Automotive Innovation: Lagonda History

The history of Lagonda cars is synonymous with sophistication, opulence, and groundbreaking performance, marking its place as one of the most distinguished names in the annals of motoring. From humble beginnings to a paragon of luxury, Lagonda’s history is testament to over a century of craftsmanship and innovation.

Automotive History
14 December 2023

Innovation has always propelled transportation’s evolution, and few marques exemplify this spirit more than Lagonda. American-born Wilbur Gunn, who founded Lagonda in 1906, initially embarked on his automotive journey by crafting motorcycles in his back garden. This venture would blossom into the creation of some of the most stylish cars in the world, marking Lagonda’s transition from a modest beginning to manufacturer extraordinaire.

The early years in the history of Lagonda were marked by pioneering spirit and innovation. Before World War I, the company focused on producing high-quality, small-scale vehicles, distinguishing themselves with a focus on reliability and engineering excellence.

These cars set a precedent for the brand, laying the groundwork for its reputation as a maker of luxury cars. The pre-WWI era saw Lagonda experimenting with different engine types and vehicle sizes, establishing a foundation that would influence its future designs.

Between the wars, the history of Lagonda was characterised by both challenges and triumphs. The economic conditions of the time forced many automobile manufacturers to adapt or perish. Lagonda rose to the challenge, refining its designs and emerging as a leader in luxury cars. This period saw the introduction of some of Lagonda’s most iconic vehicles, which combined elegance with technological advancements, cementing the brand’s reputation in the automotive world.

After World War II, Lagonda’s history took another turn. The company was bought by David Brown, the new owner of Aston Martin, and for seventy years it has seen periods of prominence and dormancy. However, the history of Lagonda cars is a chronicle of relentless innovation and artistic automotive design.

The Birth of a Legend

1906 Lagonda 12hp tricar. (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The history of Lagonda starts in 1906 when American-born British national Wilbur Gunn, a former opera singer, set up a workshop in his garden in Staines, a quiet residential town in the northwest corner of Surrey.

Having previously cut his teeth on motorbikes, he built his first car in 1907 – a 20hp, six-cylinder soft-top. Victory in the 1910 Moscow to St. Petersburg Trial secured a Russian following and subsequent orders. In 1913, the 11.1, a four-cylinder, 1.1-litre small car was launched.

During World War I, car production stopped in favour of military equipment, but as the war ended, car production restarted with an uprated 11.1, known as the 11.9, with a more powerful 1.4-litre engine.

Almost all British car brands of the early twentieth century were named after their founders including Morgan, Singer, Riley, and Austin. However, the history of Lagonda is a little different. Wilbur Gunn named his company after the Native American Shawnee settlement of Lagonda in the modern-day city of Springfield, Ohio, where he was born.

The History of Lagonda: The Interwar Years

Lagonda competing in the RSAC Scottish Rally, 1934 (Credit: Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

In 1925, the company’s first sports car was debuted. Designed by Arthur Davidson who joined Lagonda from rival British carmaker Lea-Francis, the two-litre, four cylinder 14/60 was a stunning grand tourer. It was followed by the equally beautiful 2.4-litre (later uprated to 2.7-litre) 16/65, and the last of the 1920s Lagondas, the six-cylinder 3-Litre.

Another small car, a 1-1.litre straight-four known as the Lagonda Rapier, was produced between 1934 and 1938. However, despite making a series of outstanding cars, both visually and mechanically, the company was in financial trouble and was put up for sale.

It was bought by Alan Good who, it’s believed, outbid Rolls-Royce by a very slender margin. To add insult to injury, Good persuaded the legendary W. O. Bentley along with most of his staff to leave Rolls and join Lagonda.

Bentley and his team went about producing one of the all-time great engines, the 180hp, 4.5-litre V12 which was said to be capable of going from seven mph to 105 mph in top gear. It was fitted to the jaw-droppingly gorgeous LG45 and the equally eye-catching LG6 and Lagonda V12.

These early vehicles played a crucial role in establishing Lagonda cars’ history and its identity within the industry. Lagonda models were characterised by a focus on quality engineering, reliability, and performance, traits that would become permanent hallmarks of the Lagonda brand.

During World War II, Lagonda built a famous flamethrower as well as guns and artillery shells, but soon after the war ended, the Lagonda history was about to become forever intertwined with that of one of the most famous car marques of all time.

Lagonda & David Brown

Lagonda Rapide (Credit: Sjoerd van der Wal via Getty Images)

In 1947, tractor maker David Brown bought Aston Martin for a reported £20,500. Soon after, he bought Lagonda, principally for its astonishing W. O. Bentley-designed 2.6-litre twin overhead cam straight-six engine.

This period focused on restructuring and integrating the two brands. The focus was more on developing Aston Martin cars, which led to Lagonda taking a backseat in terms of new model development. In the story of the Lagonda car, the 1950s were therefore relatively quiet.

In the 1960s, Lagonda saw a brief resurgence with models like the Carrozzeria Touring-designed, four-litre inline-six Rapide, a luxurious four-door GT car based on the Aston Martin DB4.

However, the 1970s brought financial struggles for the parent company, Aston Martin Lagonda Limited. The oil crisis and changing market conditions made it challenging to maintain production of luxury vehicles like those of Lagonda, leading to periods of reduced activity for the group.

The Aston Martin Lagonda

1976 Aston Martin Lagonda (Credit: Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard via Getty Images)

In the storied history of Lagonda cars, perhaps the most famous model in the line-up is the Aston Martin Lagonda.

There were two very different versions. The first, launched in 1974 at the London Motor Show, was a four-door variant of the Aston Martin V8, with the company’s famous 5.3-litre V8 and a top speed of around 150 mph.

However the second Aston Martin Lagonda, which followed in 1976, was a retro-futuristic, post-modern or very modern masterpiece. It was designed by William ‘Bill’ Towns and, despite deliveries not starting until 1979, it retailed for just under £50,000, much more expensive than the not-too-dissimilar Ferrari 400 and Maserati Kyalami. A total of 645 were built during its production run which lasted until 1990. While it didn’t necessarily have the looks or charm of the impeccable Astons, it played a significant role in holding the company together during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s.

It’s possible that without it, the history of Lagonda would have faded into obscurity long before.

The Quiet Years

The Aston Martin Lagonda Taraf, 2015 (Credit: Gerlach Delissen/Corbis via Getty Images)

From the late 1980s onwards, the focus shifted predominantly to Aston Martin. During this time, the Lagonda brand mostly remained dormant. This was due to the strategic decision by the parent company to concentrate resources on the more globally recognised Aston Martin brand.

Very little was heard of Lagonda until 2015 with the launch of the Lagonda Taraf, an Arabic word which translates to ‘ultimate luxury.’ Powered by the staggeringly good 5.9-litre AM11 V12 engine, the Taraf claims a 0-60mph time of 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 195mph, but both of these figures are unverified.

There have been several further attempts to revive Lagonda’s history in the twenty-first century, including concept cars and announcements of new models. These efforts were part of a broader strategy to diversify the company’s offerings and tap into different segments of the luxury car market. However, these attempts generally met with mixed success, as market conditions and corporate focus continued to impact the prioritisation of the Lagonda brand.

Throughout the history of Lagonda, periods of activity and dormancy have largely been dictated by the broader strategic decisions of its parent company and external market forces. While the brand has had moments of significant innovation and success, it has often been overshadowed by the needs and direction of Aston Martin, along with the challenges of consistently maintaining a luxury car brand in a highly competitive and ever-changing market.

Lagonda: History of Excellence

Lagonda Rapier Special, Le Mans 24 Hours, 1934 (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The history of Lagonda is a testament to the enduring spirit of innovation, luxury, and beauty. From the pioneering Torpedo to the joyous interwar cars and the sophisticated models of the modern era, Lagonda has consistently pushed the boundaries of engineering and design.

Despite periods of dormancy and their associated challenges, the brand has maintained its prestigious status, symbolising a blend of tradition and forward-thinking innovation. As it continues to evolve, the history of Lagonda cars remains a beacon of automotive excellence, reflecting a century-long journey of elegance, performance, and unmatched luxury.


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