T G JOHN – FOUNDER OF ALVIS VICKERS
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