The original company, T.G. John and Company Ltd., was founded in 1919 by Thomas George John (1880 – 1946). Its first products were stationary engines, carburetors and motorscooters. Following complaints from the Avro aircraft company whose logo bore similarities to the original winged green triangle, the more familiar inverted red triangle incorporating the word "Alvis" evolved. On December 14, 1921, the company officially changed its name to The Alvis Car and Engineering Company Ltd. Geoffrey de Freville (1883 – 1965) designed the first Alvis engine and is also responsible for the company name.
The origin of the name Alvis has been the subject of a great deal of speculation over the years. Some have suggested that de Freville proposed the name Alvis as a compound of the words "aluminium" and "vis" (meaning "strength" in Latin), or perhaps it may have been derived from the Norse mythological weaponsmith, Alvíss. De Freville however vigorously rejected all of these theories. In 1921, he specifically stated that the name had no meaning whatsoever, and was chosen simply because it could be easily pronounced in any language. He reaffirmed this position in the early 1960s, stating that any other explanations for the source of the name were purely coincidental.
Production was relocated to Holyhead Road in Coventry, where from 1922 to 1923 they also made the Buckingham car. In 1922 George Thomas Smith-Clarke (1884 – 1960) left his job as assistant works manager at Daimler and joined Alvis as Chief Engineer and Works Manager. Smith-Clarke was accompanied by William M. Dunn, who also left his job as a draughtsman at Daimler to become Chief Draughtsman at Alvis. This partnership lasted for nearly 28 years and was responsible for producing some of the most successful products in the company's history. Smith-Clarke left in 1950, and Dunn assumed Smith-Clarke's position as Chief Engineer, remaining in that position until 1959.
De Freville's first engine design was a four-cylinder engine with aluminium pistons and pressure lubrication, which was unusual for that time. The first car model using de Freville's engine was the Alvis 10/30. It was an instant success and established the reputation for quality workmanship and superior performance for which the company was to become famous. The original 10/30 side-valve engine was improved, becoming by 1923 the overhead valve Alvis 12/50, a highly successful sports car which was produced until 1932. Around 700 of the 12/50 models and 120 of the later Alvis 12/60 models survive today.
1927 saw the introduction of the six-cylinder Alvis 14.75 and this engine became the basis for the long line of luxurious six-cylinder Alvis cars produced up to the outbreak of World War II. These cars were elegant and full of technical innovations. Independent front suspension and the world's first all-synchromesh gearbox came in 1933 followed by servo assisted brakes. The Alvis 12/75 model was introduced in 1928, a model bristling with innovation, such as front-wheel drive, in-board brakes, overhead camshaft and, as an option, a Roots type supercharger.
As with many upmarket engineering companies of the time, Alvis did not produce their own coachwork, relying instead on the many available coachbuilders in the Midlands area, such as Carbodies, Charlesworth Bodies, Cross and Ellis, Duncan Industries (Engineers) Ltd, E. Bertelli Ltd, Grose, Gurney Nutting, Hooper, Lancefield Coachworks, Martin Walter Ltd, Mayfair, Mulliners, Tickford, Vanden Plas, Weymann Fabric Bodies, and William Arnold Ltd. Several cars also survive with quite exotic one-off bodywork from other designers such as Holbrook, a U.S. coachbuilder.
In 1936 the company name was shortened to Alvis Ltd, and aircraft engine and armoured vehicle divisions were added to the company by the beginning of World War II. Smith-Clarke designed several models during the 1930s and 1940s, including the six-cylinder Speed 20, the Speed 25, and the Alvis 4.3 Litre model.
Alvis FWD 1-5-litre Le Mans 1928
Car production was initially suspended in September 1939 following the outbreak of war in Europe, but was later resumed and production of the 12/70, Crested Eagle, Speed 25, and 4.3 Litre continued well into 1940. The car factory was severely damaged on November 14, 1940 as a result of several bombing raids on Coventry by the German Luftwaffe, although ironically the armaments factory suffered little damage. Much valuable cutting gear and other equipment was lost and car production was suspended for the duration of the war, only resuming during the latter part of 1946. Despite this, Alvis carried out war production on aircraft engines (as sub-contractor of Rolls-Royce Limited) and other aircraft equipment.
Car production resumed with a four-cylinder model, the TA 14, based on the pre-war 12/70. A solid, reliable and attractive car, the TA 14 fitted well the mood of sober austerity in post war Britain, but much of the magic attaching to the powerful and sporting pre-war models had gone and life was not easy for a specialist car manufacturer. Not only had Alvis lost their car factory but many of the prewar coachbuilders had not survived either and those that had were quickly acquired by other manufacturers. In fact, the post war history of Alvis is dominated by the quest for reliable and reasonably priced coachwork.
Alvis TC21 100 Grey Lady 1953
Smith-Clarke himself retired in 1950 and Dunn took over as chief engineer. In 1950 a new chassis and six-cylinder 3 Litre engine was announced and this highly successful engine became the basis of all Alvis models until production ceased in 1967. Saloon bodies for the TA 21, as the new model was called, again came from Mulliners of Birmingham as they had for the TA 14, with Tickford producing the dropheads. But with the first of these becoming part of Standard Triumph and the second being acquired by Aston Martin Lagonda, it was clear by 1954 that new arrangements would have to be made. By this time some of the most original and beautiful designs on the 3 Litre chassis were being produced by master coachbuilder Carrosserie Herman Graber of Switzerland and indeed these one-off designed cars are highly sought after today. With a licence in place, from 1955 all Alvis bodies became based on Graber designs. Early examples such as the TC108/G were built by Willowbrook Limited of Loughborough, but at such a high price that very few were made. Only after 1958 with the launch of the TD 21 did something resembling full-scale production resume as H. J. Mulliner & Co. and Park Ward, coachbuilders for Rolls-Royce and Bentley, contracted to build the bodies at a much lower price. These cars, the TD 21 and its later variants, the TE 21 and finally the TF 21 are well built, attractive and fast cars. However it was clear by the mid-1960s that with a price tag of nearly double that of the mass-produced Jaguar, the end could not be far off.
From 1952 to 1955 Alec Issigonis, the creator of the later Mini, worked for Alvis and designed a new model with a V8 engine which proved too expensive to produce.
Alvis TD-21 Series 2 1962
Rover took a controlling interest in Alvis in 1965 and a Rover-designed mid-engined V8 coupé prototype named the P6BS was rumoured to be the new Alvis model but with the takeover by British Leyland this too was shelved. By the time the TF 21 was launched in 1966, (available, like its predecessors in both saloon and drophead form and with either manual or automatic gearbox), the model was beginning to show its age despite a top speed of 127 mph - the fastest Alvis ever produced. With only 109 sold and with political troubles aplenty in the UK car manufacturing business at that time, production finally ceased in 1967.
In 1968, a management buyout of the car operations was finalised and all the Alvis car design plans, customer records, stock of parts and remaining employees were transferred to Red Triangle.
As part of Rover, Alvis Limited was incorporated into British Leyland but was bought by United Scientific Holdings plc in 1981. Subsequently the company's name was changed to Alvis plc. Alvis plc acquired a British truck manufacturer Universal Power Drives in 1994, naming their new subsidiary Alvis Unipower Limited. The trucks were subsequently branded as Alvis-Unipower. In 1998, Alvis plc acquired the armoured vehicle business of GKN plc, and the main UK manufacturing operation was moved from Coventry to Telford. The site of the Alvis works in Holyhead Road is now an out-of-town shopping complex, but its name, Alvis Retail Park, reflects the heritage of the site. In 2002 Alvis plc purchased Vickers Defence Systems to form the subsidiary Alvis Vickers Ltd, which was in turn purchased by BAE Systems in 2004. BAE Systems ended the use of the Alvis distinctive red triangle trademark.
In 2009, Red Triangle[ negotiated the legal transfer of the Alvis car trademarks. The following year, the company announced that the 4.3 Litre Short Chassis tourer would once again be available. All Alvis' records remain intact at the company’s Kenilworth headquarters along with a large stock of period parts. One of the men to have worked on the very last Alvis car produced in 1967 is still retained by Red Triangle in a training capacity. Built to the original plans, the new car has been named the "Continuation Series", to reflect the 73-year interruption in its production between 1937 and 2010. It differs only in detail from the pre-war examples: for emissions, the engine is governed by an electronic fuel injection system with electronic ignition, brakes are hydraulic rather than cable, the steering column collapsible and the rear light arrangement reconfigured to conform to modern standards.
In the early 21st century a new website launched a retro model from the companys past an agreement between them and BAe as to the revival of the marque,
Three British car companies—Alvis, Bentley, and Sunbeam—entered vehicles in local racing events between 1920 and 1930. Alvis and Sunbeam were at that time the only British companies building cars to Grand Prix formula racing specifications. Of these, Alvis was the only company whose race cars were characterized by front-wheel drive and fully independent suspension.
Alvis was a pioneer of front-wheel drive vehicles. While J. Walter Christie had designed the first front-wheel drive race car, which he drove in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup, the next notable front-wheel drive race car was the supercharged Alvis 12/50 racing car designed by G.T. Smith-Clarke and W.M. Dunn, which was entered in the 1925 Kop Hill Climb in Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire on March 28, 1925. Two months later (on Saturday, May 30, 1925), Harry Arminius Miller's Miller 122 front-wheel drive car was entered in the 1925 Indianapolis 500.