Can the Alvis Speed 25 live up to its name on a Welsh road trip?

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents -

The Alvis swishes round the side of the build­ing and parks up. It seems low and long, al­most ex­ag­ger­ated. There’s none of that ‘sit up and beg’ look that most cars re­tained well into the Thir­ties; it’s ob­vi­ous we won’t be eye-to-eye with the driv­ers of Here­ford­shire’s mud-spat­tered Free­landers. More on a level with the sheep, in fact.

I’ve come to Ear­ley En­gi­neer­ing’s premises in a vil­lage to the west of Here­ford to meet Hugh Brad­num and his lovely 1937 Speed 25 Cross and El­lis tourer. Hugh is a long-stand­ing friend of Ear­ley – the Alvis spe­cial­ist founded by Nick Simp­son, sub­se­quently ex­panded and run by his son Alex. When Nick started the com­pany in 1993, in the depths of the clas­sic car dol­drums, fix­ing Alvises for a liv­ing seemed a pre­car­i­ous oc­cu­pa­tion. But as the clas­sic car scene has grown, in­ter­est in this very Bri­tish cor­ner of the sports-lux­ury mar­ket has blos­somed. As well as restora­tion, Alex now finds him­self recom­mis­sion­ing fear­some Alvis-based rac­ing cars as well as pre­par­ing 80-year-old sports mod­els for the Pek­ing to Paris Rally.

Alex Simp­son has some favoured ‘shake­down’ routes that take ad­van­tage of Ear­ley’s prox­im­ity to the Welsh bor­der. The south­east­ern bit of the Bre­con Bea­cons acts as a great big ge­o­graph­i­cal re­minder that you’ve left Eng­land, just in case the bilin­gual road signs didn’t tip you the wink. They lift you from the cosy val­leys to high and ex­posed roads across the tops, all laced with bends and gra­di­ents that would be tremen­dous fun in any post-vin­tage rally car. But how will a stately old tourer like the Alvis cope?

Many fold­ing-roof Speed 25s are drop­head coupés with a high door­line and wind-up win­dows, of­fer­ing well-co­cooned pro­tec­tion from the airstream. Not so this car. Cross & El­lis’s tour­ing body­work harks back to ear­lier styles with a cut-down door and rather claus­tro­pho­bic clip-in screens that most own­ers es­chew ex­cept in the wettest weather. De­spite that, this 1937 car is a huge leap for­ward from any­thing ten years older. You no­tice as soon as you slip down into the driver’s seat – you sit in it, not on it. The ped­als and gear­lever are in en­tirely con­ven­tional places. The only clue to the ex­pe­ri­ence to come is a very large steer­ing wheel.

I move the brass-backed switch from ‘off’ to ‘start’, en­liven­ing the mag­neto. Wait for a slow-down in the tick­ing noise from those elec­tric fuel pumps (an­other fea­ture un­think­able in the Twen­ties) in­di­cat­ing they’ve filled the float bowls of all three SU carbs. Swing the steer­ing wheel’s tim­ing lever to re­tard. Press the starter...

It goes im­me­di­ately. There’s a very English en­gine note made up of an even mix­ture of in­take hiss, sub­dued bass-heavy ex­haust and a gen­eral whirring and chuff­ing of valveg­ear. Time to whip the tim­ing lever across to ad­vance, then turn the main switch past the ‘off’ po­si­tion to ‘run’, let­ting the coil take over from the mag.

The clutch bite is un­ex­pect­edly high and I make a grace­less lurch away from a stand­still. First is rather low and only re­ally

‘Up these gra­di­ents I can en­joy hang­ing on to the in­ter­me­di­ate gears and a rip­pling ex­haust growl’

needed for hill starts; level ground al­lows sec­ond-gear take-offs. Not that chang­ing is a chore – that ground­break­ing syn­chro­mesh works per­fectly. You don’t flick from slot to slot like a Six­ties Ford, but you’d hardly ex­pect to – and cer­tainly don’t need to. Torque is ev­ery­where, pulling you cleanly from some­thing near tick­over in top as I creep out of a tight round­about.

On this first part of our route the A465 be­tween Here­ford and Aber­gavenny is a typ­i­cally busy main road with traf­fic eager to tail­gate the ‘old crock’ in front. The speedo is way over to the left, in front of the pas­sen­ger. The driver gets a view of the rev counter and can soon cal­i­brate road speed to tacho read­ings. At 2500rpm in top we’re show­ing 55mph – but a col­league in tow later says I’m do­ing at least 60mph, show­ing that the Alvis’s legs are even longer than they ap­pear (and that mod­ern A-road driv­ers will bear down on an old car even if it’s al­ready nudg­ing the speed limit).

Thread­ing through Aber­gavenny, the Alvis’s docile, civilised torque makes low-speed driv­ing a dod­dle. In­deed, when I es­cape the town cen­tre and join first the A40 and then the Heads of the Val­leys road, it seems un­nec­es­sary to stretch it be­yond that 2500rpm point in any gear un­less you’re de­ter­mined to set off the speed cam­eras. But as I leave the dual car­riage­way through the vil­lage of Llan­foist, I find the first steep climbs and switch­backs as the B4246 sends me south-west. Up these gra­di­ents I can en­joy hang­ing on to the in­ter­me­di­ate gears a bit longer and an ex­cit­ing, rip­pling ex­haust growl over­lays ev­ery­thing – it’s a noise I recog­nise from the Alvis Speed-model spe­cials and rac­ers at VSCC events.

‘You can never quite es­cape the car’s length. Tread too hard and the slim Miche­lins slither through damp cor­ners’

The di­am­e­ter of that wheel sug­gests se­ri­ous steer­ing ef­fort and through hair­pins or slow, tight cor­ners on B-roads it’s a hand­ful. I have to haul it round with a rapid pass­ing-the-wheel ap­proach as learner driv­ers are taught; there’s just too much heft to cross my hands. It de­fines what is a sen­si­ble speed at which to en­ter a cor­ner. Then I use all this un-thir­ties power and torque to pull my­self out and fire the car down the next straight.

What you can never quite es­cape is the car’s length. Up here at 1500ft, look­ing down to­wards Blae­navon, clouds have ap­peared and the wind feels like a wet rasp. Tread too hard and those slim 600x19 Miche­lins be­gin to slither through damp cor­ners, send­ing sig­nals that tell me I’m closer to the mid­dle of the wheel­base than that view down the long bon­net would sug­gest. It would be fas­ci­nat­ing to com­pare this tourer with one of the 12 short-chas­sis 4.3-litre ex­am­ples that have ac­quired an al­most fetish-like sta­tus at the top of the Alvis tree. With an ex­tra 30bhp in a slightly more man­age­able length, it’s ob­vi­ous why they’re so sought af­ter.

As I drop down to­wards Blae­navon I cross from Mon­mouthshire into Tor­faen. Among Bap­tist churches and old coal mines, small towns and vil­lages there’s lit­tle sign of wealth or splen­dour but there are ac­tive rugby clubs ev­ery few miles. Proper Wales, if you like. But the roads down here in the val­leys are not what the Alvis wants. The best routes for this car are smooth and sin­u­ous, up hill and down dale with­out too much low-speed stuff. And here, af­ter Bryn­mawr and Beau­fort, I find just the thing. The Llang­y­ni­dir Road (or B4560) shoots me north, up and out of Garn­ly­dan and into the heart of the Bre­cons.

That ever-present torque means you can en­joy storm­ing up gra­di­ents that would have some mod­ern cars chang­ing down a gear. And when the hill tilts the other way, the brakes in­spire the kind of con­fi­dence that means I never re­ally think about them again. Once I’m aware of the weight of the car, I know the pa­ram­e­ters and ev­ery­thing just works.

The Speed mod­els even­tu­ally gained around half a ton from the Speed 20 SA. That model, the first in the line, was it­self an evo­lu­tion of the six-cylin­der 20hp Sil­ver Ea­gle, ar­riv­ing in March 1932 with the same 2.5-litre en­gine in a low-slung ‘dou­ble drop’ chas­sis, clothed ei­ther as a light tourer or a close-cou­pled saloon.

The fol­low­ing year saw the Speed 20 SB in­tro­duce in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion and the world’s first all-syn­chro­mesh gear­box. The bod­ies of­fered by a range of coach­builders con­tin­ued to in­crease and the weight of some of these, to­gether with ad­vances from ri­vals like Bent­ley, Lagonda, Tal­bot, Daim­ler, Rail­ton, SS and even Arm­strong-sid­de­ley, caused Alvis to boost en­gine out­put.

In 1934 the en­gine grew to 2762cc and then 3.5 litres as the cars con­tin­ued to ex­pand from the orig­i­nal 123-inch wheel­base to 124 inches and fi­nally 127 inches. With the new en­gine re­vised and strength­ened by seven main bear­ings, the model be­came the Speed 25 in 1936. The same year, the 4.3-litre ar­rived as the largest of the Speed mod­els and fi­nally cracked the 100mph mark.

It’s fun to con­sider which one of the lin­eage would be most ap­peal­ing. We’ve stopped for a lunchtime sand­wich at a car park over­look­ing stun­ning Bea­cons scenery. The pu­rity of the short­est, light­est Speed 20 SA sounds good, but you’d have to cope with a right-hand change, a cen­tral ac­cel­er­a­tor, no syn­chro on first or sec­ond and a beam front axle. At the other end of the scale, the mus­cle and ex­clu­siv­ity of a 4.3 is ex­cit­ing, but the ex­tra thirst (14mpg) would be less suited to long tours. Per­haps this Speed 25 is just right. That seems to be the view of a passer-by who asks per­mis­sion to photograph the Alvis. ‘You come for a day out in the Bea­cons and get a bonus like this,’ he says. ‘What a beau­ti­ful car.’

The best route north into the val­ley is to dou­ble back for half a mile and dodge down the un­clas­si­fied road to Llan­gat­tock. It’s wide and smooth, but the cat­tle grids re­veal the short­com­ings of a Thir­ties ash-framed body on a sep­a­rate chas­sis. When I’ve put my teeth back in, I find my­self at a T-junc­tion yards from the River Usk, heav­ing the wheel left and right to cross the stone bridge into Crick­how­ell. It’s a fairly touristy lit­tle place and I get smiles and waves from day-trip­pers. They may not have a clue what it is, but the Alvis is catch­ing their eye and the re­sponse is uni­ver­sally pos­i­tive.

The A40 is not renowned for its beauty, but the route along the Usk Val­ley must be one of its bet­ter stretches. All too soon I’m back in Aber­gavenny; time to find that sweet spot in top gear and steam the 20 miles back up the A465 to­wards Here­ford. Once back at Ear­ley En­gi­neer­ing’s yard, I’m en­ticed in­side by the smell of cof­fee and the con­tents of Alex Simp­son’s var­i­ous work­shops.

The first thing we come to is a very pur­pose­ful-look­ing sin­gle­seater with an Alvis 4.3-litre en­gine and four rear tyres. The Good­win Spe­cial, as it’s known, looks like some for­got­ten tilt by the Alvis works at Grand Prix glory, but it’s ac­tu­ally a pri­vate cre­ation in­tended to con­quer Bri­tain’s hill­climbs. Billy and Eric Good­win built it in 1948 to an ex­tremely im­pres­sive stan­dard: all-round in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion with wish­bones and front tor­sion bars, the en­gine used as a stressed mem­ber, tele­scopic

‘Alex shows us a 3.0-litre Alvis with elec­tronic fuel in­jec­tion, a re­versible in­stal­la­tion’

dampers and a large su­per­charger. Ear­ley En­gi­neer­ing is re­turn­ing it to track-ready con­di­tion (al­beit un­su­per­charged, to start with) af­ter a long pe­riod of stor­age and Alex al­ready looks a lit­tle pen­sive about us­ing this po­tent car at Chateau Imp­ney.

Away from restora­tion, it’s the chal­lenges of bring­ing some­thing new to old cars that fires Alex’s en­thu­si­asm. An­other of Hugh Brad­num’s cars is here – a TD21 Se­ries 1 to which Ear­ley has just fit­ted elec­tric power steer­ing. We watch Hugh try it for the first time, look­ing amazed then de­lighted at the much-re­duced ef­fort.

Alex shows us a 3.0-litre Alvis with elec­tronic fuel in­jec­tion. It’s a re­versible in­stal­la­tion that Ear­ley En­gi­neer­ing has de­vel­oped from scratch, in­clud­ing a cast al­loy six-port in­jec­tion man­i­fold with throt­tle bod­ies from Jen­vey and an ECU, plus fuel re­cir­cu­la­tion back to the tank. The test car, a TD21, saw an in­crease in out­put from 115bhp to al­most 160bhp, with bet­ter econ­omy and no hot start­ing prob­lems. Alex re­flects on what led him to de­velop some­thing so mod­ern for such tra­di­tional cars. ‘This is all I’ve known – I grew up hold­ing span­ners and be­ing driven around in old Alvises,’ says Alex. ‘But I have a big in­ter­est in me­chan­i­cal ideas and I wanted to push things for­ward in a way my fa­ther prob­a­bly wouldn’t have con­sid­ered.’

The Alvis scene may have changed from cosy pub meet­ings to in­ter­na­tional ral­lies, shows and race meet­ings, but the cars re­main the same – bar the odd 21st cen­tury tweak. The Speed 25 was ter­rif­i­cally good in its day and 80 years later that shows through in all kinds of ways. No won­der they have such a fol­low­ing.

Tra­di­tional grille and logo, but this car was a leap for­ward for the firm

Head­ing to a cor­ner, Nigel pre­pares to heft that huge steer­ing wheel

Ear­ley En­gi­neer­ing’s Alex Simp­son has plenty of Alvis projects on the go

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