Veteran to classic: 3-litre Lagonda

Staines' first sports car

Known as the 14/60hp, Lagonda's first 11\2-litre model marked a rather dramatic change in style by the Staines firm. Its immediate predecessors, such as the 12/24 hp, were light cars; but the 14/60 led Lagonda towards the market for highly attractive sports cars, even if this was not at first apparent.

The first, staid, 14/60 dated from 1925. The designers were Arthur Davidson of Lea-Francis, who was responsible for the unusual engine, and AE Masters who laid down the chassis. WR Buckingham was given the task of styling the bodies, as he had been for the later 12/24 light-cars, and Arthur Thatcher designed the radiator. The 2-litre Lagonda had a long-stroke four-cylinder engine of 72 x 120mm bore and stroke (1954cc). The valves were inclined at the traditional 90deg to give hemispherical combustion chambers, and there were two camshafts. However, instead of these being twin overhead carnshafts, as on the 3-litre Sunbeam for example, they were located high on opposite sides of the cylinder block; valve prodding was through near-vertical rockers bearing on the outer sides of the cams. You might well call them under-head-camshafts.

There was a good reason for Davidson adopting his unconventional arrangement. In the mid-vintage years carbon formed quickly on piston crowns and cylinder heads, and valves soon suffered likewise and pitted their seats. The DIY (not that the term had been invented) motorist was constantly lifting the cylinder head of his engine, to see what was going on inside, scraping away at the unwanted carbon which caused detonation, and grinding-in the valve seats first with coarse, then with fine, grinding paste. You bought the paste in double-ended tins of "coarse & fine", but try finding that today!

Carrying out these chores with a twin-cam head involved lifting a heavy chunk of metal and, worse, losing the valve timing in the process. (If you owned a fixed-hood Bentley, Bugatti or 3-litre Sunbeam you were tempted to send it to the makers or agents for its regular decoke, and you received a hefty bill afterwards. If you were working on your Singer Nine (or Junior) you could hang the top tinting sprocket on a peg and hope to preserve the timing, but I gather it didn't always work!). Davidson saw that if he designed a conventional twin-cam engine the customers would hesitate to buy it, fearful of what would confront them when it became due for decoking. This was no idle fear — I once owned a very secondhand ohc Rhode which I confidently decided to decarbonise, but re-timing even its single "upstairs" camshaft defeated me, and had to be left to an experienced friend. With the Lagonda's underhead camshafts, the head could be lifted without disturbing the valve-timing, yet the advantage of light reciprocating valve-gear was retained.

Full marks to Arthur Davidson, then. Had he drawn his engine at a slightly later date, one might think inspiration had been gleaned from the high-push-rods layout of the new Riley 9; but it would have to have been much later to be accused of cribbing the similar high-camshafts of Hugh Rose's Lea-Francis. Davidson dispensed with push-rods, his ingenious design incorporating just the rockers, adjusted by eccentric fulcrums.

Alas, most engineering advantages have converse snags, and in the case of the Lagonda's twin underhead camshafts these were tortuous inlet and exhaust tracts. There were two-stage chains at the front of the engine, driving the camshafts, and the cylinder block was integral with the crank-case. The crankshaft ran in five 2in diameter white-metal bearings, with pressure lubrication from a Rotoplunge pump on the front of the timing case, and pump cooling. Ignition was by a BTH magneto, and those notoriously tortuous inlet tracts were fed by a sidedraught Zenith 30HZ carburettor. via a water-heated manifold. The petrol tank held 12 gallons, Autovac supplied.

The chassis into which this interesting new engine was installed was conventional, with half-elliptic springing, Hartford damping, separate gearbox, axle-ratios of 4.67:1 or 5.44:1 depending on body-type, very effective Rubery four-wheel-brakes, a Lagonda dry-plate clutch, and a 10ft wheel-base.

The 14/60 may have been heavy and staid, but the use of machined semi-heads with central plugs, machined ports, lightweight pistons and the light valve-gear with double valve-springs which could be removed without lifting the head, surely showed Davidson had a sportscar in mind? This came in July 1927, in the guise of the 2-litre Speed Model.

At this time, the impact of Le Mans and the various long-distance sports-car races run at Brooklands made cars of this kind well worth marketing. Long, flowing front mudguards, nearside doors only, a lowered fabric-covered aluminium four-seater body with cut-away for the driver's right elbow, raised cr, closer gear ratios, more advanced valve-timing, Bentley-like BHB pistons, other engine modifications and a 4.2:1 axle ratio made this Speed Model Lagonda a highly desirable motor-car.

It was priced at £675, when a Speed Model 3-litre Bentley cost £1125, and was guaranteed to do 80mph. Although no road-test reports claimed to have seen this, and it is difficult to know how Lagonda substantiated its claim, better than 70mph was possible, which for a 2-litre car was no disgrace (it took a really good short-chassis 3-litre Bentley to do its alleged 82 mph maximum). Lagonda proudly exhibited the new Speed Model at Olympia in 1927.

The timing of the Speed Model was right, for it was an enthusiast's make, appreciation for which had been fostered by the Lagonda Fete Days at Brooklands since 1926, and by the competition appearances of these cars driven by private owners. I had a sad experience of such a fete as a schoolboy. My mother's friend of longstanding was secretary to a Mr Longden, an agent for Stanton iron-pipes, with an office th Victoria Street. He owned a 2-litre Lagonda and decided to take a young nephew to this Brooklands day of short races and driving-tests. Asked afterwards if it was enjoyable, he said yes, but his nephew spent the day reading a book and showing no interest whatsoever. My mother remarked that I would have given my left hand (or possibly my right hand, as I am left-handed), to have gone and her friend passed this on, to be told that, had he known, he would have been delighted to have taken me instead! The disappointment lingers, and if any Lagonda Club member has a programme of what I think was the 1927 or 1928 event, I would be amused to discover in what races Mr Longden took part, and in which Lagonda. Incidentally, the Lagonda Fete is to be revived this year at Brooklands on May 31.

I have said that no road tests of the Speed Model admitted to an 80 mph maximum. One exception was Motor Sport, which claimed 86 mph from YT 9880, borrowed for a weekend from Gaffikin Wilkinson Co of Hanover Square. But this was a speedometer reading, on a slightly falling gradient. The tester said he did not doubt the accuracy of the speedometer and would give the reason later, but he never did; so perhaps one should take his quote of a two-way top speed of approximately 78 mph (52 mph in second and 72 mph in third gear) with the proverbial pinch of salt.

The only criticisms were low-geared steering, a trace of roll when cornering quickly, and the lever for dipping the headlamps beams being so placed that it was all too easy to mistake it for the gear lever. Otherwise, all was praise, especially for the springing, light steering and the brakes, although the steering box attachment bolts and the Hartfords had to be tightened to overcome severe wheel wobble at about 60 mph. The Lagonda averaged 44 mph over the twisting road from Kings Lynn to Cambridge, topped Brockley Hill beyond the Edgware Road at 55 mph, cruised happily at 60 mph and gave around 24 mpg. In 1929 the chassis was lowered, and then came the blown 2-litre engine, which obviated the power loss of those tortuous induction passages. Powerplus, No 9 Comte and No 5 Zoller superchargers were used at different times. The car Motor Sport tested in 1930 (PL 2089) had a Zoller compressor and the former sweeping front wings, whereas the blown cars normally had cycle-type mudguards. The radiator had had to be moved forward to accommodate the supercharger, but these low-chassis blown 2-litres were handsome cars.

The one we tested did 92 mph flat-out, and held 90 without complaint for a considerable distance at Brooklands, when several laps at full throttle scarcely warmed it up. Acceleration figures were 0-30 mph in 5 sec, 0-40 in 9 sec, 0-50 in 12 sec and 0-60 in 18 sec.

The issue containing the test report was quite a Lagonda number, and it netted ten pages of advertising directly related to the car, including one showing the corner site of Lagonda's showrooms at Albemarle Street. Incidentally, the 2-litre is sometimes said to have had a difficult gear change, but none of the testers agreed. The specification included pneumatic upholstery and a fly-off hand brake.

Around the time of the introduction of the blown 2-litre, I wrote with the arrogant confidence of a schoolboy to The Autocar, saying I thought the better system of supercharging was to blow air through the carburettor. Mercedes-Benz gave me my first taste of 100 mph, in a 36/220, to confirm this; Lagonda Ltd thought I should see the other side of the coin, so I went down to Staines, to meet one of the Directors, Mr Cranmer, and was given an exciting drive round the local by-roads in one of the new blown cars. No doubt both runs arose from the anticipation of a lucrative adult who might become a customer; the fact remains that they met a schoolboy.

These blown 2-litres sold for £610 as a chassis, £775 for the tourer and £875 for the Weymann saloon in 1930. The makers proudly quoted 0-70 mph in 22.6 sec and 0-90 mph in 50 sec, as achieved by The Motor.

In those days Motor Sport published used-car tests, and in 1931 a 1929 2-litre Lagonda sports model was lent by Gaffikin Wilkinson. It had the 4.4:1 axle-ratio, could have been bought for "in the neighbourhood of £225", and attained 40, 60 and 70 mph in the three upper gears. It was suggested that, with a little attention, 75 mph would be possible, so these cars were "goers". This one gave more than 24 mpg, driven as hard as possible over a difficult route, and piston slap was the only sign of engine wear. Once again the gear shift was warmly praised, and the quietness of the cogs was attributed to the fact that the gearbox had never required rough handling.

Two-litre Lagondas were not outstanding in racing, but some worthwhile results were obtained. As early as the 1927 Whitsun Brooklands Meeting, Cranmer entered a black 2-litre for sales manager Frank King in the 90 mph Long Handicap. "Unknown" cars usually received harsh handicaps, and from the 47 sec mark King was unplaced. But he did the final lap at an impressive 81.37 mph, suggesting a top speed of around 85 mph.

In more important races, there were notable results such as 1-2-3 in the 2-litre class of the 1929 JCC "Double-Twelve", the team prize in the BARC Six-Hours Race, third in class behind two Alfa Romeos in the RAC TT, and second in class to an Alfa Romeo in the 1930 "Double-Twelve".

The final fling of the 2-litre was the refined "Continental" model, which retained the smooth-running four-cylinder engine and the generally accessible aspect of the original car. By now, though, the company was involved with more litres and more cylinders, which were to lead to successful racing accomplishments, such as an outright win at Le Mans in 1935. The 2-litre which started along this road deserves not to be overlooked. WB