The recent death of Arthur Varney was not just the passing of a truly great motor engineer, but the end of an era in Alvis history.
Born in Coventry in 1906. Arthur joined Alvis as an apprentice on June 22 1922, by coincidence the very day that Captain Smith-Clarke joined as chief engineer. So began the unique partnership of Capt Smith-Clarke, WM Dunn and AF Varney which was to establish Alvis as one of the most innovative and technically superior pre-war car companies.
As a diligent apprentice, Arthur was soon showing his engineering talent, being largely responsible for the chassis design on both racing and production models of the fwd Alvis, as well as travelling with the works team during the ’20s. Following a poor Olympia Motor Show in October 1931, it was Arthur’s perceptive mind that recognised the trend towards lower, more rakish coachwork. With the blessing of Smith-Clarke and Dunn, he started work on the Speed Twenty, producing the first car just 16 weeks later!
His dislike of the crash gearbox led him to approach Smith-Clarke about designing an all synchromesh version, which Alvis was the first in the world to introduce, in 1933. Later he went on to design engines for both the Speed 25 and the 4.3-litre cars. In 1933 he became assistant chief engineer in charge of aeroengine manufacture, designing the Leonides radial engine first fitted to the Bristol Bulldog fighter. During the war he was responsible for nine shadow factories overhauling power plants for Spitfire, Lancaster and Wellington aircraft. After the war, apart from fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, his team built the power-unit for the first hovercraft.
Following the merger with Rover, Arthur took over responsibility for gas-turbine development until his retirement from Alvis in June 1972 — just 50 years in to the day he started as an apprentice. In 1973 he became consultant engineer to Noel Penny Turbines, where he continued to work full time until his 85th birthday. In spite of these remarkable achievements, I shall remember Arthur most for the modest, thoughtful, unassuming person he was. There was no side or edge to Arthur Varney, he was what he appeared — a thoroughly nice person, always thinking of others, never himself. We had enjoyed many happy hours together in recent years and I shall miss him very much.
V-to-C miscellany, October 1994, October 1994
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