Nothing has been heard of this 'pedigree' motor since the 1950s, says Brian Sewell

Has any other marque in the history of the English car had as many Incarnations, deaths and resurrections as Lea-Francis?

Has any other marque in the history of the English car had as many Incarnations, deaths and resurrections as Lea-Francis?

Can any sane man under menopausal age remember seeing one? Can even the automotive nerd recall the announcement of the pseudo -BMW two-seater with an Opel engine that was to be the Lea-Francis of this century? Or the pseudo-Derby Bentley saloon with a Jaguar engine of which six were built between 1980 and 1996? Or the flying saucer Lynx of 1960 with a Zephyr engine - purple, with gold plate instead of chrome - for which not a single order was received? Who, indeed, other than men of my age, could tell their grandsons of the Lea-Francis made in largest numbers, the 14 of 1946-1953, of which some 3,000 saloons and woody station wagons were produced?

If we go way back to 1903, we discover Richard Lea and Graham Francis deserting their bicycle-building to construct perhaps the most extraordinary car engine ever made - of four-litres, three-cylinders horizontally-opposed, a pair of flywheels, con-rods a yard long, to be installed under the floor. Three cars were made, two sold, and the venture fizzled out in 1906. In 1919 they tried again, with a conventional two-litre engine, but made only, 23 before again fizzling out.

Single and double-figure numbers and fizzling out were to be the prime characteristics of the marque. In 1922 they gambled their future on small cars of nimble performance, mainly two-seaters, spare and light, even deprived of doors, their mud-guards a la bicyclette, some of them capable of 90 mph with a supercharged 1.5-litre engine bought from Henry Meadows. It was on the sparkling performance of these, the Caterham Sevens of their day, that the Lea Francis reputation for "pedigree, background and tradition'' became mythical.

Then ambition struck again -- they must make larger cars with engines of their own, but they built one of six-cylinders and 1.7-litres that proved catastrophically unreliable and cost £550 -- the price of a double-fronted house in Brondesbury Park. Bankruptcy stalked them throughout the Depression and Lea resigned in 1931 (Francis had gone in 1924), but the receivers kept it just alive, making 61 cars before the inevitable last gasp in 1936.

Enough is enough, one might have thought, but in 1937 two independent souls from Riley then running into the difficulties that led to the Nuffield takeover), one of them Hugh Rose, chief engine designer, brought Lea-Francis back to life and managed to make 83 cars before World War II diverted the factory to aircraft enterprises.

The total production of Lea-Francis cars in its four pre-war manifestations amounted to some 1,600 units in 36 years; post-war production in four more manifestations was perhaps 3,500 units. Yet of the rare Lea-Francis, ancient mariners still speak in awe. Why? There is no doubt that the sports cars of the 1920s suited the mood of that dizzy decade and established themselves as baby Bentleys to thrill young men and drive their women into sexual submission, but why should their ghosts still have the power to empty the pockets of canny businessmen late in the 20th century? In 1946, but not since, there was some reason for revival; the factory remained intact, the skills of aircraft construction had been acquired and could boastfully be applied to cars, the war had made fat profit for the firm and no development costs were involved in putting the chassis and engine of the pre-war cars into immediate production.

The Lea-Francis saloon of early 1946, with four doors and a flying tail, came with engines of 1.5 and 1.8-litres - most buyers bought the latter, the 14.

It was a car for those who thought they appreciated fine engineering and elegance, a Bentley for the poor of Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells. It had a Bentleyish radiator flanked by Bentleyish headlamps, with a powerful fog-lamp in the centre. It retained separate wings, but was advanced for its day in that it almost dispensed with running-boards and widened the body to fill the space they would have wasted. Constructed of aluminium alloy on a steel frame, its claim thus to be lighter by the weight of two stout passengers was proved by the comparable Alvis 14, which was exactly that much heavier; even so, at a ton and a quarter, the Lea-Francis was no lightweight.

Most post-war cars were black with brown upholstery in leather or some unconvincing lookalike; the Lea-Francis came in grey or maroon too, with a proper walnut dashboard and door fillets; it looked well enough (though there was always something indefinably amiss with the falling line of roof and tail), but would have looked better in a 1930s two-tone scheme of black and garnet or black and racing green to exaggerate its length.

As for driving - the steering was light yet positive, the gearing was too low and cruising at 70mph meant an engine revving its head off at 4,400rpm (a speed I doubt if it could ever reach), it had no synchromesh on bottom gear, and the gear lever is amazingly long, cranked and impossible to rush; the word acceleration should perhaps not be mentioned in this context.

Lea-Francis tinkered with the roof-line - the consequences unfortunate. They introduced a 2-door fixed-head coupe - a rare and desirable classic. They put a mildly streamlined two-seater into production, with room for luggage and even a third passenger, tweaked the engine and made it reach 85mph. They tried a streamlined saloon as uncomely as a platypus without halting production of the earlier 14. They developed a really interesting 2.5-litre engine of four-cylinders and 95bhp, offering it in everything except the original 14, the one car that most needed it, and in 1953, they fizzled out again. As far as I know, nothing has been heard of the firm this century, but somewhere there must be relics and old bones that some rich fool believes are thaumaturgical; he will, I have no doubt, under their influence, introduce the ultimate off-roader, people carrier, state limousine (there was, in the 1990s, a proposal to replace the old Daimler beloved of the Queen Mum) or ridiculous amphibian and label it Lea-Francis. We have not heard the last of them.

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