It’s more than 50 years since Alvis disappeared, but was it just hiding in plain sight? We look at where Alvis went, and where it is now…
It was the year in which The Beatles launched Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dr Christiaan Barnard conducted the first successful heart transplant operation and Tottenham Hotspur actually won something, overcoming Chelsea 2-1 to lift the FA Cup. In America, peace rallies multiplied in protest at the continuation of the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing world championship for refusing conscription to the US Army and the Alfa Romeo 1600 Duetto Spider took a starring role alongside Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.
Away from the headlines, 1967 also heralded the cessation of a slice of British automotive history as Alvis – purveyor of high-quality motor cars since 1920 – ended production at its factory in Holyhead Road, Coventry. It wasn’t that the firm collapsed, simply that there was no longer space for a low-volume car manufacturer in a fast-changing landscape.
Alvis had always been an engineering firm: it produced chassis for which specialist coachbuilders sculptured bespoke bodies – a craft whose heyday had been in the 1930s – and there was a diminishing number of firms able to handle a job that Alvis had simply never done in-house.
There was also a seismic shift on the horizon, after the autumn 1964 announcement – about which little fuss was initially made – that a Japanese car, the Daihatsu Compagno, was to be sold in Britain for the first time. Meanwhile, Rover had taken a controlling interest in Alvis in ’65 before itself being merged into British Leyland. This came during a period when the UK car industry was riven with political strife and traditional giants such as Ford, Rootes and BL (formerly BMC) thought they had greater concerns than whether Japan might be able to supply better cars at a more competitive price.
While all this was going on, Alvis wound up car production and its military and aero-engine divisions were eventually sold, passing through several hands before ultimately being absorbed within BAE Systems.
But although Alvis slipped quietly from the automotive radar, it never really went away. The site of its original factory later became a shopping mall – the Alvis Retail Park – but a management buyout of its car business enabled all engineering assets and spares (some dating back to the 1920s) to be transferred in 1968 to new industrial premises in Kenilworth, where a service and maintenance depot – Red Triangle – was established. This has been active ever since, demand maintained thanks to around 20 per cent of Alvis’s 22,000 original cars being still on the road.
It is a cradle of marque expertise and also houses every original company drawing plus, yes, many of those original spares, still racked on the 1920s shelving that has always been their home. They might not have been building cars, but they had most of the assets they needed so to do. It took a while for that idea to occur to businessman Alan Stote, who acquired the company in 1994 and reacquired the Alvis trademark 15 years later.
“I went to an exhibition in Essen,” he says, “and came across a firm producing immaculate vintage Bentley replicas – and people were buying them. I had missed the fact that there were potential customers out there who really didn’t mind If something wasn’t original. I started to think, ‘Here we were, with the Alvis brand, all the drawings, a paint shop, a trim shop – a microcosm of a normal car factory.’ If other companies were building cars that weren’t originally theirs, why shouldn’t I make some that had authentic heritage?”
Communication with the government’s Vehicle Operator Standards Agency (now known as the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) revealed that only subtle changes needed to be made to create a new ‘old’ Alvis for modern times – fuel injection rather than carburettors, to meet emissions standards, disc brakes, seat belts, collapsible steering column and so on – and the company’s first demonstrator was completed in 2013. And unlike so many of the continuation cars now available, Alvis is one that can be used on the road and isn’t restricted to private roads. “It was hard to tell apart from an original car,” Stote says. “You wouldn’t really notice that it had disc brakes unless you looked specifically, and you can’t tell that the bonnet clips now press in – for pedestrian safety – because they look the same as they used to. It’s indistinguishable.”
Alvis now offers six body styles – three powered by the pre-war 4.3-litre straight six, three by its 3.0-litre successor – and produces only to order, each car being crafted by hand. The company’s motto – “still making cars the way they used to be made” – isn’t quite true, however, as for the very first time Alvis is now producing its own bodies. An order for five from Japan is in progress; the first a 4.3 pre-war is nearing completion with a pair of Graber cars now in progress, the latter using period chassis that had been in storage since 1967.
Build time is presently estimated at two years per car: a labour of love, then, and also a love of labour…
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