Car Restoration Projects
Behind the red triangle
The name Rob Gunnell is synonymous with historic car racing and the inverted red triangle with the letters ‘ALVIS’ embossed on it. Jim Gibson met this interesting man and one of his magnificent machines.
This slightly built, quietly spoken man’s lifelong love affair with Alvis cars started nearly 60 years ago, when, in his late-teens, he was walking up a steep hill on a North Sydney street. A man in a car stopped to offer him a lift, for which he was grateful and as the car climbed the hill with ease, Rob asked: “What brand of car is this – a Morris?”
The driver replied: “No it’s an Alvis”.
Rob had just completed his National Service training and was in need of a car and – you guessed it – he found an Alvis. That car was the first of more than a dozen that helped satisfy his burning desire to be a small a part of the story behind the red triangle. Rob still has four Alvis cars in the shed at home today.
There was no interest in cars in Rob’s family: his father was a coastal seaman and never owned a car. Rob’s interest was generated by his mates; most of whom were passionate about cars.
With no formal training or background in things mechanical, he found he had a latent skill and became quite proficient as a car mechanic: all the time gathering more knowledge about the internal combustion engine and the idiosyncrasies of the Alvis marque.
Rob also had a thirst for motor sport and was a skilful racing driver. He raced his Alvises at historic race meetings; in particular at the Amaroo Park circuit in Sydney. These meeting combined cars and bikes and he was keen to have a go on two and three wheels as well. So, during a weekend meeting he would race not only one of his beloved Alvises, but a motorbike and an outfit (motorbike and sidecar), just to complete the trifecta.
Back from the brink
Like many early automobile manufacturers Alvis experimented with a front-wheel-drive (FWD) system. The principle of the front wheels both driving and steering was sound and the first of these 1.5-litre FWD cars was raced in 1925, gaining successes at hill climbs and at England’s legendary Brooklands racetrack, beaten only by Major Segrave’s V12 Grand Prix Sunbeam.
In 1928 Alvis entered the Le Mans 24 hours race with two FWD FA model cars. They finished first and second in their class – sixth and ninth overall.
Rob knew the whereabouts of one of the 12 FWD cars that came to Australia from the 142 produced (only around 40 still exist worldwide). It wasn’t far from where he lived on Sydney’s inner North Shore and he wanted to experience the thrill of owning and driving one of these exceptional racing Alvises.
Chassis number 6992 was the first production FWD to touch our shores, landing in December 1928 and was fitted with a Cross & Ellis replica Le Mans body.
It was raced successfully throughout Australia and New Zealand, competed in the 1938 Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst and passed through many skilful racing hands over time; Alex Mildren being one.
During an assault on Mount Panorama it dropped a con-rod, appropriately on Conrod Straight. The then owner ran out of money and sold it to Bill Clarke in 1948.
Clarke, a successful racer, was keen to construct a rear-engined racing car. His plan was to turn the body around on the chassis and to make other modifications, so he set about completely dismantling the car. It then sat in that state for 17 years.
Rob had pestered Clarke for some time to buy the Alvis, so that he could bring it back to its former glory, but to no avail. Then, one day in 1965, Bill relented and the car was finally Rob’s.
This was the start of a painstaking 22-year journey, Rob said: “For the first 12 months of owning the car I spent every single Sunday at Clarke’s place, finding all the parts of my treasured 1928 FA model racing Alvis that Clarke had strewn throughout his property and taking them home at the end of each treasure hunt.
“Even parts of the aluminium body had been cut off for other projects, as well as an entire centre section cut out in a band across the body.”
The long way back
Rob knew there was more to it than just reassembling the car, because the panel work would have to be re-fettled.
He had attended TAFE courses on panel-beating in the past, but this was an aluminium body and a lot of specialist welding would be required. So, he went about skilling himself in crafting this non-ferrous metal.
Rob wanted to use as much of the original body as possible and took on the monumental task of welding all the body pieces back together. The rear guards were missing and he had to make them by hand, crafting the contours from photographs he received from the original 1928 Australian owner’s son.
He meticulously rolled the edges for strength just as the original coach-builder had done, without the use of wire beading.
The mechanical ingenuity of the FA is amazing for the era. Its front mounted 1482cc alloy engine has a two-piece cylinder block and crankcase, crowned by a single overhead camshaft, with a bucket-type shim tappet adjustment similar to the Jaguar XK engine.
Running down the front of the engine, between it and the transmission, is an intricate mesh of straight-cut gears that operate all of the ancillary components. The magneto, generator and supercharger all drive from this main gearset, but there is no water pump as the cooling system is thermo-siphon.
The carburettor is a Solex side-draught and a Rootes’ style blower (supercharger), made by Alvis engineers, compresses incoming air via three spiral vanes, blowing it through the induction system and into the combustion chambers.
Forward of the engine and gearbox are the differential and inboard drum brakes. The inboard system was to reduce the unsprung weight of the racing car.
The brakes are cable-actuated, with two leading shoes on the front drive axle and a single leading and trailing shoe system retarding the rear axle. Because it’s a Pommy design, the engine and transmission assembly has to be removed to reline the front brake shoes!
All four wheels are independently sprung by quarter-elliptic leaf springs at each corner. From Rob’s experience, this system gives the car a smooth ride and good handling characteristics.
He said: “The steering is a push-pull system with a bell-crank at the bottom of the steering shaft that controls two heavy-duty steering arms that turn the front wheels at the constant velocity drive axle pivots.
“This system’s lever action alleviates heavy steering that a traditional steering box system would suffer from, given the weight of the power plant and drive train assembly.”
On the road
It was 1988 when Rob had Alvis FWD model FA chassis number 6992 back on the bitumen and registered. He drove it to Bathurst to compete in a hill climb that marked 50 years of the Bathurst Grand Prix and, later in the year, to Phillip Island, to participate in the 60th anniversary of the Australian Grand Prix celebrations.
At my suggestion that the cable-operated brakes may lack some stopping power. Rob threw down the gauntlet: “Jump in and let’s try ’em out!”
It was drizzling rain as we headed down the road, sitting in this beautiful British racing car from a bygone era, with the legendary Rob Gunnell at the wheel. It was exhilarating, to say the least.
We wound our way along damp suburban roads until we came to a T-intersection, where Rob made an emergency stop. He looked across from behind the large-diameter, vertical-plane steering wheel and the glint in his eyes said it all: ‘How bloody good are those brakes?’ but he didn’t have to utter a word.
It has taken a remarkable amount of time, skill and dedication for Rob Gunnell to produce this loving restoration of a treasured piece of automotive history, almost back from the dead. It’s quite amazing what this gentle man, with virtually no formal trade qualifications, has achieved.
But wait there’s more…
There is a second FWD Alvis in the Gunnell stable: a 1929 FE coupe that’s the last of the 12 that came to Australia. This means Rob has both the first and last of these rare dozen British immigrants.
The coupe is chassis number 7329 and not much is known of its early history. It had, however, been involved in a significant front-end accident around mid-last-century.
Rob has rebuilt this car also, but that’s a story for another day. In October 2008, Rob and wife Heather drove both cars to a rally of Alvis FWDs in Ballarat, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the model.
1928 Alvis FA front-wheel-drive
Wheelbase: 2591mm (102in)
Track: 1372mm (54in)
Length: 3759mm (148in)
Width: 1753mm (69in)
Engine: Four cylinder inline
Bore & stroke: 68mm × 102mm
Displacement: 1482cc (90.43 cu in)
Maximum power: 75bhp (56kW) at 5000rpm
Compression ratio: 5.70:1
Fuel system: Solex carburettor
Aspiration: Rootes supercharger
Transmission: Four-speed manual
Top gear ratio: 1 to 1 (direct)
Final drive ratio: 4.77: 1