I have just been asked by some art aficionados in Swindon to spend a day there among the inducements a visit to what must be the nation's least-known municipal collection of 20th-century British art, and the thrill of being driven thither from the railway station in an Alvis TA 14.
Thrill? A thrill or two may certainly be had in an Alvis 4.3, once Britain's fastest production car, in a speed 20, even in a Silver Eagle, Created Eagle or Firefly 12, but hardly in a TA 14, for if ever a car was designed not to thrill it was this demure monument of taste and respectability (and I use the word "monument" deliberately, for this was a car that proceeded only at a stately pace, and was most imposing at a standstill).
It was the kind of car that, paradoxically, contributed to the myth that Britain made the best cars in the world, and, at the same time, brought about our industry's downfall. The engine, of four cylinders and 1,892cc, essentially dated back to the firm's earliest years (Alvis was founded in 1920), the 12/50 of 1922 - then with a capacity of 1,645cc. With twin carburettors, it became the 12/60 in 1931, then the Firefly and Firebird, and in 1937, the 12/70, by then bored out to 1,842cc and the subject of some tinkering from George Lanchester, as was the sensational 4.3.
In this form, bored out by one more millimetre, it became the post-war engine, producing 66bhp at 4,000rpm, not bad for a design that was, by then, 24 years old and unfashionable; European marques had, for a decade, moved to engines with equal dimensions of bore and stroke, and Alvis was way behind with a cylinder bore of only 74mm to a long stroke of 110mm. It was, however, well made and very refined for a big four - but then, Alvis had always thought of its cars as baby Bentleys, and with the same level of craftsmanship, they had, from the start, been absurdly expensive, at £695 for a four-seater 12/50 saloon in 1924, against £1,150 for a four-cylinder three-litre Bentley chassis.
In performance, the stripped Bentley on the shortest chassis could be persuaded to reach 100mph, but the Alvis, half its size and much tinkered with, circled Brooklands for 200 miles at an average speed of 93.29mph; the more realistic figure for the little car was the 70mph that the maker guaranteed, and in 1924, even that speed was quite remarkable.
Throughout the Twenties, the four-cylinder Alvis was the mainstay of this undercapitalised firm; in its class it beat Bugatti, AC and Aston Martin. Vintage-car enthusiasts now look upon it as a flawless classic. With steady improvement to the engine and chassis, it gained acknowledgement as "the greatest engineering achievement in its class", and remained at the forefront of English sports cars, yet at the same time broadened its appeal with family saloons.
One of the most engaging variants of the 12/50 was a close-coupled drop-head coupé seating three abreast, advertised as "compact and cosy", but then, Alvis was always naff in its self-esteem: "Cars for even the Connoisseur'', it claimed, and for "the Inner Circle"; for the Firebird, the 1935 predecessor of the TA 14, it coined the ghastly "Alvivacity".
To give the firm its due, however, we must remember that it introduced front-wheel drive to racing cars in 1926, and to a roadster with all-independent suspension in 1928; that independent front suspension and full synchromesh were standard on all its cars in 1933 (far ahead of Rolls-Royce); and that when it turned to making big sixes, in the Speed 20 and 4.3 it made some of the best, most beautiful cars of the Thirties. Alas, when it returned to car manufacture after the Second World War, it put all its eggs in the single basket of the TA 14.
This was the type of car that, in the firm's quarter-century or so, had been its forte - a small car with the presence of a large, and a reputation for advanced engineering, quality, reliability. The TA 14 was the 12/70 of 1937 revised, the body now built by Mulliner, its cabin widened, lines refined, running-boards removed, the perfect classic English coachbuilt body that was the pre-war Derby Bentley built small, elegant and proportionate. But it was heavy; all "Alvivacity" had gone, and here was a car ultimately no faster than its grandmother; and that was of scant use with Jaguar snapping at its heels.
By 1948, Alvis realised that it must move on, and a three-litre straight six, short-stroke engine was dropped into what looked like stretched TA 14 bodies. It was too late for such "gentlemen's carriages''; even Graber's swan-song design for the two-door saloon and drop-head could not save the marque from oblivion. Rover swallowed it in 1965 and the last Alvis car left the line in September 1967.
Post-war production amounted to 7,129, of which 3,315 were variants of the TA 14, built from 1946-1950, the marque's most successful model, I am sad to say. One of them survives in Swindon as a prime attraction.