March 2020 – RAC Rotunda Car: Alvis Speed 25 SB Charlesworth Saloon 1937 Chassis 13668
If you had gone to the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall during the first week of March, you would have seen an Alvis Speed 25 SB Charlesworth Saloon on display in the Rotunda, its blue and silver paintwork perfectly matching the carpet on which it stood.
Brief history of the car by Edmund Waterhouse
When the Alvis, chassis 13668, left the factory early in January 1937 it was painted light grey. Its first owner was Roy Daglish whose great grandfather had established the St Helens’s iron founders which bore the family name. Roy fought in the 1st World War and, after demobilisation, joined the Liverpool shipping firm T&H Brocklebank where he rose to become company secretary. At the start of the 2nd World War Roy joined the Home Guard and had the Alvis repainted black. Its wartime service was brief and it was laid up for much of the war in North Wales.
When Roy died in 1957 the car passed to his friend Sir John Brocklebank. Roy was godfather to Sir John’s only son Aubrey. Sir John became Chairman of Cunard (which had earlier merged with the Brocklebank shipping company) in 1959 aged only 43. He enjoyed driving the Alvis and Aubrey remembers going on family holidays to Scotland in it.
After six years Sir John traded in the Alvis for a Reliant Sabre Six. The Alvis’s new owner was David Mulvaney who, later in life, emigrated to the USA and was for a time curator of the Petersen Automobile Museum in Los Angeles. David rememberswith embarrassment several occasions when the front seat’s inflatable cushion went flat under the weight of his passenger. At this point the car was still on its original tyres and had its original twin three-cell batteries. David sold the car to Jeffery Mills and he to Kenneth Hailwood.
The Alvis first came to the notice of the Alvis Owner Club in 1969. The February 1969 Bulletin (B186) records (page 9):
“Probably the find of the month, if not of the year, was the discovery in Wigan, not three miles from your Hon Sec’s [Dave Culshaw’s] abode, of a mint Speed 25 Charlesworth saloon with an authenticated 38,000 miles from new, formerly belonging to Sir John Brocklebank of shipping fame. One owner for the past seven years, unused for the last two, car never before in the club. It was essential to keep tabs on this one, and I am glad to say that Harold Lord has taken it in hand. I look forward to the appearance of this car about Easter.”
Harold Lord kept the car only briefly before it crossed the Pennines to Yorkshire, first in the ownership of Josh Wiggins and then Keith and Pauline Fawcett. It was Keith who repainted the car blue and silver. It then returned to Lancashire where Kevan Duffy was its keeper.
It came south in 2003, to serial Bentley owner David Llewellyn (perhaps best known for dropping a Napier aero engine into an 8-litre Bentley chassis). It was acquired by its present owner in 2010.
Since then the car has been rewired and retrimmed, with remedial work carried out on its ash frame. Mechanically it has proved very reliable, the only major task being replacement of the clutch and ring gear very soon after acquisition.
Displaying the car
The Club displays a different vehicle in the Rotunda every week – not always a car: I have seen motorbikes and even an electric JCB digger there. The changeover occurs every Monday morning at 5.00am, when a well-practised team remove the revolving door and build a steel ramp from the pavement up to the level of the Rotunda.
Accordingly on 2 March I left home in East Sussex at 3.00am, allowing myself two hours for the journey (assuming no breakdown en route). At that hour the roads were empty of traffic but as I approached the Blackwall Tunnel the volume increased: I was surprised how many vehicles were about at that hour in London. Once north of the river I turned westwards. At one point, halted by a red traffic light, a bus pulled up alongside and I noticed the bleary-eyed passengers looking with surprise at the old vehicle next to them.
Careful not to exceed the new 20mph speed limit introduced the previous day, I drove from the Embankment up Northumberland Avenue to Trafalgar Square and arrived in Pall Mall with ten minutes to spare. Memories of the Monopoly board kept coming to mind.
At the RAC building, the team had already dismantled the revolving door and were constructing the ramp. For the week before the Alvis went on display the Rotunda was occupied by a Formula 1 Brabham BT44B. The car was designed by Gordon Murray in 1975 when he was working for Bernie Ecclestone’s team. Gordon, a Club member, owns the car and had arranged for it to be on display in honour of an appearance by Bernie Ecclestone at the Club’s Annual Motoring Dinner.
The first step was removal of the Brabham. It is said that only one car has ever had to enter and leave the building on its side, although several have been a very tight fit. For the Brabham to pass through the doorway its rear wheels had been replaced with very narrow discs. Once it was extricated it was the turn of my car to be driven up the ramp. It took a matter of moments.
The roads had been very wet that morning. I was glad to have brought a wet sponge and chamois leather with me and after washing off the dirt I stood back and looked at the car. It struck me that it looked very much in keeping with the art deco style of the building.
The Club asks each owner to provide some information about the car which is then mounted on a stand and placed next to it. I described the Alvis’s main mechanical features as well as its performance, and gave a brief account of previous owners. I estimated that it was one of 23 surviving SB models which still carry their original Charlesworth saloon bodies. John Fox, Wayne Brooks and I had previously tried to work out exactly how many Speed 25s currently survive in their original form but the excellent records held on these cars are in some instances now quite old, and could usefully be updated by means of a fresh survey – surely a fitting task for this centenary year.
It is also conventional for the Club’s librarian to place a couple of books on a table to one side of the Rotunda, for those wishing to read more. He chose Matthew Vale’s “Alvis: the Complete Story” and Kenneth Day’s “Story of the Red Triangle”; in addition, in a cabinet upstairs, he put a copy of the Profile Publications on the Alvis Speed models.
During the week I visited the Club frequently to meet family and friends and was gratified to see the attention the car was receiving. Many people posed for photographs next to it. Someone once said to me that an old car brings joy into the lives of others, and I think it is true.
Another early start was necessary to collect the car at the end of its week. It was replaced by a gorgeous BMW 328i Frazer Nash belonging to HERO’s managing director Patrick Burke.
It was a great privilege to display the Alvis in such surroundings. Photographs of it in situ can be found on the RAC website under “rotunda cars”. To my knowledge it is the fourth Speed model Alvis to be put on display there, the others being Daniel Geoghegan’s Speed 20, George Butlin’s Speed 25 drophead coupe and the Alvis Company’s Bertelli-bodied 4.3 litre saloon. In this centenary year I hope there will be others.