Brian Sewell salutes the glamorous 4.3-litre Alvis - one of the greatest British sports cars of the 1930s
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Al for aluminium and vis, the Latin for power, energy and force, are the origin of the trademark Alvis emblazoned on a red triangle. It was devised by Geoffrey de Freville, the owner of Aluminium Alloy Pistons, a small engineering firm in Wandsworth, south London, established in 1914. When, six years later, he built a whole engine suitable for a car, it became the name of the new marque.

That engine, of four cylinders and 1,498ccs, established the position of Alvis as the maker of both small high-performance sports cars and obviously decent family saloons for impecunious gentlemen, and its immediate successor, the 12/50, lasted, with much tinkering, until 1950.

This is not to suggest that Alvis was an unadventurous firm - far from it. But the only persistent and ultimately successful deviation from their norm was into a six-cylinder engine of 1.9-litres to top the range of only slightly smaller fours.

Introduced in 1927, this was bored out to 2.2-litres, 2.5, 2.7, 3.5 and 4.3-litres, and in this final form powered one of the great British cars of the late 1930s, and was the greatest and most glamorous produced by Alvis.

The chassis was long, low-slung, massive, rigid and independently sprung all round. The brakes were the best of their generation, servo-assisted, the steering lighter than its six-cylinder predecessors, the ride and road- holding remarkably flat. The gearbox had synchromesh throughout.

Best of all was the engine. Larger than the rival Bentley by only 130ccs, lazier in that with three carburettors it got its maximum 123bhp at only 3,600rpm, this could accelerate to a mile a minute in 11 seconds. Yet it could go from walking-pace to more than 100mph in top gear, taking 38 seconds, turbine-smooth, and doing so in silence.

Bentley might claim to be "the silent sports car'', but Alvis really was and advertised the 4.3 as "The inaudible Alvis''.

To Autocar testers in 1937, the car's most satisfactory and remarkable aspect was "the refinement which has lately been added to the performance characteristics of the Alvis. The engine is softer and much quieter... practically no trace of exhaust, certainly no boom or crackle... just the muffled suggestion of a powerful engine coming from the twin tail-pipes.''

All this was to be had as a bare chassis for less than £900. And, as a car completed by Vanden Plas, Mulliner, and particularly Charlesworth (which made 750 bodies for the Alvis range in 1937-38), as well as other distinguished coachbuilders, it came in at £1,200 or so, against the £1,500 or more for the V-12 Lagonda and 4.24-litre Bentley.

Of the 198 cars completed on the 4.3 chassis before the Second World War put an end to production, almost all have spare wheels mounted in the sweeping front wings, running-boards, flat windscreens, free-mounted headlamps and scarcely a hint of interest in aerodynamics; some are daringly part-coloured, others plain; all share a long, lean and exquisitely balanced look.

The one discreet note of mischief lies in the layout of the dashboard - the speedometer is to the left immediately ahead of the passenger, the rev-counter confronts the driver who, when all is said and done, if he or she knows which gear is engaged, should know from the revolutions what the road speed is.

The war cut short the life of a great car. Alvis was absorbed by Rover in 1965 and made its last vehicle in 1967.

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