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Why Alvis is happy building two cars a year

PH finds the venerable marque in rude health - and content to move at its own pace

By Dafydd Wood / Wednesday, April 8, 2020

In its 1938 road test of the new Alvis 4.3-litre Sports Tourer, The Autocar concluded: "There are cars, good cars and super cars. When a machine can be put into the last of these three categories, considerable praise is due to the makers." Such acclaim was hardly unfamiliar to Alvis founder T.G John, though, who had long since seen the company he'd begun with engine designer Geoffrey de Frevillein in 1919 develop a reputation for being one of Britain's pre-eminent motoring manufacturers.

Timeless style and top-notch craftsmanship were paired with cutting-edge technology to create machines which rivalled anything from better-known names like Aston Martin and Jaguar. In 1928 Alvis became the first marque to race a front-wheel drive model - the 12/75 winning its class at Le Mans - the first all-synchromesh gearbox soon followed, and the adoption of innovations such as independent front suspension and servo-assisted brakes wasn't far behind.

By WWII the firm's Coventry factory covered 29 acres and employed nearly 2,500 people, Alvis's remit having expanded to include the production of aircraft engines and armoured vehicles. On November 14th 1940, the site was heavily damaged by German bombing, bringing a halt to the 150-unit run of those 4.3-litre 'super cars' and ensuring that the firm's automobile line would stay dormant for the remainder of the war. Manufacturing recommenced in 1946, but the 77 chassis left unbuilt in that run would never be finished.

Here's where the brand's current custodian, Alan Stote, takes up the story. PH sat down with him for an online, isolation-appropriate chat, and he explained what happened next. "Alvis never made any bodywork, they always had their bodies built by specific coachbuilders. And of course those were gradually taken over by the big companies, Vanden Plas went to BMC, Tickford went to Aston Martin, so they were having increasing difficulty in finding coachbuilders. I think also, having a one model company wasn't really going to work for the future, so they decided to stop making cars in 1967 and they moved the passenger division, which is what became Red Triangle, to the site we're at now in Kenilworth.

"I think probably it was only really thought it would look after the new cars in the marketplace at that time - there were TF 21s which had just been bought by customers - and supply spare parts to all the Alvis agents around the world, but I don't think they ever saw it as a long term business, because if you had an old car in the '60s you were either eccentric or poor. I don't think there was much of an old car business then really."

He continues: "Gradually of course as the cars became older then they started to do more complex jobs. It's also worth remembering that what was unusual about Alvis is that in 1966 you could have owned a 1925 Alvis 1250 and you could have gone to the works and had it serviced, and nobody would have batted an eyelid. They were that sort of company. It was run by the ex-employees from the Alvis works and in 1994 the last of the employees was coming up to retirement, I knew him and so I bought the business."

Since the acquisition, Alan has not only ensured that the brand continues to support owners with new parts and servicing, but also sought to revive the manufacturing of road-going cars once more. His first task being to complete those 77 remaining pre-war chassis. Progress is slow, with each bespoke, hand-made example taking up to 5,000 hours to complete and cars onlto the ones which rolled off the production line before the war - just don't call them replicas.

"People have sort of said 'is it a replica?' but it can't be a replica because it's made by the Alvis car company," Alan says. "It's made from the same drawings. It's rather like saying that the next McLaren to come off the production line is a replica of the last one, all we say is it's been a long time between orders."

You can certainly say that again, with the new cars' period-style engines requiring fuel injection systems and ECUs to pass modern emissions regulations. That's enough to keep them road legal, though, which gives Alvis a significant leg up on its Continuation competition, a segment of the market which Alan reckons could represent the future, as well as the past, of motoring.

"When I was first learning to drive, I used to park my old Prefect on a slope because I always knew the battery was a bit low and so you had to bump start it. Running cars in those days, in the '60s, you had to understand a little bit about how they worked or else you couldn't really be a motorist, certainly with an old car. Modern technology has made cars a lot more reliable, and people don't have the troubles they used to have, and I think probably one of the advantages of some of the Continuation cars of course is that modern engineering has made them a little bit more reliable.

"But you've got to make sure the customer wants to have a car where they are expected to be part of the car and to drive it, it's not driven by computers. We do have to have an ECU because it's got fuel injection, it has to have fuel injection because otherwise we can't pass emissions, but that doesn't make the car drive any different than a car that was released from the factory in the '60s or the '30s. So we have to put certain safety features in, seat belts and collapsible steering, but otherwise the car drives very much as it used to.

"We like to take the best of modern technology to make the car more reliable, and make it safe, but the driver needs to be able to contribute part of it, instead of just being an appendage as you often are in a modern car where it does everything for you, in our cars you have to make your contribution, you have to be part of the experience. It's not for everybody I suppose, but many people do like that and I think that's where in the future, when everybody's either being driven around by robotic cars or they're driving electric cars, I think it'll be something people will aspire to, to drive a car, like riding a horse."

Of course the original purpose of Red Triangle is still very much alive and well, using its extensive archive of 60-70,000 documents, design plans and customer records to keep Alvis cars on the road, period and modern alike. "We carry a vast number of parts, we've got 35,000 model fitments, so we can supply parts for cars made in the early '20s right the way through to the '60s. The key to it is we've got all the drawings for the parts. The average part stays in stock for about 3 ½ years because when somebody rings up from anywhere in the world with an Alvis, our job is to be able to supply that part the next day. And so we keep a little bit of everything in stock, and it seems to work."

To help those customers pass the time during lockdown, and ensure their cars are ready to go when restrictions loosen, Alvis has been offering owners free tech support. It's a system which Alan says has been working well: "They've been getting calls on the customer service side which they answer if they can there and then. We try to encourage people to do it by email, because it gets the customer to explain the technical side more easily. Normally the managing director can answer the technical questions, he's working from home at the moment, and if he gets stuck on anything he's always got one of our senior technicians he can ask."

There can't be many other manufacturers which will offer up a direct line for their MD to answer technical questions, but then Alvis isn't like many other manufacturers, something which is helping it in the current climate: "It [Coronavirus] hasn't disrupted us, we're not due to deliver the next car until January 2021 and then the other two cars that they've ordered are going in January '22. Because it takes up to two years to build a car, it's not like supplying something every day, so obviously this has put us a little behind but I'm hopeful we're going to catch up."

Aside from those couple of builds, Red Triangle gets around 200 of the 4,800 remaining Alvis cars through its service centre every year. So does Alan still find there's the demand for customers happy to work on their own cars? "There's always been the split between the earlier cars which are simpler, and people buy those to work on and they enjoy it, and the later cars. Recently, in the last 10, 20, 30 years, as values have risen and somebody has to spend quite a lot of money to buy an old car, they tend not to have the time to work on it themselves - they're usually busy people. And they also, if they paid a decent amount of money on a car, would prefer to have it worked on professionally. So I'd say there's probably less DIY stuff than ever, although more than half the parts we sell every month go to DIY people around the world and half go to other restorers."

Then there are the owners who are willing to sacrifice a little of their period car's authenticity (temporarily, at least) for the performance of Alvis's more modern engine: "Some of the people with the period 4.3 whose cars we service and restore have driven our demonstrator, which has got exactly the same 4.3-litre engine in made from exactly the same drawings. The only advantage is of course that the machining we can do today is so much more accurate, and those people who've driven our demonstrator, four of them have asked us to make new engines and swap them into their cars, and we mothballed their original engine."

That's not to say Alan is willing to stick any old powertrain beneath the bonnet of a classic, his views on the electrification of classics echoing those of the majority of the PH community: "I suppose it's novel, but it doesn't appeal to me at all. I mean the technology of modern cars is fantastic, and I'm sure that even electric cars are fantastic, but I'm not sure that they have the same appeal. From what I can see there's nothing to fiddle with on electric cars is there? So what're you going to talk about in the pub at 11 o'clock on a Friday night when you're all gathered around and discussing unleaded fuel or synthetic oil or whatever. I mean that's the old car community, there's always a lot of opinions flying around, and I'm not sure there's enough in an electric car to discuss."

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