Rara Avis

This article was written by Nick Simpson in August 2013 and first published in the February 2014 AOC Bulletin.

More photos of  Graber TC108Gs have been added to the Graber page.

Willowbrooks are pictured at the end of this article.

RARA AVIS – WHAT HAPPENED BETWEEN THE GREY LADY AND THE TD21?

Nick Simpson explores some of the mysteries around this slightly curious period in Alvis car production.

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There’s an interesting bit of Alvis history when, unexpectedly, in October 1955 a Graber bodied Alvis, coupe on a TC21/100 chassis, manufactured in Switzerland, was displayed on the Alvis Stand at the London Motor Show. The Press raved about its modern styling and it made the television newsreels with at least one commentator mentioning that it was the first Alvis without an external radiator filler cap! He was not quite right actually as Carrosserie Graber had constructed at least one TA21 coupe (25089) in 1953 without the external filler cap! Soon afterwards, the TC21/100 Grey Lady production came to a close quietly in December 1955. Not much was heard for a while and then, a similar model, typed ‘TC108/G’ and ‘Willowbrook’ just about showed its face at the 1956 London Show and disappeared after two years in 1958 with the introduction of the TD21 in October 1958. At the time hardly anyone could claim to have seen one! How did it happen that Alvis produced only 37 chassis’ in two years – making the TC108/G possibly the rarest of all Alvis models?

Further on we will take a detailed look at what went on between the end of production of the TC21/100 with chassis 25908 in December 1955 and the first Park-Ward TD21 chassis number 25946 in late 1958. In brief, a bus body builder named Willowbrook from Loughborough in Leicestershire clothed 15 of them and Carrosserie Graber, a Swiss coachbuilder took the remaining 22 chassis in small batches for their own clientele. It was an interesting period of Alvis history, a conservative manufacturer not known for avant garde coachwork styles. The new shape moved the firm away from the very traditional Grey Lady Mulliner’s and Tickford’s body lines with their roots going back to 1937, to the ultra-stylish Willowbrook and Park-Ward designs. These were considered at the time to be very cool in the mid 1950’s motor atmosphere when Britain had only just emerged from its elongated post-war austerity period.

This was probably the first Grey Lady Works demonstrator and Press Car. Chassis No TC21 25377, one of the last TC21’s. It must have been upgraded to Grey Lady specification for the task. Note the vertical bars in the bonnet air intakes, replaced with gauze grilles in production. Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
This was probably the first Grey Lady Works demonstrator and Press Car. Chassis No TC21 25377, one of the last TC21’s. It must have been upgraded to Grey Lady specification for the task. Note the vertical bars in the bonnet air intakes, replaced with gauze grilles in production.

Like many things in this world, the events leading to this part of Alvis history were not planned by management, but were a series of quite clever reactions to deal with the way the market and other makers of the day had impacted on the Company; a firm of engineering and motor car excellence, but not set up to compete with the mass-producers who had the clout to operate in the ‘mergers & acquisitions’ part of the motor industry to get what they wanted when they wanted at the expense of the smaller makers. The Government of that time had not the slightest intention of helping specialist car manufacturers either; the view being that the British Motor Industry was rationalising itself quite efficiently and cared not a jot for smaller firms like Alvis. So what was special about Alvis, that they could survive this period when, for an example, a larger firm like Armstrong-Siddeley, who had their own body manufacturing facility, stopped making cars?

This story really had its beginnings in 1953 when the cancellation of the Issigonis designed Alvis TA350 project left the new model pantry empty at Alvis. This car had been slated for appearance in 1955 to follow on from the Three Litre; The TA350 was reluctantly cancelled when it became understood that it could not be profitable unless sold in vast numbers. During its design and development period the car market had changed very quickly as the ‘Big Six’ makers mopped up the smaller manufacturers; Alvis had no prospect of competing in the mass volume market with a modest factory and staff suited to specialised engineering and vehicles in relatively small numbers and they were right to ‘pull the plug’ on it; the heady pre-war days of producing different models of two, three or four hundred cars at a profit were gone; military vehicles and aero engines were the number one earner. However, J.J.Parkes the Chairman did not want to discontinue car production; it fitted well with the firms other products, they knew how to do it and the Directors must have derived much satisfaction from driving their own product….. So, the hunt had been on to find a way to continue to sell a specialist car, even in modest numbers. Stanley Horsfield, the Alvis Sales Director, came up with an interim plan to buy time in their market slot until something new could be found. It was the third Three Litre update; the 100 mph Grey Lady, introduced in October 1953 for the 1954 Model year. In typical Alvis style, this was done on a very low development budget and even the first Works Press demonstration ‘Grey Lady’ appeared to be a conversion from one of the last production TC21 saloons, 25377/ORW517. One might wonder what was on the chassis plate – is it still around?

In 1955 the firm had been forced into decisions when Mulliners Limited of Bordesley Green, Birmingham, constructors of the Grey Lady saloon coachwork announced they would no longer continue production. Standard-Triumph (one of the ‘Big Six’) had taken up much of Mulliner’s production capacity and they wanted the remainder for their new volume model the Triumph Herald. The writing must have been on the wall for some time as Standard-Triumph’s production had been steadily rising for many years and Louis Antweiler, Mulliner’s Chairman, a friend to Alvis, had already retired due to ill-health. Standard-Triumph bought Mulliners. At much the same time, Tickford’s, who constructed the Three Litre drophead coupe bodies at Newport Pagnell were taken over by Aston-Martin. Those were combination punches to Alvis as there were no obvious commercial coachbuilders remaining to build production batches to suit a small volume chassis manufacturer; the closures forced Alvis to speed up their efforts to find a replacement body manufacturer.

Unknown by many, talks had begun in mid 1955 with Carrosserie Graber of Wichtrach, near Bern, in Switzerland. Graber’s were well known to Alvis as they had been bodying Alvis chassis since 1947 (interrupting a series of Delahayes). They had clothed TA14’s, TA21’s, TC21’s and latterly the TC21/100 in very small numbers with exquisite and modern designs using up-to-date body technology; much more advanced than the traditional English coachbuilders. The problem was that Graber’s were unable to handle even small volume production in their tiny factory where the coachwork was bespoke with each car unique for a discerning clientele; in addition, an already expensive design would have been even more costly when transport and import taxes were applied.

A solution was found by adapting an existing Graber design constructed under license in the UK, for the British market by Willowbrook of Loughborough. Graber was probably compliant to agreement as it was in his interest to help his chassis supplier at a time when his chassis choice options with other manufacturers had become limited in much the same way as Alvis’ body suppliers were!

The main points of the agreement appeared to be:-

  • In July 1955 two chassis ex Works; TC21/100 25858 and 25859 were sent to be bodied at Carrosserie Graber and returned to Coventry for evaluation, demonstration and sales purposes.
  •  Production ‘Graber’ bodies were made under license by Willowbrook of Loughborough using an existing Swiss design complete with ‘Graber’ script badges on the sides, assembled on bucks and jigs sent over from Carrosserie Graber.
  • Carrosserie Graber supplied a dismantled prototype body, giving details of the suppliers of the bought out parts etc and sending it to Loughborough for copying for their own production.
  • Willowbrook were authorised to make an unlimited number of FHC bodies under the agreement although cabriolet’s and similar bodies built on the current and any other chassis types would be subject to supplementary licensing and royalty payments to Carrosserie Graber. (That is probably why no Willowbrook cabriolet’s were built – they would have been prohibitively expensive.)
  • The British and Swiss models were typed’ TC108/G’ (‘G’ for Graber). It is interesting that Graber’s last two stock TC21/100 chassis (25873 & 25891) were used for his own prototype ‘TC108/G’s. He later included them in his list of production of 24 TC108/G cars and left them out of his list of 15 TC21/100 cars! These numbers are listed in a 1964 letter to David Culshaw. So, it is arguable that there were 39 cars rather than 37 in the TC108/G series! Graber never fitted the UK Alvis chassis plates under bonnet on any of his cars so the answer to that one may never be known!
  • Graber developed a modified chassis for Alvis Ltd for what was to become the TD21 and built the first two prototype bodies for Alvis Ltd, a FHC (Graber No 717) and a DHC (Graber No 718) for copying by Park-Ward for UK production.
  • Alvis maintained a chassis supply for Graber in small batches of two or three at a time as well as the supply to Willowbrook until the new TD21 chassis became available.

Why ‘108/G’? It is thought that the ‘108’ was the BHP, gained by reworking the TC21/100 head and ports a little and the ‘G’ was for the ‘Graber’ relationship. Late Grey Ladies and TC108/G’s had redesigned cylinder heads to accommodate exhaust valve seat inserts in production; a worthwhile modification that went with the increased performance as the earlier TA/TC heads with integral valve seats had been a cause for criticism for some years, especially in the Trade, as there was insufficient material in the top of the combustion chamber for the reliable fitting of valve seat inserts. Otherwise the chassis appeared identical to the TC21/100. Graber had some special ‘sports’ chassis erected at Coventry. It is thought these were destined for his top of the range ‘Super’ model. These were generally more luxurious and faster versions and one Works Build Record for TG108/G 25937 ‘Super’ shows:- “Longer 1- 5/8” (diameter) exhaust pipes throughout, Special Engine built to P.10369 Spec (whatever that is) and H6 carburettors.” The H6 is, of course, the later SU carburettor that appeared on the TD21.

Possibly to give the impression of international marketing, uniformity and availability of Alvis, Graber exhibited both of his prototypes, chassis 25873 and 25891 at the 1955 Paris Show. 25873 with Graber Body Number 695, a cabriolet, was finished in White and differed from the Willowbrook version in that it was fitted with Marchal lighting, rectangular fog lights and a rather different ‘impressionist’ Alvis radiator grille. 25891, Graber No 700 also in White was a Coupe Super. There was no Grey Lady exhibited. What I have not been able to discover is if the Paris Show stand was sponsored by Alvis Ltd or Carrosserie Graber?

Graber afficionado’s have generally agreed that the twenty two (or twenty four depending on how one views Carrosserie Graber’s two prototypes) Swiss designed and built TC108/G cars (and the design for Willowbrook) represent the pinnacle of Hermann Graber’s styling genius at the peak of his career. His coachwork was generally ‘smaller’ in its proportions than the British versions and he even cut and shortened the standard bumper over-riders to keep the front end exactly in scale! Whilst the general lines of the Swiss-built bodies conform to a series each had their own individual styling features with model years updates and no two are alike; ‘identical twins’ were limited only to cabriolet and coupe form.

An interesting anecdote referring to this individuality was related to me in conversation with a Graber Alvis owner who had ordered his new car with Herrmann Graber; he had crossed the world to make the visit to Wichtrach to place his order, pay the deposit and discuss the finer points of the finish of ‘his’ car. A slightly gruff and independent Herr Graber produced his sketches showing the general style of his coachwork for the Model Year and the individual touches for that particular car. The customer had seen a similar car in the workshop nearing completion and, liking it very much, asked for an identical copy; the request was firmly refused on the grounds that each Graber body was unique and that sir could choose to go elsewhere if he would not accept! However, face was not lost and the impasse was circumvented by having the rear screen angle altered and the  air vents on the sides of the front wings installed upside down thus preserving the integrity of the individuality of design!

Graber’s cars had superbly proportioned lines from any angle where style and line came with little chrome adornment or practical considerations; they had small, almost un-useable occasional rear seats as Graber preferred his designs to be two-seaters. The rear compartment was really a secondary luggage or shopping storage area that was given the appearance of seating for style only. On most of the bodies the divided rear seats could be easily lifted out singly or in pairs revealing a nicely trimmed and carpeted box; one later car was supplied without the rear seats and trimmed especially for the comfort of the owner’s dog and came equipped with a built-in dog lead! Some of the ‘Graber-Specials’ had re-worked engines and front suspensions with lightweight bodies and were not guaranteed by Alvis; they were identified by the absence of the Alvis badge on the front grille; it was only in script on the nose and tail. Some of the cars destined for the Swiss market were ordered with right steering; it was considered a status symbol in 1950’s Switzerland to show that one’s car had been imported from Great Britain….

TC108/G 25929/Graber Special No 705/ESL672. Built in May 1957 for the Brachotte family who manufactured clock mechanisms in St Imier, Switzerland. It was later found by Wayne Brooks and repatriated from Florida USA in derelict condition and re-built by the author. It has now returned to Switzerland to the grandson of the original owner. Note the shortened front bumper over-riders. Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
TC108/G 25929/Graber Special No 705/ESL672. Built in May 1957 for the Brachotte family who manufactured clock mechanisms in St Imier, Switzerland. It was later found by Wayne Brooks and repatriated from Florida USA in derelict condition and re-built by the author. It has now returned to Switzerland to the grandson of the original owner. Note the shortened front bumper over-riders.
Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.

As previously mentioned, the two late production TC21/100 chassis, 25858 and 25859 sent to Graber’s in 1955 to be fitted with Graber coupe bodies, returned to become ‘Works’ cars. 25858 with Graber Number 686 in Seal Grey became the well known Works press and road test demonstrator registered in Coventry with SHP642. No 25859 with Graber Number 685 was the exhibition/showroom car finished in White and was kept unregistered. It was registered a year or so later with TDU810 and may have become a Works car when a production Willowbrook became available for display purposes. These two cars varied slightly from their Swiss counterparts in that the front and rear wings were altered to accept the standard Lucas lighting units from the earlier Three Litre cars.

SHP642 or ‘Shep’, as his present keepers call him, was the subject of the Autocar Road Test of 22nd March 1957 and was described in glowing terms after their testers had achieved the 103 mph maximum speed claimed by the Works. This Alvis had a hard life as a Press car, being driven flat out on numerous occasions and with many different drivers. As well as other tests in the UK, there were more foreign tests including an unofficial session on the French motor racing circuit at Reims. Harold Hastings, the Midland Editor of ‘The Motor’ magazine took SHP642 on test to Belgium giving it a full head of steam on the famous Jabbeke highway. By this time ‘Shep’ was becoming a little tired and the best they could do was 98.5 mph when valve trouble struck.

 This is possibly Harold Hastings’ snap of 25858/SHP642/Graber 685 on another of its hard-pressed continental trips taking a break during high speed testing on the old Reims circuit in France. Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
This is possibly Harold Hastings’ snap of 25858/SHP642/Graber 686 on another of its hard-pressed continental trips taking a break during high speed testing on the old Reims circuit in France.
Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.

The Jabbeke highway was a stretch of double track straight road in Belgium between the coastal town of Oostende passing the towns of Jabbeke and Aalter and heading east towards Ghent. The Jabbeke-Aalter stretch could be used for official speed attempts under the supervision of the Royal Belgium Automobile Club by closing one carriageway while contra-flowing traffic onto the other.

This road was constructed just after WWII and was later incorporated in Belgium’s Autoroute system. In the 1950’s, unconnected to the network and isolated at its ends and with little traffic, it was a popular high speed road for British car testers. They could ferry cars direct to Oostend without traversing what was then a difficult part of pre Autoroute northern France to reach it from Calais. The Jabbeke Highway was exceptionally straight, well surfaced and testers could run well over 100mph maximum speeds. The Jaguar XK120 was run to 132 mph and Triumph along with others also used it for their record attempts with similar speeds.

These speeds were almost impossible on the winding and antediluvian UK roads until our first Motorways were opened in 1957. In 1964 Aston Martin gained some useful sales publicity when it was discovered that they had tested one of their cars at 140 mph on the M1 near Newport Pagnell very early one traffic free morning. The useful publicity was spoiled when Barbara Castle, a non-driving Minister in the Labour government of that time, anxious to be seen to be doing something, imposed a blanket 70 mph speed limit on all Motorways and the UK lost its only possibility of testing high performance British cars properly under road conditions. Most of the British made cars declined from that moment onwards in terms of quality, development and reliability; the Germans well understood the benefits to their motor industry of unlimited speed limits in certain areas on their Autobahns……

J.J.Parkes and Stanley Horsfield made the most of Graber’s style, both with the two Works cars and the subsequent Willowbrook cars to test the market, kept the Alvis name alive and the dealer network intact ready for a serious come-back. It had also been necessary to see if a market existed for a specialist car pitched somewhere between the top end of the ‘Big Six’ maker’s products and the Bentley ‘S’. This was an important issue in the low volume Alvis selling world as most of the Dealers relied on other franchises for their regular income. It was not easy for dealers to re-sign if they had relinquished a franchise as they would have been more or less forced to sign the increasingly common ‘solus’ agreements as the ‘Big-Six’ (BMC, Ford, Standard-Triumph, Vauxhall, Rootes & Rover) tightened their grip on the market….

AOC Member John Fox’s well known car, TC21/100/25858/Graber No 685 photographed when it was new. It was this Alvis Graber that probably did more than any other to preserve the Alvis name and reputation during those difficult times with few cars available for sale. Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
AOC Member John Fox’s well known car, TC21/100/25858/Graber No 686 photographed when it was new. It was this Alvis Graber that probably did more than any other to preserve the Alvis name and reputation during those difficult times with few cars available for sale.
Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.

The production Willowbrook bodies had minor variations from the Swiss prototypes:- the screen pillars incorporated alloy castings whereas Graber’s were all wood, the instrument panel was moulded from glass-fibre – said to be a first on a production British car and the front wings were modified to take the smaller diameter Lucas tripod headlights replacing the French Marchal units. On the mechanical side the engine air intake system was fitted with a superior quality aluminium intake silencer incorporating twin replaceable filter elements to replace the earlier single AC type that had been fitted to 25858 as the induction roar had been mildly criticised in one of the magazine road tests. (I suspect the Works Service Engineers had removed the steel wool from inside the canister to improve breathing and help achieve the vital 103 mph top speed!). A period magazine photo shows the original AC air silencer considerably altered with a flat section on the top side to accommodate Graber’s lowered bonnet line.

Some of Graber’s Swiss built TC108/G rear wing lines had been formed to incorporate Lucas’ Rolls-Royce and Bentley S1 tail and flasher light units and this had caused a frisson between the two firms. Rolls-Royce was probably quite happy with them being used on Bentleys with Graber coachwork but presumably got a bit sniffy when they appeared on Alvises…. At this time Alvis were in talks with Park-Ward for the body for the new TD21 car so it had been prudent to avoid a difficulty over tail light design as Park-Ward were owned by Rolls-Royce; so the Willowbrook rear wings were altered to accept Lucas tail light units of the type used on Rover cars.

A Swiss built TC108/G cabriolet with the Lucas-Bentley style tail light units. Note the non standard black rims to the instruments – a great benefit for night driving that would be appreciated by those who have driven TC108/G’s with the usual chrome plated rims. The low profile build of the Swiss cars is evident in this picture from the pronounced bonnet curvature to clear the top of the engine. This body appears to be a ‘standard’ version without side air vents so probably has steel panelling all round. Note the almost zero rear leg room although the front seats are well forward.... Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
A Swiss built TC108/G cabriolet with the Lucas-Bentley style tail light units. Note the non standard black rims to the instruments – a great benefit for night driving that would be appreciated by those who have driven TC108/G’s with the usual chrome plated rims. The low profile build of the Swiss cars is evident in this picture from the pronounced bonnet curvature to clear the top of the engine. This body appears to be a ‘standard’ version without side air vents so probably has steel panelling all round. Note the almost zero rear leg room although the front seats are well forward….
Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.

Willowbrook cut, shaped, welded and assembled the steel sections on Graber’s original wooden bucks. This caused a few problems in service later as Graber’s bucks were only intended for a very limited production of perhaps two or three bodies plus spares; he used no presswork. The bucks wore out very quickly through heavy use in forming the sheet metal. This style of jig is intended for checking wheeled, welded and assembled panels, not for beating panels, always a temptation by the operator when up against time and a small alteration was required! Panels that required shaping with a hammer rather than wheeling were supposed to be beaten out on leather bags filled with sand.

The lead-loading and re-work required to finish the Willowbrook bodies was considerable and added enormously to production costs; this was a year or two before the introduction of plastic filler. It has been mentioned that the continental style painted fascia panel was moulded from glass-fibre and this must have been a bit of a gamble by Alvis. Graber, with his advanced body engineering, made his from alloy. Having looked into this from a technical point of view, I discovered that Graber’s alloy fascia assembly is actually a cleverly engineered and strong, complex cross member for the scuttle. It was cleverly boxed and strengthened to brace the upper part of the scuttle assembly against scuttle-shake as well as supporting the steering column and one wonders if the Willowbrook body achieved the same levels of rigidity with the more flexible glass-fibre moulding? David Culshaw mentioned in his 1999 article that there had been quality issues with some cars being returned to Willowbrook for rectification under guarantee and it has also been said that more than one was returned for refund – one wonders which ones and if they were re-registered for resale…..

In 1956 the List Price for the Willowbrook was already a whacking £2776, rising to £3451 in March 1957 pushing it well above the traditional Alvis buyers budget; The Grey Lady had been listed at £1771 and the TD21 was still only £2532 as late as 1963! In comparison, the Rover Three Litre was listed at £1864 and a Humber Snipe would set you back only £1453 so Alvis were stretching their customer’s loyalty a bit with the Willowbrook although the Bentley S1 was still a long way ahead at £6300.

Although there had been a planned a production of 25 Willowbrook bodies, it closed at 15 due to increasing production costs which could not be passed on with a higher sales price. In any case, I expect nobody at Alvis was worried by this time; it was well into 1958, the Willowbrooks had done their job and the new TD21’s would be seen at the London Show in October with more affordable prices and sufficient production for dealers to be more interested…..

 

Swiss style at its best; probably one of Graber’s two 1955 Paris Show exhibits. A very eye-catching TC108/G cabriolet, possibly 25873, the first of Grabers two TC21/100 prototypes later listed as ‘TC108/G’s. Once again, the shortened front bumper over-riders and the rear bumper extended around the sides of the rear wings. Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
Swiss style at its best; probably one of Graber’s two 1955 Paris Show exhibits. A very eye-catching TC108/G cabriolet, possibly 25873, the first of Grabers two TC21/100 prototypes later listed as ‘TC108/G’s. Once again, the shortened front bumper over-riders and the rear bumper extended around the sides of the rear wings.
Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.

All Willowbrooks were of FHC style and only one, 57008 on chassis 25913 registered UDU59 was fitted with left steering and exported to Canada.  One wonders if this one had a unique glass-fibre instrument panel to accommodate the left steering or if it was handmade in alloy? The 15 bodies produced were not constructed in Alvis chassis production order, body numbers being allocated haphazardly with the exception of the last, 56015 possibly mounted on 25938. Bodies built in 1956 had ‘56’ number prefixes and 1957 bodies were prefixed with ‘57’. The body number was on a brass plate under-bonnet, screwed on the left side bay panel. It is not inconceivable that the brass plates could be exchanged between cars……

 

A period photograph of Willowbrook TC108/G 25933/56014/WDU434 taken at one of the Alvis Works ‘gates’, possibly at the Alvis aero engine test facility at Baginton, near Coventry. A Works demonstrator? The two people are so far unidentified. Can any of our readers identify them? Anyone know if this car survives? Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
A period photograph of Willowbrook TC108/G 25933/56014/WDU434 taken at one of the Alvis Works ‘gates’, possibly at the Alvis aero engine test facility at Baginton, near Coventry. A Works demonstrator? The two people are so far unidentified. Can any of our readers identify them? Anyone know if this car survives?
Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.

Although expensive, there was quite a lot of competition for allocation of these cars, especially among the wealthier and ‘cabby’ Alvis Dealers who liked the style, exclusivity and knew the small production to be made available. Transfers from smaller dealers were common to satisfy priority orders. Several transferred cars were repainted to satisfy the buyer’s requirements; buyers did not want to risk the possibility of disappointment or a price-hike if they waited for their order to be built. Dealers were encouraged to give up a ‘stock’ car to satisfy an order elsewhere; the only way this could be avoided (again the wealthier dealers!) was to pay for the car in full including the purchase tax and register the car. Thus some were seen ‘new’ in showrooms with registration plates in place. Between Press events, the hard-pressed works demonstrator (SHP642) was loaned out to the larger distributors for demonstration purposes so they could get their prospects together for a driving event in the hope of making a sale. This avoided using a new car from the showroom. I don’t suppose the prospects knew the body of the car they were trying was not British built…….

The press reviews waxed lyrically about the new ‘Graber’ styled Alvis and it was only mildly criticised for its high price and lack of rear leg room; enjoying much credit for its style and the high quality trim levels. Vestigial, ‘occasional’ rear seats were not something that troubled Mr & Mrs Graber; they had no children and style came first with their designs! The British market for cars in that class  was not quite the same at that time; many were purchased by companies for their directors and they demanded room for four adults inside and at least two sets of golf clubs with luggage in the boot; difficult, if not impossible in Graber’s design! Although never described as such, these were, once again, ‘interim’ cars to tickle the market appetite and obtain publicity; the negative aspects were later rectified for the UK market when Park-Ward in London productionised a new Anglicised version of Graber’s design, the TD21.

Some of the Willowbrook cars were used by the Alvis Directors and Distributors to keep the name alive and for something to put in their showrooms from 1956 until Motor Show 1958 when the TD21 was introduced. As well as production being slow as they were hand built, the TC108/G was expensive and did not sell in any real numbers. Most chassis, (22), went to Graber and kept him going in his bespoke market until the new TD21 chassis became available.

As previously mentioned, Alvis decided that the best and most economical way to develop the new TD21 was to do it in conjunction with Carrosserie Graber themselves; after all, it was Graber’s style that had already been licensed for production in the UK. Herrmann Graber was a good chassis engineer as well as a bodybuilder and well used to building one-off designs without the need for expensive development. Alvis ordered two prototype bodies, one FHC and one convertible.

In early 1958 chassis TC108/G 25938, the last produced, possibly an un-sold chassis destined for Willowbrook or perhaps a returned car with body (57015?) was sent to Carrosserie Graber without its body for modification and fitting with the first prototype TD21 FHC body. This involved cutting and moving  one of the cross members to accommodate a new gearbox, strengthening the front end and moving the pedals (and thus the driving position) forwards 12cm with a shorter steering column to give the rear seat leg room required for the British market. Herrmann Graber, wanting to move on from the Alvis TC gearbox, had already developed a gearbox conversion on his personal TC21/100 coupe in 1955 incorporating a BMC overdrive gearbox and as a result of this development it became standardised on the manual TD21. This gearbox had been designed for steering column gear change on the Austin Westminster and was also used in early Austin-Healeys. Alvis fabricated their own conversion casting with proper precision internal mechanical selectors to achieve a good centre change box from the controls on the left side of the box designed for the column system. The extra legroom gained by moving the driver and front passenger’s foot-wells extended into each side of the engine bay created a small downside; the passenger’s foot-well became situated much closer to the exhaust down pipes causing complaints about overheated passenger’s feet!

 Tarrant Green’s picture of a TD21 chassis taken by him during a school visit to the Alvis Works. The chassis is awaiting dispatch to Park-Ward for coachwork to be fitted. The Alvis alloy gear-change conversion casting may be seen bolted to the side of the gearbox; also the returnable transit bracket to support the steering column and rev counter drive cable. All the electric cables were attached to the body and fitted at Park-Ward.
Tarrant Green’s picture of a TD21 chassis taken by him during a school visit to the Alvis Works. The chassis is awaiting dispatch to Park-Ward for coachwork to be fitted. The Alvis alloy gear-change conversion casting may be seen bolted to the side of the gearbox; also the returnable transit bracket to support the steering column and rev counter drive cable. All the electric cables were attached to the body and fitted at Park-Ward.

Graber fitted the prototypeTD21 FHC body with Graber Number 717 to 25938 incorporating developments of the styling used on his own 1958 TC108/G Model Year style; the most obvious features being the pretty swage line at the leading edge of the rear wings, the characteristic ‘nose’ and the typical 1958 Graber style of grouped instruments in front of the driver.

After completion, this chassis with its new body was sent back to Alvis on 9th April 1958 when the chassis modifications were put into production and later to Park-Ward for the coachwork to be copied for production. Thus TC108/G 25938 became the prototype for the TD21. Park-Ward later took it over from Alvis registering it with 9VMG.

These 1989 pictures of TC108/G/TD2125938 show the much wider experimental radiator grille tried on this prototype – possibly to improve cooling? It was not seen in production. The interior view clearly shows the ‘Graber’ grouped instrument panel subsequently replaced by the triangular panel on J.J.Parkes orders. Photos:-Nick Simpson Archive.
These 1989 pictures of TC108/G/TD2125938 show the much wider experimental radiator grille tried on this prototype – possibly to improve cooling? It was not seen in production. The interior view clearly shows the ‘Graber’ grouped instrument panel subsequently replaced by the triangular panel on J.J.Parkes orders.
Photos:-Nick Simpson Archive.

PIC 10- 9VMG Proto TD21

Graber delivered the second prototype, the drophead coupe, Graber Number 718 with identical styling twenty days later to Park-Ward on 28th April 1958; this time it was without a chassis. In Graber’s records it was listed as a ‘Body-in White for patenting’. (‘Body in white’ is a trade term for unfinished and untrimmed bodies in protective primer only.)

A mystery surrounds the prototype TC108/G 25938. The chassis may have survived in the TD21 prototype, but did it ever carry a Willowbrook body before leaving the UK? Was it later fitted with a TD21 production chassis? It still had a chassis plate under-bonnet with 25938 in 1989 when I last photographed it. I understand the car survives and it would be good to investigate the original chassis number to see what it is. There was a Willowbrook body stored outside the Alvis Coventry Service & Parts Dept in Jobs Lane for some time in the 1960’s. Was it No 56015, removed from 25938 to be used for spares after shipping the chassis to Grabers or was this the prototype Graber-built body that had been earlier sent to Willowbrook for copying? Wearing my motor trade ‘hat’, my guess is that this was 56015; it was not new as I remember it on my visits there.

It is possible that Graber’s unidentified prototype ‘Willowbrook’ body became one of the ‘production’ bodies, sold off, presumably as soon as Willowbrook had learned how to put them together. It is possible it became 56003 on chassis 25932 registered BYE1 and owned by a Mr Mitchell in Glasgow? The somewhat thin evidence for this theory is that a surviving picture of this car shows it fitted with Marchal headlamps and spot lamps – they may have

A note on the back of this photograph says this is Mr Mitchell, possibly the first owner. Could this chassis have been fitted with the Swiss built trial body sent over by Graber for copying, now fully assembled and sold? The Marchal headlamps and spot lamps are a somewhat tenuous clue....If anyone knows more, please write. Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
A note on the back of this photograph says this is Mr Mitchell, possibly the first owner. Could this chassis have been fitted with the Swiss built trial body sent over by Graber for copying, now fully assembled and sold? The Marchal headlamps and spot lamps are a somewhat tenuous clue….If anyone knows more, please write. Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.

The ‘spare’ body from Alvis Service at Jobs Lane in Coventry was later sold to an AOC Member in the Northern Section and mounted on a TC21/100 chassis 25848 registered LFY509.  It is not believed to have survived, parts of it having been used later to restore TC108/G Willowbrook 25927/57010/TGA629.

9VMG/25938 with its Swiss-built prototype Graber body remained with Park-Ward for some years as a company car and styling ‘mule’. I have a note stating it was registered to a Mr Dickie – was he a Park-Ward man? It was a curious car, subsequently altered by them several times with experimental styling features over the years and was seen at AOC events. It also acquired a TD21 engine and automatic gearbox in place of the earlier TC units. Engine Number?

TC21/100’s 25858, 25859 & 25873? The first two are with us today, 25858 registered by the Works as SHP642 is the well known Press Road Test car already described, well maintained and enthusiastically owned since 1974 by John Fox, the AOC Graber Registrar. He later discovered the sister car 25859, registered TDU810 and restored that too and it is still around. It is possible Graber also showed 25873 (after the Paris Show) at the Geneva Salon as it is shown as being sold in March 1956, the time of year for the Geneva Show and the buyer is recorded as a Swiss from Winterthur.

 This previously published picture was believed to have been taken in the Park-Ward works. This is now thought to have been taken in the Graber workshop at Wichtrach and appears to show the prototype TD21 fhc body, Graber No 717 under construction before being sent to Park-Ward for copying.
This previously published picture is believed to have been taken in the Park-Ward works.

The fate of the Graber-built prototype ‘Park-Ward’ drop-head body no 718 is not recorded. Working on the basis that Alvis were very careful not to waste assets and with the customary scarcity of the new model at launch, it may have become a complete car and later sold in the same way 9VMG was. Could it have metamorphosed into the first Works demonstrator DHC with WRW891/25948/M18501? The photograph shows some small differences from later cars; the headlamp nacelles on the front wings appear to be more elongated than production cars, the horizontal air vents may be set higher in the wings and a rear view photo I have seen shows the reverse lamps in a different location.

The Park-Ward body had many service advantages over the Willowbrook in that much of the sheet metal was assembled from pressed parts avoiding the necessity for so much hand beating. They were put together on better jigs with a dummy chassis to ensure a higher degree of uniformity in production. Completed and painted bodies were united with their chassis at Park-Ward in London and returned to Coventry for final inspection, finishing and road testing.


Tarrant Green’s picture of a TD21, on General Trade Plates for road testing, awaiting dispatch at the Works.
Tarrant Green’s picture of a TD21, on General Trade Plates for road testing, awaiting dispatch at the Works.

 

The first production TD21 FHC was chassis 25946. It was registered in Coventry as a Works car with WRW633, used as a demonstrator and appeared in advertising showing off the revised boot capacity with pictures of huge amounts of luggage and golf clubs. It even appeared in the Drivers Handbook showing an elegant lady jacking the rear of the car!  It was probably too well known from advertising with its original registration and was later re-registered after being sold off. This TD21 was dismantled in 1971.

Approximately the first 33 TD21 cars were fitted with TC108/G engines as William Dunn’s new engine was not ready at the time of launch. The revised engine was modified from the TC108/G specification which made it more suitable for the stresses of the new Motorway age; the first sections of the M6 and M1 were opened around this time. The engine modifications included a cleverly designed twelve port cylinder head with new manifolds giving 115 BHP, a revised timing chain & pressure operated tensioning device avoiding the early oil pressure losses of the previous system. There were also connecting rods without the infamous pinch-bolts, full flow oil filtration and updated H6 SU carburettors. The extra torque and performance was useful as the TD was heavier than the Grey Lady.

Some owners of the early TC-engined TD’s had them retro-fitted with the new engine. Early cars are easy to spot as their rev counter needles swing anticlockwise as they were driven directly from the rear of the camshaft through the timing chain cover on the back of the engine as on the TC108/G. Following market feedback, later cars were fitted with the long rev counter drive cable driven from the front of the camshaft via an angle drive allowing the use of a revised rev counter with the needle rotating the other way to match the speedometer! It is interesting that J.J.Parkes did not like Graber’s neat instrument panel on the prototype in front of the driver. His view was, as an experienced aircraft pilot, the instruments should be in view of the ‘co-pilot’ too. So, the panel was centrally situated in the manner we have become used to today!

The first TD21 DHC. TD2125948/WRW891/M18501. Being the first drophead, it was probably Parkes’ car. It was also the Works demonstrator and regularly used for publicity photographs. Could this be the prototype drophead TD21 body built by Grabers and subsequently built up into a car? Possible clues are the very slightly extended headlamp ‘nose’, not seen on later cars and the higher air vents. Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.
The first TD21 DHC. TD2125948/WRW891/M18501. Being the first drophead, it was probably Parkes’ car. It was also the Works demonstrator and regularly used for publicity photographs. Could this be the prototype drophead TD21 body built by Grabers and subsequently built up into a car? Possible clues are the very slightly extended headlamp ‘nose’, not seen on later cars and the higher air vents.
Photo:- Nick Simpson Archive.

The Park-Ward TD21 went through several changes and modifications from 1958 until it was superseded in late 1963, but those are not a part of this article, which has attempted to tell some of what occurred in those three years of low car production figures leading up to the introduction of the TD21.

This article poses a number of questions and readers are invited to write if they have further information to fill the gaps….

Here’s the final mystery, in a previously published, but unidentified picture originally thought to have been taken at Park-Ward:-

Thought previously to have been taken at Park-Ward, this location is believed to be the Graber workshop at Wichtrach. The body under construction is clearly the same style as the Willowbrook body but with wood roof pillars and the characteristic integral Graber diagonal swaged strengthening rib on the side of the scuttle (Willowbrook welded theirs on). Note the assembled front end unit behind painted and the bonnet and roof behind. Was this the Graber built prototype sent to Willowbrook partly assembled to copy for their production and subsequently to become 56003 perhaps mounted on TC108G Chassis 25932?
This is believed to have been taken at Park-Ward. The body under construction is clearly the same style as the Willowbrook body but with wood roof pillars and the characteristic integral Graber diagonal swaged strengthening rib on the side of the scuttle (Willowbrook welded theirs on). Note the assembled front end unit behind painted and the bonnet and roof behind. Was this the Graber built prototype sent to Willowbrook partly assembled to copy for their production and subsequently to become 56003 perhaps mounted on TC108G Chassis 25932?

Nick Simpson. Technical Advisor.

ROUSSILLON. 2013

*                *                    *              *

Our thanks to Nick for solving some of the outstanding questions on this model.

25932 TC1O8g 1991 Pirelli Classic
25932 TC108G with Rowland Simmons receiving a painting from his co-driver Mark Beckley after his efforts on the 1991 Pirelli Marathon. Rowland was the main works demonstration driver of the prototype 25858 and owned two TC108Gs in later years. Both cars were upgraded from the parts bin, this one to TF21 specification.
TC108 G Willowbrook 1957 Show cars high res
1957 Earls Court

The following table is an abbreviated register of cars. For more information on a particular car please leave a comment….

25858 TC21/100 ww Graber Coupe R SHP 642 grey 1955 UK 2855
25859 TC21/100 ww Graber Coupe R TDU 810 white 1956 D   9551
25873 TC108G   ww Graber Cabriolet 5-st R white 11/55 Paris Show
25891 TC108G   ww Graber Coupe Super L 11/55
25911 TC108G   ww Graber Cabriolet Special L AMW 216L green 1956 Essex
25915 TC108G Graber Cabriolet 4-pl L beige 1956 Sweden
25916 TC108G Graber Cabriolet  4-pl L 1956
25917 TC108G Graber Coupe 4-pl R 1955 CH
25918 TC108G Graber Cabriolet R ZH 54230 grey 1956 CH
25920 TC108G Graber Cabriolet R grey 1958
25921 TC108G Graber Coupe R SG87013 green 1957
25922 TC108G ww Graber Cabriolet R green 1957 CH
25923 TC108G ww Graber Coupe R blue 1958 CH 7487
25924 TC108G ww Graber Coupe Super L blue 1957 CH 9859
25929 TC108G Bww Graber Coupe Special R VD 10581 blue 1957 CH Brachotte
25930 TC108G Bww Graber Coupe Special R 973 UXB silver 1958 7057N
25934 TC108G Graber Coupe 2-4pl L 8/57
25936 TC108G ww Graber Coupe R SG116535 blue 1957 CH 10380
25937 TC108G ww Graber Coupe Super R blue 4/58
25939 TC108G Graber Coupe Special L wine 2/58 F  4870
25940 TC108G Graber Cabriolet R wine 5/58 CH
25941 TC108G Graber Cabriolet L SG34234 Silver 5/58 CH 4438
25942 TC108G ww Graber Coupe Special R TG 108108 blue 1958 CH
25943 TC108G Graber Coupe 4-pl L 7/57
25944 TC108G Graber Coupe L 1958 D
25945 TC108G Graber Cabriolet 4-pl L SH 6912 grey 1957 CH
Total TC108G by Graber
25914 TC108G Willowbrook 56001 R YNK 922 UK 4433
25909 TC108G Willowbrook 56002 R  20 KMG Blue UK 7997
25932 TC108G Willowbrook 56003 R BYE    1 Blue NL
25926 TC108G Willowbrook 56004 R XYB 560 Grey UK 4825
25935 TC108G Willowbrook 56005 R WWK 194 VDV 720
25912 TC108G Willowbrook 56006 R 543 ALG
25910 TC108G Willowbrook 56007 R DJS 600 Grey UK 6569
25913 TC108G Willowbrook 57008 L UDU  59 Grey Canada
25925 TC108G Willowbrook 56009 R TLL 394 Grey Belgium
25927 TC108G Willowbrook 57010 R TGA 629
25919 TC108G Willowbrook 57011? R YWA 333
25931 TC108G Willowbrook 56012 R  9  JGC WVF  2
25928 TC108G Willowbrook 57013 R DEK 385 White UK
25933 TC108G Willowbrook 57014 R WDU 434
25938 TD Prototype R  9 VMG Blue CH11384

13 thoughts on “Rara Avis”

  1. Yes, thanks for an excellent historical article on the post-TC21/100 Graber designs.
    Our 1953 TA21G Graber coupe is well & exercised regularly.
    Kind regards,
    Richard Tonkin,
    Melbourne.

  2. YNK 922 is listed in my logbook (v5) as blue in colour. I was also wondering if you could give any history on my series II TD21 135 HYN it appears to be taxed at the moment yet it has not seen daylight since early eighties?

  3. 9VMG was our family car from around 1970 for around thirty years. It was first owned by my Father and later I held a half share. Thank you SO much for this most informative article. A few gaps in my knowledge have now been filled. 🙂 We called the car ‘Cleopatra” and she was really beautiful to drive. She was fitted with a one-off Park Ward badge which I retained as a keepsake when the car was sold. I now have the badge on my 1953 Royal Enfield, also called Cleopatra. I would be happy
    to make a rubbing or imptession of the badge for the current owner to have a replica made.

  4. Anybody know what happened to the Alvis speed 20 JW7000, i resprayed this car about 20 years back,for a chap who had owned it for years,i do have one or two pics of it in the workshop at the time,and i did see one pic of it on this site but unsure where it was taken.Best Regards Scott.

  5. Thanks for the reply, I am sure when I worked on it, the owner said it was a Mayfield coupe De ville. I do have some pics of it, if of any interest. Also it would be great to see what it looks like now. It makes me very happy to now that I had the chance to work on such a lovely car. I have also just finished a Austin 7 for a friend and now starting yet another e type.I think the chap’s name who owned the sp 20 was Albert. Also a Mercedes 250 pagoda for him. Very nice.

    1. There is a picture on the Speed Models page. Scroll down to the SC models and it is chassis 12026. It was last known with a member in Balsall Common and as a special in Switzerland.

  6. Dear sirs,
    The Willowbrook chassisnr.25925 is now in The Netherlands with registration nr.
    DZ-25-64. The vehicle is being restored by me at this moment.
    If possible I would like to get in touch with the other Dutch owner of Willowbrook 25932, could this be arranged?

  7. Hello Peter,
    I am the former Secretary (2000 -2009) of the Dutch Alvis Owner Club and actually I am in the role of Overseas Representative of the Dutch Section of the AOC. Please get in touch and I will try to help you. You can reach me via alvis@chello.nl

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