In the latest My First Car feature, Tom Scanlan takes a trip down memory lane to tell of his first car which was a 32-year-old Alvis 12/60 Beetleback.
1961 — the year that the Jaguar E-Type stunned the world. Also new were the Triumph TR4 and the latest MG Midget.
But the two-seater sports car that I, aged 17, craved was an old Alvis 12/60 Beetleback.
The moment, that year, that I first saw one is etched in my memory. As I walked along a road near home this extraordinarily handsome white two-seater crackled past. That was it.
Two years later I was off to Dulwich in south London to collect my very own Beetleback, £125 in my wallet ready to be handed to the owner of KJ 658, pictured above with my young brothers aboard.
Alvis had a fine reputation for quality engineering and the 1920s — the 12/50 is still one of the most highly-regarded cars of the period.
The 12/60 TK of 1931 was a development that increased the engine capacity from 1,495 c to 1,645cc. Twin SU carburettors fed the petrol in and gave the car a claimed 56 horsepower.
The four-speed crash gearbox (the lever on the driver’s right and the accelerator pedal between the clutch and brake pedals) was a delight to use and top speed was a theoretical 76mph, according to some reports. I reckon I got 72mph out of each of the two Beetlebacks I owned.
A high third gear was a useful feature. I could actually start from zero in third and change up to top at around 55mph, which meant that the engine was revving at more than 4,000rpm.
However, because the car was heavier than the sportier 12/50s, it was no faster and perhaps in fact slower overall, especially in the case of 12/50s that had the big port cylinder as opposed to the small port head in the 12/60.
The body, by Carbodies Ltd (whose factory was virtually across the road from Alvis in Coventry), was of the usual steel panelling on an ash frame. My first car had no rust and no rot, as I recall, even after 30 years. Someone had ridiculously hacked about the two doors, presumably to give them a sporty cutaway look, so I had them restored to original.
A feature of the design was the louvred valances running between the wings.
There was a dicky seat for one, but the particularly neat feature was the panel under which the hood (that itself protected only the driver and front seat passenger!) was stowed. This panel was attached on clever, hidden hinges so as not to spoil the smooth upper body lines with any ugly protrusions.
My early attempts at gear-changing were not always successful. They say that Louis Chiron, the between-wars French racing driver, would be physically sick if he grated the cogs… I wasn’t quite so sensitive and, after jamming the gearbox and finding that I had actually bent a gear selector fork, I made sure to learn how to do clean changes. Then, after I could guarantee that, it was even more fun to go up and down the box without involving the clutch. It was simply a matter of timing the revs.
Out on the road, hitting maximum revs produced a very satisfactory crackle from the copper exhaust pipe. A couple of times I removed the silencer to create a really loud ‘racer’ sound that didn’t seem to cause any problems in those days.
The engine was of pushrod design. These eight hollow rods were covered by an aluminium plate bearing the name ‘Alvis’ that I enjoyed polishing up, along with, on the offside of the engine, the copper fuel pipes and the little brass lids on the carbs.
Pushrod failure once brought the Alvis to a stop at Quatt, in Shropshire, on a trip to a Vintage Sports Car Club race meeting at Oulton Park. A nasty rattle had developed, a good hundred miles from my starting point, and, although I gingerly drove on for a couple of miles, ‘ping’ went the pushrod and that was the end of that particular drive. The good thing was that the bus I caught to travel onwards went via Ironbridge, thus getting me my first view, as it were, of the Industrial Revolution.
I eventually put the car up for sale after a Morris Minor crashed into it and jammed the Marles steering box. One chap called and offered a pair of shotguns for it!
Later, I acquired a TL 12/60… knock-off hubs, not nuts, on the 1932 model. I did a lot of mileage that included driving to my new job in Germany, along with wife, and two small boys squeezed into the hood space. Happy days!
The second Beetleback’s registration was UB 8680 and it was on sale a few years ago at a Belgian dealer for 68,000 euros.
In the USA, a Beetleback went for $120,000 including Bonham’s Premium. Perhaps more realistic was the £42,000 plus for one at a Coys UK auction last summer!
SGMW members with My First Car memories should send the story and pictures to email@example.com