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