The following article appeared many years ago in the now defunct Australian Motor Sports magazine in March 1966.
SO I BOUGHT THIS ALVIS........................ by Brian Creer
"A rare and individual thoroughbred ....... the advertisement stated ......... a car for the sportsman who is irked by the commonplace." On reflection, one can see what a classic piece of motivational advertising that small classified was.
I arrived at the address and was brought up short by the vision before me. There stood the Alvis, like some aristocrat at a garden party. A rare one indeed, for it was one of the four-cylinder front-wheel-drive models.
I have often wondered whether the seller had studied stage management. Certainly, his placement of the car—at the summit of a curving, tree-lined driveway—was superb. Beyond it rose a brace of antique wrought-iron gates, while a few feet away a panelled Tudor entrance hall beckoned with cool shadow. An ex-university student fabric bodied Austin Chummy would have looked like a Rolls in such a setting!
The Alvis was 13 ft long, yet its tapering bonnet, and the fact that the driver occupied only the last third of its length, made it look enormous. Wire spoke centre-lock wheels and cycle guards simply reeked of the banking of Brooklands. The pointed tail and vertical steering wheel suggested Le Mans, in the W.O. Bentley days.
The fact that it was painted (poorly) a faded blue and the upholstery was showing horsehair every few inches, went unnoticed. On the brass radiator shell was the revered red triangle and beneath the bonnet reposed a bulky sculpture in cast iron and aluminium, coloured red and black, with polished metal trim.
I located the owner, who quickly set about extolling the virtues of the vehicle. He seemed somewhat nervous and over-willing to answer questions.
Features were rapidly pointed out as we circled the car: the Roots-type supercharger (“it's supposed to deliver 9½ lb but I've never managed more than four...."); the massive magneto ("converted from an Avro Anson aircraft maggie... ") and the long torque-rod which connected the right-hand floor change with the nose-mounted gearbox (“...gotta watch that—sometimes comes out... ").
The FWD Alvis was powered, he told me, by an OHC engine, which was virtually the famed 12/50 motor turned back to front. With the blower at full chat the motor would touch 5000 rpm to deliver a road speed of 80-85 mph. Now....... would I like to try it?
A short, ear-shattering hurtle around the local streets convinced me that—in the interests of the local residents—I should quickly purchase this gem and remove it from the district.
I suppose one should be practical at such times and inquire about gap settings, fuel consumption, timing, castor and camber figures and the like, but sporting vehicles are bought, not with the head, but with the heart.
So I bought this Alvis ......... and from that moment it became a — MONSTER!
Two days later I arrived to collect my prize, only to find that the seller (cunning chap) was out. He had, however, left a note, which said, ominously: "Good Luck". Below this cheery greeting was scribbled a list of instructions for starting:
1. Turn on fuel tap
2. Turn engine by hand four times
3. Lift bonnet and place hand over blower air intake
4. With the other hand, operate the starter motor with the solenoid button (make sure ignition is off)
5. Turn engine on starter motor for about 10 seconds
6. Get in
7. Switch on and press starter button (not throttle). The engine will fire immediately.
8. Wait for oil pressure to stabilise at about 30lb before moving.
Although this ritual may seem totally unnecessary and pointless, I can only say that, in 'dead cold' conditions this was the ONLY way to get the Alvis to fire. In the 12 months that I owned the car only once did it fail to start in this way. Of course, for a normal start it was only necessary to switch on the fuel, turn the engine over without ignition a couple of times and then switch on.
I have never been able to fathom the subtle difference between turning the motor by hand and then turning with the starter motor, but I very soon established that the above-mentioned “cold start vital actions” drill was essential. Any omission or variation would result in a despondent cough, and silence.
A FWD Alvis at idle sounds remarkably like three or four Leyland diesel double-decker buses, even to the point of an accurate mimicry of the diesel “clatter”.
To sit in a FWD at idle is roughly similar to squatting on the propeller-shaft bearing of the "Queen Elizabeth" at 20 knots during an Atlantic storm.
The seat pulsed up and down, the instrument panel shuddered from side to side, the plywood floor performed a kind of horizontal belly dance and the bonnet leaped and trembled like a thing alive.
As I released the large handbrake and allowed the long blue "thing” (my father’s description) to roll down the driveway, it seemed that the entire world was jumping, jolting and quivering. I turned warily into the street, snicked into gear and gingerly toed the throttle. The jelly-like world suddenly crystallised as if by magic and the vehicle once more became a single integrated unit.
To drive a FWD Alvis is to be propelled within an all-embracing balloon of pure sound.
From the nose came the swish of large-diameter tyres and the hum of busy half-shafts. From within, the differential gears buzz and whine and the mighty straight-cut gear train between crankshaft and OHC grinds its merry song. The blower adds its whines and whistles in tempo with the gentle "huff-huff' sounds of each rear suspension arm.
I had learned to drive on an old Dodge Flying Four and matriculated via a Red Label Bentley, Hispano and Alfa Romeo. None was forgiving of the inept cog-swapper. I was therefore delighted to discover that the Alvis box allowed smooth, silent changes at a fairly rapid pace.
My homeward route took me along a multi-lane major highway and I was revelling in my purchase and its hearty sounds. I think I noticed the police car ahead at the same moment that I realised the “40” I had been holding on the big instrument before me was on the rev counter—not the speedo. It was too late to throttle off and hope. Obviously, the law had seen me overhauling him at a rate of knots. Luck was with me, however, for as I drew abreast I noticed something amiss with his vehicle. In my best "I've-been-trying-to-catch-up-to-tell-you" voice, I called: "Your back door is undone", and sped brazenly on.
In the rear-view mirror the law drew to the kerb and walked around to the rear of his vehicle to inspect the offending door. Then I was around a bend in the highway and swung off onto a side road. Just to be safe I reduced speed to a more sensibly unlawful 55 mph. This was one of the very rare occasions when the law did not ignore everything else in order to maintain scrutiny of the Alvis.
In the security of our backyard I examined the Alvis more thoroughly and it was obvious that—bodily—it was in poor shape. However, it ran like a charm and I could not bring myself to pull it down until we had notched up a few miles together.
The first mile we notched up together ended rather embarrassingly when the gearbox torque tube detached itself and left me stranded in the centre of a peak-hour intersection. That night a small metal "fence" was erected around the tube's attachment point to prevent any early repetition of that problem.
For the next three weeks the Alvis startled motorists twice daily on our journeys to and from the city. Twice weekly “Algy" Alvis startled me as I dipped into my wallet to pay his feed bill at a petrol pump. Obviously, he was running rich. One expects a healthy appetite from a rare beast—but 11 miles per gallon?
Two weeks of bus travel later the mixture problem appeared resolved and the Alvis was returning a steady 24 mpg around the city and showed a heady 28½ mpg on a 90 mile run at a fairly constant 60 mph.
To drive a FWD Alvis on the open road is a joy as rare as the car itself.
Because the Alvis was independently suspended all round it was a remarkably comfortable vintage machine. Two massive swing-arms (like king size VW arms in reverse) and one hefty leaf spring either side comprised the rear suspension. Up front, each wheel was hung on no fewer than four semi-elliptic leaf springs arranged in superimposed pairs. Front brakes were inboard, mounted beside the differential.
The wheelbase (from memory) was 9 ft and the centre of gravity was exceptionally low. This, coupled with the usual FWD cornering virtues, made the Alvis superbly comfortable and enjoyable for rapid (if noisy) transport over reasonable distances. It was, however, occasionally temperamental when travelling in other than a straight line.
On a sharp bend one could find the front wheels moved by some unseen force to the full lock position, where they would set solid. If one was fortunate, car and driver would halt on the verge in a swirl of dust and adjectives. I experienced this interesting phenomenon only twice. The first time was at low speed. No sweat. On the second occasion I was motoring rather enthusiastically and, in next to no time, found myself blackberrying some 40 ft from the roadway.
To corner a FWD Alvis is to be often amazed - sometimes surprised.
Early on Sunday morning I pushed "Algy" from the garage and prepared to go through the complex ritual of a cold start. Alas—the battery was flat, and so I took the long starting handle, pressed it home and heaved. There was a slight resistance, a small snap, and the handle swung uselessly in my hand.
Examination revealed that the meshing pin had snapped and must therefore have clattered down inside the massive collection of gears, splines and shafts. Somewhere inside that polished aluminium and cast iron sculpture lay a small metal dowel. It was less than two inches long, yet it could easily wreck the beast. I changed my clothes and started work.
To dismantle an FWD Alvis is to build the Great Pyramid in reverse.
The differential, gearbox and engine sumps were drained and flushed. No pin emerged. I decided then that the massive front-chassis cross-tie must come out. This entailed freeing some dozen bolts which had remained tensioned since 1930 when “Algy" had left the Alvis factory. Three evenings later the final bolt came free and the chassis member was painfully prised out.
The front wheels were then removed, half shafts dropped and the radiator detached. All this was necessary to reach the differential. FWD Alvises were not designed to be dismantled. In point of fact, it was necessary to remove the engine from the chassis merely to reline the front brakes! The search for the missing pin continued through diff and gearbox until it finally reached a point—some 4 ft from the front of the car—where the crankshaft was located.
The pin, it seemed, had vanished.
It was about two weeks since the search operation began when my father stooped over and pointed to the cross tie chassis member lying in the garage. "That's not what you're looking for, is it?" Following his finger, I was amazed to see the long sought pin. It was embedded in a dollop of grease, within the channel shape of the cross member. Had it been noticed the first day I could easily have removed it with one finger, through the starting handle hole.
To work on an FWD Alvis is to experience the natural perversity of inanimate objects.
This fiasco did, however, have two compensations. By the time I had reassembled everything, I had learned a great deal more about the car. The con rods were duralumin, with white metal bearings pressure cast into place. The counter balanced crankshaft was carried in three plain bearings. It was machined all over and was a beautifully balanced piece of engineering. The overhead camshaft was hollow and carried a pressurised oil feed. Engine lubrication was by means of a rotary-geared pump, operating on a semi dry sump principle. This supplied oil to the main bearings and the overhead gear. Yes—I learned much on winter's chilly nights.
The second compensation was that, by the time everything was back together again—it was SUMMER. By the height of the bushfire season "Algy" shone with a new coat of lacquer and sported a carpeted floor, neatly pleated upholstery and door trims. The chrome radiator now carried a very chic stoneguard.
Following steps one to seven of the "cold start vital actions" routine, I fired up "Algy" one Sunday morning and set off for a day with friends some 30 miles distant. The day went well and by late afternoon several of my friends were pleading for a lift home aboard the Alvis. Finally it was decided that the honour should go to Bill, since he had rarely travelled in other than staid family saloons. He had never ridden in a died-in-the-wool, fire-and-brimstone vintage monster.
I doubt if he will ever again travel in an Alvis.
With the tacho fluttering between 45 and 50 and the three inch diameter copper tailpipe bellowing its song over three shires, we were going great guns when my passenger tugged at my sleeve and cupped his hand to his mouth. "I can smell something burning" he shouted against the miniature tornado eddying over the screen.
How difficult it is to carry on a conversation in a hurricane, while squinting to see the road between strands of hair plastered by wind to your forehead. "Don't worry," I yelled, "probably the weak spot in the muffler has burnt through.”
For a short time this appeared to satisfy him, for he sat silently while I wrenched through groups of Detroit tinware. Admittedly, his knuckles were white where he clenched the grab handle and his legs were braced rigidly against the firewall. At least he was passive.
Finally, he gave a sort of twitch. "I'm getting bloody hot”, he whined.
My patience was short with unbelievers, and here was an obvious unbeliever. "Well," I snorted, "stand up for a while."
Surprisingly, he took me at my word. As his nether regions ascended from the pleated upholstery a tongue of yellow-orange flame followed them. "My Gawd!" He was wild-eyed now. "My Gawd! We're on fire!"
I'm not sure whether he said anything further, because he immediately disappeared over the windshield onto the bonnet, as I locked all four wheels and skewered from the bitumen into the adjacent waist high wild oats.
There followed a short period of utter confusion, of which I have few recollections. I do recall leaping up and down on my newly carpeted floor until it split in two with a shower of sparks. I then hurled both smoking pieces into the tinder dry wild oats. Also among the oats was the seat (well alight), an old travelling rug (joyously aflame) and Bill (confused).
It seems that wild oats require little provocation to burst into flames, and the ones I had chosen to invade were no exception. A small but fierce grassfire took hold and I sweated several gallons of blood pushing the Alvis upwind of the blaze. This was made more difficult by the fact that burning pieces of Alvis kept failing off and starting fresh outbreaks, which pursued us along the roadside.
While I was thus engaged my companion ran in demented circles, beating at the flaming oats with an overcoat. I have never discovered how he came to be carrying an overcoat at the height of summer. I guess he was some kind of nut.
Between us, Bill and I learned much about bushfires that day—we extinguished no fewer than nine. Actually, there was only one big one and eight miniatures—like stepping stones to "Algy".
I learned something about people that day, too. They don't really care about fine old motorcars. While we fought to save my car and prevent a major grassfire developing, several dozen Sunday motorists passed by, but not one offered any help. They slowed down, lowered windows, peered out and then they turned to their passengers and, said: "Look.....man's gotta fire." They then drew back to the centre white line and returned to 25 mph mooching.
To have a fire in an FWD Alvis is a sobering experience.
Several hours later I finally arrived home. I had dropped Bill on the way and gained the distinct impression that he was not unhappy to see the last of the Alvis. I don't know why—he seemed perfectly comfortable straddling a chassis cross-member for the last 12 miles. For my part, I had driven from the fire scene perched upon an upended toolbox. It had been quite comfortable, really. By craning my neck just a trifle I had even been able to see over the scuttle.
I will admit, however, that things did get a trifle dicey when I went for the anchors and precipitated myself into the baggage department. Still, one learns to be tolerant.
At home I surveyed the toll of the fire. The Alvis had no floor. The door trim was torn and charred, seats were no more than blackened coil springs and piles of horsehair ash and the paintwork was blackened and blistered. To top it all, somebody put a foot through the rev counter.
In addition to this toll, Bill was minus one overcoat and spent the following week complaining of a channel-shaped indentation on his blunt end.
I shrugged and decided to get the wreck into the garage and start all over again AND THEN IT HAPPENED!
I pressed the starter, floored the clutch, snicked into first gear and started to ease my foot, when....... K‑K‑K‑KLUNK! The gear box torque tube slipped again. In my dismay, I accidentally lifted my foot from the clutch pedal..........
It wasn't really a big dent. More like a shallow depression. The side of the garage was large and so a small depression was scarcely noticeable. One could clearly see it on the Alvis, however. One of my "dinner-plate" huge Lucas headlights was a mangled mess—and I was fit to be tied.
Some weeks later I watched silently while another enthusiast loaded the Alvis onto a trailer and towed it away. I was left with nothing save a cheque, a dented garage, some charred flooring and an immense feeling of relief.
Looking back now, I can see what a cantankerous, costly, infuriating, fiddling, selfish, vice-ridden beast of a thing it was. I could have bought three cars—newer, faster, more reliable—for half of what I spent on Algy. I could have won a Concours d'Elegance had I lavished on another car the time and effort that was put into the Alvis.
And, yet ........... y'know, it's funny, but knowing all these things to be true, I also know that I would buy that car again today, given the chance.
You see: to own a FWD Alvis is a nightmare, but to lose a FWD Alvis is a tragedy.