The History of Alvis Cars: A Tradition of British Excellence

While the name may be unknown to most, Alvis motor cars stand as a testament to tradition and innovation. The Alvis story is littered with some of the greatest British cars ever made, but the 1960s saw a rapid descent into obscurity. This is the incredible history of Alvis cars.

1 November 2023

For Alvis cars, history is everything. Founded in 1919 by Thomas George John as TG John and Company, the business quickly distinguished itself from other manufacturers by prioritising quality, performance, and avant-garde engineering solutions. During its formative years, the Coventry-based manufacturing company laid the groundwork for a legacy that would see them not only produce some of Britain’s most illustrious cars, but also shape the trajectory of automotive engineering on a global scale.

The old Alvis cars weren’t just beautiful to look at, they were groundbreaking. From being one of the first car makers to introduce front-wheel drive and independent front suspension in the 1920s, to the creation of the sensational Speed 20 in the following decade, Alvis constantly pushed the boundaries of technological possibility. Names like the Alvis 4.3 Litre and the TD21 are etched in the annals of automotive greatness, reflecting an era where elegance met unmatched performance.

But, like many of the iconic British car makers which emerged in the early twentieth century, Alvis cars faced its share of challenges, both on the road and in the boardroom. By the late 1960s, the once great name was consigned to the history books.

Yet while the production lines may have halted, Alvis’ legacy of innovation lives on. This is the history of Alvis cars.

The Birth of Alvis Cars

1928 Alvis 12/75 (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 1919, naval architect Thomas George John formed TG John and Company to make stationary engines, carburettors and motorcycles. The following year, engineer Geoffrey de Freville joined the company. He brought with him a revolutionary 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine with pressure lubrication and aluminium pistons which powered the company’s first car, the 10/30.

The side-valve 10/30 was an instant success and it was followed in 1923 by the 1.5-litre overhead-valve 12/50, which quickly earned a reputation for performance and reliability.

The late 1920s were halcyon days in the history of Alvis cars. The 1.9-litre 14.75, the company’s first six-cylinder car, was launched in 1927 and in the following year, the 12/75 was packed full of innovative features including an overhead camshaft, front-wheel drive, and an optional Roots supercharger.

What’s In a Name?

Badge of a 1965 Alvis TE-21 car. (Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Two years after the company was formed, the name was changed from TG John and Company to The Alvis Car and Engineering Company Limited. As well as designing the first engine, de Freville came up with the name.

But why Alvis? Some have speculated that it derived from Alviss, a character from Norse mythology whose name translates to ‘all-wise’. Others suggest the word Alvis was a compound of the words ‘aluminium’ and ‘vis’, the Latin word for strength or force. Until he died in 1965, de Freville aggressively rejected these claims, and said that the name was without meaning, it was simply an easy word to pronounce in all languages.

From Tarmac to Track

1932 Alvis Speed 20 Vanden Plas (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In the late 1920s, Alvis cars began making their mark on the racetrack, showcasing raw performance and durability. Their participation in the Brooklands race circuit, a hub of British motor racing, saw the cars competing fiercely, especially the front-wheel-drive models. These cars, equipped with powerful engines and innovative designs even went toe-to-toe with the famous three-litre Bentleys. Indeed the 12/50 won its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1928.

The racing prowess continued into the 1930s with Alvis competing internationally at the highest level. In the 1932 Le Mans event, an Alvis Speed 20, known for its quality engineering and aerodynamic design, showcased the brand’s prowess by achieving notable positions. These racing endeavours during this period not only exemplified the performance capabilities of Alvis cars but also contributed significantly to the brand’s image of excellence and innovation.

The Golden Age of Alvis: 1930s Cars

c.1936 Alvis Silver Eagle (Credit: The Print Collector via Getty Images)

Not content with producing some of the best cars of the 1930s, Alvis continued to innovate with independent front suspension, servo-assisted brakes and, in 1933, the world’s first all-synchromesh gearbox.

But it was the cars that were the real stars, and they all had great names! The sensational Speed 20 in all its guises, from the 2.5-litre to the 3.5-litre straight-six, was quick, beautiful and praised for its steering and suspension. It was the perfect blend of performance and elegance. The Speed 20 was followed by the 1.5-litre Firefly, the elegant Crested Eagle saloon, the 1.9-litre straight-four Firebird, and the luxurious Alvis 4.3-Litre, as close to a Rolls-Royce as it was possible to get and widely considered to be one of the best cars of the 1930s.

With World War II just weeks old, Alvis cars stopped being produced and focus shifted to support the war effort. The company manufactured a range of armoured vehicles, aeroplane engines, and other military equipment.

The Post-War Period: Renaissance and Challenges

Alvis TD21 Drophead Coupe (Credit: Tim Graham via Getty Images)

After World War II, Alvis sought to reclaim its prestigious standing in the car world. In 1946, they introduced the TA14, a robust and elegantly designed saloon that, while built on the pre-war 12/70 chassis, encapsulated the optimism of post-war Britain. Powered by a 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine, it was celebrated for its reliability and understated luxury.

However, as the 1950s progressed, Alvis motor cars began a slow descent, grappling with the challenges that many specialist car makers faced. With the decline of traditional coachbuilding firms, bespoke and limited-run vehicles became harder and more expensive to produce. Coachbuilders, who had once been abundant and provided the unique bodies for these elite vehicles, were diminishing in number. This impacted Alvis’s capacity to deliver the custom-built luxury vehicles that had once been its hallmark.

Simultaneously, the automotive landscape was rapidly changing. Brands like Jaguar, while well established in the market, were emerging as dominant forces, offering high-performance cars at competitive prices. These sleek, mass-produced models began appealing to the same elite clientele that once might have been buyers of Alvis cars.

Additionally, the broader economic and industrial challenges of the period exacerbated the firm’s struggles. As the 1960s dawned, the company’s decline became increasingly evident. Their vehicle production rate dwindled, and the once-revered marque struggled to maintain its footing in a rapidly shifting market. These cumulative challenges came to a head in 1965 when Alvis was taken over by Rover, marking the end of its independence and foreshadowing the sad decline into automotive obscurity.

The last of the old Alvis cars was the 150 hp, three-litre inline-six TD21,which included a gorgeous drophead variant. Just over 100 were produced and – despite suggestions it was the fastest car Alvis ever made with a reported top speed of 127 mph – production ceased in 1967.

A Sad End, A New Beginning

1950 Alvis TB14 (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

While the demise of a British motoring great was sad, the history of Alvis cars hasn’t quite finished.

In 1968, Red Triangle, a company founded by former employees to service Alvis cars, were granted the complete stock of spares, 22,000 car records and over 50,000 works drawings, data sheets and files. They continue to provide parts and services to the remaining cars, of which it’s believed around 20% – perhaps as many as 5,000 – of the original production models remain.

In 1994, entrepreneur Alan Stote bought the entire parts inventory and fourteen years later acquired the company name. Today, he and his team build the Continuation Series, six Alvis cars that each take two years to build and cost upwards of a quarter of a million pounds!

In the annals of automotive history, Alvis cars stand as a beacon of British ingenuity and craftsmanship. From its pioneering innovations to the sheer elegance of its designs, the company’s legacy is emblematic of an era where performance met luxury. Though the marque ceased car production in the 1960s, its indelible mark on the motoring landscape ensures that Alvis remains an enduring symbol of British excellence.


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