Front-wheel drive wasn’t an intuitive choice for a racing car of old, but that didn’t stop Alvis using the layout in the 1920s – and now one of the company’s Grand Prix cars has been restored, nearly 100 years after its racing debut.
If you can remember the fuss around Nissan’s predominantly front-wheel drive GT-R LM Nismo at the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours, then the Alvis attracted similar confusion on its debut in 1927. This was a time when few cars of any sort sent their power to the front wheels, let alone those designed for racing – even Citroën’s seminal Traction Avant was still seven years away.
Powered by a 1.5-litre supercharged straight-eight, the car’s layout is betrayed by its long front end, stretched even further by the longitudinally-mounted gearbox ahead of the transmission, its casing poking out through the radiator grille.
Front suspension was, and still is, fully independent, with a distinctive arrangement of four leaf springs, drive through the middle, and steering connected above the hub on one side and below it on the other. Distinctive or not, both Alvis entered at the 1927 British Grand Prix struggled, this car – chassis number 2 – failing to make the start. The car had a little more success at Brooklands a couple of weeks latter at the JCC 200 Mile Race, but after lapping in excess of 120mph, driver George Duller was forced to retire on lap 52 due to engine failure.
Once back at the factory the engine was removed and a shattered connecting rod diagnosed – remarkably, an item Alvis still has in its possession. The car remained with Alvis for another decade, when it was finally dropped off with Roach Brothers, a breaker yard in Coventry, under instruction to break it up.
History can thank the Roach Brothers for ignoring the company’s wishes, instead selling the unwanted racer to a motorcycle dealer named Bill Pitcher, who found a 1929 Alvis engine and transmission to replace the missing items.
Pitcher moved the car on again in 1955, abandoning plans to convert it to rear-wheel drive, and new owner Nic Davies then kept the car for nearly half a century. Davies wasn’t shy about showing off the car, taking it to Australia, Papua New Guinea, Florida, and more, but in 1990 finally began to restore it.
This process took a while, and while the car finally ran under its own power again in April 2003, it has taken the current Alvis Car Company and the efforts of owner Alan Stote and marque expert Tony Cox to return it to period specification. The use of old photographs, surviving drawings, and the fact that much of the original car survived so long, have allowed Alvis to get very close indeed to the original, with the use of CAD and some clever reverse-engineering allowing the team to replicate original, missing components.
The engine and gearbox too have now been returned to period-correct specification, finally taking the place of those 1929 items installed by Bill Pitcher, though the car isn’t yet running and driving – that will be achieved after the car makes its public debut at the Automobile Council 2023 show in Japan later this week.
All being well, the car will be ready and driving in time for the 100th anniversary of its 1927 appearance at Brooklands. While front-wheel drive is still rare in purpose-built racing cars, perhaps the car’s existence has really been justified by all the people who will turn up in their own front-wheel drive cars to watch it run.