1952 Alvis TA21 Drophead review

By: Paul Blank, Photography by: Mark Bean

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One man's passion for Alvis cars

From Unique Cars #305, Nov/Dec 2009

Alvis TA21 Drophead

Sydney’s Brian Hemmings is a man extremely dedicated to the Alvis marque which, in an unusual way, has seen the favour returned.

About 65 years ago, a neighbour of Brian’s showed him some old car mags, and in one of them was a picture of an Alvis 12/50 Duck’s Back roadster. For Brian, his fate was sealed.

Formed in 1920, England’s Alvis company quickly developed a reputation for designing and building cars of high quality and, importantly, advanced mechanicals. The oddly named ‘Duck’s Back’ roadster was a sporting model built by Alvis in the mid-’20s, featuring a particular style of rear bodywork resembling – I’m sure you can guess…

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Bitten by the bug

By the time Brian had fallen for the 12/50’s charms, it was already pretty old. By then, Alvis had moved to making quite specialised cars, few of which had arrived in Australia.

Around the mid-’40s, when Brian’s Alvis infatuation began, there was little interest in old cars and the vintage car movement was yet to gain any significant impetus. By the time he was 15-years-old, though, Brian had bought his first Alvis: a cheap car in poor condition – not a Duck’s Back, but the Beetle Back version.

| Read next: 1965 Alvis TE21 Drophead coupe review

"I’ve had a huge interest in Alvis ever since I bought that first car," he explains. "I suppose I’ve had 12 or 14 Alvises over the years. Some were just chassis, but others were good driving cars."

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Bitten by the bug, he searched out old Alvis cars of any condition, much to the amusement of his family. "(One time) my mother called everyone to look out the window, saying ‘Look, he’s brought home a car with a tree growing in it!’ Old cars were very cheap in those days," he recalls.

"I remember hearing about one in Auburn (Victoria) in the 1950s and after a lot of hunting, found it at a fellow’s spare block next to his house. When I asked where the car was, he pointed out the window to his garden. The car was there, but nowhere to be seen; it was overgrown by plants." Of course, he bought the car, but it was rotten beyond saving.

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Leather and wood cabin is sumptuous and the coupe’s shape is timeless

There’s always an Alvis

By his early 20s, and as the fledgling collectors’ car scene gained some momentum in Australia, Brian became one of the founders of the Vintage Motor Club.

After many years of use, he sold the Beetle Back 12/50. Along the way he also enjoyed a couple of Lancia Lambdas, a 14/40 Vauxhall, two Amilcars, some Talbots, several MG TCs, an Alfa Romeo 105 GTV and a Nissan 300ZX.

| Read next: 1932 Alvis Speed 20 review

But aside from a period when, as he charmingly describes it, "marital poverty set in", there’s always been an Alvis.

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Later, he bought back his first Alvis, the 12/50 Beetle Back, had it completely restored and enjoyed it in club events. Then, he finally found a 12/50 Duck’s Back.

"They’re extremely rare and nobody who had one would part with it," he explains. "But I remembered I’d seen a chassis many years before and finally tracked down the owner.

"The car was completely dismantled and in boxes. Fortunately it had been systematically disassembled by the owner 20 years before, and it was all there. Some parts had been reconditioned too."

He set to work doing a lot of the restoration at home himself, with Max Houston assisting with professional work.

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By then Brian had also restored a glamorous 1936 Alvis Speed 25 saloon, with coachwork by Charlesworth, finished in striking, two-tone metallic green.

Bugger that!

But then, on his way home from an Alvis rally with his wife Joan, his world collapsed. He suffered a stroke, which left the left side of his body non-operational.

The two Alvises were sold, along with a pretty 1924 Amilcar C4, which was almost completely restored. The professor at the hospital told Brian, "You may not walk again and you’ll certainly never drive". Brian’s defiant response: "Bugger that!"

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Clever modications that allow Brian to drive the car are artfully incorporated, like the GM shifter (next image, below) and wooden steering knob

While in hospital slowly recovering, Brian noticed a small newspaper advertisement, for a 1952 Alvis Drophead. Recognising the car as one he knew with a good reputation, he picked up the phone from his hospital bed, and bought the car sight unseen. Some hospital staff thought he was crazy – literally – and suggested a consultation with a psychiatrist.

In spite of his incapacity, Brian had a plan. He knew he’d never fully recover, but thought out a way in which he could, hopefully, enjoy an Alvis again.

He’d never had such a modern Alvis, and knew from his experience that the doors of the saloon version of the TA series would be too narrow for him – but the Drophead had much longer doors which would make access easier.

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Driving force

With the help of restorers and Alvis club members, the car was carefully adapted according to Brian’s particular needs. As anyone who has driven an early-’50s large car will know, they’re not the easiest or lightest cars to use.

The brakes were completely overhauled, and a power booster added. Power steering was installed, which involved some experimentation to get right. The system Alvis used in later cars wouldn’t fit but parts from a Toyota 4-Runner did the job.

A GM Turbo 700 auto transmission was installed and the shifter neatly put into the polished wood console, with the red triangle Alvis badge on top.

The final major adaptation was to make the seats power-assisted. The original seats were kept, but hidden inside is multi-directional adjustment, from a Holden Calais.

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The controls have been tastefully installed on the doors for easy access.

Several other minor adaptations were also made. Gas struts were fitted to the bootlid in place of the clumsy old ratchet system. And a right-hand side extension arm for the indicator switch – all correct period style – was added and a polished wooden knob for turning the steering wheel was fitted.

The car was finally ready after three years, but Brian wasn’t. He found tremendous inspiration to drive his new car helped his recovery, along with very supportive hospital staff. Finally he got his licence back. Wife Joan says: "It was difficult to accept he’d be safe driving, but it definitely helped his recovery."

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Easy rider

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. Disaster struck again when he had a fall that resulted in a brain haemorrhage requiring brain surgery. Finally he was well enough to gain his licence again, and take his beautiful Alvis for a spin.

And on the road, it’s a magnificent thing. The coachwork, by Tickford, is elegant and somewhat reminiscent of ’30s cars, which is a big attraction to Brian.

The 3.0-litre, six-cylinder OHV engine, with twin SU carburettors, produces around 75kW (Brian’s car has the later high-compression version), and makes a very satisfying exhaust note through the twin tailpipes as the revs rise.

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The engine pulls strongly and the modern transmission changes gears smoothly and is well suited to the engine’s characteristics.

Beautiful details abound. The roof opens to a Coupe de Ville position or folds neatly into a recess behind the rear seat. On the windscreen header rail are delicate roll-up fabric visors, with chromed scissor-action supports behind. Ashtrays with rotating polished wood ends are fitted at the sides of the rear seats by the door openings.

Brian’s also fitted a beautiful chrome plated eagle radiator mascot, from an earlier Alvis, dubbed "Eddie the Eagle".

The car’s styling was not the most modern when produced, however, its flowing lines suit the two-door shape and its two-tone paintwork, with the side colour repeated on the rear wheel spats, give an elegant charm to the car.

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Barring further health ‘hiccups’, we expect Brian and his stunning Alvis will enjoy many more adventures together in the coming years

Alvis - changing fortunes

Alvis was established in 1920 and like many others built its factory in Coventry, England. Initially an engine producer, within a year the company was producing cars and by the late-’20s was experimenting with some advanced ideas, including a supercharged front-wheel drive racing car with a duralumin chassis. Later, it launched four and eight-cylinder FWD road cars that sold alongside its more popular, traditionally engineered models.

By 1930, Alvis was in trouble with sales dwindling. To the rescue came Charles Follett, a successful London car dealer, who poured in funds and, importantly, incorporated customers’ ideas, creating a turnaround for Alvis. During WWII, when Alvis produced Leonides radial aircraft engines, the factory was twice struck in air raids.

The TA21 model led the sales charge post-war, and the company also began production of the Saracen six-wheeler in 1952, starting a long line of military vehicles.

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‘Eddie the Eagle’ mascot proudly flies above the radiator cap 

Alec Issigonis (father of the Morris Minor and Mini) worked for Alvis during the ’50s developing, among other ideas, a 3.5-litre V8 model, which was stillborn. Swiss coachbuilder Graber also had an association with Alvis, which led to bodies being built on Alvis chassis by Park Ward in England. Thus the elegant TD21 was born, and its descendants, the very exclusive TE and TF luxury coupes.

But its days as an independent car maker were numbered and Rover bought Alvis in 1965. The final Alvis car was built in September 1967, though military vehicles remained in production. Along with so many other car companies, Rover and Alvis were swallowed up by British Leyland in 1973, but Alvis would outlive BL. In 1981 Alvis was sold for £127 million to United Scientific Holdings.

Alvis bought the giant Vickers in 2002, all of which was taken over two years later by BAE Systems.

The Alvis name and red triangle logo were dropped in 2005 bringing 85 years of the marque to an end.

Family member

While Brian doesn’t know the early history of his Alvis TA21 Drophead, by 1979 it was in Geelong, Victoria and had been restored, and by the mid-’80s it had found a new home in NSW.

According to Brian, the previous owner cherished the car, and kept it in the rumpus room of his home in Batemans Bay!

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In 20 years of ownership he covered just 4000 miles, all carefully recorded in a log book, which is still with the car.

While Alvis produced 1321 saloons, few TA21s were made as Dropheads, and Brian only knows of one other in NSW and two in Victoria.

1952 Alvis TA21 Drophead (modified) specs 

Body: two-door convertible
Engine: 2993cc six-cylinder
Power: 75kW at 4000rpm
Transmission: GM Turbo 700 automatic
Brakes: Hydraulic power-assisted drums front and rear
Top speed: 160km/h

 

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