The Editor interviews some ex-employees of the famous Coventry Company
I AM AWARE that Alvis history is well documented. There is K. R. Day’s book about the Company and the detailed book about the vintage years by Peter Hull and Norman Johnson. However, these fine cars have not been produced since 1967 so there is every reason to keep alive their good name. I decided, therefore, that a meeting with some of the ex-employees and apprentices of Alvis Ltd. might be a good thing and likely to produce some fresh facets of the Alvis story. Such a meeting was kindly arranged by Mr. G. H. Wiltshire, Publicity Manager of Alvis, which is now a Specialist Car Division of British Leyland, although it doesn’t make cars.
This was obviously going to be quite an occasion. So I was happy to drive 225 miles in the BMW—another car built by those who understand good engineering and fine workmanship—to keep the appointment, despite fog and ‘flu. Mr. Wiltshire had contacted a good cross-section of the older brigade. There was Andrew Kemp, who was assistant on the engineering side to the “top-brass”, Mr. Smith-Clarke and W. M. Dunn; Ted Smith who still works in the d.c. as Jack Hedge’s Deputy Chief Engineer; Percy Moss who was in charge of the Service Department; George Tattershall who looked after the racing side; Ernie Cann, a fitter who was later in charge of the aeroengine shop; Eric Bench who still works for Alvis; “Tiny” Hammond, Don Dacquest, Trevor Roberts and Len Bradley. It is asking a lot to expect people to project their memories back into the distant past but nevertheless enthusiasm for Alvis ran high, just as it does among members of the Alvis OC and the 12/50 Alvis Register, most of whom probably never knew the cars when they were in current production.
My idea was to think more in terms of the later Alvis cars than of those of the vintage era. To his end I asked, as my first question, whether any special factory techniques were used, which helped to ensure high quality? “Well”, reflected the assembled gentlemen, “we worked together as a happy family, all pulling together, under T. G. John, Smith-Clarke and Dunn”. They recalled that almost up to the war Alvis made most of the parts themselves; that they were manufacturers, not assemblers. They made their own clutches and brakes, for instance, and possessed their own iron and light-alloy foundries. Originally cylinder blocks came from Belgium but later they were cast at the Coventry factory from Lusty’s iron and left in the open to pickle.
The bores were then ground, honing not being done at that period. Con.-rods were balanced on knife-edges and gudgeon-pins were shrunk into the pistons by heating the latter in oil to expand them and pushing the pin in before the holes contracted. Pistons were filed to shape in a vice and after assembly to the con.-rods they were weighed and sets of corresponding weight used for each engine. Someone recalled the occasion when a car crankshaft and flywheel assembly was found to he so accurately balanced that it made no impression when tested on the new dynamic balancing machine in the aero-engine shop, intended to reveal minute out-of-balance forces. Someone else added that it was Sackwell who did this balancing and that Joe Riley crushed his hand when he dropped a flywheel. Mr. Tattershall remembered receiving 9p an hour in the early days but said the Stafford Pup scooter engine was fine when doing piecework, because it could be assembled so quickly it was possible to earn double-time! Smith-Clarke was recalled as working ideas out at night and arriving at the factory in the morning anxious to see them put into effect, with Dunn more quietly interpreting his requirements. One interesting aspect of Alvis operations was the small amount of time and finance spent its experimental work. Most of it was done by “guess or by God” but even the more revolutionary developments, such as the allsynchromesh gearbox and the leaf-spring i.f.s., seemed to give very little anxiety.
The all-synchro box was an Alvis “first”. It gave, as I have said, very little trouble before it was ready to go into production in 1933. It ran hot at first, the casing having small clearances, but an eccentric-driven oil feed cured this, although heat-resistant material may have been needed round the floor above the box. The i.f.s. introduced late in 1933 suffered from wheel tramp until toe-out instead of toe-in was understood and balance weights were used in the extremities of the front bumper. (Bentley Motors suffered the same wheel tramp with beam front axles and cured it with the same harmonic balancing act.) I think it was Percy Moss who recalled how one owner’s i.f.s. car suffered from severe wheel tramp, which the most meticulous wheel-balancing didn’t cure. It was eventually discovered that the customer was using puncture-seal in his tyres, which upset the balance of the wheels after the Alvis had been standing overnight.
I asked ablaut Alvis nomenclature, hoping to find that names like Crested Eagle, Silver Crest and Grey Lady had been adopted by a Board of Directors with a sense of humour and a wish to have a friendly tilt at R-R names such as Silver Wraith, Alpine Eagle and Silver Cloud. This fell flat. But I was reminded that the original Alvis badge had the famous triangle the other way up to that of the later badge, because Avro sued and Austin raised objections to this winged Motif. However, Smith-Clarke liked winged designs, hence the Silver Eagle and Crested Eagle. The Firefly name arose because a Director had been abroad and enjoyed seeing the glow-worms and it was thought that Grey Lady stemmed simply from the car’s colour.
Naturally, we talked of racing. The Alvis success in the 1923 JCC 200-Mile Race was a great occasion. The winning car was sent back to Coventry afterwards by train, met at the station with a horse-drown dray, and brought in triumph to Holyhead Road. Factory personnel did not generally get as far south as Brooklands but they followed Alvis fortunes with great enthusiasm and in those days racing drivers were thought of as “special people”— this was universally agreed, even by those who drove Alvis cars pretty fast themselves. Tattershall used to tow the racers to Weybridge on a bar composed of a couple of con.-rods and for the “200” the Alvis personnel would stay at the “Lincoln Arms” in Byfleet, owned by the father and mother of the man who ran Henly’s, the London-Alvis agents. The racing cars were built in the works alongside production chassis, with no separate department, apart from engine test-bays. Tattershall remembers it all as if it were yesterday and I left Peter Wright of the Alvis Register, who hopes to out-do Hull with detailed vintage history, questioning old George closely. There was that “200” when a brake shoe flew out of the car, an FWD Alvis, as it was approaching the artificial hairpin, causing a spin. The driver kept going, under Tattershall’s shouted encouragement, but to this day he remembers how high the revs, went as the gearbox was used in lieu of brakes. A voice asked whether we remembered Ebby’s wooden rule, which the famous Brooklands handicapper used to measure everything, and a snip of scrutineer Hugh P. McConnell, who wrote the Alm instruction books, was handed round. The straight-eight tingle-stater FWD car which took class records of up to 12 hours at Brooklands was remembered. Apparently it had two springs, arranged as a pivot for the axle at the rear, half of which fell off as the run proceeded. But the car went very well, averaging 86.23 m.p.h. Indeed, it achieved its objective in eleven hours but had to be driven over the line an hour later to claim the 12-hour record: the crew were not allowed to go off for a drink until this had been done, in case they celebrated so well that they were unable to return! Tattershall used lamps round. the Track, a la S. F. Edge, and whitewash as well, on another Alvis long-duration record bid. Tattershall said the FWD cars got round corners like nobody’s business but at Le Mans the Bentleys would come flying past. “But then”, he said, with splendid sarcasm, “they had about 8-litres or something, didn’t they?” Back at the factory the racing cars were a source of enjoyment to school children on open-day visits, when they would climb in and pretend to drive them, making appropriate noises . . .
I enquired whether the FWD cars were generally liked at the factory. The concensus of opinion seemed to be “not really”. They were infernally noisy, with gears driving the o.h. camshafts and auxiliaries and a straighttoothed bevel final-drive. So noisy, in fact, that the apprentices knew when to start work again after the foreman had gone out on test, because his FWD Alvis could be heard approaching from a mile away! When I said I agreed about the noise and difficult gear change with its long linkage, I was reminded that I was expressing these views to the designer of the car’s gearbox . . . ! A chain-drive was tried for the o.h. camshaft of the FWD engine but Smith-Clarke did not trust it and it was abandoned. This led to the remark that Alvis drove the camshaft from the rear of the crankshaft on their six-cylinder cars, from the 14/75 and “Silver Eagle” days, to obviate crankshaft wind-up problems. This was effective but the customer did not always like removing the flywheel before he could get the timing chain off, any more than owners of FWD Alvis cars enjoyed having to remove the gearbox before the brake shoes could be relined.
Most manufacturers have had experimental models which were not proceeded with. I was told about the Alvis Ace, designed by Mr. Kemp in 1931. It was a 1,500 c.c. o.h.c. fourcylinder with an iron engine, which might have replaced the 12/60. Only two were made: Mr. Dunn bought and ran one but the Ace was trumped and no more was heard of it. Another interesting experiment consisted of a six-cylinder Crested Eagle engine turned round and installed in a FWD chassis, perhaps with the intention of making a quiet front-drive Alvis. Mr. John’s daughter used this one-off on the road for a while.
The lasting impression of this informal “play-back” of Alvis anecdotes was the conscientious workmanship and high quality built into these cars. The test-driver Roberts used to be told to “bring it back when it does 80”, in the days of the 12/50. Perhaps there was another reason for driving rapidly: the test drivers were sometimes encountered playing golf on a convenient open space adjacent to the test route. Bill Pitt of Solex, who drove a very early Alvis two-Seater, used to say its life was “three accelerator pedals”, or some 500,000 miles. Today the greatly expanded Coventry factory is fully occupied with military vehicles, including t he 4.2-litre Jaguar XJ-engined Alvis Scorpion light tank, the welded aluminium hull of which is constructed on extremely modern and complex transfer machinery.—W.B.