Car Restoration Projects
Lagonda V12 – the class of 1938
This 1938 V12 sports saloon, chassis number 14051, was the very car on centre stage of the Lagonda stand at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show. At the completion of the show it set a new world record, being driven at 100mph on a new German Autobahn for a distance of 97.8 miles.
Jim Gibson caught up with Sydney businessman Owen Eather – the proud owner of this beautifully sculptured and technically advanced (for its day) example of automotive history.
Owen’s journey with the Lagonda started back in 2008, when he saw it advertised in a Bonhams Auction House brochure. He was actually looking for a Bentley at the time, but when he came across the Lagonda he was instantly attracted to it, even though it was above his budget.
He had driven a couple of Bentleys and their purchase price was within reach, but they didn’t quite make the grade.
As it happened, he was overseas on a business trip when the Bonhams auction was held and on his return he found the Lagonda had been handed it and was still available.
After some mind wrestling – cost verses passion – he contacted the owner; drove the Lagonda and realised this car had breeding. After all, W O Bentley had designed the V12 masterpiece that was ticking away with Swiss watch precision under the bonnet.
Triumph specialist and automotive mechanical whiz David Clark had previously restored a TR5 to concours condition for Owen, so trusting him and knowing the quality of Clark’s workmanship he contacted him and persuaded him to look at the Lagonda.
They made a list and costed some of the work required: the original air cleaner was missing; the carburettor cold-start was missing; the exhaust manifolds needed re-coating; some interior woodwork and instrument fettling was needed and Owen wasn’t happy with the blend of the two-tone paintwork at the rear.
These items were some of the detailing required in bringing it back to its former 1938 glory.
Owen said: “I then came to a financial agreement with the owner, even though it would exceed my budget.
“This car was a piece of automotive history and the opportunity to purchase a car such as this doesn’t come along all that often.”
Headed Down Under
Chassis number 14051 was originally brought to Australia by Northern Territory cattle baron Lord Vesty. His daughter used it for some time in Brisbane and at one stage the V12 engine failed. Because there was little knowledge of the engine by Australian mechanics, it was replaced with an Armstrong-Siddeley six-cylinder.
The Lagonda later passed to another owner, before being purchased by Jim Whitehead, who replaced the foreign engine with a V12 that was close, in production timing, to the original engine number.
A Tasmanian pastor then bought it and owned it for 10 years.
Sydney Lagonda aficionado Les Miller purchased it and brought it back to the mainland as a non-goer. He did some work on the powertrain and replaced the retro-fitted Holden carburettors with the correct-spec’ downdraught SUs. He used the car regularly.
After buying the car from Miller, Owen took it to Dave Clark’s workshop for him to start on the things-to-do list. A cold-start unit for the SUs was purchased from Midel in Sydney, which is the holy grail for SU parts.
Instruments and dashboard woodwork restoration was started, as well as repairing the windscreen vent opening winder.
With some difficulty an original air cleaner was sourced from the UK, to replace the aftermarket and very much out of place unit atop the twin SUs. The generator was overhauled and the exhaust manifolds ceramic-coated.
Owen said: “The Lagonda is far from concours, but I will never buy a car to create a museum exhibit.
“A car is a mobile piece of mechanical engineering and should always be employed that way.”
A masterpiece created
“We have to produce the best car in the world and have only two years to do it. This will be your job and mine is to find the money for it”.
These were the words of Alan P Good, who purchased Lagonda Motors in the mid-1930s, saving it from extinction. He employed W O Bentley as technical director, to deliver the birth of an all-new ‘clean sheet design’ Lagonda V12. The gestation period was two years and the new car arrived, with the first models shipped to clients in the northern spring of 1938.
Its great looks were from the pen of stylist Frank Feely, with taut yet elegant proportions and lines.
The Lagonda V12 was more expensive than a Rolls-Royce and faster than a Bentley. The V12 short chassis sports saloon accelerated from 0-60mph (100km/h) in 12.9 seconds, which was a pretty stunning result for a car that tipped the scales a fraction under two-tons (39.5cwt in old money).
The architecture of the new V12 engine was rather unusual and interesting. The crankshaft actually relied on only four main bearings and it had two Duralumin connecting rods paired on each crankpin. The crankpins were subjected to a nitro-hardening process and the con-rods worked directly on them, without bearing shells. There was also a spacer ring on each crankpin, between the pair of con-rods.
The control system for the timing gears and two duplex chains was quite complex. It was perhaps the result of an attempt to combine the advantages of the two systems: the accuracy of gears with the quietness of chains.
It appears that at the end of the 1930s, Jean Bugatti intended to use a very similar system on the Type 57, but the idea unfortunately never made it into production, with just a few prototypes being built.
When maintenance was required, it was possible to dismantle the camshafts and cylinder heads of the Lagonda V12 without touching the valve gear train, in other words without changing the phasing.
The oil distribution was rather complex; consisting of two separate circuits, each with its own pump. A high-pressure circuit was dedicated to oiling of the crankshaft and journals, and the low-pressure one was responsible for the lubricating the rest of the engine.
The camshafts controlled two overhead valves for each cylinder. The valves were not arranged in a vee, but in-line, so it was sufficient to have only one overhead camshaft for each bank.
Owen said: “There is no doubt the V12 engine is W O Bentley’s masterpiece and this car with its unique engine was greatly under-rated – it was his piece de resistance.”
For carburation, Lagonda intended using the same model Stromberg that was also planned for the new Rolls Royce Phantom III, but Stromberg withdrew the model from the market, forcing Rolls Royce to develop its own carburettor and Lagonda to look elsewhere. After some experiments with a Solex carburettor, the choice went to a new downdraught SU model.
The front suspension was independent double wishbone, sprung by very long torsion bars extending almost halfway along the length of the chassis. It was a sophisticated system for its day and gave the car a supple ride.
In making an evaluation of the better British cars, Road & Track Magazine’s October 1978 edition said:“The Lagonda V12 certainly must be considered an excellent design and one that contributed to raising the state-of-the-art, and not forgetting of course, that it probably should be considered W O Bentley’s masterpiece.”
The 80+-year-old Lagonda is beautiful to drive: it holds the road and rides with aplomb, although the worm and peg steering box does wander a little – trait not helped by cross-ply tyres, one would suspect. A set of late-model radials could probably remedy this.
The torque of the V12 is enormous and it pulls effortlessly from 700rpm in top gear. The four-speed synchromesh transmission lever glides through the gate. The big car flows with ease in today’s traffic and at 60mph on the freeway the tacho needle registers 3100rpm. The big V12 Lagonda gets plenty of rubber-necking from other motorists.
Lagonda 14051 was a company demonstrator and was driven to the motor show by two British motoring journalists from The Motor magazine – Laurence Pomeroy and Gordon Wilkins – whose intention after the show, was to cover 100 miles on public roads in one hour.
Wilkins is quoted: ‘Sadly we couldn’t quite make it, because Hitler hadn’t made enough road!
‘The Lagonda could cover 100 miles in one hour without any problem, but we wanted to do it on a pubic road not whizzing around Brooklands.
‘We achieved just under 98 miles within the hour. It was a terrible disappointment, but the fault of Hitler, rather than ours.’ To achieve this the car would have needed to exceed 100mph to cover the distance.
Wilbur Gunn, an American born in Springfield, Ohio and who emigrated to England, founded the Lagonda brand at the beginning of the 20th century.
The strange name ‘Lagonda’ comes from Anglo-French contraction of the name Ough Ohonda, given by the American Indians to the river that runs through Springfield. It is thought Gunn used the word Lagonda in memory of his homeland.
The brand had some motor racing successes and even became a favourite car of Tsar Nicola II of Russia, after a victory in St Petersburg-Moscow-St Petersburg car race.
After Gunn’s death in 1920, Lagonda changed owners several times, producing a series of little gems at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s. One of these was the famous Rapier that was able to reach 120 km/h, even with its small 1100cc engine. Italian racing driver Tazio Nuvolari praised it as a small Alfa.
In spite of the quality of its products, the company was not strong enough to survive and it went bankrupt in 1935. It was then that 30-year-old investor, Alan P Good, re-launched it, entrusting the design department to the famous W. O. Bentley.
W O’s V12-powered Lagonda was a major contributing factor to the new company’s short-lived success, before WWII intervened. David Brown, of Aston Martin fame, bought Lagonda in 1947.
Lagonda short chassis sports saloon
Engine: 4.5litre – V12 with one camshaft per bank
Bore – 75mm
Stroke – 85.5mm
Gearbox: Four-speed with synchromesh
Horsepower – 180bhp @ 5500rpm
Ignition: Twin 12-volt Delco-Remy distributors
Carburettor: Twin downdraught SUs
Clutch: 11in. Borg & Beck
Steering: Marles worm & nut – 3.75 turns lock to lock
Brakes: Lockheed with tandem master cylinder
Shock absorbers: Armstrong hydraulic
0 – 100km/h: 12.9 seconds
Wheels & Tyres: 18in. wire spokes and 6.50 cross ply tyres
Wheelbase: Short chassis 10ft 4in (3.15m)
Price when new: Stg£1550