FOUNDER OF ALVIS LIMITED
The Early Years
Thomas George John was born in 1880 to a shipwright in the Pembroke Naval Dock Yard and was educated at the Royal Naval College and the Royal College of Science. He was a Whitworth Exhibitor, Member of the Corps of Naval Constructors and acquired qualifications in civil engineering, car and aviation engineering and cost accounting.
Positions at Vickers
By 1907 John was placed in charge of Research and Development at Vickers, the largest builder of naval vessels, when the government became concerned by the size of the German airship fleet and threat of the submarine. The Official Secrets Act was passed in 1910 and Vickers was ordered to build an airship as a result of which John was appointed Ship yard Manager at Barrow in Furness, the Submarine base, the youngest man to hold this position. The airship was completed in 1911 but damaged in a handling accident.
Winton Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty and expecting a major battle in the North Sea the Admiralty designed the 300 feet long K class submarine with steam engines, as well as electric and diesel, to operate at the same speed as the main fleet. John was ordered to redesign two of these without steam engines becoming the M1 with a warship size gun to attack shipping and dive quickly and the M2 to carry a reconnaissance aircraft.
In 1914 John presented a paper to the Institution of Naval Architects dealing with dock yard layout for building large ships and the use of tools which was very well received. Churchill out of power after the failed Gallipoli campaign was appalled by the slaughter on the Western Front and formed the Landships Committee, on which John may have sat, which produced the tank and hastened the end of the war. Sidddeley Deasy received a large order for British designed aero engines and John was appointed Chief Engineer in 1915 but production was delayed by design changes.
In 1917 John registered his own company in Coventry with his enormous qualifications and experience behind him with the objects of developing engines for use in the air and on land and producing munitions. He raised the capital to purchase the Coventry engineering company of Holley Bros with contracts to be completed. He acquired the manufacturing rights of the four cylinder 1.5 litre French D F P engine which with aluminium pistons produced more power and with forced lubrication gave better bearing performance. A French Buchet car was studied as no car design work place here during the war.
In 1924 T G John wrote in motor sport on the value of Brooklands to the motor industry.
Racing & Front Wheel Drive
The 1920 Alvis 10/30 performed well in competitions and sold well and established itself as a leader in the small car class. John followed a policy of high grade workmanship and improving design and many patents were registered tested by racing and record breaking. In 1923 a modified 12/50 won the 200 miles race at Brooklands at 93 mph and in 1924 Sir Arthur Lowes- Dickinson joined John as Chairman having advised Lloyd George at the time of the wartime munitions crisis before becoming Prime Minister. John wrote on the value of Brooklands in Motor Sport.
In order to meet Continental competition for the 1925 200 miles race, and the 1926 and 1927 British Grand Prix, with corners, John used four and eight cylinder 1.5 litre supercharged engines, front wheel and all independent suspension, being major design advances, with 12/50 sales increasing so that this model is now regarded as the best small car on the vintage years. The racing and record breaking successes produced limited sales to the motoring enthusiast and the racing programme was ended in 1930 but design advances especially in vehicle suspension continued.
In 1932 the 90 mph six cylinder Alvis Speed 20 was produced scoring a place at Brooklands. Winston Churchill on a visit to Frankfurt observed the actions of the Nazi party. In 1933 the Speed 20 and following models were fitted with independent front suspension and the worlds first all synchro gearbox. In 1934 John built a new factory in Coventry with the latest equipment and facilities to build aero engines based on French Gnome Rhone designs the engine accepted producing 1060 hp. The Air Ministry then decided to accept it only for commercial and not military use. In 1934 an autogiro was demonstrated on the Finishing Straight at Brooklands and Alvis later designed its own 9 cylinder radial engine called Leonides for which development contracts were received before war broke out. Later it powered helicopters.
John now sat on the Councils of the Society Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Society of British Aircraft Constructors and was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In 1936 the rearmament programme was started and more capital was raised and the 4.3 litre engine was produced, this being the country’s fastest unsupercharged fully equipped car. Armoured vehicle designs by Nicholas Straussler were accepted by the War Office and were produced by Alvis Mechanisations, driven by the powerful 4.3 litre engine, with John as Chairman and sold to the British and Dutch Governments. Alvis also built prototype vehicles. Before war broke out the 12/70 (1800 cc) was produced and modified made the fasted lap in the Brooklands meeting at 110 mph while a 4.3 litre car lapped at 120 mph. During the war Alvis produced a large number of aero engines and bomb trolleys.
John wrote on the future of the car industry when living at Rouncil Towers Kenilworth, was ordered complete rest in 1944 and died in 1946 at his London home in Putney. He was recognised as an outstanding and courageous leader and industrialist who believed anything was possible if you tried hard enough. He led every action which ensured the success of the company which came to maturity after the war in which the company played a very important part.
Post war construction of the 125 mph 3 litre car ended in 1967, the jet engines took over from radial engines but armoured vehicles were exported to 40 countries. By 2004 Alvis was Europe’s largest builder of light armoured and security vehicles and was purchased by British Aerospace for £355 million.
Johns policy of advanced design with high grade engineering and testing on the race track produced drive and suspension design advances for armoured vehicles driven by the powerful 4.3 litre engine.
Postwar the company grew and the Government amalgamated the defence industry into British Aerospace Alvis Vehicles being brought for £355 million in 2001.
Reference - Kenneth Day's Alvis Archive and his book: Alvis - the story of the Red Triangle 4th Edition published by Haines in 2008 and The Vintage Alvis by Peter Hull and Norman Johnson.