manufacturers prior to 29th Feb. 1928, the date of printing being vouched for by a certificate signed by the printer”. “Cars must have been scheduled for production in sufficient quantity to satisfy the RAC that the type of car is, or will be, a bona fide commercial model”.

Regulation 8: “Alterations” further stated: “Provided the car complies in the first place with the foregoing regulations, provided the bore and stroke are not altered in any way, and provided that neither the type of a component nor the system on which it operates is altered, the entrant is allowed to effect such changes as he desires in the internal mechanism of the existing components of the chassis.” The FC model can hardly be described as a production model! The Salmson entries were not accepted for this reason, and did not run. The Autocar published the day before the race said: “the cars were inspected very carefully prior to the event to ensure that they are ordinary production models of a type that can be bought by anyone so desiring”. If Alvis had protested perhaps this would have involved further inspection and revealed their special innards! [But had they won, would they not have been similarly examined and disqualified?—ED.]

Interpreting the regulations seems to have been a perennial problem. In 1930 Alfa Romeo swept the board in the Tourist Trophy race coming 1, 2, 3 followed only 36 seconds behind by an 8-cylinder FWD Alvis dnven by Cyril Paul. The Alfa Romeo team was of 1,750 c.c cars against the 1-1/2-litre Alvis. Here there was again muttering about the Alfa team, whose engines were as non-standard as Alvis seem to have been in 1928, i.e: fixed heads and two extra main bearings.

Again they were not excluded by the scrutineers although Caracciola in a Mercedes was, with an oversize blower. The scrutineers seem to have adopted a consistent “What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over” attitude. If they had not, Alvis might have won the 1930 race; but not the 1928 one. In the event, Alvis won neither thanks apparently to the shortcomings of timekeepers and scrutineers. You just can’t win with a FWD!

[ As Alvis are said to have used Alfa-Roots chargers in in 1928 one wonders whether they were persuaded by the Italian engineers that fixed heads would be necessary with forced-induction, to obviate head distortion and blown gaskets –ED ]