Alvis has a big following in Japan, in case you didn’t know.
That’s great for the preservation of the cars, as another source of funds and enthusiasm for the marque, but a slight inconvenience today, because the wooden block that is used to improvise a choke when starting this 10/30 has been left in Tokyo.
Without that, a cold-start is a two-person job, with one covering the trumpet of the carburettor with their hand while the other fires the starter motor.
With that, the 1.5-litre ‘four’ comes to life with a pronounced clatter and vibration.
Crucially, however, there is an electric starter, which immediately marks this out as a 1920s car with premium aspirations.
Having purchased the wartime Coventry premises of the American Holley brothers (later known for their carburettors, fitted to numerous muscle cars) in 1919, Thomas John set about building a vehicle that would provide big-car quality with the running costs of a more compact machine.
John worked jobbing engineering contracts in 1919, but by 1920 he was ready to make his first car, named Alvis in part as a reference to its aluminium pistons – the Latin vis means strength.
Both the name and the engine design that inspired it were acquired from Geoffrey de Freville, an ex-Bentley showroom manager and advocate of lightweight pistons.
It’s a simple unit: a sidevalve, as you might expect, but one that provides healthy power for its age and size by pushing well-proven technology to a reliable higher limit via quality componentry.
The engine’s water channels, for example, are large and evenly spaced not just around the cylinders, but also the valve seats, while internal components such as a nickel-steel crankshaft and phosphor-bronze bearings, as well as the aluminium pistons, allow the engine to rev higher and more smoothly than its contemporaries.
That’s a relative statement, of course.
Peak power is rated at 3500rpm, at which point the car is shuddering around you to an alarming degree and the chromed uprights of the windscreen become a blur at the edges of your vision.
Thankfully, Alvis provided a four-speed transmission – impressive in 1920 – with a top gear that provides comfortable revs at the car’s natural cruising speed of 40-45mph, even if a 60mph maximum was claimed.
This 1922 Cross & Ellis Two-Seater-bodied 10/30 might just have achieved that speed, however, because it was in effect an Alvis works racer – albeit unofficially.
Alvis deliberately registered the car personally to factory driver Jo Brown, allowing him to compete as a privateer at a time when works teams were well known to be meddling with their own cars.
The thinking was that a privateer victory was a better reflection on the quality of the vehicle you could buy in the showroom.
In Brown’s hands the Alvis won gold medals in the London-Holyhead, London-Edinburgh and London-Land’s End trials, as well as the Midland Light Car Club’s reliability trial.
It also took two firsts and a fastest time of the day at a Kent Automobile Club hillclimb.
Its light weight, combined with a powerful but reliable 1460cc engine, was a competitive mix in 1.5-litre classes – although when checking over the 10/30’s engine in recent years, Alvis company heir Red Triangle found it to be bored out by 100cc, which is suspected to have been done by Alvis itself.
Cheating in motorsport is as old as the sport itself, it seems.
For those of us raised on post-war machinery, the idea of even attempting to drive the 10/30 from London to Land’s End at speed seems almost impossibly daunting.
The crash ’box takes some getting used to and no small degree of patience, although in fairness it is far from the most difficult of its type.
It requires a real smack to push it into first at times, but, once on the move, you quickly get the knack of slotting between the ratios: double-declutching while moving up the gearbox, giving a moment’s pause for the revs to drop in between, while a simple blip of the throttle to match the revs allows a quick change on the way back down.
Shifting between the higher gears in particular becomes second nature quite quickly, although you’ll always give the gate – which sits to the right of the driver, hard against the bodywork – a quick glance to make sure the spindly lever is heading in the right direction.
There’s no feeling your way around this transmission.
Thankfully, getting the car going is simple.
The cone-type, leather-faced clutch is easy; although heavy by modern standards, it is nothing compared with something you’d find in a large-capacity post-war performance car.
Third is basically your acceleration gear, because there’s a huge gap to fourth, where you’ll spend the majority of your time.
While ascending a long but not especially steep hill in fourth, and with the car starting to slow, we’re told that a temporary advance in the ignition timing via the control on the steering wheel should, in theory, help get the car to the top rather than changing down into third – but the relatively small capacity of the engine means there’s little effect in practice.
Instead, you bury the throttle and ask the Alvis for every last bit of its torque, but there’s no denying an awkward gap in the gearing here.
When cruising happily on the flat, it’s the extremely narrow wheels that dominate the experience.
The 10/30 is always wobbling and wandering slightly, and it will happily follow every fissure in the road, but it’s never too disconcerting given the kinds of speeds the engine can realistically manage.
The brakes, drums acting on the rear axle only, are rather good for the capability of the car and inspire plenty of confidence.
The steering impresses, too: although a bit slow, it has little play.
The Alvis may appear something of a frantic motoring experience today, but it fulfils John’s promise of bringing bigger-car refinement to a smaller footprint.
It isn’t a full-on assault on the senses and a cranial overload in the mould of a contemporary Model T, and it’s really only the gearbox that prevents the 10/30 from being an intuitive drive for the modern motorist.
Beyond this car’s on-road qualities, however, what makes it truly special is the authentic experience of early 1920s motoring it provides.
It didn’t have a long racing career and was sold in September 1922 as Alvis moved to faster competition models, and served as normal roadgoing transport until its chassis fractured at one of the dumb-irons – a well-known 10/30 Achilles’ heel – and it was taken off the road in 1932.
“Poverty is the best preservation,” says Alan Stote, restorer of the 10/30 and owner of Red Triangle.
He makes the point that, had the chassis not broken and its owner been unable to afford the repair, it would most likely have been modified over time or driven into the ground as it went through its least-valuable years.
Instead, it sat silently in a garage, entirely original, until such a vehicle was appreciated as a survivor worth preserving.
It was finally woken from its hibernation in 1959, bought by the then curator of the Myreton Motor Museum and restored.
Despite having successfully negotiated its ‘banger’ phase, the 10/30 was still not considered a particularly collectible Alvis, and the only buyer for the car after its restoration was an American who took it across the Atlantic, where it disappeared from British enthusiasts’ view until Alan rediscovered it in California in 1989.
Again it had been preserved thanks to a breakdown, its owner having hardly used it for 30 years following an episode of overheating on one of Los Angeles’ gigantic six-lane freeways.
Red Triangle recommissioned the car back in the UK, returning its bodywork to original blue from the yellow that had been applied in the States.
Otherwise the Alvis was remarkably untouched, and it is thought to be the most original of the four remaining 10/30s.
Precious details throughout preserve early artefacts of the Alvis company, such as the green-and-blue winged emblem on the radiator, which was replaced by the famous red triangle – wings removed and turned through 180° – due to a similarity with the emblem of Avro (of Lancaster bomber fame).
A plate on the dash references TG John as the manufacturer rather than Alvis, further reflecting the youth of the marque.
The same is true of the aluminium water take-off atop the engine: it is stamped TG John on one side, Alvis on the other.
Another name stamped on the 10/30, Cross & Ellis, was responsible for the body, which is a delicate wonder.
It’s a handsome if not especially sporty shape, but what particularly impresses is its slender windscreen, fine wood-embellished hood frame and the quality of its aluminium panels.
A strict two-seater in the main cabin, it boasts a well-concealed dickey seat in the rear, with room for one adult or two children, complete with a stirrup-like footrest mounted on the rear wing for stepping into the seat.
The famed Alvis hare radiator mascot is present on this early car, too, echoing the Coventry marque’s emphasis on lightness.
It’s not quite all original, though – this car is nearly 100 years old, after all – and one particularly entertaining retrofit is the single windscreen wiper.
A lever on the side of the bodywork pulls on a bicycle brake cable that provides just one wipe on the upper glass pane.
Having this device fitted does prevent the glass from being rotated into its open position, however, which was the original solution in the 10/30 – and many of its contemporaries – to the problem of rain.
Better to be wet than unable to see, right?
Alan also suspects that, while the brackets for the auxiliary lights are original, the lights themselves wouldn’t have been fitted by the factory for competition work, so are likely later additions.
While Alvis was certainly economical with the truth concerning this ‘privateer’ 10/30, the model’s success over the spring and summer of 1922 was transformational for the company.
Not only did it earn the 10/30 a reputation as a fine car for the middle classes, selling strongly considering Alvis’ limited production capacity and even more limited distribution network, it also started the marque’s racing programme.
In 1926, Alvis entered the first wholly British-built car at that year’s inaugural British Grand Prix, and in 1928 it was the first team from the UK to win the 1½-litre class at Le Mans with a front-wheel-drive car.
This almost forgotten model is the progenitor of both the road and racing traditions of Alvis, and it’s a thrill to find such an original survivor.
Images: Max Edleston
Thanks to: Red Triangle
- Sold/number built 1920-’23/619
- Construction steel ladder chassis with aluminium/tinned-steel body over ash frame
- Engine all-iron, sidevalve 1460cc ‘four’ with aluminium pistons, single carburettor
- Max power 30bhp @ 3500rpm
- Max torque n/a
- Transmission four-speed manual, no synchromesh, RWD
- Suspension semi-elliptic leaf springs f/r
- Steering worm and wheel
- Brakes rear drums only
- Wheelbase 9ft 2in (2794mm)
- Weight 1560Ib (708kg)
- 0-60mph n/a
- Top speed 60mph
- Mpg 33
- Price new £550 (1922)
- Price now c£75,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
Enjoy more of the world’s best classic car content every month when you subscribe to C&SC – get our latest deals here