The more challenging questions we receive usually involve Alvis that are made up of more than one car and sometimes non-Alvis parts.
To firstname.lastname@example.org Feb 2, 2016 at 4:29 PM
I wonder if you have any info already ref a special my stepfather built and raced in the early 1950’s. He was Brian Grenfell. The car was reg OY 5253 and was built from a Firefly chassis and a 4.3 engine was installed.
The car was raced quite successfully and also did speed events. I have photos of it being built, of it racing at Silverstone etc. It was a very good looking car and certainly not your average bitsa. It did a lot of service too as an everyday car, again more photos of it loaded up for trips to/ from Norfolk to Cornwall.
A quick look at the car database shows no current AOC member owning it after 2007, so emails to Wayne and Brian and a search of the Bulletin DVD came up with a lot more detail.
According to The Alvis Firefly by Simon Fisher OY 5253 is on chassis 10240. Firefly SA 11.9 Cross & Ellis 227 4 Light Saloon 10240 10691 14976 OY 5253, despatched 13.1.1933
With the help of Brian Maile, Alvis racer and other owners, we have tracked it down to Switzerland, under restoration.
Alvis Firefly Special – OY 5253 – A brief history by Alex Grenfell
The car was built by my stepfather, Brian Grenfell, in the early 1950s. There is a copy of an article from a local paper, in a family album, with 1951 written beside it. It refers to Brian, and him being from Tydd St Mary, which is a village near Kings Lynn. It also states that Brian was from Tintagel in North Cornwall, and the birth of the Alvis came about due to the cost of his journey’s between his then family home, and the Norfolk area. As the newspaper article notes ‘travelling backwards and forwards by train was an expensive luxury’.
In 1952 Brian bought a tumbled down old cottage not far away in Norfolk, and there were many journeys to his parents’ home in Saltash, just over the river Tamar, in Cornwall. Travelling that sort of distance in an open sports car, sometimes loaded up with belongings, sometimes towing a trailer (!) would certainly have been an adventure 60-65 years ago!
Of course there was no bridge across the wider river Tamar back then, it was built in 1962 I think, so there was always a rush to get down in time for the last ferry from St Budeaux, near Plymouth, to Saltash. Missing that meant quite a long detour via Tavistock and Gunnislake, across the nearest road bridge.
The Alvis was known as ‘Charlie’; all my parent’s cars were given names, usually by Mum. I have no idea on what basis, but they stuck, and I can still remember some of them.
Back to the beginning……..I believe the original chassis was from a Firefly, and the magazine article refers to a 1933 car, so that would stack up. As is mentioned, the chassis was shortened by 9”, and the engine mounted 11” back, and 5” lower. The end result was quite a handsome car, reminiscent of an HRG.
The original engine was, I assume, the Firefly 1500 cc; the article refers to 12HP. The 4.3 litre engine was installed by around 1955, when the car was also used for competition. I have no actual performance data, but I know it was quite a quick car, especially back in the early 1950’s.
The car certainly competed at Silverstone and Goodwood, probably others, as well as some Speed Events like Brunton hillclimb.
Visually, the radiator and front was narrower with the earlier engine, and wider once the 4.3 was installed. The photos clearly show this.
I have owned an AC Ace from that same era for many years, and I believe that Charlie would have given it a good run for its money, even if cornering might have proved a tad more challenging than with the independently sprung AC!
Whilst all this car building, travelling from East to West, competition, and general all round use was going on, there were many, let us say, just as interesting things going on in personal lives at the same time!
My mother, who was a wartime bride to a Polish fighter pilot, Witold Lanowski (my father), divorced in 1953, and married Brian. Apart from his practical skills, stepfather was an archetypal entrepreneur, buying major properties in Knightsbridge, going bust in 1956, buying a garage in Weyhill, near Thruxton, and so on. The relevance of this to the car is that it somehow survived the turmoil, and creditors (!), and the last I know of it in our family ownership was 1957 or 1958.
Brian passed away on the Isle of Man a couple of years ago, and until I received some old photo albums recently (let us just say that he and I did not see eye to eye for many years, so lost contact), I had not given much thought about the car.
I never really imagined the car could still be in existence, so when I contacted Alvis Archive and they had heard of the car, and ‘sources’ suggest it is now in Switzerland, I was staggered! We still await the outcome of this part of the story, as they say, to bring it right up to date.
All of this is perhaps interesting, but needs bringing alive with photographs, or at least photos of old photos. I have included some, together with dates, where known, locations/circumstances etc.
What all this does show is how we are all going to miss the family albums of yore, with their fading B&W photos, captions and dates…….As they say, without these, a lot of this would have been impossible. Wonderful images too of a different era.
Adrian Paul writes…
I owned this car from 1994 – 2007.
It was a basket case when purchased & I rebuilt/developed it over my ownership into a very competitive car (VSCC races/sprints/hillclimbs)
The first picture is Donington paddock around 2003/4 & the second picture (late 90s) is in unblown form at Brooklands test hill.
There was an article published in the AOC bulletin written by me, but also included an original article by Brian of the original build in the early 50s. [REPRODUCED BELOW]
THE GRENFELL SPECIAL from Bulletin 447
Over the last few years several people have asked if I would write an article on the Grenfell Special which I own and our new editor’s plea for more articles for The Bulletin has resulted in this small contribution. The history of the car is a bit patchy, so if anyone can till any gaps I would be delighted to hear from them.
It was built in 1951 by B.P.Grenfell, based on a Firefly chassis and axles, using a Silver Eagle engine and ENV gearbox as the drivetrain. He wrote an amusing article on its construction which was published in the July 1954 issue of The Bulletin (appearing again in the July 1992 issue). Some time in 1954/55 the Silver Eagle engine was replaced by a 4.3, and a synchromesh gearbox also fitted. Front engine mounts were added to the chassis and the brake cross-shaft offset to clear the front of the gearbox. In his article, Grenfell described how he hoped to fit a 4.3 engine together with IFS. He went on to say ‘Drastic alterations will be needed and some very careful thought will have to go into this new model, otherwise I shall be pushing up the daisies!’. Well, if you saw the standard of his welding that would come as no surprise! However. I think he was trying to imply that the amazing performance and entertaining handling could result in his imminent demise.
It was around this time that an article was published on the Grenfell in the October 1955 edition of ‘Vintage and Thoroughbred Car‘, and the accompanying photograph showed it in action at the Silverstone Six Flour Relay race earlier that year. The article in Vintage and Thoroughbred Car was written by Geoffrey Frank, and is well worth re-printing and very characteristic of the time….
In the September issue, I referred to an Alvis Firefly chassis which had been shortened, and fitted with an Alvis 4.3 engine, and the outcome of the mating has resulted in a car which is rather outstanding, and is a post-vintage thoroughbred in every way. It all came about because my good friend Brian Grenfell wanted a car which was a combination of every day hack, sports car and competition mount, and no production car offered all these attributes at a reasonable price, hence the obvious solution was to build a car to suit the particular requirements. The Firefly chassis was shortened by nine inches. and various cross-members were re-positioned to allow for the insertion of the 4.3 engine, which is supported on brackets welded to the side members, the engine is set back 21 inches in the frame, and as the 4.3 gearbox is used, and is of considerable length, the propellor shaft had to be cut down, and is now only 14 inches long. Needless to say, there is not much likelihood of the propellor shaft whipping! The engine had the head shaved, and now runs quite happily on a C/R of 8.25 to 1, using a standard C/A head gasket; Grenfell took an additional lead from the water pump, direct to the exhaust ports, and I think that this modification materially contributes to the smooth running and freedom from detonation. The radiator block is a Ford Zephyr, and a Speed 25 radiator shell was split down and centre, and widened by the insertion of a steel strip. Dual exhaust manifolds from a Speed 25 are used, leading to a Servais silencer with twin tail pipes. The Firefly brakes and suspension were retained, and a set of the latest Newton shock absorbers replace the original Hartfords. A stark, but eminently practical, body, close up wings, and two low mounted lamps complete a good looking, and most business-like ensemble. With an engine producing around 150 b.h.p. and an all-up weight of 22° cwt., something vivid in the way of performance is to be expected, and “Charlie”, as the car is called, certainly does not belie his promise. Using standard needles in the triple S.U. carburettors, and with a 3.8 final drive, and 6.0 x 19 rear tyres, the acceleration from rest to 50 is in the region of 8 sec., and really “turning up the wick” can reduce this to 7 sec., and in top gear, from 35 to 75, the acceleration is immense. Withal, “Charlie” will amble along quite happily on his 3.8 top gear at 1,000 r.p.m. (24.8 m.p.h.) but, not unnaturally, accelerating from this speed in top will give rise to pinking, unless the ignition lever is judiciously employed. An effortless, smooth cruising speed of 3,000 r.p.m. leaves a wide margin for acceleration, since the engine will turn over at 5,000 r.p.m. without distress, and gives 82 in third at this speed. On a long run, petrol consumption is 20 m.p.g., although this naturally increases when only town work is undertaken. Steering and road holding are typically Alvis, and the brakes are immensely powerful, although calling for considerable pedal pressure for a rapid stop from high speed. Grenfell has achieved an excellent balance and weight distribution, and the car feels safe; cornering at speed its first class, and there is only a moderate degree of understeer. In top gear, 4,200 is readily and very quickly available, this giving over the 100, and there is no doubt that “Charlie’s” maximum is in the region of 110 m.p.h. I have driven this car a lot, and I can truthfully say that few cars have given me as much pleasure to handle. Although I have never had any connection with the motor or ancillary trades, I have been a rabid enthusiast for more than 40 years, and have owned a large number of high performance cars, and driven very many other, all of which tends to make one rather blasé. But driving “Charlie” revives all the old thrills, and I sincerely congratulate his constructor on producing a really outstanding motor car. I only wish that I could follow the suggestion made to me to the effect “go thou and do likewise”!
Some time after this, the car was acquired by Stan Hall (Northampton) and it lost its 4.3 engine, being replaced by one from a Speed 20. I don’t know if Stan used the car much, but at some point he started to rebuild it. However, various other Alvis rebuilds prevented him from finishing it, and it was relegated to a corner of the garage. After his death in the early nineties, his son advertised the car in June 1992, which is when I acquired it. With the help of my old school friend Peter Woodruff, a hired trailer and Peter’s father’s ex-Telecom van (yellow and slow!), we collected the car and numerous spares. The aim was to drive (and possibly race) the car in 1994, so the rebuild progressed with enthusiasm during 1992/93. The chassis was tidied up, including re-welding nearly all of Mr.Grenfell’s efforts and a strengthening plate added where 9 inches had been removed from the chassis rails. All but two of the lightening holes along the sides of the chassis rails were re-cut using a hole cutter, as these had been cut freehand with a flame cutter! I had to leave a couple of the originals for those people who don’t believe me when I tell them. The mounting brackets for the telescopic shock absorbers were removed rather easily with a hammer! The only remaining items of bodywork were front cycle wings, Firefly rear wings and a bonnet top. So I decided to design my own bodywork using garden wire and tape to build up a profile for the body builder to follow. While the body took shape, I concentrated on rebuilding the axles, gearbox and engine. The axles and gearbox were straightforward, but the engine was to prove rather costly and troublesome mainly because of a few fundamental errors of judgement on my part (more later), plus some bad luck. The first problem was a crack on the top of the block alongside the two centre bores. The block had obviously been like this for some time, probably while the engine had last run. Anyway, I had to get it metal stitched, resulting in an excellent and guaranteed repair. Besides, when did you last see a good secondhand Speed 20 block for sale? The oil pump had been modified to take two pairs of gears, by cutting the lower half from a spare pump and bolting it to the bottom of the existing one. The shaft had been extended (!) to accept the second gear. I thought it wise to remake the shaft and fit a new pair of double length gears! The rest of the engine rebuild was straightforward – bearings re-white metalled, crank crack tested and reground, camshaft reprofiled, new pistons, valve guides, springs etc. etc.
The BIG DAY was 24th July 1993 – it passed its MoT test! Smashing! I used it for the rest of the summer to bed in the engine and brakes. I didn’t find the gearing to my liking • with a 5.22:1 axle it was hopelessly under geared, even with 600×20 tyres! Luckily Ernest Shenton got to hear about this after I had mentioned it to several people, and provided me with a 4.3:1 crown wheel and pinion. What a difference that made — almost relaxed cruising. The 1994 racing season had arrived, and my first two races at Silverstone went fairly well. I drove to the circuit, removed the wings and lights, raced it, put them back on again, and then drove home. No damage to me or the car! My first race at Mallory Park however, is one I would rather forget. Down went the flag and the engine cut out just after I had started to move, so I rolled slowly into the pit lane with my arm in the air. I jumped out and whipped off the bonnet, to find that the distributor cap had come off. Rather strange I thought. Anyway, I popped it back on, started the engine and rejoined the race. I now had a clear track (!) and managed some reasonably quick laps trying to catch some back markers. The second race seemed to go fine, but I noticed that the engine seemed to be misfiring slightly. It was on the way home that I realised it was not a misfire, but a strange vibration. The oil pressure was OK, so I continued to follow Peter in his M.G.B, my race mechanic/support vehicle. The car got me home, but by this stage the vibration was a lot worse. I couldn’t understand what it was – I even checked the engine/gearbox alignment and the universal joints by disconnecting the engine from the gearbox. It wasn’t this, so I drained the oil and dropped the sump, only to find broken split pins everywhere! You guessed it, the crank had broken across number 5 big end journal. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? I had been very fortunate that it had held together on the way home, as I had been trundling along at about 60-70 mph most of the way. This was the first of several errors on my part – don’t expect an original crank to last very long if you’re going racing. So, in with a new crank and rods made by Phoenix Crankshafts, along with a new crankshaft damper. The fact that it had never been fitted with one up until this point may have not helped matters. I also lightened the flywheel by having a new steel spacer plate made (20 lbs.) to replace the original cast iron one (44 lbs.), as well as lightening the flywheel itself with about 12 one-inch holes. Engine pickup was dramatically improved. All these jobs, and others, took up the rest of the summer and autumn, and as a result the engine was not properly run in, in time for April Silverstone. However, it was ready for the June meeting and I entered it in a 5 lap Handicap and a 5 lap scratch race. The rules require that a minimum of three practice laps are completed before being allowed to race. At the end of the third lap the engine began to misfire badly! I thought (or hoped) that the cause was a blown head gasket, but a compression test revealed that only one cylinder was much worse than the rest. Looking through the plug hole did not reveal a hole in the piston crown, so it had to be something to do with the rings or the bore. Anyway, a nice man from the RAC took me and the car home later in the day! Lifting the head revealed that the piston had picked up on the bore and the rings had seized in the piston. Discussions with several knowledgeable people resulted in two possible theories. The first was that the piston-bore clearance was too small, and the other was that the cast pistons were expanding in an odd way, compounded by the first theory. The pistons were modified (around the gudgeon pins in particular) on the advice of Peter Woodley (one of the knowledgeable people I pester from time to time!). Luckily the bore cleaned up with a light honing. I decided to persist with the cast items as quite a few people are successfully using them, but with hindsight I should have used forged ones from the start. If nothing else it would have made life easier and less expensive! This little problem prevented me from taking part in any further races, so it was to be my first and last race of the 1995 season. The engine was back together and run in, in time for the 1996 season. I entered races at Silverstone and Mallory Park, all of which were completed without any major problems. The engine (touch wood!) seems to be fairly reliable now, but my lap times were being held back by lack of brakes and poor road holding mainly due to the restrictive choice of tyres for 20 inch wheels. Over the winter I have been concentrating on improving the brakes (softer linings, plus cooling), reducing unsprung weight and obtaining some 19 inch wheels (and hence better tyres). Cooling ducts were added to the front backplates and the backplates themselves, slotted to allow air out. The brake drums were also drilled to allow circulation of air and to reduce weight as well. Reducing unsprung weight was quite an exercise — Alvises are heavy! It is surprising how much weight can be shed. The front brake backplates, drums, shoes, spring hangers and shock absorbers were all drilled or slotted (using my small hobby milling machine for the smaller jobs) resulting in a saving of weight of about six pounds. It doesn’t sound much, but it all adds up. Making the floorboards in 3/8 inch ply instead of 5/8ths inch resulted in a saving of 5 lbs. The 1997 season will show if these improvements have been worth all the effort. I can’t tell yet based on my first race at Silverstone, as the circuit has been changed yet again and everyone is lapping faster. Perhaps Mallory Park will tell me more. Still, it’s only a hobby, isn’t it?