18 March 2011

Alvis Lives! Profiling of the TD/TE/TF 21 Coupe and Drop-head Coupe

Years built: 1955-67
Production: 1,556
Engine: 2,993cc OHV 6-cylinder
Horsepower: 115-150 bhp
Top speed: 103-126 mph
Why you want one: An English Facel Vega, a connoisseur’s Bentley and potential heirloom

Alvis occupies a respected place in British automobile history, from its lively little 12/50 “duck-tail” roadsters in the 1920s, through the superb Speed 20 and Speed 25 and 4.3-litre sports cars, saloons and drop-head coupes in the 1930s, to the final three-litre models from 1955-67.

Fabulously styled by Graber and impeccably built by Willowbrook and Mulliner Park Ward, the TD/TE/TF models display the external panache of a Bentley and the interior appointments of a Facel Vega. Never a money-maker for the company, production ceased when Rover bought Alvis in 1967. The cars remain under-rated and attractive collectibles.

Alvis is a fascinating study of independent thought and genuine engineering talent. If the company had a fault, it was that it could be hard to dislodge from some ideas – like the front-wheel drive models of the late 1920s, which almost drove them to insolvency. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how a supercharged DOHC straight-eight, coupled with front-wheel drive, could be irresistible to engineers, who were the backbone of the company.

In any case, what other auto manufacturer could boast making Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, the nine- and 14-cylinder Leonides radial aircraft and helicopter engines, and a number of armored cars and tanks – including the Saracen personnel carrier, the amphibious Stalwart truck, and the Scorpion tracked assault vehicle? Chief engineer G.T. Smith-Clarke even designed the Coventry iron lung.

The glamorous Speed 20 and Speed 25 did not survive WWII and the conservative, four-cylinder TA14 sedan was the company’s post-war offering, both in saloon and drophead form and was followed by the disastrously ugly TB 14 roadster. Things brightened up a little in 1950 with the introduction of the TC21, which crammed the 3-litre engine into the sedan and saw Swiss coachbuilder Hermann Graber, of Berne, offering one-off coupes and drop-heads.

When Alvis’s coachbuilder Mulliner was taken over in 1954, production of the old 3-litre – now called the “Grey Lady” – ceased, but luckily Graber was on hand with a new design. This was the TC 108G, which bowed at the Paris Motor Show in October 1955, in the form that would see the company through the next 12 years.

The first 16 cars were built slowly and expensively by Willowbrook of Loughborough, but in 1958 Alvis bought the jigs from Graber and Park Ward took over construction. The coachbuilder immediately tweaked the design for better visibility, modified the rear wings and strengthened the chassis. Meanwhile, Alvis adopted the Austin-Healey four-speed gearbox, introduced a hydraulic clutch and piston shock absorbers and installed front disc brakes. A Borg Warner automatic transmission became optional.

The TD 21 received a new cylinder head in 1959 and power increased to 120 bhp at 5,000 rpm with 90 mph on tap in third gear. The Series II TD 21 arrived in August 1962 with disc brakes all round, recessed fog lamps and integrated taillights. Doors became aluminum to save weight, and the ZF 5-speed transmission was adopted.

While Graber showed a four-door saloon in 1963 at the Geneva show, Alvis continued selling the two-door coupe and drop-head (now built by Mulliner Park Ward) and adopted vertically stacked headlights in the TE21 of 1964. Steering and brakes were improved and power steering was offered.

The final version of the 3-litre was the TF21, launched at the 1966 Motor Show. The dash was redesigned and the car was fitted with a larger heater and an improved ZF 5-speed. Three SU carburetors and 150 hp made this the fastest Alvis built (126 mph), and 103 examples were sold before production ended in 1967. At that point, Alvis turned its hand to building Rover 3500 V8s. The last TF21 cost £2,998, which worked out at almost exactly £1 per cubic centimeter of displacement.

Alvis 3-litres remain an English specialty, with few coming to auction in America, and relative bargains when they appear. For example a 1965 TE 21 coupe brought only £21,000 at RM’s Hershey, Pennsylvania, auction on 7 October, 2010, despite being rated in #2 condition. Meanwhile, a 1959 TD 21 drop-head was sold by Bonhams at Beaulieu in September 2009 for only £13,800. However, as that is the date of the autojumble, we can safely assume it was a project.

If you have a burning urge to travel in style, contact the excellent owner’s club at http://www.alvisoc.org/ and read about the International Alvis Weekend at Brooklands on 3-5 June, 2011, which sounds like a lot of fun.

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