The racing history of the Alvis company

Although Sunbeam and Bentley are universally acclaimed as having established British racing prestige before E.R.A. came into the picture, by reason of successes in Grands Prix and sports-car races, respectively, many people overlook the fact that several other British concerns have built more than isolated examples of special racing cars in order to support classic races, sprint events in this country, or to attack records at Brooklands and Montlhery – Austin, Riley, A.C., Aston-Martin, Lagonda, M.G., Vauxhall and Alvis rather more prominently than the remainder. In the concise account that follows, John Cooper, of the “Scuderia Impecuniosa” who was with the Alvis Car & Engineering Co., Ltd., traces the efforts of this concern, very usefully refreshing our memories of the exploits of this make in the field of racing and record breaking.

The firm of T. G. John, Ltd., first commenced the manufacture of the Alvis car in the year 1920. In the following year the idea of racing first took root, an idea fostered by Captain G. T. Smith-Clarke, who joined the firm early in 1922 as works manager and chief engineer. Under his capable direction three o.h.v. “12/50″ cars were entered for the 1923 J.C.C. 200 Mile Race: two of these employed the standard chassis, while the third was built round a special narrow and much-drilled frame, only 29-1” wide. On this frame was mounted a very high and narrow 2-seater body, with the mechanic’s seat staggered behind that of the driver, while the engine boasted a high compression ratio and special connecting-rods, machined from solid steel blanks. Among the other entries for that race were two new and very beautiful Fiats, which were so fast that they were considered bound to win; so much so, in fact, that the Talbot-Darracq combine withheld their entry rather than be beaten. However. in the race itself the Fiats, fighting wildly between themselves, both burst. and C. M. Harvey, who was driving the Alvis, suddenly found himself in the lead. What is more, he stayed there, and Alvis became the first British car to win the “200,” with a decisive victory over Cushman’s “Brescia” Bugatti at 93.29 m.p.h., beating by over 5 m.p.h. the Talbot-Darracq record speed of the previous year. Incidentally, Harvey’s passenger was none other than George Tattersall (referred to in Sammy Davis’s book as “little Tat of the fierce moustaches”), in later years Alvis pit manager, and still with the firm in an executive capacity.

No chronicle of Alvis racing exploits could be complete without mention of “Tat,” of George Cook the unruffled, who was in charge of the preparation of the cars, and of the mechanics, Trevor Roberts, Harry Pennington, Jimmy Hartshorn, Frank Ward and many more. But I digress…

That victory was celebrated by the company with a triumphal procession through Coventry, with Harvey and “Tat” sitting in the car on a horsedrawn railway dray!

Fired by this success, “the Captain” sat down and designed two specially-built cars for the 1924 race; these had basically the same engine as previously, but incorporated dry-sump high-pressure lubrication and a high-lift camshaft, while the chassis was a very nice low and light conception, coming to a point at the back, with delicate-looking axles and Rudge hubs. The gearbox, also, was new, being a light component mounted in unit with the engine, with a central lever. These cars, however, had no luck in the “200,” though one of them, fitted with a single-seater body, collected the Class F 3-Hours and 5-Hours records soon after, at 85.6 and 83.2 m.p.h. respectively. One of these cars was afterwards supercharged experimentally; it is now unblown once more, and belongs to a Mr. G. Swain, who ran it once or twice in minor events at Donington during 1938-9. The other car was used by Dutoit for testing Dunlop tyres at Brooklands, and later went to Australia, where I believe it still is, though some vandal has now powered it with a Yankee motor. Both these cars have been claimed to be the 1923 “200” winner, but that historic machine was dismantled by the mannfacturers and is, alas, no longer in existence.

In 1925 the racing Alvis was again entirely re-designed, although the faithful “12/50” engine was still practically unaltered. To start with, a new sprint car was constructed, incorporating front-wheel drive; the engine was turned back to front in the chassis, the side members of which were made of duralumin. This design showed promise in making the fastest 1 1/2-litre climb at Shelsley in May of that year, and in taking the Class F half-mile, kilometre and mile standing start records at Brooklands, but neither of the two cars entered for the “200” lasted beyond half distance, although Harvey ran level with the victorious Talbot-Darraeqs in the early stages of the race.

For 1926 the same general layout was used, but the engine was replaced by an entirely new and rather novel supercharged straight-eight unit. This had one gear-driven camshaft on each side, mounted rather high up in the cylinder block casting and operating horizontally opposed valves through rockers. The combustion chamber was therefore a most peculiar shape, rather akin to a packet of ten Players set on edge! The plugs were mounted vertically in the centre of the combustion chambers, while the inlet manifold was bolted to the top of the non-detachable cylinder head; the Roots-type supercharger was driven from the rear end of the crankshaft. The two cars of this type, in the hands of Harvey and the Earl of Cottenham, unfortunately achieved no success in either the British Grand Prix or the 200 Mile Race, the design being more notable for ingenuity than reliability.

The trend of motor-racing was then just beginning its periodic divergence towards the racing of sports cars; quick to take advantage of this, the Alvis firm entered a team of three “12/50s” for the first Essex M.C. Six-Hour Race, run in May, 1927. The result was an unqualified triumph; the cars won the team prize and were 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the 1 1/2-litre class, while that driven by S. C. H. Davis won the race on formula and put up the second highest average speed, 62 m.p.h. This was followed by the race for the Coupe Boillot at Boulogne. Two “12/50s” ran, one an official entry in the hands of Harvey, the other driven by W. Urquhart Dykes. The latter unfortunately had to retire during the eliminating trial with clutch trouble; Harvey, however, after a prolonged tussle with Kaye Don’s Lea-Francis and Laly’s 3-litre Aries, won this preliminary event at 61.83 m.p.h. This, although admirable in itself, earned him a very heavy handicap in the final, in which he was consequently fifth, victory going to the Aries.

For the racing-car events of 1927 Alvis produced another special 8-cylinder design; this time on more conventional lines, with hemispherical combustion chambers and valves set at an included angle of 90˚, operated by twin o.h.c., each with a 4-cylinder magneto at its rear end. The first car of this type should have been driven by Harvey in the British G.P. at Brooklands on October 1st, 1927, but unfortunately broke a piston in practice and could not start. However, two cars duly came to the line in the 200 Mile Race a fortnight later, driven by Harvey and George Duller. The latter (better known for his exploits with horses and Bentleys) led off the mark, but nearly overdid matters at the first corner. The two cars led the field on the first lap, but the weakness in the relatively untried engine once more made itself felt, and they both retired with broken pistons.

The year 1928 saw the introduction of the sports model single o.h.c. 4-cylinder f.w.d. Alvis, which was to have been run (in unsupercharged form) in the Six-Hour Race in May, but was not ready. Two cars of this type were entered for Le Mans, in which they had no trouble, won the 1 1/2 litre class and finished 6th and 9th in the general classification. Emboldened by this initial success, the firm entered four cars for the T.T. race, which was being revived by the R.A.C., and was scheduled to be run in August, 1928, on the now famous circuit in Northern Ireland, A fifth car, a “12/50,” was entered by Urquhart Dykes. The works cars had been much modified in the light of the experience gained at Le Mans, and were now supercharged. In the race, through wretched luck, three of the five Alvis retired, two of them while leading, and a fourth was delayed too much by trouble to finish within the time limit; the fifth car, however, driven by Leon Cushman, only lost the race to Kaye Don’s Lea-Francis by the narrow margin of 13 seconds, gaining a well deserved second place at 64.02 m.p.h.

In pursuance of their new policy of concentration on sports car racing, the firm did not enter for the 200 Mile Race, and the only Alvis to run was Dykes’s faithful “12/50,” which came in ninth at 57.82 m.p.h. Harvey started in the Coupe Boillot race with one of the f.w.d. cars, but was once more put out by his hoodoo – a broken piston – while in fourth place.

For 1929, the racing of sports cars continued to hold “the Captain’s” attention, and he produced for that purpose the supercharged twin o.h.c. 8-cylinder 1 1/2 litre f.w.d. car, the engine of which was a development of that designed for the 1927 British G.P. and “200.” Much work had been done on this, not altogether successfully. Four cars of this type were entered (one privately) for the new “Double-Twelve” race; unfortunately, as so often happens, the cars were not really ready, and none of them finished, although one of them got within 11 hours of so doing. Two of them were then entered for Le Mans, where the firm had high hopes of winning the Rudge-Whitworth Cup, for which the two 4-cylinder cars had qualified so handsomely in 1928. Alas, one car twice ran a big-end in practice and did not start, while the other disappeared, after running very fast for 11 hours, with a cracked cylinder head. Still, there remained the T.T.; more hard work was put in on the cars, and Cushman, Harvey and Cyril Paul duly started in the Ulster race, hoping that at last the snags had been overcome. But observe the irony of Fate! The days of practice were dry, bone dry, but in the race itself it suddenly poured with rain; the entire Alvis team promptly commenced misfiring, due to sucking a large proportion of rainwater into the exposed carburetter intakes, and from then on could do little right. Cushman’s car did attain fifth place shortly before the end, but was overwhelmed by an onset of 1 1/2-litre Alfa-Romeos, and the final placings of the Alvis team were 8th, 10th and 17th, the best average being 65.4 m.p.h.

The cars had been handicapped all through the season by lack of preparation, so it was decided that in 1930 the supercharged straight eights would run once only – in the T.T., of winning which the company intended to make as sure as Dame Fortune would permit. Meanwhile, for the “Double-Twelve” and Le Mans they produced a team of special “Silver Eagles,” modified from the standard sports model of that name. The engines of these were of slightly smaller bore than standard, to bring their capacity within the 2-litre class, and they possessed special cylinder heads among other modifications. Three cars started in the “Double-Twelve,” but Cushman’s only lasted half-an-hour before a big-end went – and then there were two. Of these, that driven by the Hon. Victor and Mrs. Bruce led the class for some time, but after about six hours’ running a valve broke, puncturing a piston. Despite this handicap the car continued, lapping at 74 m.p.h. on five cylinders, and finished the full 24 hours, 13th in the race and 3rd in the class. The other car, in the hands of Cyril Paul and Purdy, had a considerable number of minor troubles, even changing the cylinder head on one occasion, and finally finished in 16th place. One of these cars, incidentally, went “over the top” at Brooklands some years later, and now belongs to Michael May, in whose capable hands it won the Phoenix Park handicap race in 1938 at no less than 88.03 m.p.h. Admittedly, its own mother would not recognise it in its present guise, as it now has a 2 1/2-litre engine, and has been lowered, lightened and provided with more adequate anchorage than was ever envisaged by its original designers.

Some change took place in the company’s policy at this time – mid-1930 – culminating in the withdrawal of the Le Mans entries; however, the T.T. effort, which meant so much, remained. Four cars – this time really au point – started, driven by Harvey, Paul, Purdy and Cushman. Unfortunately, in 1930 the works team of 1,750-c.c. Alfa-Romeo came over, driven by Nuvolari, Campari and Varzi, and as the 2-litre class had been poorly patronised in previous years they were set a lap speed only half a mile per hour greater than that allotted to the 1 1/2 litre cars. This was literally a gift; they scored a 1, 2, 3 victory, and struggle as the Alvis team might – and did – they had to be content with 4th, 6th and 7th places. Harvey crashed; the remaining cars finished 1st. 2nd and 3rd in their class, headed by Paul, who averaged 69.61 m.p.h. against Nuvolari’s 70.88 m.p.h. with the victorious Alfa Romeo.

This final blow was too much; the Alvis firm officially announced their withdrawal from racing until some more equitable system of handicapping should be devised. It was a reasonable decision in the circumstances. though greatly regretted by followers of the Sport; the company had spent a great deal of money, and had really very little to show for it. What is more, once made, it was a decision to which they adhered, and there has been no official Alvis race entry since that time, although a 4.3-litre tourer belonging to the works was raced privately on one or two occasions just prior to the war. An interesting private venture was the special “12/70” Alvis II constructed for C. G. H. Dunham in 1938, which contributed to his Gold Star for track racing; this car had a narrower chassis than standard, and the engine and transmission were offset to give a low seating position. The engine was given a high compression ratio and a special camshaft, and a very high axle ratio was fitted.

Sic transit gloria Alvi – but what a pity, and what putrid luck!

I have, of course, made no attempt to chronicle the many records which Alvis have held, at one time or another, in the 1 1/2-litre class. Perhaps the most notable was the remarkable succession of International Class F records taken at Brooklands in 1924, when 37 records were taken (in itself a record); also, of course, there was the International 1,000 mile record in the same class at 95.24 m.p.h., which was set up by Harvey and Purdy at Brooklands in 1929, and not beaten until 1934.

One day, perhaps, in this new and glowing post-war world-to-be the inverted red triangle will once again be seen in the forefront of battle, and the advertisements for the “car for the connoisseur” once more contain numerous references to doughty deeds accomplished.

NOTE. – Although the author is primarily concerned with the exploits of the works cars, his mention of certain good performances by privately-owned Alvis cars prompts us to recall some further such performances. In 1926 H. W. Purdy ran his “12/50” at Brooklands and won two short Outer Circuit handicaps, the faster at over 80 m.p.h. – when he tied with Turner’s Austro-Daimler and in the Essex M.C. 100 Mile Handicap he won at 86.77 m.p.h.; Harvey’s 200 Mile Race Alvis being 3rd. at 93.97 m.p.h. In the same year Purdy got 2nd place in the Essex M.C. 50 Mile Handicap, at 90.22 m.p.h. In 1927 J. Macdonald’s “12/50” won the J.C.C. 50 Mile Handicap at 78.92 m.p.h., while in the J.C.C. Production Car Race Harvey’s Alvis was 5th at 59.1 m.p.h., and Dykes was 6th at 58 m.p.h. The 1927 J.C.C. Sporting Car Race, Harvey’s “12/50 ” won at 63.2 m.p.h. for 254 miles and Green’s “12/50” was 2nd, covering 248 miles at 61.8 m.p.h. In the Surbiton M.C. “150” Hallam’s Alvis beat only a Lea-Francis averaging 55.1 m.p.h., but this car later won a 50 Mile Outer Circuit Handicap at 84.99 m.p.h. In 1928 Mrs. Dykes won the Surbiton M.C. 30 Mile Handicap at 87.68 m.p.h. and in the following year Dykes was 1st in the B.A.R.C. eight-lap Light Car Handicap, averaging 107.64 m.p.h. We believe that on this occasion he drove the works straight eight single-seater f.w.d. car, which was illustrated in Motor Sport at that time. In 1931 Fotheringham Parker’s Alvis won an Outer Circuit handicap with a lap at 95.78 m.p.h. As late as 1932 Westbrook brought out an old Sports “12:50” and won a Brooklands race, with a lap at 88.15 m.p.h., so clearly the early “12/50s” could be developed into 90-m.p.h. motor cars. Dunham and Miss Schwedler both lapped at over 100 m.p.h. in “Speed Twenty” cars in 1933, and this type of Alvis subsequently won many Brooklands short handicaps, Dunham eventually lapping at nearly 112 m.p.h. – Ed.

Nothing to worry about

There was a terrific bang and the, motorist pulled up. He got out, followed by the apprehensive glances of his passengers and the tolerant amusement of the passers-by. After crawling underneath the car he got up and said quite cheerily: “It sounded just like a burst tyre to me; but it’s all right, it’s only a broken axle.”