Roy Probert writes
Without any question of doubt Thomas George John was the man who founded the company that became Alvis in 1920, after earlier registering the company he formed in his own name. Account of his career path and working life have appeared over a number of years with the objective of illustrating his achievements and the developed business he began, most famously remembered as the maker of a prestigious motor car and later for its aero engines and military vehicles. However, what has been written of his life from information gathered over a long period has been accepted as a true account of his career progress, but examination of some assertions in greater detail revealed a number of inaccuracies in what has been presented and raised numerous questions and mysteries. This in no way detracts from the clever and enterprising man that he was, nor of his many achievements, but at this, the centenary of the company he founded, it is timely that a more precise account of his life and the key figures that influenced it is presented, based wherever possible on tangible evidence rather than hearsay. It is with this in mind that a full and verifiable presentation of what we know of John’s life is written, the myths dispelled and the bigger picture shown. From research begun 3 years ago much evidence has come to light that makes this possible and the point reached where no more historical information can be found.
Biographical recording of Thomas John’s life to date has centred on perceived milestones; first his academic attainment and the position and responsibilities he was given in his successful early career in the shipbuilding industry, to the specific projects over which he was said to have had a high measure of control. From the position he held in the shipyard he moved to the Siddeley Deasy company in Coventry and an introduction to aero engines, later beginning his own business development, through to supporting connections that ultimately resulted in the creation of Alvis. However, what has previously been written lacked any detail of his life beyond these specific references and left a need to present as much as could be learned of his time. From piecing together all the known information the following broader account of his life is given.
T G John – A Life Examined
Thomas George John was the second of three sons and a younger sister of a Welsh speaking family in Pembroke Dock whose father was a shipwright at the naval dockyard there. Born in the year 1880 nothing is known of his formative years but after leaving regular school he took an apprenticeship in the dockyard which would have spanned his post-school teenage years. He quickly aspired, winning two scholarships to the Royal College of Science and in 1903 at the age of 23 was credited as being a Whitworth Exhibitionist, though just what he exhibited is not known, this arm of Manchester’s university being mainly concerned with art and artistic design. He went on to prove his gift for academics and by 1904 had qualified as a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, Member of the Institute of Company Accountants, an associate of the Royal College of Science and oddly became a member of the Institute of Motor Engineers which would have had no career benefits at this stage but suggests he had gained a motoring interest. Later, following time spent at Harland and Wolf’s, the world’s largest shipbuilder, he took the naval instructor’s course and was appointed Assistant Instructor in the naval dockyard at Devonport. By 1907 he had moved to Barrow-in-Furness and was given responsibility for research and development at Vickers and in 1908 John was appointed Shipyard Manager. Then at 31 years of age, he was the youngest man to have held such a position.
As an interesting aside, Thomas John had a cousin working in the Barrow shipyard at the same time he was there. Frank John, younger by one year, was pursuing a similar career and it seems inconceivable that the two men working in close proximity were not familiar with each other’s presence, yet there is no record of there being any association between them (Frank John, an Alvis car owner in later years, remained in shipbuilding all of his working life and rose to become a director of Cammel Laird before retiring).
This period was a time of rapid change in naval policy by a government conscious of the growth of German sea and air power and strategic thinking was in the hands of Lord Fisher, then First Lord of the Admiralty and the man charged with modernising the Royal Navy. The world’s largest battleship, HMS Dreadnaught, had been launched in 1906, but alarm was felt by the German threat to Britain’s naval supremacy. At this time HMS Vanguard, HMS Liverpool and HMS Princess Royal were among ships undergoing construction at the Barrow shipyard.
Thomas John’s position there would have placed him at the forefront of Vickers new assignment to produce a rigid airship, at the direction of the government who were acutely aware of airship developments across the channel. John is understood to have had a high level of design control with what was Britain’s first airship, designated HPA1 and ominously nick-named ‘ Mayfly’, work on which started in 1909 and was completed in 1911. In later years, a picture of him with the ill-fated airship in the background following its disastrous collapse, was seen to hang on a wall in his house (though long since disappeared, the picture is said to now be in Australia).
With continuing concern by the threat posed by German naval aspirations, in particular submarine developments, Lord Fisher had the company, which by then had become Vickers Ltd., turn its focus to producing in great secrecy, a powerful new submarine, based on the then current K-class design, but carrying a 105mm ship gun. At Vickers, John was said to have had responsibility for working with the Submarine Room at the Admiralty, plus given design involvement on the D and E class submarines being fitted with diesel engines and wireless telegraphy enabling them to be in contact with the Admiralty Coding Room. The proposed new vessels design and production would have come directly under his control, the whole project being subject to covert operations. Design and planning would have been in progress in 1915 for it was laid down in 1916, together with a sister vessel the same year. These were designated M1 and M2 and were the first M-class submarines to go into production.
However, Thomas John’s involvement with the project was to summarily cease when, for reasons that have never been revealed, in the latter half of 1915 he withdrew from his managerial position at Vickers Ltd., taking employment as an engineer with the Siddeley-Deasy Motor Car Company Ltd., in Coventry. Whatever possessed him to give up a respected senior position and a promising career in the shipbuilding, then up sticks and move to Coventry, a place he had no previous connection with and the sequence of events that brought this about are not chronicled and remain a mystery. This move ended John’s association with shipbuilding design and development, and his introduction to aero engines at a time when their manufacture, reliability and performance were beset with problems. Just why he made this sudden change of career direction has been speculated upon, but no sound explanation has ever been discovered or made known. Thomas John’s letter to John Siddeley in applying for a job is referenced in the company Director’s Minute Book entry dated 3rd of December 1915 and reads (quote)
“The Managing Director read the correspondence that had passed between himself and Mr T G John who had applied for the post of Engineer and it was resolved to leave it to Mr Siddeley’s discretion after his intended interview with Mr John as to whether he should be engaged for the position.”
His appointment with Siddeley-Deasy’s was confirmed later that month and in another document listing senior staff members details, his starting date is given as 1st of January 1916.
During his time at Vickers John had got married, to one Louie Jane Rees of Pembroke Dock who in 1907 gave birth to a daughter. Through this family connection his wife’s brother, William Rees would come to have a strong influence through financial investment in John’s future business ventures.
On gaining his appointment at Siddeley-Deasy’s, Thomas John and his family moved to Coventry in 1916, taking residence at 26 Manor Road, the house named ‘Ferndale’. Commencing work at Siddeley-Deasy’s John would have initially been involved with their newly acquired contract to produce the 8-cylinder RAF 1a aero engine for the government, and come under the guidance of the Works Manager Mr A G Asbury who had been with the company since 1909, and the Chief Designer Mr F R Smith who had arrived in 1914 and excepting for John Siddeley, were the only management staff people of technical merit. In the latter part of that eventful year, Siddeley-Deasy’s received an order to produce the BHP aero engine with its known performance problems that after redesign would emerge as the Puma and no doubt Thomas John, as Engineer, would have had a direct involvement with that.
Along with his family, he was swift to get himself settled with living in Coventry. His wife’s nephew from Pembroke Dock spent much time living with them such that he even went to school locally with their daughter. At Siddeley-Deasy he applied himself beyond work-related activities to becoming a member of the Athletic and Social Club Committee and going on to contribute articles for The Employees Quarterly magazine. In one of these he describes his disastrous motoring experience in 1908 having bought an unreliable second- hand car and without paying it any attention set off on a long journey with his wife and one year old daughter. In another he writes extolling the virtues of the company he had joined and paying tribute the Managing Director for his patriotic resolve in facing up to wartime difficulties.
Thomas John’s standing within the company must have gained momentum for he is documented as a recipient of a free ordinary share allocation along with other staff members during a meeting with the Committee of Directors on the 3rd of December 1917 and also on record as seconding a tabled resolution whilst attending the Twelfth Ordinary General Meeting held on the 1st of October 1918, only 3 months before he departed Siddely-Deasy’s. 1917 was the year that Captain F M Green joined the company from Farnborough and was appointed Chief Engineer, which would have effectively made him John’s boss. In this year also first deliveries were made of the redesigned engine that was by now the Puma and output of these increased rapidly throughout the remainder of his tenure.
Thomas John had been with Siddeley-Deasy for a period of three years when he left. His departure is not referenced anywhere, the last mention of his name in the company appearing on the October 1918 Employees Quarterly, but was missing from the April 1919 issue by which time it is believed he had left, though under what circumstances and for what reason no record exists. However, what is known is that during 1918 he registered a business intent through an accountant and solicitors in Wales and having a capital sum of £3,000 amassed from his own savings, a contribution from his brother-in -law who was an astute businessman and friends in Pembroke Dock who placed their trust in a proposed venture. It was to be March 1919 before he moved to take over the business of an American carburettor manufacturer, Holley Brothers & Company Ltd., with offices at 17 Hertford Street and premises on Holyhead Road, Coventry. In April 1919 he formed the business of T G John Ltd with a paid- up capital of £4,240 and continued making the stationary engines he had bought the rights to from the Hillman Motor Company, which he marketed under the ‘Electra’ name.
The family’s nephew, William Rees junior, continued to be a frequent visitor to the John’s house as he had done from a young boy such that he even had his own room at ‘Ferndale’ in Manor Road and also at ‘Broomwood’ which was the property they later bought on Kenilworth Road. It can only be speculated that his father may have felt his life prospects would be better served with his aunt and uncle in Coventry than they would be in Pembroke Dock. In addition, John may have been anxious, as well as accommodating, to foster a strong relationship with his brother-in-law whose financial support and guidance he valued. At the age of twenty two the young man began to train as a doctor in Birmingham and commuted there daily while residing with the John’s, for the convenience and the living provided, for Louie John was said to be an excellent cook!
Although his business had kicked off by making stationary engines and later reapers (whether of his own design or other is not known), by 1920 Thomas John had moved into making motor cars and the Alvis name was being established. Around this time, John was to re-engage with the colourful figure of one Marcus Marendaz, who he had first encountered during his final months at Siddeley-Deasy. Marendaz had served his apprenticeship there before leaving to go to war and had returned to pick up his old job. His forceful personality would have found a common vein with John, them both being Welsh and Marendaz having influential connections in Pembroke Dock. With John’s business soon to be renamed The Alvis Car and Engineering Company, Marendaz, trading his assumed Royal Flying Corp title of Captain (he was only ever a Lieutenant) had earlier sought employment with John who made him his machine shop foreman. However soon after he sacked him for producing a number of dimensionally inaccurate parts which had to be scrapped. Whether as a reprisal for this or not, Marendaz was to subsequently lay claim that it was he who brought Alvis cars into existence, which he certainly had not and the allegation was swiftly rebutted and never raised again. Such was Marendaz’s mendacious character.
Thomas John’s re-acquaintance in 1922 with Captain George Thomas Smith-Clarke, who he first met at Siddeley-Deasy when Smith-Clarke was a government inspector of aero engine production, was to result in the beginning of a unique partnership in the development of Alvis motor cars in the years ahead. Smith-Clarke was soon appointed to be John’s Chief Engineer. Motoring successes with racing models of the 10/30 and 12/50 cars were achieved at Brooklands in the 1920’s and later front wheel drive racing models in the 1930’s, were testimony to their combined achievements and had established a demand for cars of the marque.
John moved house again in 1934 with the purchase of the Victorian mansion, ‘Rouncil Towers’ in Kenilworth. He was keen on entertaining at his home and frequently bought interesting people there who he had met at the factory. As well as actors, cricketers and public figures were fellow car makers among whom were said to include Andre Citroen and Ettore Bugatti. Many favoured guests were of course Welsh, one of whom was H F S Morgan who owned a number of Alvis’s. His nephew William Rees Junior, by this time a qualified neurosurgeon, continued to be a regular member of the household. By now in his fifties, John had taken to riding and became a keen horseman leading groups of friends on long distance rides through eastern Europe, where he also did a lot of the company’s continental road testing.
In 1936 the new factory was completed adjacent to the existing car works and Alvis moved into the development and manufacture of aero engines and military vehicles, whilst maintaining a healthy car business. Thomas John remained at the forefront of promotion of all his business enterprises. However, despite his high level of engineering qualification, he gradually ceased to concern himself with engineering matters and chose to look after management, general policy and fund raising, financial support for his projects being a constant challenge. In the share market Alvis was then regarded as the most widely held company in Great Britain, with few large shareholders but very many small investors. Support from Pembroke Dock was always important and William Rees Senior, a man of wide business experience and as a large investor, had a big say in running Alvis as well as being his brother-in-law. Another friend from Milford Haven who had a substantial investment in Alvis was a Mr Kellog, a leading solicitor and Deputy Lieutenant of the County whose nephew was none other than – Marcus Marendaz!
Sadly, in later years, Thomas John’s health deteriorated and he suffered illness and depression. Much like Henry Royce, but for different reasons, he had to be excluded from the works, eventually receiving a termination payment that was a derisory amount and ungenerous treatment of a man who was the company founder and had been its Chief Executive for 25 years. Illness had forced his retirement in 1944 and having then moved to London he died at his home, ‘Dunster Lodge’ in Putney Hill on the 9th of August 1946, aged 66. He was survived by his wife and married daughter.
A man of outstanding foresight, Thomas John never received recognition for his innovative designs for the motor car, tenacity in pursuing his aero engine aspirations against formidable resistance, plus the highly successful range of military vehicles that were developed from his early design creations. His name does not appear listed among the other greats of his time, but notwithstanding this his legacy lives on and is revered by those who know Alvis for what it was.
Note: Acknowledgement and gratitude is given to Mr John Boswell and Mr Peter Barnes for their contributed information and to the Coventry and Ansty branch of the Rolls Royce Heritage Trust for approval to use extracts from their library material.
From the Alvis company archives:
THOMAS GEORGE JOHN
Late Chairman and Managing Director of Alvis Limited, Coventry.
Born – 1880. Died at his home in London on Friday, 9 August, 1946 after a long illness.
Cremated privately 13 August, 1946.
Thomas George John was born at Pembroke Dock in 1880 and in his early years showed a definite aptitude for engineering matters. On leaving school he was apprenticed at H M Dockyard, Pembroke, following which he studied at the Royal College of Science, London, and the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. He was awarded the National Scholarship in Mechanics in 1900 and in 1901 became a Whitworth Exhibitioner – an award highly coveted among would-be engineers.
In 1904 Mr John joined the Naval Construction Department in the Devonport Dockyards and in 1908 moved to the London Office of Messrs Vickers Limited where he was engaged on technical engineering and commercial activities. Promotion came rapidly, for in 1911 – at the age of 31 – Mr John was appointed to the highly important position of Manager of the Shipbuilding Department of Messrs Vickers Limited, at Barrow-in-Furness, where he remained until 1915, when he secured the position of Chief Engineer to the Siddeley-Deasy Car Company, later known as the Armstrong-Siddeley Company of Coventry, who were at the time actively engaged in connection with the manufacture of aero engines.
At the conclusion of the first World War, Mr John took the opportunity to branch out on his own, thus satisfying a longstanding ambition. For this purpose in 1919 he formed a private company orignally known as T G John Limited (which was changed to Alvis Car and Engineering Company Limited in 1921, when the concern was turned into a public company), the original capital being no more than £10,000. Of this Company Mr John was the first Chairman and Managing Director, a postion which he still held at the time of his retirement from active business life in 1944.
It was in 1921 that the Company produced its first motor car – a semi-sports high-performance car of 4-cylinder capacity, which was styled the Alvis 12/40 [sic]. In 1923 a revised edition of this car put up some outstanding performances both on the road and on the race track and in that year the Company succeeded in winning the Junior Car Club 200-mile race at Brooklands – this against very strong international competition. This success set the seal on Mr John’s objective which, from the commencement, had been to produce a small car having all the attributes of power and finish which previously had been the prerogative of very expensive productions, and to produce such cars at a price which would bring them within the reach of the motorist of comparatively modest means.
The Company developed rapidly during the following years and, whilst the car design retained the high class features for which the Company’s products had achieved a considerable reputation, some of the more obvious features of an essentially sports car were eliminated, although the Alvis Speed 20 which was first introduced in 1931 had an outstanding turn of speed and became a firmly established favourite among motoring enthusiasts with either an engineering or a sporting turn of mind.
In 1935 Mr John and his fellow Directors, foreseeing the trend of world events and realising the lamentable inadequacy of facilities for production of aircraft in this country, extended the Company’s activities to the manufacture of aero engines and for that purpose very considerable extensions were made to the Company’s buildings and to the plant capacity. It was in this direction – aero engines – that the Company’s energies were almost entirely devoted during the subsequent war period. Concurrently with this enlargement of the sphere of is activities, the name of the Company was altered to Alvis Limited.
In the meantime the Company which had begun life so modestly had grown out of all recognition until at the present time its issued capital stands at £700,000 – the rapidity of its growth being a tribute to Mr John’s foresight, initiative and business drive.
Prior to his retirement in 1944, Mr John had served for several years on the Councils of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Limited, and of the Society of British Aircraft Constructors, and was also a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, of the Institution of Naval Architects, of the Institution of Automobile Engineers, and was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Mr John – or TG as he was affectionately known by his intimates – whose passing will be regretted by his many acquaintances and friends, is survived by his wife and a married daughter.
T.G John Tribute at Brooklands, 18.10.09: Foreword
It pleases me to write about the company that I love. It is timely to look back to the man who made Alvis the success that it is.
T.G. John started the company in 1917 and attracted the dedicated people who would work with him to realise the fulfilment of his inspired ideas. He had natural business acumen and an eye for market opportunities. He led his company through 27 often difficult years, to achieve the lasting success that we applaud today.
My father, W.M.Dunn, was attracted by the Welshman with the vision and ability to meet future challenges and left Daimler to join Alvis in 1922. Mr John set a breath taking pace of technical progress that put Alvis among world leaders in the motor industry. Firstly as Chief Designer and then as Chief Engineer, my father relished his time at Alvis until he retired for the first time in 1959.
Today it is not easy for us to imagine how a company functioned in the twenties and thirties. Leadership was not by consensus but by emphatic direction. As a result, success or failure could be directly attributed to the individual in overall charge. Mr. John set high standards and provided the overall direction to ensure that his handpicked employees reached the heights of engineering.
The name Alvis does not only apply to cars. Prior to 1917 T.G. John had been deeply involved in the Defence Industry and he ensured that he stayed close to the latest thinking in national military requirements throughout his time with Alvis. He initiated design and manufacturer of military vehicles and of aero engines and many of you will have heard of Saracen, Saladin and Stalwart six-wheelers, the Scorpion range of lightweight tracked vehicles and the Leonides 9- and 14-cylinder radial aero engines. Do look at the examples here today.
Alvis Ltd grew around a nucleus of capable engineers who were encouraged by their own success to innovate and attempt the previously impossible. Their achievements can be seen in the Alvis cars here today. Please note the simplicity and avoidance of excessive weight. My father and his colleagues were proud to be able to out-engineer such behemoths as the contemporary Bentleys.
You may think that is a bold statement but take into account that when I had finished as Chief Engineer, Vehicle Division at Alvis, my subsequent career took me to Crewe where I strove to teach simplicity and weight and cost reduction to the engineers who had previously boasted that their product contained three times as many parts as a similar Mercedes! Inspired by T.G. John and my father, I enjoyed my missionary role.
Brooklands – Then, Now and In Between
Brooklands was built in 1907 by a wealthy local landowner Hugh Locke King, as a motor-racing circuit and very soon became not only the birth place of British motorsport but also of British aviation. Throughout the following 80 years it was to remain a world-renowned centre of technological and engineering excellence.
The heyday of the racing circuit was undoubtedly the 1920s and 1930s, when record times were being set and broken by Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb, and others in such magnificent machinery as Napier, Delage, Panhard , Bentley, Bugatti and Alvis. Motorcycles and pedal cycles too had their devotees and many records were established at the track.
It was at Brooklands that A V Roe made the first flight in a British-built aeroplane in 1908; here that Tommy Sopwith developed and flew his Sopwith Pup and Camel; and here that the Hawker Hurricane fighter and Wellington bomber were built in World War Two. The post war years were distinguished by the achievements of the Vickers factory which produced the Viscount, Valiant V bomber, VC 10 and TSR2 fighter bomber and contributed to the design and manufacture of the Concorde.
Although the outbreak of war in 1939 saw the end of racing on the legendary circuit, Brooklands maintained its position as the home of pioneering aviation development until the end of aircraft production at the British Aerospace factory in 1987.
Brooklands was the world’s first purpose-built motor-racing track. Before 1907, its founder Hugh Locke King had attended motor-races staged on open roads. These were far from ideal since immense organisation was required to contain the spectators who saw little except glimpses of cars roaring past in a cloud of dust! Locke King decided that time was ripe for Britain to participate in this exciting new sport but safely off the public highway and so constructed the oval motorcourse on 300 acres of his own land at Weybridge where spectators could have a clear view around the circuit and cars could drive flat out. The new Brooklands motor course was opened on 17 June 1907 having cost Locke King £ 150,000. The first record to be broken was paying the labour force a generous tanner an hour (2½p in today’s money)!
The Outer Circuit was a unique civil engineering achievement, considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world . The smaller Mountain Circuit involved driving up the Finishing Straight, right around the Members Banking, right again at the Fork and back onto the Finishing Straight: a fast and furious I v.. mile lap providing a cross between road and race track and a tough course for drivers and a stern test of acceleration, braking and road holding for the cars.
Until 1933 Brooklands was the only motor-racing circuit in mainland Britain, but in that year Donington Park was opened and in 1937 a road racing circuit was also opened at Crystal Palace – another location dear to the memory of more senior Alvis owners.
Facing up to this competition, The Brooklands Automobile Racing Club built a new road racing circuit at Brooklands in 1937, designed by and named after Sir Malcolm Campbell.
The Clubhouse, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, was built in 1907 and was originally called the Weighing Block. Its primary purpose was to house a weighbridge, cars being weighed in the manner of horse racing. It also provided changing rooms for drivers and offices for stewards and officials. In time facilities such as bars and restaurants were added. The Clubhouse continues to be the social centre of the site today.
The Motoring Village is the cluster of workshops and tuning sheds around the Clubhouse, most of which still stand The Clubhouse today and housed many of the most highly skilled racing specialists of the day. These included engineers, tuners, drivers and designers such as Leo Villa, Reid Railton, Robin lackson and tyre fitter ‘Dunlop Mac’. The Campbell Sheds were built by Malcolm Campbell as workshops and showrooms for his racing and record breaking cars. The right hand section was built around 1927 on the site of the A V Roe’ Avroplane’ shed. Campbell was racing at Brooklands from 1908 until 1935: no other driver was so active on the Track over such a long period.
Adjoining the Campbell Shed is the ERA Shed, built in the late 1930s to house a number of businesses who sold, serviced and repaired English Racing Automobiles – the most successful British racing cars ever made. Also to be seen is the Dunlop Tyre change depot from which Dunlop Mac operated using an Alvis 12/50 (still in existence today) to test new types of tyre, and the 1922 Petrol Pagoda, one of three still surviving. The Robin Jackson sheds (an MG specialist) which are behind the Clubhouse and back onto the River Wey have been rebuilt to form an exhibition of the British Grand Prix, first held at Brooklands in 1927. It is this Motoring Village which was recently awarded a major Heritage Lottery grant and has now been fully refurbished. Both the late Alvis p.l.c., the Alvis Owner Club and the Alvis Register contributed funds towards this project so ensuring that Alvis have a permanent exhibition of all its significant achievements and technological developments.
Aviation can justly claim to have its home at Brooklands as well since it has 39 been a centre of aircraft design, construction and flight testing for much of the20th century. From A.V.Roe’s first trials here in 1907, through many decades of manufacture by such companies as BAG, Bleriot, British Aerospace, Hawker, Sopwith and Vickers, few other sites in the world have seen such achievements.
Some 18,000 new aircraft of nearly 250 types have been first flown , manufactured or assembled at Brooklands. Brooklands also has a unique history of flying training – not only were some of the first flying schools formed here in 1910 but this was the principal centre of British civilian flying training until the start of World War One. The world’s first Flight Ticket Office – the forerunner of the modem airport terminal – was built at Brooklands in 1911 and operated by Keith Prowse, perhaps better known as a theatre ticket agency. Today this historic building is both a listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument and may be seen behind the hangars by the track leading to the runways. Don’t blink or you will miss it: it is little bigger than a garden shed!
Subsequent to the cessation of the aircraft industry at Brooklands in 1987 a Brooklands Museum Trust was formed to safeguard the remaining historic ’30 Acres’ . As you may see, much has been achieved, but with the advent of National Lottery monies ambitious plans are afoot for further restoration of the Motoring Village and the creation of a magnificent aircraft museum and reception/education centre. It is now certain that this famous and historic site is in safe hands and can be preserved and developed for the benefit of future generations.
Brooklands – the Alvis connection
One of Locke King’s reasons for building Brooklands was to give the British motor industry the opportunity to improve their products by testing their technology and engineering at high speed. Strangely, few manufacturers used Brooklands as intended and fewer still publicly recognised the value of Locke King’s gift: T G ‘Tommy’ John, the founder of Alvis, was an exception.
Brooklands was for speed and land speed record success which in turn encouraged innovations with streamlining, weight reduction, and the use of supercharging, front wheel drive and twin cam engines. Alvis was not only in the forefront with this work but also tackled transmission and suspension experiments for road cars and was involved in tyre testing before it was transferred to Fort Dunlop.
The first report of an Alvis at Brooklands appears in a May, 1920 edition of the Autocar in which it says “the new Alvis 1.5 seems overgeared even if it makes light work of the Test
The Test Hill 40 Hill” but it was not until the following year that Alvis made its racing debut at Brooklands on 22 October in the Junior Car Club’s 200 mile race for cars up to 1500cc; unfortunately neither Harvey nor Joseland, the two works drivers, managed to finish.
Although Alvis was competing elsewhere in long distance rallies and hill climbs, the delay in appearing at Brooklands was probably due to the smallest class at the time being up to 1632cc thus rendering the side valve 10/30 uncompetitive.
In 1922, many cars were entered in hill climbs and reliability trials but again there was only one appearance by Harvey at Brooklands in the May Essex Junior Handicap where the Alvis was again unplaced. The following year, 1923, as you now know, saw the introduction of the Henlys Alvis Days at Brooklands and the first contained four informal races: two races for sports and standard two seaters were both won by W.G.H.Hedges while an owner named Dole won the race for four seaters. The race for any model went, not surprisingly, to Harvey!
At the end of the year Alvis achieved perhaps its most spectacular Brooklands victory when Harvey won the 200 Mile Race in a 12/50 at the incredible average speed of 93 ¼ mph with Brayshaw, also in an Alvis, in eighth place. The following year Alvis did not win but finished a creditable fourth, fifth and eighth.
1925 saw the debut of the front wheel drive Alvis racing cars which, although impressive, failed to finish due to brake problems but it was also seen that other twin camshaft cars had an advantage and this lead Alvis to follow suit and to produce for the following year the first British front wheel drive Grand Prix car which had a 1500cc straight eight cylinder twin camshaft supercharged engine.
Although Alvis ceased to enter ‘works cars’ after 1930, private entrants, some with works backing, continued to race at Brooklands until the second war. The more notable amongst these were Frank Hallam, the Birmingham distributor for Alvis who raced a 1930 TT car, Charles Follett, the London distributor who campaigned a 12/50 and Speed 20, Anthony Powys Lybbe with a 12/50 and Silver Eagle, Michael May, with a 20hp Silver Eagle (the Green Car) and Gerry Dunham, the father of our late Club Patron, who was, without doubt, the most successful of the private Alvis entrants.
Dunham first drove a Speed 20 at Brooklands in 1932 and during the following six years gained fifteen places at the track. The car was gradually lightened and modified with a compression ratio of 12: I (running on a mix of Ethy1lBenzole/Petrol) and the tourer body replaced with a streamlined single seater body; the cars maximum speed was in excess of 125mph.
After 1938 Dunham built a sprint 12/70 with special chassis, off set rear axle and single seat body. The car made its appearance at the March ’39 Brooklands meeting where it finished second at 101 mph with a fastest lap of no less than 114mph. With this car he took the BARC Outer Circuit Trophy for 1939 and made fastest lap at 109mph in the last race ever run at Brooklands.
In concluding this article, the words of T G John, writing in the Autocar in the late twenties are appropriate:
“We compete in racing with definite objects in view: To gain knowledge which is of much value in improving the breed of our standard productions. To make known the name of our company and create goodwill for it. Because we think it right and patriotic to pit British cars against foreign ones on all possible occasions. Because our performance, even if we lose, gives pleasure to a great number of supporters and owners of Alvis cars. Because it is excellent training for our mechanics who make the racing cars and the good so derived permeates our factory. Because it creates and maintains a wonderful ‘esprit de corps’ amongst our workpeople and staff.”
What a GREAT man Mr John was; his spirit still lives today!
In 2019 further research work on the early life of T G John is being conducted led by K R Day and an updated and expanded version is planned to be published as soon as possible.