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Firefly Description

Whilst Alvis is perhaps best known for the large, fast cars it produced in the nineteen thirties, the company's reputation had been established with the four cylinder 12/50 in the twenties. Until the Second World War and in the period immediately following, it was the four cylinder cars that provided the stability and profits. As early as November 1930 T.G.John, the Managing Director, had proposed that a cheaper 4-cylinder car be produced as a successor to the 12/50 by redesigning the chassis and engine.

Work was well in hand by May 1931 and deliveries could have commenced in September of that year, but in the event development of the six cylinder Speed 20 took priority. So it was not until May 1932 that the first experimental prototype was completed and tested. This comprised a Speed 20 Chassis, No 9586, with a prototype 4-cylinder engine and gearbox, which was the subject of The Autocar's road test in August 1932. Savings in the cost of production were achieved by using as many parts in common with the Speed 20 as possible.

The chassis was essentially a shortened (9 ft 10.5 ins wheelbase) version of the 'double dropped' Speed 20 chassis, with the same suspension and cable braking system, but the radiator and hence bonnet line had to be taller since cooling was by thermo-syphon, with no water pump or fan. This resulted in a handsome, sturdy, and reliable car with good brakes and a virtually indestructible chassis. The engine was also similar to the Speed 20, with overhead valves, but of course with only four cylinders, with a bore of 69 mm and stroke of 100mm giving it a capacity of 1,496cc, and a rating of 11.9 h.p.. Carburetion was in the form of a single down-draft S.U.. Early cars have an S.U. electrical fuel pump, whilst later cars have an A.C. mechanical pump driven off the camshaft.

The production life of the Firefly coincided almost exactly with the brief period in which E.N.V. produced pre-selective gearboxes, and from the start a pre-selective gearbox was offered as an option for an additional £15, the standard offering being a non-syncromesh gearbox manufactured by Alvis. Unlike some other manufacturers, who used fluid flywheels between the engine and gearbox, on the Firefly the pre-selective gearboxes were self-contained, with the gears being selected by clutch bands within the box. Well over 50% of all Fireflies produced were sold with pre-selective gearboxes.

No fewer than four Fireflies - a bare chassis, a Saloon, a Coupé, and a 4-Seater (which these days would be called a Tourer), were exhibited at the Motor Show held at Olympia between 13 and 22 October 1932. The car was advertised as 'An entirely new model' in The Autocar for 9 September 1932, and, later on, in 1934 as 'The quality car of the light car class.'

The Firefly was designated by the factory as the SA 11.9 (it is believed the ‘S’ stood for Sports) until November 1933, when it was superseded by the SB 11.9, but in brochures and advertisements it was always referred to simply as the ‘Firefly Twelve’. In August 1934 the Firefly was superseded by the Firebird SA 13.22, but the last Firefly was not despatched from the factory until 19th February 1935. 871 Fireflies were produced between 1932 and 1934, plus 5 hybrids, with only minor modifications being made during the production run, the main one being the change from the Type 75 E.N.V. gearbox to the more reliable Type 110 in October 1933. From first despatch date of August 1932 to the final of February 1935, an average of seven cars per week were sold, although the majority have a despatch date between October 1932 and June 1934.

Alvis did not have its own coach-building facility, but sub-contracted this work to local companies, offering, initially, four catalogued body styles for the Firefly.

The Saloon and Coupé sold for £495, while the Sports 4-seater (open) sold for £475. A Two-Seater was also catalogued at £455 but very few of these were sold. For 1934 a 'De Luxe' 6-light saloon was added to the catalogue at £520, but only 15 were produced. A few bare chassis were sold at £395 to agents or customers who wanted to commission their own bespoke bodywork. The vast majority of bodies were contracted out to nearby Cross & Ellis, but some 27 saloons were built first by Carbodies, then 74 by Charlesworth, and, right at the end of production, 40 were built by Holbrook in Wolverhampton. Grose of Northampton also built a handful of saloons to their own, very elegant, design. Fireflies were expensive cars, and it is difficult to identify any 12 h.p. competitor selling for more than £400, while the Morris Cowley (also 11.9 h.p.) sold for between £165 and £190.

Altogether over 100 Firefly chassis are thought to have survived (well over 10% of those produced), several as 'specials'. Of the 610 Fireflies that left the factory with 4-light saloon bodies, 469 were built by Cross & Ellis. Sadly only seven of these Cross & Ellis 4-light saloons are known to have survived in roadworthy condition and these are dispersed around the globe, with one in New Zealand, one in the USA, one in France, and only four in the UK. Fortunately at least two Charlesworth and one Grose 4-light saloons and one Cross & Ellis 6-light saloon survive, the Grose saloon now residing in Sweden.

By contrast, at least 25 4-seaters (out of 88 built) and 16 Coupés (out of 133 built) survive in more or less original form together with one of the only two 2/3-seaters built and two of the six 2-seaters.

Fireflies are capable of 70 m.p.h. (Motor Sport reported that they 'succeeded in reaching a speed of 75 m.p.h.') but their strength lies in being able to cruise all day at around 50 m.p.h..

The Firefly was designed when Britain was emerging from the Depression and has had to live in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor, the 12/50, and its larger and faster contemporary, the Speed 20. But the same Alvis engineering quality shines through in its design and manufacture. Over the years, Fireflies have attracted a group of enthusiastic owners (several of whom have owned their Firefly for more than 25 years – some for over 40 years) who appreciate their sturdiness and reliability and the pleasure of driving them.

Simon Fisher

Firefly Model Secretary

Firefly Information Wanted

If you have information about any Firefly we would be pleased to hear from you We would particularly like to see period photos and copies of related information - such as log books and correspondence.

Please contact the Model Secretary at:

Mr Simon Fisher,

PO BOX 25613,



Tel: .

Email: firefly@alvisoc.org
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