Alvis lives! The story behind a gleaming 92-year-old 'work of art'
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You wouldn’t think it from looking at this gleaming 1926 Alvis 12/50, but John Martin wasn’t a car nut until he was about 19 and working as a joiner.
A colleague was a Model A Ford fan, and the rot set in. Since then joinery has led to a busy career, first as a woodwork teacher for 20 years, then crafting wooden parts for vintage cars.
John’s one-man company, Designs N Wood, specialises in car restoration of older cars with wooden bodies or frames, and anything in wood associated with them, such as dashboards and steering wheels.
He’ll even provide painted wood-grain effect for the likes of the dash, if required, or tackle the basketwork some classic cars require.
The business started out with the glorious Packards now parked at Wanaka’s Warbirds and Wheels museum. “I was working on those, and it went from strength to strength,” he says.
There’s not much wood visible on his Alvis, its polished metal panels gleaming in the strong Otago sunshine. The car arrived in New Zealand in 1936, one of 1505 built, and sold at what was then £595. It started out in Wellington and had 12 owners before John, who bought it seven years ago as a project from a deceased estate.
“It was left derelict at one stage, then sold to the previous owner as a parts car. He’d done a duck’s back [Alvis body shape] before, sold that and decided to do this one as a beetle-back.
"I got it with the aim of restoring it. It had a worn-out engine, gearbox and diff, but the engine is original, and the numbers match the chassis.
“Alvis mastered casting aluminium and bronze, so anything that moved, like brake rods and spring hangers, was bronze. They were slagged out so we had to remetal those, but the gearbox, diff and sump were all aluminium.”
The founder of Alvis was in the aircraft industry, and realised if you could keep the car light it would perform on the race track.
“I think if he could, he’d have made the brake drums all aluminium, but the heat won’t allow it,” says John.
John says when he bought the car there was only a bit of body on it, the metal guards, metal bonnet and a start of a wooden frame for a touring body.
There was a lot more than that when he’d finished — the wood frame he built looks like a work of art. The metalwork alone took a year, and is outstanding.
“A client who’s a master of metalwork did the body,” he says. “We had to go and find a pattern for the hood, and made it up from research.
“Originally they would have had painted steel guards and a polished body, but when I saw Tansley Panels had done such a good job of the welds I asked him to price doing the guards.”
He had to build the seats from new springs, foam, and Ian Ingram did the upholstery.
“The instruments are all original — but resurfaced — bar the addition of a temperature gauge and an oil gauge.”
The car remains largely standard, bar a few small items.
“They have a bad habit of boiling, hence the electric fan, and the modified carb to de-ice. I’ve also fitted LED indicators, and a distributor rather than a magneto. The modifications are to make it motor well.”
His Alvis keeps up with traffic just fine. The 1645cc single overhead cam engine with its four-speed “crash” box was capable of 70mph, or 112.6km/h.
That’s “downhill with the wind behind you”, John quips. “They used to track prove every car, and they did 70mph. We’ve had it up to 65mph, but it starts to shake and shudder.”
The engine is so low-geared he takes off in second. Once you’re away, it feels comfortable. It is remarkably protected from the wind, and sufficiently at home on his local Otago roads that he’s now driven it all the way to Napier’s Art Deco weekend.
“It’s easy to manage in modern traffic, in fourth gear you can clip along at 95 to 100km/h. It stops well, sits on the road nicely, brakes well. We built it to drive it, so yes we do gravel roads.”
The gleaming metal, the purring engine, the gorgeous deep south scenery as we trundle along, any outing in the Alvis must feel special. As must his job. There’s nothing like turning a hobby into an income, especially when it brings with it thoroughbred experiences like this.