Thomas George John was the middle of three brothers born to a shipwright in the naval shipyard on the 18th November 1880 at 6 Church Street, Pembroke Dock. John was apprenticed in the shipyard, was the winner of two scholarships to the Royal College of Science and was a Whitworth Exhibitioner becoming a highly qualified naval architect. John was appointed Assistant Constructor in the Naval Dockyard at Devonport in 1904. In 1904 Sir John Fisher, First Lord of the Admiralty, was joined by John Jellicoe later Director of Naval Ordnance. In 1906 ‘Dreadnought’ the world’s most advanced battle ship was launched. Fisher and Jellicoe warned of the weaknesses in the navy and the submarine danger. In 1907 John was appointed head of Research and Development of Vickers then the world’s largest builder of naval vessels.
In 1910 there was nationwide alarm caused by the size of Germany’s rigid airship fleet. Vickers were given an order to build an airship and John was appointed Ship Yard Manager at Barrow in Furness, the submarine base, the youngest man to hold this position. The airship was completed in 1911 but was badly damaged and the first airship to fly did so at Barrow in 1916. After war broke out in 1914 the Director of Naval Construction gave Vickers an order to build a K class submarine three times larger than any in existence. One of these designated M1 was designed by John to carry a battleship size gun able to attack ships and land from 10 miles. Later the Sea Lords at the Admiralty feared that the enemy would learn of this highly secret project and ordered the construction to be covered and the plans hidden. The M1 was commissioned in 1918 and performed to specification.
In 1915 Churchill as Lord of the Admiralty was appalled at the loss of life in the trench warfare and established the Landships Committee under the Director of Naval Construction. Admiral Jellicoe’s concerns for the navy were the cause of losses, as well as communications failures, in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The appearance of 400 tanks at the battle of Cambrai in 1917 following Churchill’s actions hastened the end of the war. John was appointed Chief Engineer and Works Manager of a Coventry car firm with a large Government order for British designed aero engines.
On May 23, 1917 John established his own company in Coventry and took over Holley Brothers engineering firm in 1919 with his vast experience of working on Government contracts at Vickers behind him. The post war demand for engineering products enabled John to expand his company quickly and to acquire the plans of the French D F P car company, for which HM and WO Bentley had been agents, for a 1.5 litre engine of advanced design and performance leading to the production of the 10/30 marketed under the surname Alvis in 1920.
In 1921 John changed the name of his company to the Alvis Car and Engineering Co and in 1922 employed G T Smith Clarke and W M Dunn who were joined by premium apprentice A V Varney. The 10/30 was developed into the 12/50 which won the country’s longest race at Brooklands in 1923 at 93 mph. The rapid growth of sales caused a restructuring of the company in 1924 when Sir Arthur Lowes Dickinson, financial advisor to Lloyd George before he became Prime Minister, took the Chair with John as Managing Director.
In 1925 Alvis led Europe when the first supercharged 12/50 with front wheel drive and all independent suspension was entered for the 200 miles race at Brooklands.
In 1928 front wheel drive cars won their class in the 24 hours race at Le Mans and eight cylinder cars developed from the 1926 entry for the British Grand Prix took long distance records at nearly 100mph in 1929 and won their class in the 1930 Ulster Tourist Trophy race. With sales of front wheel drive cars to the Public John was ahead of other manufacturers in advancing car design. The sales success of the 12/50 led to the development of a six cylinder engine while the move to lower chassis by the industry and new attractive coachwork designs led in 1932 to the announcement of the 90 mph Speed Twenty followed by the addition of the world’s first all synchromesh gearbox and independent front suspension. The Speed 25 and the fully equipped 100 mph 4.3 litre cars were outstanding.
In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor in Germany and in a threatening political climate Alvis Ltd made its largest profit in 1934. It appears that at this time the decision was taken to seek Government contracts for which a new factory was built and fitted with the latest production equipment. Following discussions with the Government John made arrangements with the French Gnome Rhone company to produce aero engines from its range. In 1936 the Government started rearmament through the ‘shadow factory’ scheme. Both Austin and Alvis offered their facilities to the Government which were not accepted. The Government then refused to accept foreign designs, except for civil use, reversing a position which had existed since the First World War. Alvis then designed the Leonides radial aero engine for which Government contracts were received.
Nicholas Straussler presented advanced designs to the War Office for armoured cars and small tanks which were accepted Alvis being the company which had advanced designs in front wheel drive, all independent suspension and drive systems. Alvis received contracts for the armoured cars for use in the Middle East and Dutch East Indies and also produced its own prototype armoured vehicles.
During the war Alvis managed 21 sites, mainly for aero engine production, and the car factory was destroyed in the very heavy air raid on Coventry. In 1944 John’s health started to deteriorate and he died in 1946. Aero engine, cars and armoured vehicles were then produced and in 1967 the 120 mph TF21 Three Litre was the last car produced by manufacturers formed at the end of the Great War.
In 2004 Alvis-Vickers was sold to British Aerospace for £355 million.
K R Day – March 2016
A F Varney Chief Engineer Aero Engine Division Alvis Ltd
Castles of Steel by Robert Massie
Airship Saga by Lord Ventry and E M Kolesnik
K boats by D Everitt
The Churchill factor by Boris Johnson
Leonides the Alvis aero engine by R Probert
The Vintage Alvis by Peter Hull and Norman Johnson.
Alvis Saracen Family by Bill Munro
Scorpion Reconnaissance Tank by C Foss and S Dunstan
Alvis – the story of the Red Triangle 4th edition by K R Day
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!