Stolen By Nazis, Abandoned, And Buried Under Snow, This Alvis Speed 20 Endures
Photography by Nat Twiss
Though it’s drawing to its darker and colder end now, autumn was in full swing at the time, when I parked up along the tree-lined avenues of Bicester Heritage. The grass and road blended together with heaps of golden leaves, giving the red-bricked RAF base the look of a perfectly curated film set. Parked just in front of me, matching the colors perfectly, was the subject of today’s discussion — a deep red 1935 Alvis Speed 20 Drophead, owned by the creator of Bicester Heritage, Dan Geoghegan.
On my very first visit to this place last year, we’d briefly spoken about this car; first belonging to his father who lovingly restored it in the 1970s, it had since been passed on to him. It was obvious Dan had a deep connection with this stately machine, and I suspected there was more to it than a simple hand-me-down story. But first, we’re off for a drive.
On the road you’d find it hard to believe that this machine is an octogenarian. “Even in its day it was quite dramatic.” explains Dan as we saunter down the country back roads surrounding Bicester. “Alvis were the first to bring in a synchromatic gearbox on all four speeds. It has independent suspension all around. Triple carburetor straight-six, 2.8-liter — plenty.”
“It’d do 85 easily. It appealed to the drivers of the world — maybe ones who were chauffeured during the week, but wanted fun on the weekend. Lords, Ladies, and other interesting people had the Speed 20.”
It feels infinitely more modern than it looks, which must have made it an astounding road machine back in the ‘30s. “Any good car should sound right, look right, smell right, drive right, and though maybe not literal taste, it should represent good taste. You’re fulfilling all the senses.”
The interior is a decadent mix of leather and wood, with central gauges inset in a dark polished surround. Dan recalls, “I used to sit in the passenger seat looking at the reflection of my face in the speedometer, imagining myself in the driver’s seat, listening to the triple carburetors sucking air, and the roar of the six cylinder. It created a lot of happy memories. I’ve not stopped restoring things, or wanting to — including Bicester Heritage — ever since. It’s a great adventure, and my relationship to that car is possibly where it started.”
We return to base and set up on a picnic table outside of the office, with the Alvis parked directly in my sight line. The leaves are falling hypnotically onto the car, and I ask Dan how the car found its way to his father.
“We grew up in this country garage with an orchard and mouldering wrecks of Riley and Alvis bodies, the smell of leather, and plums from the orchard, still in my nostrils. The car was pretty dilapidated when my father found it. A collector owned it as a third car just in case parts were needed. It was red with red leather.”
“My father wanted a project that would exemplify the skills that his company had. It wasn’t just a love affair for the car, but a showcase of what he could do. At the time this was still a 40-year-old car at the time, and the massive interest that we have now wasn’t quite there—his was a genuine and authentic interest in the nostalgia and the history.”
“I think when the car finally got back on the road around 1981 — to my young eyes it was spectacular. The smell, the sound, the wind in the hair, that my father loved it so much and was proud of it. My father painted it dark blue. If I dream about the car it’s still that color.”
Dan’s early interactions with the car, before it passed to him permanently, were fleeting but intensely memorable. “I must have first driven the car in 1984, when I was twelve. Very young — moving it around the yard at the garage, across the forecourt. It was an ambition to drive it from the moment I saw it all those years ago. I used to drive it to school on Saturdays when I was around 17, just after I got my driving license. My friends were driving Nissan Cherrys and things like that. My other car was a Peugeot 309 and I’d always take an opportunity to use one of my mum’s cars or the Alvis. I must have stuck out but it felt normal for me!”
After Dan’s parents retired and moved to France, and the keys were firmly in his grasp, his connection to the car compounded; generational love and the idea of legacy is important to him.
“Dad felt that the reigns should be handed over, and it might have also coincided with the need for an engine rebuild — that was probably my fault anyway! I think it’s often true of parents and children — you wonder who’s going to take on your heirlooms and cherish them. I think he was delighted that it was going to keep being cared for and used. I was at university when I got the keys.”
A young man and a vintage sports tourer can only mean one thing — a continental grand tour.
And this one had a special purpose. “I actually tracked down the original owner of the car, Rolf, who bought it new in 1935 at the age of 21. He was one of three brothers who owned a textile business in Bohemia, and I’d found his son, who’s a great friend now. He called his father and let him know I was bringing the car to Switzerland from the UK. Needless to say he was shocked, and I was unsure if he would want to see it after all these years.”
“In the UK back then, Rolf drove an SS Coupé, but as he told me for his home in Bohemia he wanted a quality car—built by hand and by craftsmen—so he spoke to William Lyons, Lagonda, Bentley, and finally, Alvis. Out of those, he thought the Alvis was the most sophisticated, and so he ordered their Speed 20. He had it painted red, with black wings — their company was called Ladybird.”
On bringing the car on a drive to its first owner, Dan tells of how he first saw Rolf; “I drove to Bern and parked it on the concourse of the station. This tall, elegant man, with a copy of the Financial Times under his arm, holding hands with his wife, walked across to the car, and said ‘AVC 80 — that’s my car.’ He’d last seen it in 1950! He reached to the bonnet — which you have to know how to open without scratching anything, and opened it up as if he did it yesterday. Just fantastic!
“He brought a photo album of the first day with the car in 1935, told me how he drove it down to Bohemia with his brother and a pilot named Jack Matthews — who became the personal pilot of Lord Mountbatten during the war — down the new Autobahn in Germany, to the Nürburgring where an Alvis factory team was testing at the time, and ran some laps of the circuit. They entered a nearby concours d’elegance with a local debutante too, which they won!”
Two young entrepreneurs and their friend, gallivanting across the continent on a grand tour, but as WWII was approaching, and the car would soon find its life taking a very different direction. Dan shares the Alvis’ unique story from this part of its history with me as well.
“As Nazism crept across Europe, the car was caught in the fray. After the annexation of Czechoslovakia, they dismantled the engine and buried it, so nobody could easily take the car. After the war started turning against Germany, Rolf got the car back up and running, but as the Nazis fled, the Gestapo requisitioned the car at gunpoint to use as an escape vehicle.”
“A few months later, Rolf was driving in the snow in his more discreet Skoda when he saw a mound of snow next to a garage with some red paint poking through; after scraping the snow off the bonnet it was quite obvious it was the Alvis. The soldiers had tried and failed to convert its fuel source from petrol, and had left it. Rolf stripped the equipment and traded 400 cigarettes for 20 gallons of fuel from the Kommandant’s chauffeur, added a box to hold the fuel, stripped the interior and reupholstered it (with his family’s silver inside), and drove the car back to the UK in 1945, navigating by the stars, eventually making it over the Channel on a troop ship. The only thing he wasn’t able to barter en route was some home-brewed Czech brandy, which was seized at British customs. His final gesture to a war-torn Europe was throwing the bottle in the sea.”
Dan’s Alvis had had quite the life so far, and it’s still being used often—new pieces of its history occur often. This Alvis is getting to be close to a century old, and it has the extraordinary stories of generations of owners to reflect it.
Although Rolf, the original owner of the Alvis, passed away a few years ago, Dan has stayed close to the family and intends to teach the youngest generation how to drive the car, “I’ve got an entire airfield to do it on now!”
“It’s not a museum piece. It’s one of those cars that, like today, I just want to keep on driving. When it was ordered new it was Rolf’s dream, then my father’s dream, and now it’s mine.”