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.