The history of the first Alvis books
By Coen van der Weiden
Autumn 2000, “Sentosa,” Weybridge
For several years I had been thinking to interview Ken Day about the history of his book “The Alvis Car”, which has since become a standard work. The book, which in various versions and editions in my parental home was considered the “Alvis bible” and has been read by my father, my brother Bart and me over the years, time and again.
In Autumn 2000 I had to be in Chertsey near Weybridge for a few days for business and between two appointments I had a few hours off. I called the day before and yes I was welcome. Ken asked me if we could limit it to Alvis only, because “if you are cut from the same wood as your late father and we are going to talk about our common hobby sailing, then we are not ready yet!”. I promised it.
When I give the address to the taxi driver the next morning, the response is: “Well, well, this young man is going to the expensive neighbourhood…” And indeed, a little later the avenues become wider and more leafy and the houses are standing further apart. The taxi enters an open gate and we arrive in front of the house “Sentosa”, named after the beautiful flower island near Singapore where the family Day used to live for a while.
I can imagine how it should look here in summer. Ken is smiling broadly in the doorway and welcomes me. His wife Sheila is also there and we drink coffee. The first question that Ken asks me is: “The Netherlands, which is largely below sea level, it can rain for days without anything flooding, and we are here in England with the misery of the floods. And in summer we shouldn’t wash cars and spray gardens. How do you do that?” I reveal Ken our secret weapon: our Crown Prince (now King Willem –Alexander) studied water management…;-)
“Shall we first go to Brooklands Museum to view the Alvis Corner?” Ken asks me. I say that I have been there already and I am full of praise for his efforts in recent years to realise this. Ken is delighted with the royal attention of Prince Michael, who can regularly be found at Brooklands with his Alvis 4.3 Short Chassis Vanden Plas Tourer. It is only a pity, Ken thinks, that you will never see an Alvis in a museum on the road again, but yeah, you can never make everybody happy. So, let’s start.
“But first I want to tell you I am flattered by your question to interview me. I just became 80 years and this is the first time in my life I am being interviewed.
What will be your first question?”
When and how did you get to know Alvis?
Well, I remember exactly. In the 1930’s I was driving with my father in his Morris Ten Saloon when we were overtaken by a car I didn’t know. Afterwards this turned out to be an Alvis Silver Eagle. We tried to keep up with him and really had to pull out all the stops. Trying to keep up with her we were stunned by the acceleration and road holding. Once I saw the six-cylinder under the bonnet, I was immediately sold. The owner was Michael May, who told me a lot about Alvis. He raced Brooklands with a Silver Eagle between 1934 and 1939 and set a lap speed record of 113 m.p.h.! To be honest, before I first met Alvis, I almost decided in my heart for Riley. When Alvis released the Speed 20 in the same year 1932 and it also became “Car of the Year”, it was engraved in my young brain. And then those “low, racy lines,” that had never been seen in England. The price was very competitive at under £700 and the car had great performance. Dunham, an Alvis dealer from Luton, raced at Brooklands in an almost standard Speed 20 between 1932 and 1934 and won many awards. And I just licked my lips! In those days there was a lot of fast driving, but that was with engines that had a multiple of the engine capacity of a Speed 20 (2.5 litres). All English car journalists were cheering and it didn’t take long before I drove a Speed 20 Two Door Vanden Plas Tourer in the late thirties. World War II completely changed our lives and both my wife and I served in the English army for the entire war (so 5 years). Just before the war I had also driven in the successor to the Speed 20 and then I silently decided for myself: “The Speed 25 is the car to own!”
I was very fortunate to have a woman by my side who fully supported me in my car hobby and also had fun driving herself in an Alvis.
What kind of work did you do before and after the war?
Before the war, very much against my own wish, my father had arranged a job for me at a bank. At first I didn’t like it at all, but after a while I got a bit of fun. Dad had seen that correctly. After the war I went back to work at Lloyd’s in the “foreign exchange”. I can say that I am one of the founders of the Swift system, the first electronic payment system between major banks around the world. I travelled a lot and I ran into Dutch people everywhere, especially in Jakarta. I have fond memories of Dutch bankers and they were always sharp negotiators. I must have a picture somewhere from the 50’s of my Speed 25 Tourer in “The City” (the financial heart of London) with only Dutch bankers in it. In “The City” I have worked most of my life. In the post-war reconstruction of the country there was not much time for hobbies in a starting young family. It would take until the early 1950’s before we bought a TC21/100 Grey Lady, a wonderful fast and ideal travel car.
Did you never look at other car makes?
In the English club it is known that I have always driven Alfa in addition to Alvis. In the 1930 Tourist Trophy Race, the Alfa team finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd in their class of 1,750 cc. That made an impression on me as a young boy, that’s why. I now have a modern Alfa in the garage.
Three Alvises, 1500 cc, 8 cylinder front-wheel-drive (FWD), ended with only 0.27 m.p.h. difference on the Alfa’s. A rating system made them fall into oblivion and racing was expensive back then. T.G. John (Founder and then Chairman of Alvis) decided to quit. What if…? I still muse on what could have happened if they had won that race. Alvis proved that they were able to make an extremely reliable (400 miles full throttle) 8 cylinder FWD. None of these three Alvises have ever been found. At the time, it was said that Alvis was 25 years ahead of its time with these front-wheel drive cars. It would take more than 35 years before the general public accepted this form of propulsion.
When came the Speed 25 back into the picture?
In the late 1950’s I found my first Speed 25 Cross & Ellis Tourer in East Anglia. “Abandoned”, in reasonable condition and with a story that the gearbox had crashed. That seemed strong to me, because you have to be a very rude driver to demolish a Speed 25 gearbox. (CvdW: Alvis also uses this gearbox in her “armoured vehicles” of about 8 tons in weight under very harsh terrain conditions.) Once at home, it turned out that the clutch was stuck, so that was not so bad. Speed 25’s were also hard to find back then and I absolutely wanted a Tourer. Look, a Saloon with such a flexible twisting chassis, with a wooden frame and an aluminium plate nailed on top, if water creeps in between the wood and the metal, we all know what happens. In addition, Saloons are standing outside in rough weather much more often and Tourers are more cherished and immediately put inside when it rains. Of course, there was some work to be done on the car, but fortunately the Alvis parts department provided perfect service. Everyone was also their own mechanic at the time. If you ordered by phone, it was delivered by post the next day. There were three postal deliveries a day, how is that compared to today?! Nobody had ever heard of credit cards and checks and it didn’t matter. Afterwards the bills were always settled. Alvis knew its customers and the possession of an Alvis ensured that there were no doubts about creditworthiness. It is worth mentioning one postman’s comment when he handed me yet another package: “Aha, so you are the man who is building a car by post!”
Have you ever known a period without Alvis?
Yes, now. And in the late sixties. We had this house built in 1967 and I also had a motorboat for trips on the Thames. My 15-year-old son didn’t like that and persuaded me to buy a sailing boat. Much sportier! Soon after that it became a sea going yacht and a little later I had an aluminium ocean racer designed and built at Holman & Pye. Many Dutch ships have also been built there. When it was finished and launched I actually had to relearn sailing from the beginning. The crew consisted of ambitious young bankers with me at the helm, you understand that. But, we wouldn’t be talking about that hobby!
Indeed, agreed is agreed, let’s go to the history of origin of your book “The Alvis Car”.
At the beginning of World War II, the German Nazi’s and their Luftwaffe bombed Coventry during the Coventry Blitz. The majority of the Alvis archives did go up in smoke. After the war, there was a great need for cars and the Alvis factory had to be rebuilt. There was not much attention for our own history. The English Alvis Owner Club was founded in 1951. Next year we are celebrating our 50th anniversary at Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, from July 6-8, 2001. Make sure you are there with a Dutch delegation! Within the AOC I have fulfilled various roles and I have always been active. (CvdW: Ken Day is President Emeritus of AOC.) I then delved into the history. Nobody was interested in the factory history, especially in the late 1950s. Everybody was busy surviving and looking ahead. Looking forward, tomorrow is more important than yesterday. In that atmosphere I did not get much cooperation.
Maybe a side step, but what was wrong in the British car industry at the time?
In the present analyses (in retrospect!), the rampant mergers and weak management of those days are often pointed out. This is partly true. There was also an atmosphere of “If you can sell it, why change it?” And in the long run we always could sell our products because we could fall back on the huge market of the British Empire. There was also a “lack of design improvement.” When I was driving with someone in a 1938 Lancia Aprilia with self-supporting body in World War II, it was a complete revelation to me and I realized England was far behind. Don’t forget that we are the country of the steam engine and that “that smelly petrol engine” was not warmly received at first. The cars of W.O. Bentley, for example, recalled his learning years at the Great Northern Railway. What he has done with his engines is always making everything bigger, more and more of the same. But there was hardly any technical innovation. The victories in Le Mans are legendary, but there was also a very wealthy company behind it, capital that Alvis never had. I therefore believe that Alvis’ Chief Engineer, Designer, Director and General Manager Captain G.T. Smith-Clarke is one of the most underrated men in British automotive history. Just look at the number of patents he has to his name and all the technical innovations he has made at Alvis. What all these analyses fail to mention is the drifting government policy. In England, as part of the purchase price of a car, we know the phenomenon of “purchase tax”. The government changed it a few times a year and if you plot the “purchase tax” from that time in a graph, you see many peaks and dips, then high, then low. As an automotive industry, it was impossible to plan for that. Even then we were already doing market analysis and the total sales price was important for estimating what we could sell and therefore what we had to plan as production numbers. John Parkes (the last Chairman of Alvis) then made a fervent speech on behalf of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders, of which he was chairman, with an appeal to the government to adopt a consistent policy on the purchase tax. His speech hit like a bomb and that speech has been printed in many newspapers. Unfortunately it was already too late then.
Back to the history of origin of the book?
Yes, so I did not get much cooperation. Until one day I received a letter from someone offering me his 160-page collection of Alvis documents for two pounds sterling. I could think of worse ways to lose £ 2 and decided to send them to him in an envelope. In return I received a thick envelope by mail and upon opening I immediately realised that I had gold in my hands. The seller never had an Alvis, but had as a hobby the history of the Alvis factory and he wanted to finish his hobby. After reading I immediately saw that I could make a book out of it. So I got at work, and that has cost me a lot of sailing weekends! The photos were also unique, but had to be placed on an aluminium plate for printing in a book. That cost £10.00 each! And the pound then had a completely different value than it does now. The first tests showed that the reproductions were better quality than the original! I also had to look for a “typing firm” (now unthinkable, but then they existed) to type out my handwritten story. Through my contacts in the City I knew a company that already worked with IBM electrical machines and were able to adjust text. I also decided to finance everything for my own account. Once the book was finished, I put it in my desk drawer for a few years.
Was there no interest from publishers and Alvis themselves?
No, I have written to a lot of publishers, but they did not see any bread in it because of the limited circulation option. Nowadays we would say “Too small a niche market.” The relationship with Alvis was also difficult. A few members of the AOC had bought up the parts stock of garages that ended the Alvis dealership. They offered these parts to the club at prices much lower than the Alvis factory had to charge for them. Alvis thought this was outright competition and the Alvis-AOC relationship has been cooled considerably for many years, or to put it mildly, they had an argument. There was also controversy within the club and I can say with caution that I played a mediating role with my board positions, so that the club was not broken up. All initiatives from the AOC were therefore viewed very suspiciously by Alvis. When the AOC had a large number of members at the end of 1965, I decided to have a first edition printed for my own account. After an advertisement in the AOC Bulletin in 1966, I immediately received 400 orders. So apparently I met a need! The first edition on my own account was ready in May 1966 and I could immediately re-order a second print. This first edition can be recognized on the bottom of the title page by the following text:
The second impression of January 1967 (you may call it edition 1.2) is in length and width 0.5cm smaller and can be recognized on the bottom of the title page by the following text:
So here there was no more financial risk and all the packaging and posting for me anymore. Both books have the same content and 170 pages. The second edition (1981) is provided by Gentry Books and in the third edition by Haynes (May ’97) we added colour photos. These are photos of old calendars where the slide material was still available and we were able to keep costs low.
How many copies have been sold?
I have lost count over the years, but keep it between 5,000 and 7,000 books across all editions. I am very satisfied with the latest edition and the collaboration with publisher Haynes and the book is still selling well.
Which type of Alvis do you enjoy looking back on?
I’ve had three Speed 25’s and we really enjoyed all three of them. In order: a 1937 Speed 25 Cross & Ellis Tourer, then a 1939 Speed 25 Drop Head Coupe and finally a Speed 25 Cross & Ellis Tourer. Every time I sold one they were worth more afterwards so I should have kept them for that matter! But I am happy that they are still driving and someone else is now enjoying them.
It is nice to tell that I visited Captain G.T. Smith Clarke a few years after he retired in the late 1950’s. I wanted to speak to him again and thought he would like to see and hear another Alvis Speed 25 designed by him. For the occasion, I polished my Speed 25 inside and out and even fine-tuned the engine all over again. I went to him in my Sunday suit. Once arrived, he didn’t even look at my Alvis! Quite a disillusion. I immediately had to come to the workspace behind his house to admire his new medical inventions, many of which he had built at his own risk. The most famous is of course the “iron lung”, which has been exported all over the world, even to Russia. Also on departure he didn’t look at my Speed 25 for a second. My appreciation for the man is no less, but I had completely misjudged this.
Were there more prominent personalities at Alvis?
There were many. Taking a tour with Chief Engineer Willy Dunn in the factory was equivalent to taking a tour with “god”. He not only knew everything about the machines and the products, but also knew all 500 employees by name. But a nice anecdote to end with may be the one between John Parkes and Douglas Bader. As you know, Douglas Bader (after the war Sir Douglas Bader) is one of England’s most famous war heroes. After losing both legs in a flying accident, he continued to fly and single-handedly shot more than 20 German Nazi bombers out of the air with Spitfires and Hurricanes.
After the war, John Parkes took flying lessons and it so happened that he saw Douglas Bader boarding and departing. Surprised, Parkes then said to his instructor: “A crazy pilot without legs just took off, we won’t see him again … ..” Parkes and Bader would often meet again afterwards. After a TC 21/100 Grey Lady, Douglas Bader had one of the first TE 21 Drop Head Coupes “custom built and adapted to his handicap” that he drove for seventeen years. My wife and I have dined regularly with John Parkes and Douglas Bader. All we had to do was keep our mouths shut and let the two do their thing. I remember thrilling discussions about mechanics, which they both knew a lot about. Douglas Bader enjoyed to outdo John Parkes with his knowledge of Alvis. They got along well and that was because they both stood for what Alvis also stands for: “speed, quality and refinement”.
…..Well young man, that should give you enough to write about ……
But of course you are writing a Dutch story of which I will not know whether you are correctly reproducing what I have said here. Although, I believe it is in good hands with you.
Would you allow one last question please?
CvdW: At the beginning of the interview you told me you were never interviewed on the history of your Alvis books before. So there is little chance there is a picture of you with your books? Please allow me to take a picture of you with your books to publish in the Dutch Alvis Bulletin “Triangel” together with the interview.
Of course Ken said “Yes”. The picture is taken by me in the living room of “Sentosa.”
This interview is placed in Dutch in Bulletin “Triangel” No. 51, December 2000, Christmas Special. Of course I did send Ken a copy. A few days later Ken phoned me.
He had found a Dutch lady in Weybridge who had read out loud to him her translation in English and he was very happy with the result.
From there on we always kept in touch, by letter, by phone and when we saw each other at IAD’s. Ken will always be my President Emeritus. He will not be forgotten.
My translation in English is my obituary to Ken.