A car for the connoisseur

Revelling and revving in the Alvis

In John Le Carré’s classic mole hunt Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the former head of the MI6 “scalp hunters” Jim Prideaux takes a job at a prep school in the country. There he shelters under his wing a bespectacled, Bunterish boy, Bill Roach, whom he teaches to drive his beloved Alvis, which he calls “the best car in the world”.

The sentiment was shared by the air ace, Sir Douglas Bader. He owned a series of TD21 drophead coupés, piloting them with the same panache as his Hawker Hurricane. “Make way for the quality,” he would roar whilst cutting up slow-moving motorists on his way home to Marlston, treating them with the disregard with which he might despatch a lumbering Dornier.

Nothing says class quite like an Alvis. Bader, an avid believer in class distinctions, certainly thought so. His 1961 three-litre TD21 had a top speed exceeding 103mph and style exceeding most things on four wheels. With its sleek silver-grey chassis and shining chromium trim, Bader’s machine must have struck awe and terror into other road users.

Alvis was founded in 1919 under the leadership of legendary designer Geoffrey de Freville. He also coined the company’s name, it is said, by combining the first syllable of ”aluminium”, the new wonder metal, with “vis”, Latin for strength. With coachwork by Park Ward, which also provided services to Rolls-Royce, as well as by Swiss carrossier Graber, the firm quickly developed a reputation for exceptional performance and polished elegance for the discerning enthusiast.

During the interwar years Alvis was also a byword for innovation. Floating suspension, superchargers and synchromesh were all concepts that emerged from its Coventry factory in the form of the Alvis 12/60, the 12/75, the Firebird and the Crested Eagle drophead.

War production was halted when the factory was flattened, along with most of the rest of the city in November 1940. But you cannot keep a good manufacturer down and by 1946 chief engineer George Smith-Clarke resumed operations in the form of the TA14. A sturdy and comfortable motor, it gave a passing nod to the post-war age of austerity with its slightly smaller engine. But by the fifties it was back to the future with the sophisticated design and superior speed that first attracted our fighter pilot friend.

Owning an Alvis has never been for tight wallets or shallow pockets

The TC108, with smooth trim lines and smart walnut and Morocco leather interior, echoed Harold Macmillan reminding owners that “you’ve never had it so good”. Yet full production was still a problem and was not resolved until late in the decade with the advent of the TD21, and these were still relatively niche compared to the numbers of Mercedes and Jaguars rolling off the production lines.

The cost of an Alvis was already significantly more than these other mass-produced luxury models and so the writing was on the wall. By the time the sixties stopped swinging, the final car had left the showroom, its Coventry plant was silent and Alvis had joined Wolseley, Riley and the long line of classic British names that had ceased to build motorcars.

Now a TF21, the last of the line, will set you back the other side of £100,000. Owning an Alvis has never been for tight wallets or shallow pockets. Alongside Bader, Nicholas Parsons, David “Bunty” Scott-Moncrieff and the late Duke of Edinburgh all admired the marque for its distingué.

Of course, if you have the inclination, it is possible to acquire an Alvis for restoration, although a full retrim will probably require a small mortgage. But they are beautiful cars, redolent of an age when motoring meant adventure, freedom and fun, long before we all began to fret about the future and flog our friends and ourselves for daring to show some spirit and enjoy the day. It was a better time when life was to be lived not loathed. Boris Johnson would suit an Alvis.

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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