ALVIS LIVES!

Rotorua Weekender - - Driven - JACQUI MADELIN

You wouldn’t think it from look­ing at this gleam­ing 1926 Alvis 12/50, but John Martin wasn’t a car nut un­til he was about 19 and work­ing as a joiner.

A col­league was a Model A Ford fan, and the rot set in. Join­ery led to a busy ca­reer, as a wood­work teacher for 20 years, then craft­ing wooden parts for vin­tage cars.

John’s one-man com­pany, De­signs N Wood, spe­cialises in car restora­tion of older cars with wooden bod­ies or frames, dash­boards and steer­ing wheels.

He’ll even pro­vide painted wood-grain ef­fect for the dash, if re­quired, or tackle the bas­ket­work some clas­sic cars re­quire.

The busi­ness started out with the Packards parked at Wanaka’s War­birds and Wheels mu­seum.

“I was work­ing on those, and it went from strength to strength,” he says.

There’s not much wood vis­i­ble on his Alvis, its pol­ished metal pan­els gleam­ing in the Otago sun. The car ar­rived in New Zealand in 1936, one of 1505 built, and sold for £595. It had 12 own­ers be­fore John, who bought it seven years ago as a project from a de­ceased es­tate.

“It was left derelict at one stage, then sold to the pre­vi­ous owner as a parts car. He’d done a duck’s back [Alvis body shape] be­fore, sold that and de­cided to do this one as a beetle-back.

“I got it with the aim of restor­ing it. It had a wornout en­gine, gear­box and diff, but the en­gine is orig­i­nal, and the num­bers match the chas­sis.

“Alvis mas­tered cast­ing alu­minium and bronze, so any­thing that moved, like brake rods and spring hang­ers, was bronze. We had to remetal those, but the gear­box, diff and sump were all alu­minium.”

The founder of Alvis was in the air­craft in­dus­try, and re­alised if you could keep the car light it would per­form on the race track.

“I think if he could, he’d have made the brake drums all alu­minium, but the heat won’t al­low it,” says John. When he bought the car there was only the metal guards, bon­net and a start of a wooden frame for a tour­ing body.

The wood frame he built looks like a work of art. The met­al­work alone took a year.

“A client who’s a master of met­al­work did the body,” he says. “We had to go and find a pat­tern for the hood, and made it up from re­search.

“Orig­i­nally they would have had painted steel guards and a pol­ished body, but when I saw Tans­ley Pan­els had done such a good job of the welds I asked him to price do­ing the guards.”

He had to build the seats from new springs and foam, and Ian In­gram did the up­hol­stery.

“The in­stru­ments are all orig­i­nal — but resur­faced — bar the ad­di­tion of a tem­per­a­ture gauge and an oil gauge.” The car re­mains largely stan­dard, bar a few small items.

“They have a bad habit of boil­ing, hence the elec­tric fan, and the mod­i­fied carb to de-ice. I’ve also fit­ted LED in­di­ca­tors, and a dis­trib­u­tor rather than a mag­neto. The mod­i­fi­ca­tions make it mo­tor well.”

His Alvis keeps up with traf­fic just fine. The 1645cc sin­gle over­head cam en­gine with its four-speed “crash” box was ca­pa­ble of 70mph, or 112.6km/h.

That’s “down­hill with the wind be­hind you”, John says. “They used to track prove ev­ery car, and they did 70mph. We’ve had it up to 65mph, but it starts to shake and shud­der.”

The en­gine is so lowgeared he takes off in sec­ond, and once you’re away it feels com­fort­able. It is re­mark­ably pro­tected from the wind, and suf­fi­ciently at home on his lo­cal Otago roads that he’s now driven it all the way to Napier’s Art Deco week­end.

“It’s easy to man­age in mod­ern traf­fic, in fourth gear you can clip along at 95 to 100km/h. It stops well, sits on the road nicely, brakes well. We built it to drive it, so yes we do gravel roads.

The gleam­ing metal, the purring en­gine, the gor­geous deep south scenery as we trun­dle along, any out­ing in the Alvis must feel spe­cial. As must his job. There’s noth­ing like turn­ing a hobby into an in­come, es­pe­cially when it brings with it thor­ough­bred ex­pe­ri­ences like this.

Think­ing of buy­ing a mod­ern con­vert­ible? Turn to p33 for some AA ad­vice.

Pho­tos / Jacqui Madelin

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