Move to Alvis in the Midlands

In December 1945 John left the De Havilland Company, having been offered a new job as Managing Director of the Alvis Company in Coventry. He had already had a lot of contact with Alvis because the company participated in the shadow factory scheme. In the course of the war it had supplied De Havilland with 19,084 variable pitch propeller hub assemblies and 137,647 spare parts for variable pitch propellers.

At the time when he joined Alvis the company faced two challenges: converting to peacetime production, and getting back onto a sound financial footing – in the last years before the war it was making a loss.

Initially it survived by taking on a variety of productive activities: manufacturing Leonides aircraft engines, the Alvis Fourteen car, Thomson British Auto Printing Presses, and bomb trolleys for use on aircraft carriers. It  was also reconditioning pre-war Alvis cars (which had inevitably been mothballed during the war). Gradually the company’s new direction was defined. It came to specialize in three categories of product: luxury cars, armoured military vehicles, and aircraft engines.

Manufacturing and selling luxury cars was fraught with difficulties: immediately after the War years supplies of steel were restricted and their allocation was controlled by the government; it was difficult to predict how big the luxury car market might be (especially in the early years when there were recurrent fuel crises); the costs of developing and putting into production a new model of car were extremely high in relation to the potential volume of sales; and it was difficult to maintain long-term contracts with independent bodybuilders, which were gradually bought up by other manufacturers. In the years between 1947 and 1967 Alvis bodies were built by four different coachwork companies: Mulliners, Graber of Berne, Willowbrook of Loughborough, and Park Ward. In 1952 Alec Issigonis (who later designed the Mini) joined the company and in the next three years designed an extremely innovative car of great technical merit; in the meantime the costs of new capital equipment and factory space had nearly doubled. As a result the project was reluctantly abandoned and in 1955 Alec Issigonis returned to B.M.C. In the years between 1946 and 1967 the company built 14,144 Alvis cars in all, an average of roughly 700 cars per year.

The manufacture of armoured military vehicles turned out to be the company’s best long-term money-earner; in fact, it is what it still does today. In the 1930s Alvis had experimented with developing tanks, armoured vehicles and gun tractors, but none of them actually went into production. It also developed a bomb trailer, which was successful – over 10,000 were produced during the war. In the war years the company participated in the manufacture of a wide range of military equipment but this did not include tanks or armoured cars. In the late 1940s the directors decided to have another go at moving into the military vehicle market.  By the end of 1949 a mock-up armoured car was presented to the army and gained a favourable reception; by 1950 Alvis had gained a major order for the Saracen armoured car. Over the years this was followed by a series of other military vehicles: the Salamander cross country fire tender, the Stalwart cross country amphibious load carrier, the Saladin armoured car, the Scorpion fire support vehicle and the Scimitar. In all 4,262 of these vehicles were produced, of which 1,629 were exported to twenty-three countries. In 1964 an agreement was signed with Automobiles M. Berliet of Lyon for the joint production of vehicles to be used by N.A.T.O. forces.

The Leonides aero engine was produced with great success from 1946 to 1970. The design and development of a 450 bhp Leonides engine had actually started in 1937, but the project was shelved at the outbreak of the war. After the war development was resumed and by the end of 1945 a fully tested model was ready to be put into production. The engine was very successful, being used in the “Sealand” flying boat, the Westland “Dragonfly” and “Widgeon” helicopters, the Bristol “Sycamore” helicopter, the Percival “Prince”, “Provost”, and “Pembroke” aircraft, the Scottish Aviation “Prestwick Pioneer”, the De Havilland “Husky”, and the Saunders-Roe Hovercraft.

In 1954 a more powerful 875 bhp engine, the Leonides Major, was brought out. It was adopted for the Westland “Whirlwind” helicopter.

In the mid sixties the nine-cylinder Leonides was available in nine versions and the Leonides Major in three versions. It was installed in army and navy aircraft being operated by the Air Forces of the U.K., Australia, Belgium, Burma, Eire, France, Iraq, Italy, Rhodesia, Sweden and Thailand. By 1970, when the last Leonides was built, 2,300 engines had left the factory and in subsequent years aero engine servicing continued to generate a considerable volume of work.

The various Leonides models were all piston-engined and the company was well aware that in time it would be necessary to switch to gas turbine engines. A large gas turbine engine was designed for the Bristol twin engined helicopter but in the end was not put into production; the incorporation of Alvis in British Leyland in 1967 led to the production of Rover Gas Turbines (a small gas turbine engine) in the Coventry factory under Alvis management from 1967 to 1973.

In 1965 Alvis was merged with Rover and John joined the Rover Board. The rationale behind this development was that this would enable Alvis to continue to be involved in the production of luxury cars and would reduce its excessive dependence on military vehicles – by that time the production of Alvis cars and Leonides aero engines was declining. The production facilities and skills of the two companies were in fact similar and complementary. In 1967 both companies were absorbed into British Leyland (which eventually sold off Alvis to United Scientific Holdings in 1981). This succession of mergers was typical of the British motor industry in that period.

From this brief account of the activities of the Alvis Company in the years in which it was managed by J.J.P. (he was made Chairman in 1949) it will be evident that maintaining its viability required a range of skills: diversifying its product range and activities, and concentrating on those which could command a market and were likely to be profitable; negotiating with the British military establishment, aeroplane and helicopter manufacturers, and foreign buyers of aircraft and armoured vehicles to achieve sales; adapting the company’s productive facilities to manufacture new products; training and managing a highly skilled workforce; and, towards the end, keeping the factory running at a time when the British motor industry was in decline and industrial unrest on the increase.

Other positions held

In 1954-55 and 1955-56 John was President of the Society of British Aircraft Constructors (the organization which runs the Farnborough Air Show), a measure of his standing and of the importance of the company within the aircraft industry. He also served as Vice-President of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Throughout the years in which he managed Alvis as an independent company (1946 to 1965) it consistently made a profit. In his later years it depressed him to witness the decline of the British motor industry but at least in the end the Alvis Company survived, albeit no longer as a car manufacturer.

During his time at Alvis and for a few years after retirement J.J.P. also served on the boards of various companies as a non-executive Director: he was a Director of the Cornhill Insurance Company, Vice Chairman of Birfield Ltd., Chairman of Salisbury Transmission Ltd. and Kent Alloys Ltd. and a director of the Rover Co. Ltd. and Rover Gas Turbines Ltd. He was also Chairman of the Export Council for the British Aerospace Industry and a member of the Ministry of Defence Scientific Advisory Council.

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