Sprint Experiences with Two “12/50” Alvis Cars
by G. Easterbrook-Smith
Among the classic vintage quartet of Bentley, Vauxhall, Frazer-Nash and Alvis, the “12/50” Alvis is predominant as the poor man’s sports car, both initial and running costs being far lower than for Bentleys and Vauxhalls, while its conventionality makes it a more practical proposition than the Frazer-Nash.
It was with these ideas in mind that I purchased my first “12/50” in January, 1944 — a 1926 TE that had been dealt with to the extent of a chassis shortened to 8 ft. 6 in., plus a pointed-tail two-seater body of rather “12/60” aspect.
When purchased the car was in a deplorable condition and it occupied a year of spare-time labour to restore it to decent order. Apparently some major internal catastrophe had occurred at some stage of a very chequered career, as the crankshaft and one con.-rod were twisted, all bearings badly worn, and two main bearing caps cracked, cylinder bores deeply scored, etc. I was fortunate in securing a crankshaft, bearings and a set of rods in good condition and had the block bored out 0.070 in. to remove the scores. Pistons were the next worry, but after a lot of searching I located a very nice set of Essex pistons, which gave a compression ratio of 6.3 to 1 with a 3/32 in. compression plate at the base of the block.
Pistons were carefully balanced, as were small-ends and big-ends, and bearing in mind stories I had heard of the tendency of gudgeon-pin pinch bolts to break, I used 100-ton-steel replacements. The combined inlet/exhaust manifold did not appeal to me, so I sawed the inlet portion off and made up a down draught manifold from steel tubing, with right-angle corners and buffer ends, a 85-mm. type 20B American Zenith carburetter being used. This instrument gave an overall fuel consumption of 30 m.p.g., with a complete absence of flat spots, and was very easily tuned.
Chassis work was confined to a general clean-up, the replacement of a twisted half-shaft, new thrust washers to replace completely non-existent ones in the differential assembly and a brake and clutch reline. A new instrument panel was made up out of half-inch plywood, incorporating rev.-counter, oil temperature gauge and fuel pressure gauge as extra instruments. An Autopulse fuel pump was fitted and proved completely reliable. Cycle-type guards and a coat of black enamel completed the good work and I had a “12/50” Alvis in very reasonable condition. All this work had been interrupted by an overseas tour in the R.N.Z.A.F., although before my departure I had one run in an N.Z.S.C.C. hill-climb, with pleasing results.
On my return to New Zealand I settled down to preparation for the first Paekakariki Hill-Climb, but in final tests on a local straight, I took half a tooth off the third-gear pinion as the result of a particularly ham-handed gear change. No excuse, as the Alvis gear change is delightfully simple! This prevented my competing in the event, but I managed to obtain another pinion and was able to run in the 1946 Standing Quarter Mile contest. Here again, cockpit trouble intervened, possibly as the result of rising from the sick bed to compete, and I completely bungled my gear changes, resulting in times best left unquoted.
While not losing faith in the car, I was beginning to lose faith in my own ability, so made a special effort for the 1947 Paekakariki Hill-Climb. The car was very carefully prepared, and lightened as much as possible, and in order to do without the battery I ran with a quart tank mounted on the scuttle, necessitating discarding the bonnet. Eighty-seven octane fuel and K.L.G. M60 plugs proved very satisfactory.
Due to the usual difficulty in finding a suitable road for carburetter tuning, the mixture was too weak on my first run, resulting in a time of 3 min. 22 sec. for the 2.1 mile climb, but, after adjustment, I succeeded in doing 3 min. 2.4 sec. on my second run, fast enough to win the 1,500-3,000-c.c. Class and make fifth fastest time of the day, and as I beat the V8s I was particularly happy about it.
In between competition-work the car was used as a normal family hack, and while providing rather cramped quarters for a wife and two children, was in other respects quite satisfactory, although I always felt that the springing was harder than necessary. Finally, I sold the car with the idea of purchasing something a little more roomy, but after inspecting and trying a succession of depressingly low-geared semi-moderns, in desperation I bought another “12/50.”
This car, which started life as a 1925 SC with aluminium two-seater “duck’s-back” body, had a racing history extending as far back as 1927, when I believe it won the New Zealand Light Car Cup at Murawai Beach. It was purchased by A. E. Ansell in 1943 and completely restored mechanically and rebodied to the extent of a narrow two-seater pointedtail body in aluminium. It seems in many respects to be a standard SC, with sub-frame engine mounting, belt-driven generator, fixed starting handle, lightalloy clutch housing and cone clutch. There are, however, one or two variations from standard that are rather interesting. Inlet port size is 35 mm., instead of the usual 40 mm. big port or 32 mm. small port size, while the con.-rods are considerably slimmer than standard “12/50” rods, but still fitted with the diabolical pinch-bolts. Rear-axle ratio is 4.55 to 1, giving 20.9 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m., while bottom gear is 14.77 to 1 as compared with 18.54 to 1 on the TE.
Ansell restored the car regardless of time and expense, all worn parts being built-up or renewed, including a crankshaft grind and remetalling of main and big-end bearings with Hoytt’s No. 11. The result is a constant oil pressure of 30 lb./sq. in. hot or cold, which experienced “12/50” men will recognise as unusual. My TE, in spite of good bearings, new oil pump, Castrol “R” and pressure relief valve screwed hard down, never showed more than 15 lb./sq., in. when hot. Another departure from standard on the SC was the fitting of 28 in. wheels, which, with 4.50 tyres, gave an extremely rough ride.
Gear and brake levers were external, which gave more cockpit room, but could not be otherwise recommended, as in wet weather one’s right arm rapidly became soaked to the shoulder, while the brake lever is set so far forward as to necessitate ape-like arms to reach it. I subsequently moved the gear lever inside and found the alteration resulted in a far more pleasant change.
The instrument panel is comprehensively equipped, all instruments being of definite use and including vacuumgauge, fuel and oil-pressure gauges, oil and water temperature gauges, ammeter, speedometer and rev.-counter, plus separate switches for all lights.
The fuel tank is carried, together with the battery, under the seat and fuel is transferred to the tank by air pressure built up by a hand-operated air pump, a mod. of which I do not altogether approve, as one is constantly running out of air pressure if a forgetful type like myself!
After Ansell had completed the car, he sold it to A. C. Atkinson, and it had its first competition success in “new” form in Atkinson’s hands in the 1946 Paekakariki Hill-Climb, where it gained f.t.d. in 2 min. 57 sec. — no less than 25 sec. faster than the next car. His next success was winning the Vintage Trophy at the 1946 Standing Quarter Mile contest with the excellent time of 21.4 sec. — a time beaten only by a “T.T. Replica” Frazer-Nash, the ex-Fontes’ Invicta and a “Brooklands” Riley.
At the second Paekakariki Hill-Climb the Alvis failed to equal its time of the previous year, but a climb in 3 min. 01 sec. was sufficient to gain second place in the 1,500-c.c. Class and fourth fastest time of the day.
When the car came into my hands I was very interested to compare it with the TE, and on first impression I was disappointed. The engine seemed to have no power at low r.p.m. and the cone clutch was very difficult when reversing. In its favour, steering and roadholding were much superior. As a point of interest, both cars were identical in weight at 19 cwt. with full touring equipment, reducible to slightly under 17 cwt. stripped. [Low weight helps a “12/50” appreciably — one aluminium bodied, sub-frame car we knew, which scaled 17 cwt., felt rather like a ‘Nash and was far less lorry-like than a later steel-bodied tourer, which weighed 22 cwt — Ed.] I ran the car in a night trial under blizzard conditions, over quite a tough course, but Alvis controllability kept me out of trouble and I began to develop some respect for the car. A top overhaul was decided on, as there were no obvious defects to explain the lack of performance, and on removing the head several valves were found to be sticking badly and one rocker was very tight on the shaft. These defects were remedied and in an effort to get more power at low engine speeds I turned 2 mm. off the head, raising the compression ratio from 5.85 to 1 to 4.2 to 1.
After reassembly, these small attentions were found to have produced a marked improvement, resulting in an extra 1.5 in. of vacuum at idling and a far better top-gear performance. The purist may raise the eyebrow at my insistence on low-speed power, but I find nothing more depressing than the necessity for changing down for every bump on the road!
My first speed event in the car was at the Manawatu C.C. Hill-Climb, an 0.6 mile run over a twisty gravel-surfaced hill, where I made fourth fastest time of day, 5.1 sec. behind Procter, who won the event with his “Brooklands” Riley. One of the Alvis’ less likeable characteristics showed up badly in this event. With the cone clutch it appears impossible to leave the line at reasonable speed, as dropping in the clutch at high r.p.m. merely results in the back wheels jumping up and down, while less enterprise with the throttle means a desperately slow start. Shock-absorber adjustment has no noticeable effect. Apart from this I was very pleased with the car. I had run it for 500 miles without laying a spanner on it, drove 100 miles to the event and ran fully equipped, but the engine ran up to 5,000 r.p.m. without missing a beat and gave no trouble whatsoever. Driving on loose gravel was a matter of four-wheel slides all the way, but the car showed no tendency to get out of hand, and study of photographs of the “Brooklands” Riley, a T-type M.G. and the Alvis at identical spots on the hairpin bend showed the Alvis to be taking a far better line than the other cars.
The 1947 Standing Quarter Mile contest resulted in the Alvis winning the Vintage Trophy for the second year in succession with a time of 22.6 sec. I hoped to break 21 sec., as the car was definitely faster than the previous year, but a strong head wind and heavy rain slowed times considerably, f.t.d. being made by a Railton in 20 sec.
The next event was a hill-climb held on a very rough-surfaced half mile hill at Plimmerton, where the Alvis again showed to advantage, gaining Ltd., 1/5th sec. ahead of Hollis’ TA M.G. As conditions worsened we steadily improved our respective times and were never further than 0.4 sec. apart. As I had come to expect, the Alvis never missed a beat and showed a keen desire to exceed 5,000 r.p.m. on the straight, which, bearing in mind the makers’ dire warnings not to exceed 4,700 [4,500? — Ed.], caused me to keep a thoughtful toe on the throttle pedal.
Plimmerton was followed by what has by now come to be regarded as the No. 1 event in the New Zealand sprint — Paekakariki Hill-Climb. A large entry was received, including Roycroft’s single-seater Austin Seven — one of the 1933 “works ” cars — and his B4 Ford-engined midget car. Hemus’ OE “30/98” Vauxhall and Clinkard’s “Speed Twenty” Alvis also came down from Auckland, while Farland brought a Ford V8 chassis down from Palmerston North, in addition to his well-tried N-type M.G. Magnette. Procter had fitted a new engine to his Riley, and, as the, hill record holder, was out for blood, while Hollis had prepared his M.G. with his usual meticulous care and Cowan’s T.T. Sunbeam had overcome its previous carburation troubles.
Under these circumstances I felt that a minor class-placing was all that I could hope for, but I went over the Alvis very carefully, although “tuning” in the sense of mysterious wizardry is completely unnecessary and it only demands careful routine maintenance.
The morning climbs were held in heavy mist, while the surface had deteriorated considerably from the previous year. Hollis, on his first climb, broke the class-record of 2 min. 56 sec. with a time of 2 min. 54.2 sec., so I took my place at the start feeling that the Alvis had a more than usually difficult task ahead of it. I had been practising starting assiduously and managed to get away with the rear axle more or less under full control and, throwing discretion temporarily to the winds, put the engine up to 5,000 r.p.m. in first and second gears and reached 68 m.p.h. in third in the flat-out section before the hairpin. Heavy braking and second gear got the Alvis round the hairpin with the front wheels just on sliding point, and I noted that the higher second gear took me a lot farther up the hill than in the TE the previous year. Third gear, materially aided by a tail wind, pulled the car very nicely up to and through the watertrough corner, while a change down to second and a touch on the brakes coped with the difficult right-hand corner before Cutting Bend. Into the cutting, a bend that keeps on going round, the Alvis displayed its understeering characteristics to advantage and no time was lost in the rear-wheel-sliding so many cars seem to indulge in. I had noticed a certain amount of excitement among odd spectators I could see through the mist, but was astounded when I was told that my time was 2 min. 48.6 sec., breaking Procter’s absolute record by 1.4 sec. However, I was not destined to hold the record long, as Roycroft, in a meteoric climb in his midget car, recorded 2 min. 32.2 sec., but as this machine had a power/weight ratio comparable with a B-type E.R.A. I felt that the Alvis had done itself justice. Subsequent climbs were just as exciting, Hollis getting down to 2 min. 50.4 sec. in a really desperate climb and Procter doing 2 min. 49.4 sec. after a very poor start, while on my second climb I was 8.4 sec. slower, due to a rather foolhardy effort at the hairpin, where I left my braking far too late and wasted a lot of time going sideways instead of forward. However, a first in the 1,500-c.c. Class and second f.t.d. was very pleasing, and my respect and admiration for the old car reached a new level.
The final event of the season was the 50 Mile Beach Handicap, run over 50 laps of a one-mile circuit. While I had done a certain amount of highly unsuccessful motor-cycle beach racing before the war, this was my first effort with a car, and I looked forward to it with more than usual interest, particularly as it was my first race, as opposed to sprint events.
My brother and his wife took charge of my pit and we worked out an effective control system, while practice showed that the Alvis ran up to 70 m.p.h. quite easily on the half-mile straights, although I had been doubtful as to whether it would pull its high top gear on the beach.
The race itself was at the same time a great disappointment and the most enjoyable run I have ever had. I got a good start and by the 6th lap had caught Clapperton, the ultimate winner, when the floorboards, which I had carelessly neglected to secure, blew up, and instead of continuing to my pit I stopped at the north turn and lost six minutes restarting my engine. That put me right out of the running and I finished fifth, but once again the car ran perfectly and gave not an atom of trouble in spite of some really merciless driving to make up for the fatal stop. Oil temperature did not rise above 75° C., oil pressure remained constant at 30 lb./sq. in. and 4,700 r.p.m. were still available at the end of the race, while fuel consumption averaged well over 20 m.p.g. My fastest lap, with a little in hand, was 78 sec., Procter making the record lap in the Riley in 76.2 sec.
From the foregoing it will be seen that a good “12/50” Alvis is eminently practicable as a poor man’s sports car. It has its faults — it is too heavy, the gear-ratios are rather wide, and the hard springing is over-done, but these are minor items compared with its lionhearted dependability, its complete lack of temperament, in the derogatory sense of that ill-used word, and its ability to repay the owner for all the time and work he cares to put into it.