Absolutely elegant: the story of a big, unforgettable classic
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Let your eyes run over the sweeping elegance of this 1937 Alvis Speed 25’s lines and it’s hard to imagine the clouds of war gathering over Europe.
One thinks instead of sharp-suited swells, or frivolous lovelies draped in bias-cut satin and furs and watched by sharp-eyed tweed-wrapped mothers. For this was a car for posh folk. It cost £850 when new, and only 391 were made, of which 220 are accounted for today.
This one belongs to Kate and John Welch, who bought it in Christchurch two and a half years ago. Fortunately they decided to trailer it north, as the first time they drove the Alvis, it made it only halfway up a hill near their home, thanks to a faulty fuel pump.
The couple’s involvement with classics had consisted only of MGs but John had always hankered after a pre-war British car.
“I didn’t know which one, only that I wanted something in good condition,” he says.
His first employer in the 1960s in Cambridge, England, “was a very dapper middle-aged guy driving a very fancy Alvis, a convertible, a beautiful thing”.
So John researched what Alvis had done pre-war and then rang an Alvis club stalwart in Auckland to see what was for sale.
His contact knew of one that had been beautifully restored by experts. But when John contacted the 80-year-old owner, he was adamant he’d never sell.
About six months later the lack of power steering was beginning to tell.
John recalls: “We said no pressure, but can we have a look, so if you ever do sell ...
“So, we flew down, and liked it. He still wasn’t selling. But we asked him to remember us.
“Four months later, the guy who’d done the woodwork called us and said the owner had finally conceded that it was getting a bit of a handful.
“He told me a price, I was keen and that was that. He wanted to keep it over Christmas, and we agreed.”
When it comes to ongoing maintenance, close to where the Welches live, fortunately, there’s an engineer who specialises in working on old cars and sourcing parts.
This Alvis had needed parts for its unusual Luvax adjustable suspension. Bear in mind that this car rolled out of the factory in 1937, and you could adjust the height by using a control on the dash.
Because it wasn’t working, a modern suspension was fitted, but John now has everything needed to return it to original.
The restoration had left the car as standard apart from the change of paint colour, though it’s possible the new cinnamon upholstery doesn’t match the old.
The previous owner handed over an album of photos duplicating the restoration journey, revealing all the wood in the frame. The car had spent 40 years in Arizona and the woodwork was dried out, but it was all there to make copies from. The wooden dash is a copy.
“I got to see step by step the raw wood transformation, the metal panels — the originals were aluminium with steel lugs — going back on. The wings were steel, to prevent stone damage.”
The tyres are still crossply. The chrome is original, but replated.
As we pulled away for our short drive, it was obvious there’s now power steering in this car, that weighs close to two tons; and the cable brakes are likewise unassisted.
There’s a four-speed manual, and they’re all synchro — just like a modern manual transmission at a time when even Bentley and Rolls didn’t use all-synchro gearboxes.
It has electric start, with a crank handle for backup, “Though I wouldn’t want to use it,” says John.
It’s now used at least once a week, going to the golf club and to Alvis outings. It has been driven to Napier’s Art Deco Festival twice and to New Plymouth for the Alvis AGM where it won the Concours.”
It’ll cruise around 100km/h.
“It was rated at 95mph [153km/h) when new, though we do try to leave a reasonable gap, in deference to the brakes.”
The engine is flexible. It’ll do 50 uphill in fourth, there’s a lot of torque from the 3.6-litre six-cylinder engine.
Out comes the album again, and a 1937 review referring to liveliness, road holding and ride comfort. And it refers to some of the clever touches. The boot doubles as a picnic table; under the bonnet is a hammer in clips, to help get the wheel spinners off.
There’s a centralised lubrication system — every 300km you push a foot lever to give everything a squirt of grease.
That will be a good thing next year, the centenary of the Alvis Motor Company. Kate and John won’t have to keep fiddling with oil when they drive their Alvis from Cape Reinga to Blenheim, meeting the South Islanders who have driven from Bluff to celebrate 100 years of elegant motoring.