It started in 1987 when I heard of a chap called Phillip Young, a motoring correspondent who was forming an organisation call Club Britannia. The first meeting was held at Kensington Gore in London. During the meeting he outlined his idea to hold an International Rally for historic cars. We would drive to Yugoslavia and back in a week. In fact the final rally would be London to Cortina D’Ampezzo and back to London in 7 days. I came home full of the idea that we had to take part. But this was a dream that wouldn’t work, the idea of Jan and I being cooped up in a car for a week with me shouting at her didn’t appeal. So who could I convince? Jan suggested Roly Simmons, a friend and MD of Red Triangle at the time. I outlined the idea and his immediate reaction ‘I will build a car to take part’.
PIRELLI CLASSIC MARATHON 19-26th June 1988
Six weeks before the off he hadn’t started. Frantic calls during the few remaining weeks to check on progress, I know he worked through the night on occasions. However on the morning of scrutineering the car arrived in London with Roly fast asleep in the back and a friend at the wheel, having stopped on the way from Stratford on Avon to have the car MOT’d – it passed with flying colours.
3,500 kilometres in 7 days, temperatures up to 29 degrees C, climbing mountain passes up to 2578 metres and the car running so cool that on one day we had to tape over part of the radiator, well obviously we were not driving an Alvis. Oh yes we were, a newly commissioned 1951 TA21 Tickford Dhc, KAA 546.
It was not quite standard. It now had a TF21 engine but with TE head so only showing 2 carbs, brake compensators so we could adjust the braking for front to back, a ZF 5 speed gear box, stiffening rods in various places, suspension stiffened, disc brakes on the front and a huge Kenlowe fan, in front a speed 20 stone catcher to allow maximum cooling, it never boiled once. You would never get away with this level of mods today, but at the time the scroots were not up to speed. Roly had co driven in the fifties on the Tulip Rally in a works car, but yours truly had no knowledge of navigation at this level.
Now, as duly elected navigator for this fun run across Europe I, in company with all the other participants, congregated for briefing at the Tower Hotel 20.00hrs sharp a few hours prior to departure. Roly was by my side, fast asleep and I am struggling to understand the questions, never mind the replies. Next morning Sunday Tower Bridge, we are car number 38, our new hero Phillip Young waving us off.
First test in the UK as I recall was at Lydd Airport. We were accompanied by Steve Thorning (TE & 12/50) and Mark Beckley who were driving Mark’s MG Magnette, between us we decided that this was going to be very serious and it was. To relate chapter and verse of each day and its happenings might make interesting reading but space would not permit, I will however say that we travelled through some magnificent countryside down to Aix-les-Bains an old spa town in France, across to Monza (once round the circuit, or in our case twice) via the Croce Domini (of Alpine fame) to Cortina. We very soon learned that if we were going to corner at high speed then tyre pressure would need to be increased. By the time we got to Italy we had them up to just on 50psi, hard as nails, but they did stick to the road, although Roly did manage a 360 spin without turning us over.
Because we had a huge distances to cover in one week it meant that a lot of driving was on motorways. Then on to Mulhouse through the mountains and via the infamous Stelvio Pass, 42 hairpins but not to worry the road has been closed, but Italy is the home of c… up and the sight of a cyclist coming down and a mobile home making the ascent gave the organisers cause for concern. Actually this was to be one the main events of the rally. Cars going off at one minute intervals, charging up all those hairpins trying to beat their individual bogey time. Even so the drivers contrived to put on quite a display for the assembled tourists at the summit.
This is where the cars with the most grunt could show off, the Alvis was in there pushing hard. We also drove over the Croce Domini pass and the Paso di Gavia, Passo di Giau (if my memory serves me well). At least now the edge of the roads have strong guard rails, but in the early days I have noticed from photos not very much to stop them going over the side. Just as well Jan decided to stay at home. We had time trials from the town centre of Cortina up to the summit and then timed speed runs.
It was interesting to listen to Tony Dron, who had followed Stirling Moss up the wet climb and noted that his tracks showed he had taken the perfect line through each and every bend. I guess that’s why many think him to be the finest racing driving ever. I would like to pay tribute to Roly’s skill in building a car. After a long period at the wheel he wanted to catch up on some sleep and as the next section was more or less motorway asked me to drive. He suggested that I follow the car in front. This was Austin Healey 3000 driven by the well known driver John Chatham. I made the comment that we won’t be able to keep up with him and the reply came ‘yes you will now let me get some sleep’. I won’t bore you with actual speeds but when we arrived that the next control John came back and asked what mods had he made to the Alvis, the reply was ‘no more than you have’.
After dinner in the famous car museum at Mulhouse we headed back to the coast with a stop at Spa for a thrash around the circuit. We docked early on Sunday morning to be greeted by a commodity we had not seen all week, rain. The last special stage was held at Crystal Palace (you could still hold International Alvis Day there). And lunch hosted by the RAC in their magnificent dining room in Pall Mall. 100 cars of various ages up to 1968 left Tower Bridge and 86 made it back to Pall Mall, the oldest driver 72, and oldest navigator 81 having completed I believe 15 Monte’s, quite a tribute to man and machine.
Only fair to record that we did not win, this honour went to John Atkins and Rob Lyle in a Cobra. Sadly we didn’t collect any gongs, purely down to my navigating but we did have some fun and met and made many friends. I was lucky enough to do the initial two Monte Carlo Rallies with Roly, the first starting from Edinburgh and the second from Berlin. But that’s another story.
For a 48 minute film of the event with a few shots of the Alvis in action click on The Great Chase – Alpine Cup – A BBC Top Gear special from the 80’s ************************************************************
Tracking down the ex James Mason TD21 put me in touch with its current owner and his memories of acquiring the car. His relationship with Rowland Simmons was a reminder of the high regard in which he was held:
“Rowland was a good friend, he visited me many times in Paris, including with his family. He rebuilt my TC several times since I used this Grey Lady as a daily car in the late 60’s. When I ask him about a TD in 1972 he organized 8 years later the sale of the James Mason car for me. I feel so sad that very often when speaking about Alvis, I remember his smile and our so appreciated relation of high confidence between two guys having a certain mechanical knowledge.”
Ron Walton wrote in 2003….
After service in the RAF, Rowland joined the Alvis Service Department at Holyhead Road in the early days of the Three Litre series in 1952. His hands-on skill in dealing with the early problems of this car were soon recognized. As a first class practical engineer he had the confidence to tackle any technical problem; in fact the more difficult the challenge, the more he seemed to enjoy it. This led to him being sent out to agents and Three Litre owners to sort out their problems.
In the sixties when the company was running down the car development staff he took an active part in the engine testing and development of the later series. It is not surprising when Alvis ceased car production in 1967 and Red Triangle was formed, that David Michie, who had the pick of the Service Department invited Rowland to take charge of the workshops. When David retired as Managing Director, Rowland succeeded him and it is in this role that many Alvis owners, who benefited from his unrivalled experience and knowledge, will remember him. Always a very modest person, when, during breaks in his recent treatment I suggested writing about his long and varied experience in the 3 Litre, he could not be convinced that anyone would be interested in what he had to say.
Although we went to the same school in Stratford- upon-Avon, he was a bit younger and it was only after he had joined Alvis, and I discovered he had a common interest in car rallying, that we met. We both had much modified Morris Minors, worked on during the lunch break in the Service Department, and rallied them alternately changing over the driving and navigating. We shared many exhausting nights driving through fog in the Lake District and torrential rain in the Welsh mountains without any serious differences. He was a bit quicker and always very competitive.
One Saturday night, in the narrow lanes between the Swan’s Nest and the village dance at llmington, the cars touched during what Rowland always claimed was a normal overtaking procedure. He finished up around a telegraph pole. During a recent chat he was still blaming me for not going fast enough and I’m happy to give him the last word.
He took my place when I was unable to co-drive for an Alvis 3 Litre owner in the RAC and Tulip Rallies and later successfully drove his own 3 Litre in international classic car rallies.
We have great sympathy for Jan and his family for their irreplaceable loss. Alvis owners have lost a member generous with advice and help and I have lost a good and constant friend. It would be nice to think that perhaps St. Peter runs a 3 Litre and can draw on all that know—how that we have lost.
Nick Simpson wrote:
I first came across Rowland around 1958/9 accompanying my father in his TAI4 to the Service Department at Alvis Ltd in Holyhead Road. Rowland’s motor engineering skills were of a very high order accompanied by a lovely happy-go-lucky nature. Father was always very impressed as he was particularly good at fault diagnosis, although he always played his cards very close to his chest when it came to revealing things. The problem was always fixed accompanied by his classic good-natured smile. He was pretty tolerant too. In my impecunious student days I would present my own battered and bodged TA14 at the Service Dcsk at Holyhead Road and would inevitably be referred to Rowland for a bit of help, riding on the back of father’s account. Rowland, or Roly, as he seemed to be known to most of us, was part of the original team that set up Red Triangle Autoservices in 1968. He was a great guy to run the service workshop—there was little he did not know about Alvis cars, especially the postwar ones. When I took a share in a village garage in 1972, it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed again as I looked after one or two Alvis cars in our locality and bought parts from Red Triangle. When I got into difficulties, he would always come to the rescue with a solution to a problem in spite of the fact that we were competitors — he never let me down once. It was a good policy because I never failed to buy from Red Triangle whenever I could and ever since I have always encouraged others to do so as well. After retiring from motors, he seemed to take a lot of pleasure from carrying out alterations to his house with Jan and running a very pleasant and cheery bed and breakfast. He will be missed and remembered by many for a long, long time.
Robin Bendall wrote:
The death of Roly Simmons is the end of an era, as to many members like me, he was “Mr. Alvis”. I remember many years ago before I was very active in the AOC, I had a serious engine failure at the start of a tour. I was keen and wanted to catch up with the rest of the group as soon as possible. I phoned Red Triangle one Saturday morning and Roly answered the phone, explained my problems and needs and also that it would take me at least three hours to get to Kenilworth. He promised to wait for me. When I got there (well into the afternoon) he gave me not only a lot of extra spare parts ‘I might need for my repair’ but also lent me a set of specialist tools to make the job easier, as well as much valuable advice on how to tackle the temporary repair, even though he did not know me at all. He trusted me, the gesture of a great human being, genuinely kind, considerate and trustful of others. I am sure there are many who have had the benefit of Roly’s knowledge and experience over the years.
As some will know I am getting the Duke of Edinburgh’s TD21 back on the road for him and reading the old correspondence, Mr. Simmons was always the key man, training the Duke’s driver and making many visits to London to sort little problems out. In my efforts I have had need of a lot of information about the car and even though Roly was obviously ill he would answer my question almost before I had asked them. His recall was amazing even to where hidden switches were located, and how obviously one-off fittings worked and were located on the car. He could even quote the paint colour code. He has been a great help in my efforts. The sadness is I will not be able to take him for that ride I had promised. A very sad day. Yet another great Alvis man is lost to us but we should be thankful his efforts and life work will carry on as long as there is an Alvis on the road.