Alvis Car and Engineering Company Ltd was a British manufacturing company in Coventry from 1919 to 1967. In addition to automobiles designed for the civilian market, the company also produced racing cars, aircraft engines, armoured cars and other armoured fighting vehicles.
Car manufacturing ended after the company became a subsidiary of Rover in 1965, but armoured vehicle manufacture continued. Alvis became part of British Leyland and then in 1982 was sold to United Scientific Holdings, which renamed itself Alvis plc.
The original company, T.G. John and Company Ltd., was founded in 1919 by Thomas George John (1880–1946). Its first products were stationary engines, carburetors and motorscooters. Following complaints from the Avro aircraft company whose logo bore similarities to the original winged green triangle, the more familiar inverted red triangle incorporating the word "Alvis" evolved. On 14 December 1921 the company officially changed its name to The Alvis Car and Engineering Company Ltd. Geoffrey de Freville (1883–1965) designed the first Alvis engine and is also responsible for the company name.
The origin of the name Alvis has been the subject of a great deal of speculation over the years. Some have suggested that de Freville proposed the name Alvis as a compound of the words "aluminium" and "vis" (meaning "strength" in Latin), or perhaps it may have been derived from the Norse mythological weaponsmith, Alvíss. De Freville however vigorously rejected all of these theories. In 1921 he specifically stated that the name had no meaning whatsoever, and was chosen simply because it could be easily pronounced in any language. He reaffirmed this position in the early 1960s, stating that any other explanations for the source of the name were purely coincidental.
Production was relocated to Holyhead Road in Coventry, where from 1922 to 1923 they also made the Buckingham car. In 1922 George Thomas Smith-Clarke (1884–1960) left his job as assistant works manager at Daimler and joined Alvis as Chief Engineer and Works Manager. Smith-Clarke was accompanied by William M. Dunn, who also left his job as a draughtsman at Daimler to become Chief Draughtsman at Alvis. This partnership lasted for nearly 28 years and was responsible for producing some of the most successful products in the company's history. Smith-Clarke left in 1950, and Dunn assumed Smith-Clarke's position as chief engineer, remaining in that position until 1959.
De Freville's first engine design was a four-cylinder engine with aluminium pistons and pressure lubrication, which was unusual for that time. The first car model using de Freville's engine was the Alvis 10/30. It was an instant success and established the reputation for quality workmanship and superior performance for which the company was to become famous. The original 10/30 side-valve engine was improved, becoming by 1923 the overhead valve Alvis 12/50, a highly successful sports car that was produced until 1932. Around 700 of the 12/50 models and 120 of the later Alvis 12/60 models survive today.
1927 saw the introduction of the six-cylinder Alvis 14.75 and this engine became the basis for the long line of luxurious six-cylinder Alvis cars produced up to the outbreak of the Second World War. These cars were elegant and full of technical innovations. Independent front suspension and the world's first all-synchromesh gearbox came in 1933 followed by servo assisted brakes. The Alvis 12/75 model was introduced in 1928, a model bristling with innovation, such as front-wheel drive, in-board brakes, overhead camshaft and, as an option, a Roots type supercharger.
As with many upmarket engineering companies of the time, Alvis did not produce their own coachwork, relying instead on the many available coachbuilders in the Midlands area, such as Carbodies, Charlesworth Bodies, Cross and Ellis, Duncan Industries (Engineers) Ltd, E. Bertelli Ltd, Grose, Gurney Nutting, Hooper, Lancefield Coachworks, Martin Walter Ltd, Mayfair, Mulliners, Tickford, Vanden Plas, Weymann Fabric Bodies, and William Arnold Ltd. Several cars also survive with quite exotic one-off bodywork from other designers such as Holbrook, a U.S. coachbuilder.
In 1936 the company name was shortened to Alvis Ltd, and aircraft engine and armoured vehicle divisions were added to the company by the beginning of the Second World War. Smith-Clarke designed several models during the 1930s and 1940s, including the six-cylinder Speed 20, the Speed 25, and the Alvis 4.3 Litre model.
Second World War lubrication, which was unusual for that time. The first car model using de Freville's engine was the Alvis 10/30. It was an instant success and established the reputation for quality workmanship and superior performance for which the company was to become famous. The original 10/30 side-valve engine was improved, becoming by 1923 the overhead valve Alvis 12/50, a highly successful sports car that was produced until 1932. Around 700 of the 12/50 models and 120 of the later Alvis 12/60 models survive today.
Car production was initially suspended in September 1939 following the outbreak of war in Europe, but was later resumed and production of the 12/70, Crested Eagle, Speed 25, and 4.3 Litre continued well into 1940. The car factory was severely damaged on 14 November 1940 as a result of several bombing raids on Coventry by the German Luftwaffe, although ironically the armaments factory suffered little damage. Much valuable cutting gear and other equipment was lost and car production was suspended for the duration of the war, only resuming during the latter part of 1946. Despite this, Alvis carried out war production on aircraft engines (as sub-contractor of Rolls-Royce Limited) and other aircraft equipment.
Car production resumed with a four-cylinder model, the TA 14, based on the pre-war 12/70. A solid, reliable and attractive car, the TA 14 fitted well the mood of sober austerity in post war Britain, but much of the magic attaching to the powerful and sporting pre-war models had gone and life was not easy for a specialist car manufacturer. Not only had Alvis lost their car factory but many of the prewar coachbuilders had not survived either and those that had were quickly acquired by other manufacturers. In fact, the post-war history of Alvis is dominated by the quest for reliable and reasonably priced coachwork.
Smith-Clarke retired in 1950 and Dunn took over as chief engineer. In 1950 a new chassis and six-cylinder 3–litre engine was announced and this highly successful engine became the basis of all Alvis models until production ceased in 1967. Saloon bodies for the TA 21, as the new model was called, again came from Mulliners of Birmingham as they had for the TA 14, with Tickford producing the dropheads. But with the first of these committing themselves in October 1954 to supply only Standard Triumph who purchased it in 1958 and the second being acquired by David Brown owner of Aston Martin Lagonda in late 1955, it was becoming clear that new arrangements would have to be made. Some of the most original and beautiful designs on the 3 Litre chassis were being produced by master coachbuilder Carrosserie Herman Graber of Switzerland and indeed these often one-off–designed cars are highly sought after today. Graber had begun to use TA 14 chassis soon after the war building three Tropic coupés which were much admired. When the Three Litre chassis was introduced his bodies displayed at the Geneva Motor Shows in 1951 and 1952 attracted sufficient interest for Graber to set up a standing order of 30 chassis per year. Swiss-built Graber coupés were displayed on the Alvis stand at both Paris and London Motor Shows in October 1955.
With a licence in place, from late 1955 all Alvis bodies became based on Graber designs however few chassis and few bodies were built over the next two years. Around 15 or 16 TC108/Gs were built by Willowbrook Limited of Loughborough and Willowbrook was subsequently taken over by Duple Coachbuilders. Over the same two years Graber built 22 TC 108Gs and complained that if he had received chassis he would have committed himself to buying 20 a year. Only after late 1958 with the launch of the TD 21 did something resembling full-scale production resume as Rolls-Royce subsidiary Park Ward began to build the new bodies now modified in many small ways. These cars, the TD 21 and its later variants, the TE 21 and finally the TF 21 are well built, attractive and fast cars. However it was clear by the mid-1960s that with a price tag of nearly double that of the mass-produced Jaguar, the end could not be far off.
From 1952 to 1955 Alec Issigonis, the creator of the later Mini, worked for Alvis and designed a new model with a V8 engine which proved too expensive to produce.
Rover took a controlling interest in Alvis in 1965 and a Rover-designed mid-engined V8 coupé prototype named the P6BS was rumoured to be the new Alvis model but with the takeover by British Leyland this too was shelved. By the time the TF 21 was launched in 1966, (available, like its predecessors in both saloon and drophead form and with either manual or automatic gearbox), the model was beginning to show its age despite a top speed of 127 mph – the fastest Alvis ever produced. With only 109 sold and with political troubles aplenty in the UK car manufacturing business at that time, production finally ceased in 1967.
In 1968, a management buyout of the car operations was finalised and all the Alvis car design plans, customer records, stock of parts and remaining employees were transferred to Red Triangle.
1970s to present
As part of Rover, Alvis Limited was incorporated into British Leyland but was bought by United Scientific Holdings plc in 1981. Subsequently the company's name was changed to Alvis plc. Alvis plc acquired British truck manufacturer Universal Power Drives in 1994, naming their new subsidiary Alvis Unipower Limited. The trucks were subsequently branded as Alvis-Unipower. In 1998, Alvis plc acquired the armoured vehicle business of GKN plc, and the main UK manufacturing operation was moved from Coventry to Telford. The site of the Alvis works in Holyhead Road is now an out-of-town shopping complex, but its name, Alvis Retail Park, reflects the heritage of the site. In 2002 Alvis plc purchased Vickers Defence Systems to form the subsidiary Alvis Vickers Ltd, which was in turn purchased by BAE Systems in 2004. BAE Systems ended the use of the Alvis distinctive red triangle trademark.
In 2009, Red Triangle negotiated the legal transfer of the Alvis car trademarks. The following year, the company announced that the 4.3 Litre Short Chassis tourer would once again be available. All Alvis' records remain intact at the company’s Kenilworth headquarters along with a large stock of period parts. One of the men to have worked on the very last Alvis car produced in 1967 is still retained by Red Triangle in a training capacity. Built to the original plans, the new car has been named the "Continuation Series", to reflect the 73-year interruption in its production between 1937 and 2010. It differs only in detail from the pre-war examples: for emissions, the engine is governed by an electronic fuel injection system with electronic ignition, brakes are hydraulic rather than cable, the steering column collapsible and the rear light arrangement reconfigured to conform to modern standards.
1935 Alvis 4.3 Litre
1936 Alvis Speed 20
1936 Alvis Speed 25
1948 Fourteen drophead coupé-cabriolet
1952 Three Litre sports saloon
Three Litre TC 21/100 Grey Lady sports saloon
1957 Three Litre TC 108G fixed head coupé
1967 Three Litre series IV drophead coupé or cabriolet