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4 Cylinders

In the UK the Post Vintage period for cars is usually taken to run from 1st January 1931 to the start of the Second World War (WW2) on 3rd September 1939. Many years ago the Vintage Sports-Car Club produced a list of cars made after 1930 up to WW2, which it considered Post Vintage Thoroughbred (PVT). Alvis is of course one of the makes included on this select list.

The 1930s were economically a tough period for the UK with 3.5 million registered unemployed in 1932 as the economy suffered from the global impact of the Great Depression that had started in the USA in 1929.

Matters did not begin to improve until a housing construction programme limited to specific areas, e.g. the South and Midlands, started in 1936. A further stimulus was provided in the run up to WW2 as the UK re-armament programme gathered pace.

Inevitably the change to a war economy was gradual and some makes, including Alvis, continued to make civilian cars into 1940. The infamous Luftwaffe air raid on Coventry in November 1940 destroyed the Alvis car factory and ended car production for the PVT period.

Alvis’ reputation had been built through the 1920s on high quality, high performance four cylinder cars of modest engine capacity, notably the immortal 12/50. In 1929 the company dropped the 12/50 and concentrated on the technically adventurous FWD plus the six cylinder cars introduced in 1927.

This policy was not a success so the FWD was dropped and a slightly updated 12/50 put back into production late in 1930, followed by the 12/60 sporting variant early in 1931. These basically vintage models were so good that they continued in production until late 1932 alongside the corresponding high chassis six cylinder cars. Thus for Alvis the dividing line between vintage and post-vintage is really the Autumn of 1932.

From 1932 a more up-to-date double dropped beam axle chassis was adopted for the Firefly, basically a shortened SA Speed Twenty, capable of accommodating both four and six cylinder engines with much of the running gear common across the whole Alvis range. Whilst there were many who could afford the larger six cylinder cars that Alvis produced, orders were not sufficient to take up all the production capacity of the Works. As a result, Alvis looked to its traditional sales base to take market share from manufacturers in the tier below them by building a simpler and therefore cheaper car with all the virtues of its larger, more powerful, stable mates.

In this period, companies such as Rover and Wolseley sold four cylinder cars that offered more than cars of a similar RAC horsepower rating than those listed by the likes of Morris, Austin and Ford. Alvis strategy was similar: produce a four cylinder car of superior design, performance and finish to take sales from them.

With the Speed models acting as the Poster Child, the four cylinder cars sold well throughout the 1930s and represent a significant and largely uncredited part of the Alvis success story in that period. Alvis fitted coach built, series-produced bodies from several outside contract coachbuilders during this period, and the buying public considered these much superior to the mass produced bodies of lesser makes.

To achieve sales, the four cylinder cars needed to be more than just the bottom end of a glamorous model range. They still needed to be affordable, not only in terms of the cost of purchase, but also in terms of the cost of ownership.

To that end, Alvis looked in the early 1930s at how the production costs could be reduced by using parts common across the range of cars, both four and six cylinder. This extended as far as the now common practice of having a family of engines that could be built as four or six cylinder units, with common internals etc.

Alvis became and remained masters of reducing the breadth and depth of component inventory necessary to support a wide range of cars and that brings advantages for owners of these cars today.

As the 1930s progressed, Alvis changed its approach to the delivery and development of the 4 cylinder cars. The Firefly design was optimised to reduce cost of production and the Firebird continued this. These designs incorporated many of the components used in the Speed Twenty models, not only engine parts, but also gearboxes, brakes, rear axles and so on. These parts were largely produced in house, with only very specialist items, for instance electrical equipment, purchased from outside suppliers such as Lucas. The 12/70 took a lead from the practice established with the six cylinder Silver Crest and used proprietary components meeting the higher standards which Alvis applied to its parts.

In terms of the ownership experience then and now, the four cylinder Alvis remains one of the seriously under-rated motorcars of the PVT period. More powerful than the better known cars and better made, they were in many ways a match for their larger and more powerful six cylinder siblings. Not as smooth or ultimately as fast, they nevertheless handled well and had comparable power to weight ratios. Being smaller they were nippy where it mattered round town and in the country lanes.

With similar cabin size and the same seats etc., there is little to distinguish the cars before consideration of the higher costs of ownership of the six cylinder cars, although the latter undoubtedly have greater ‘presence’.

This similarity in accessible performance shows up in the modern ownership experience where the owners of six cylinder cars are never far ahead of those in the four cylinder cars of the same period.

Firefly Firebird 12/70
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