Sunday, February 18, 2007

Post-war motoring - Alvis TA21

The Alvis TA21 was introduced in late 1950 to replace the the first post-war car Alvis produced, the TA14. It was, in many ways, a great improvement over the TA14 with its rather under-powered 4-cylinder, 1.9 litre engine. Interestingly, though, the TA21 sold in fewer numbers than its slightly smaller predecessor.
Nevertheless, this was a car of considerable quality. Its in-line 6-cylinder engine of just under 3 litres took what was a heavy car beyond 90mph, generating 100bhp or so at 4000 rpm in twin-SU carburettor form. Early models were fitted with a single Solex carb. The TA21's technical excellence included hydraulic brakes, independent front suspension and a 7-bearing crankshaft.
Well-built and beautifully finished, the TA21 was almost silent when cruising (thanks to typical attention to detail, like the springs that held the pushrods in contact with the rockers), and rivalled the Bentley Mk. V for luxurious yet responsive motoring.
The post-war years saw the gradual demise of the bespoke bodymaker, but Alvis continued with Mulliner and Tickford since they could not find an economic alternative with the likes of the Pressed Steel Company. The cost of a new Alvis TA21 was very high and its superb traditional layout and coachwork had to compete with the likes of the Aston-Martin DB2 and other modern, sporting grand tourers in the same price range.
The TA21 was replaced by the TC21 in 1953.
My father bought a TA14 in 1951 and replaced it with a TA21 in 1953. I recall that we went to a dealer in a mews near Paddington Station in London to buy it. He'd bought the TA14 there too, and many years later confessed to me that if it hadn't been that garage's 'flexibility' over payment, he probably wouldn't have been able to buy it. Instead, Dad was launched on a lifetime's affection for the wonderful Alvis and in all my years of driving, I still think it's one of the best cars to sit in and drive.
The TA21 was comfortable and exuded an air of restrained quality. By modern standards, the interior was small considering the overall dimensions of the car, but it was more spacious than many of its contemporaries and there was plenty of legroom at the back. I can testify to the quietness of the car; I think the lack of road noise from the old cross-ply tyres helped in this respect. It was even quieter than Dad's old Rover P3 which was well-known for its noiseless progress (although when idling the Rover gave meaning to the term 'tickover'), while under rapid acceleration it made a superb 'whooshing' sound.
I only got to drive it when it was quite old, but I don't think it was any different from its early days. The 4-speed gearbox was superb - quite firm but smooth - and all the controls, clutch, footbrake and accelerator could be operated with the lightest of touches. It started promptly on the button with that peculiar sound resembling two bottles being knocked together, and settled quickly into its virtually silent idle.
The steering wheel was large with a narrow rim. Steering was really smooth, with gentle castor action, though with quite abrupt return motion. Of course there was no power steering and it was very heavy at low speeds and required some work to park it neatly.
Years later I bought my own Alvis - a TC21 - so I mustn't confuse that with my impressions of this earlier car. When Dad finally sold it, in 1960, it was as solid, smooth and effortlessly superior as the day he bought it. It was the end of an era for our family.


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