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Grey Lady a timeless classic

Like the mythical prince who slides from grandeur to quagmire by being turned into a frog, it seems inconceivable that the makers of this delicate, flowing beauty clothing an advanced drivetrain would fade into making blunt, square-edged armoured military or security vehicles.

That’s the story of a once prestigious yet now almost forgotten English rival to Bentley and Armstrong Sidderley, Alvis.

With a name that doesn’t mean anything — it was made up by the car maker’s engineer Geoffrey de Freville because it was easy to pronounce — Alvis came from a scooter and stationary engine manufacturer in Coventry in 1919 to a maker of a diverse and beautifully crafted range of vehicles, with a sideline later in armoured vehicles.

The beautiful walnut and leather cabin, and large carpeted boot of the 1954 Alvis TC 21/100.
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The beautiful walnut and leather cabin, and large carpeted boot of the 1954 Alvis TC 21/100.

It evolved with an inventory of making racing cars, aircraft engines (it was a contractor to Rolls-Royce during World War II) and armoured vehicles.

The cars were technically progressive, including being the first to have an all- synchromesh gearbox (1933), servo-assisted brakes, front- wheel-drive with inboard brakes (1928), overhead camshaft and a Roots-type supercharger option (from 1928). But by 1967 the nameplate was plucked from the grille of its latest model — the vertical dual headlight TF21 that was by then twice the price of an equivalent Jaguar — after being bought first by Rover in 1965 and then the two absorbed into Leyland Motor Corporation, predecessor to British Leyland.

The car line ended there while the Alvis name was used for the armoured vehicle division which found a home with Hagglunds, then Vickers Defence and then BAE Systems Land and Armaments.

The car shown here had — like many postwar Alvis saloon cars — a body built by Mulliners of Birmingham. Yet 1954 was the coach builder’s last year with Alvis, after being bought by Standard Triumph and charged with building all its new owner’s cars.

1954 Alvis TC 21/100.
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1954 Alvis TC 21/100.

The car is an Alvis TC21/100 but better known as Grey Lady. The nickname refers to a complimentary term applied by the motoring media, and not one invented by the company. There’s no definite reason for the name, though the cars available for testing in those years could have predominantly been grey in colour.

Cars are regarded as being feminine — perhaps from the French feminine term for car of “la voiture” — and their majestic ride could have induced journalists to give it the more esteemed title of a lady.

The name helped make the TC21 model the most famous of the Alvis cars despite the low production number of 452 saloons and 100 convertibles in its three years.

Like some rivals, power came from an inline six-cylinder engine. The Grey Lady had a 3.0-litre unit with overhead valves and two SU carburettors to claim 104bhp at 4000rpm.

This example was upgraded to 115bhp by fitting a higher- compression cylinder head from the later TD21 model.

The 1954 Alvis TC 21/100 was dubbed the Grey Lady by the motoring media.
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The 1954 Alvis TC 21/100 was dubbed the Grey Lady by the motoring media.

Alvis used the Moss four- speed manual gearbox as standard, though made an exception by fitting an automatic transmission — dubbed Manumatic — for one of its important owners, famed WWII fighter pilot and double-amputee, Douglas Bader.

Components were all top-shelf items, including Girling telescopic shock absorbers (instead of friction dampers) and Lockheed drum brakes. The front suspension was independent with coils and the rears were leaf springs over a live axle.

The car featured here was bought in Queensland in 1994 and was first licensed in WA in March 2007.

It has been extremely well looked after, with a near- flawless exterior wrapping a beautiful walnut and leather cabin.

1954 Alvis TC 21/100.
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1954 Alvis TC 21/100.

Modern cars are often criticised by “looking all the same” but the era of the Alvis wasn’t dissimilar. The cabin particularly follows design themes and material choices shared by its rivals, and even the seating position behind the near-vertical steering wheel with its eagle horn button is common to many cars of the era.

It has a central speedometer flanked by four ancillary gauges, ivory pull switches and slide levers for the heating and cooling functions.

Of interest is the pop-out vents in each footwell for airflow for either front occupant, the large carpeted boot with its flat floor, expansive rear seat and the after-market inclusion of a radio fitted to the right of the steering wheel.

Externally the flowing profile is reminiscent of Jaguar and Bentley saloons, repeated by the similar design of the vertical grille. Some Alvis models wore the optional eagle mascot atop the grille and others had an after-market swallow, while a few even had a rabbit.

1954 Alvis TC 21/100.
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1954 Alvis TC 21/100.

The TC21 shows its higher level of performance with two bonnet intakes, extending then to the optional wire wheels and the rear wheel spats.

Typical of the era also is the slow warm-up of the engine, though the Alvis impresses with its smoothness and quietness over a rival such as the Jaguar Mk VII. The less expensive Jag was, however, a quicker car thanks to its upgraded 142kW engine from the XK120.

It is, though, simply a lovely car to drive. The Alvis is so smooth and quiet, rides on suspension that feels almost endless in its suppleness, and steers with accuracy that belies its normally elastic worm- and-nut steering system.

The Alvis shows a part of British car manufacturing that met an abrupt and ignoble end, an era when striving for the best wasn’t only the hallmark of Rolls-Royce and when small- volume independent manufacturers could appeal to the growingly discerning buyer.

Alvis TC 21/100 Grey Lady

Price new $4552

Price now $60,000

Built 1954

Engine 3.0-litre six-cylinder petrol

Outputs 78kW/221Nm

Transmission Four-speed manual

0-100km/h 15.8 seconds

Thirst 13.7 L/100km

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