Veteran to classic: V12 Lagonda

Casualty of War

When I think back on the cars for which I have considerable affection, the final pre-war design-fling of WO Bentley comes readily to mind — the V12 Lagonda. Unfortunately it was hampered by the proximity of its conception and production to the Second World War; but had Hitler not intervened this car would surely have become one of the great all-time Classics.

The project was born with WO at Staines around 1936; the concept was of a modernisation of his great 8-litre Bentley, the 100 mph saloon which had so frightened Rolls-Royce that it had bought Bentley Motors out by underhand means — which is how WO found himself at Lagonda but unable by law to use his name on Lagonda cars. Among the engineers he had around him were Stuart Tresillian, Charles Sewell and Leslie Stark, all of whom had had a hand in the Rolls-Royce PIII, and Stan Ivermee, Percy Kernish, Jack Sopp and Lionel Taylor.

The fascination of the new Lagonda was its modest-capacity V12 engine. Most V12s were big-engined cars such as the PIII (if we except the 4.4-litre Lincoln Zephyr of 1936 as an inexpensive development of Ford’s famous V8), but WO had no need of the six big cylinders of the vintage 8-litre by 1936, providing he used a number of short-stroke ones to reduce piston-speed at the higher rpm he would require to get the desired performance from a 4.5-litre power-unit.

Lagonda’s V12 was a comparatively simple engine. Its 60° blocks had cast-iron heads, the 75mm x 84.5mm dimensions giving a capacity of 4480cc. There was a single overhead camshaft above each cylinder bank, driven by chains and operating two valves per cylinder. The crankshaft ran in four bearings, the alloy conrods directly on the nitro-hardened big-end journals; balance weights and a torsional vibration damper were used.

An SU downdraught carburettor for each cylinder bank supplied the mixture, and each had its own Delco-Remy coil-ignition set. There were two oil-pumps, one for the valve-gear and auxiliaries and the other for the main and big-end bearings. Cooling was by pump, with thermostatic control of the radiator shutters.

Some 180 bhp at 5500 rpm was claimed for this engine, which was mated with a new gearbox whose bearings were lubricated by a plunger pump. The chassis had torsion-bar independent front suspension, half-elliptic rear springs with torsion anti-roll bar, hypoid back-axle, Armstrong hydraulic dampers with override control for the back springs, and Lockheed brakes with 16in drums. The box-section side-members of the chassisframe were 8in deep. With a 20-gallon fuel tank, twin batteries for its 12-volt electrical system, 6.50 x 18 tyres and gear-ratios of 14.46, 7.43, 5.56 and 4.45:1, it weighed 29 cwt in short form.

A saloon was made ready just in time for the 1936 Olympia Show, and if prices were anything to go by it proved that WO and Lagonda’s Alan Good were out for revenge on Rolls-Royce. Whereas a PIII chassis cost £1850 and a 41/4-litre Bentley saloon £1510, the short Lagonda was listed at £1050, a long chassis at £1070, and a long-chassis saloon at £1450.

A launch party at the Royal Palace Hotel in Kensington had Good, the Duke of Richmond and Dick Watney praising the V12, but when called upon to respond, WO, a man of few words who hated making speeches, just murmured “Thank you very much” before sitting down again. . .

It had been hoped to start production by the summer of 1937, but it was not until the Motor Show of 1938 that the V12 was an accomplished fact —and as for the claimed 180 bhp, I refer you to Davey and May’s excellent Lagonda history (David & Charles, 1978)!

By this time three chassis-lengths of 10ft 4in, 11ft and 11ft 6in-wheelbase had been decided upon, respectively priced at £1200, £1225 and £1250 (a saloon body on the former costing £1550). Minor modifications to the Sanction-2 V12s included the oil-filler being moved to the offside cam-cover, the firing order being changed to 1-12-9-4-5-8-11-2-3-10-7-6, a redesign of the two-pressure lubrication system and some gearbox alterations.

Although the war left little time for real development, the V12 made some very reasonable competition appearances. At Brooklands, Earl Howe drove a saloon for the production-car hour-run, averaging 105.52 mph until a tyre deflated; this was changed using the car’s DWS jacking system, and 101.5 miles resulted from the interrupted RAC-timed hour, with a fastest lap at 108.27 mph.

The real excitement, however, was provided by Good’s announcement that Lagonda would enter Le Mans in 1939. Bentleys having won there five times and a Lagonda once (in 1935), a WO entry was quite something. It was said that Dick Seaman had been invited to drive for him, but that Mercedes had refused to release him.

The project went ahead, but WO wisely insisted the entry should just be treated as a “feeler” in preparation for the 1940 race and stipulated that speed be restricted to just one mph more than the 82.35 mph average at which the Chaboud/Tremoulet Delahaye had won in 1938. The Le Mans engines had four hot-spotted downdraught SU carburettors (which had involved elaborate manifolding on the production engines, with the exhaust pipes inside the vee before bending to the outside), an 8.5:1 compression-ratio to suit Le Mans fuel, a 4.09:1 axle-ratio, 6.50 x 19 front tyres to kill excessive understeer, 7.00 x 19 rear tyres and ultra-light aluminium bodyshells. Power output was quoted as 220bhp, but was more likely to have been 206bhp at 5500 rpm, theoretically giving 140 mph at 6000 rpm.

Driven by Dobson/Brackenbury and Lords Selsdon and Waleran, it is to the eternal credit of all concerned that the Lagondas finished third and fourth behind a Bugatti and a Delage. At 83.61 mph and 83.35 mph respectively, they had complied with WO’s wishes and proved that Staines’ V12 had it in it to return and win in 1940— though the war was to deny it the opportunity.

It is interesting that, at Harry Weslake’s suggestion, smaller valves were used in the racing than in the production engines, and that cracked valve-seats between adjacent exhaust valves apparently caused WO to opt for twin-cam power for his post-war 21/2/3-litre six-cylinder Lagonda engines.

Both Le Mans V12s ran in two races at the final Brooklands meeting of 1939, in stripped form. Brackenbury won the first of these at 118.45 mph, 3.8 seconds ahead of Lord Selsdon, who in closing up after a poor start did a lap at 128.08 mph. After this both drivers are said to have lifted off somewhat, to humour handicapper “Ebby”, who had perhaps been too kind to these deserving British cars. Some measure of the effectiveness of these far from fully-developed sports cars is provided by the fact that Selsdon’s lap speed was exceeded that day only by the Multi-Union, the Duesenberg and the big Bentley-Jackson (all pure racing cars), and by a mere 1.35 mph by Connell’s Darracq.

It was October 1940 before Motor Sport was able to publish road impressions of the V12 . In spite of the war Peter Clark, who had campaigned his HRGs at Le Mans, was able to borrow short-chassis saloon. He was favourably impressed, but discovered the shortcoming of these cars, which was a lack of torque at under 3000 rpm. Clark praised the clutch-action and especially the steering, the heavy long-levered gearchange less so; he described the engine’s hush as “unequalled”, after he had adjusted a noisy tappet, but the wind noise he found distasteful.

A year later, when the Battle of Britain had been won, I was able to test Lagonda’s only remaining demonstrator, a medium-length saloon (JPG 654) with a blackout mask on its nearside headlamp. Petrol was in very short supply, but we went to a 750 MC meeting under an evening sky laced with vapour trails from Hurricanes and Spitfires engaging the remaining German fighters, and on Winston Churchill’s “V-for-Victory” Sunday we drove to Petersfield.

The extreme smoothness and quietness of the engine was impressive, but in deference to wartime conditions we kept our top speed down to 90 mph, although the V12 Lagonda was a genuine 100 mph car. It cruised at 3500 rpm, equal to 70 mph, and a somewhat tentative test showed 0-50 mph in 12 sec, 0-60 in 14.3 sec, and 0-70 in 20 sec; 30-60 mph in top gear took 13 seconds.

I found the brake pedal badly placed and the brakes heavy and non-progressive, but adjustment seemed needed. I agreed with Peter that the light “silky” steering was too low-geared, and there was some bonnet and headlamp movement . The gearchange was on the slow side, but then the V12 did most of its unobtrusive running in top gear, running down to 400 rpm in that ratio. Taking Frimley railway bridge at 54 mph did not trouble the suspension. Oil pressure was 70-75°, water-heat 65-70°.

No 4 plug on the offside cylinder bank looking inaccessible, we got Joe Lowrey to remove and replace it using Lagonda’s special spanner, against the stopwatch. He did this in 67 seconds, and then did the same with a plug on his own HRG 1100, which had screw terminals, in 37 seconds. . .

The V12 Lagonda was a great, though under-developed, car. How unfortunate that the war killed it off before it could relise its full potential on road or track. WB