19th Oct, 2022 13:00

Imperial War Museum, Duxford

Lot 55

1934 Alvis Speed 20SB Vanden Plas 'Flatback' Saloon
Supplied new to Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, GVCO, DSO

Sold for £84,217

(including buyers premium)

Lot details

Registration No: AYN 15
Chassis No: 11288
MOT: Exempt

  • The most original of the eight Vanden Plas 'Flatback' Saloons known to have survived (from just thirty-six built)
  • For many the best looking enclosed Alvis ever made
  • Current family ownership since 1961
  • Matching car, chassis, body and engine numbers
  • Wonderfully conserved with a gloriously original interior and traces of its initial paintwork etc
  • Used as a reference in the restoration of a sister car (chassis 11845) which sold for $198,000 during 2015
  • The subject of an extensive engine overhaul and much other mechanical fettling
  • Supplied new to Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, GVCO, DSO. One of the world's richest men, the 2nd Duke of Westminster had a principal residence with fifty-four bedrooms (plus homes around the globe), a private railway line and two yachts (one steam, one sail) etc

A mercurial character who became renowned within the London motor trade for sourcing the very best pre-owned exotica, Charles Follett would travel anywhere in the UK for the right car building-up an enviable client base in the process. A member of the Brooklands set, his ‘black book’ comprised society’s elite from racing drivers to celebrities via members of the aristocracy. Given sufficient funding to buy showrooms in the heart of Mayfair, he became the Alvis concessionaire for London and the Home Counties during 1931. Seriously impressed at the Coventry firm’s engineering integrity but dismayed at the staidness of its offerings, Follett set about turning the marque into a Lagonda, Sunbeam, Invicta and (later) Bentley rival. Decades before Jaguar came up with its famous ‘Grace . . . Space . . . Pace’ slogan, he was adamant that all three were intrinsic to making a car appeal to wealthy buyers.

Introduced in late 1931, the Alvis Speed 20 SA was the first model which Follett could really sink his teeth into. Based around a low-slung, double-dropped chassis frame, powered by a lusty 2511cc OHV straight-six engine and boasting 90mph performance, it proved an ideal canvas for the coachbuilder’s art. Conscious that Vanden Plas’ order book had thinned considerably due to Rolls-Royce’s acquisition of Bentley and the subsequent hiatus in the latter’s production, he approached the London company with a bold proposal. Follett would order a minimum of 100 bodies from them if they would (a) cut the average cost from £600 to £195 per chassis and (b) devise a range of suitably rakish designs over which he would have sign off. Vanden Plas capitulated and came up with a notably stylish Saloon, Tourer and Drophead Coupe which The Autocar hailed as ‘very attractive special bodies’.

Often at loggerheads with Alvis’ supremo T.G. John and his chief engineer G.T. Smith-Clarke over the ‘unnecessary’ expense of a la mode coachwork, Follett once denied the pair access to their own boardroom while he laid out the £895 required to buy a Speed 20 in one pound and ten shilling notes just so they would better appreciate that looks and amenities were as important as driving dynamics when such sums were involved. Embracing the ‘Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday’ ethos, Follett campaigned a series of Alvis cars at Brooklands. Evolving from SA to SB guise in September 1933, the Speed 20 gained a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox, independent front suspension and adjustable rear dampers. While, stylistically the model was enhanced via a forward sweeping scuttle / bonnet join line, 19-inch wire wheels and larger Lucas P100 headlights. Again tasked by Follett with clothing the Speed 20SB to best effect, Vanden Plas produced a variety of open and enclosed bodies the best looking of which was undoubtedly a two-door saloon cum fixed head coupe known as the ‘Flatback’.

A close-coupled, Four Light design with notably slim A-, B- and C-Pillars, the ‘Flatback’ also sported a distinctive swage line that accentuated its airy glasshouse and ‘letter box’ rear window. A spectacular exemplar of the ‘airline’ styling trend which captivated the automotive industry on both sides of the Atlantic during the mid-1930s, the Speed 20 SB ‘Flatback’ is arguably the best-looking enclosed Alvis ever made. Indeed, for many its desirability is second only to that of the (again) Vanden Plas-bodied 4.3 Litre Short Chassis Tourers. Often finished in two-tone liveries, the four-seater sported extravagantly peaked, full flowing wings as well as a louvred scuttle and external fuel filler neck. Long prized by collectors for being among the most elegant pre-WW2 Saloons, only eight of the thirty-six Speed 20 SB ‘Flatbacks’ made are known to have survived to the present day.

Initially finished in Black with Brown leather upholstery and Cream coachlines that not only adorned the swage line but also extended to the trailing edge of the bonnet louvres, chassis 11288 was despatched from the Works on March 8th 1934. Issued with the London registration number ‘AYN 15’, the rakishly elegant ‘Flatback’ was supplied new to one of Europe’s richest men, Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, GCVO, DSO. Able to call upon a fleet of up to seventeen Rolls-Royces, it is thought that the Duke – known familiarly as Bend’Or - used the Alvis for personal transport (as a two-door it was not best suited to chauffeur duties). Memorably described by the politician and diarist Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon as ‘magnificent, courteous, a mixture of Henry VIII and Lorenzo Il Magnifico, he lived for pleasure—and women—for 74 years. His wealth was incalculable; his charm overwhelming; but he was restless, spoilt, irritable, and rather splendid in a very English way’, Grosvenor was used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it and could afford anything.

Representing Great Britain at the 1908 Olympics as a power boat racer, he privately funded the development of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Armoured Car whilst on active service during World War One. A close friend of Sir Winston Churchill, Bend’Or had a private railway line for commuting between his fifty-four bedroom family seat, Eaton Hall in Cheshire, and a London property empire which encompassed much of Mayfair and Belgravia. The owner of a four-mast sailing ship ‘The Flying Cloud’ and an extravagant steam yacht ‘The Cutty Sark’, Grosvenor was a frequent visitor to Monte Carlo where he met Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel during 1923. The two embarked upon an affair which lasted into the next decade with the legendary fashion designer commenting thus: ‘wealth of such magnitude ceases to be vulgar. It is beyond all envy and assumes the proportions of a catastrophe. Moreover, I say it because wealth makes Westminster the last representative of a departed civilization’. Just a drop in an ocean of playthings, the Speed 20SB was only retained for fifteen months.

Thereafter, ‘AYN 15’ is known to have belonged to W.M. Anderson Esq of Rhysnant Hall, R.M.R. Davies Esq of Swansea, A. Davies Esq of Penrith and L.V. Halliwell Esq of New Earswick before entering the current family ownership in 1961 by which time its Black paintwork had been augmented with Green side panels. Renowned in Alvis Owners’ Club circles for the length of time he owned the ‘Flatback’, the vendor’s late father chose to conserve rather than restore it. To this end, the original BTH magneto was refurbished by D.H. Day (1973), the gearbox refreshed (1974) and the radiator renewed courtesy of Great Western Radiators / Motor Metalcraft (1980). Keith Taylor of Tectus Engineering thoroughly overhauled the factory-fitted straight-six engine using a brand-new crankshaft made by Farndon Engineering (1991-1993). Idle for a few years prior to being inherited by the seller, the Speed 20SB was entrusted to MCI Ltd of Blackburn for light recommissioning during 2020. While, the next year saw Tudor Wheels Ltd recondition the rear wheels and fit new tyres; the clutch relined and the engine tuned (carburettors balanced, ignition timing adjusted etc) by former Crosthwaite & Gardiner engineer John Moore.

Starting readily and running well during our recent photography session, this wonderful Post Vintage Thoroughbred is coming to market for the first time in sixty-one years because the vendor finds himself far too aware of its value, history and unique state of preservation whenever he drives it. The plan is to replace ‘AYN 15’ with a smaller, less precious, four-cylinder Alvis and transfer across the replica hare mascot which the seller bought his father as a birthday present many moons ago. Surely a worthy entrant in the preservation class of any world class concours event and, dare we say it, a ‘must have’ for the true Alvis aficionado, this most special of all the ‘Flatbacks’ is worthy of close inspection. Offered for sale with V5C Registration Document, continuation buff logbook, copy Alvis Car Record and numerous bills / invoices.

For more information, please contact:
Damian Jones
07855 493737


All successful bids must be paid in full by midday the day after the auction at the latest.

You can collect your new pride and joy from our venue until 1pm the day following the sale or our partners are on hand to help arrange safe transportation:


Auction: Imperial War Museum, Duxford, 19th Oct, 2022

An auction of classic & collector motorcars


Tuesday 18th October 2022 from 12pm to 6pm
Wednesday 19th October 2022 from 9am
Additional viewing for lots 200-254 on Thursday 20th October 2022 from 9am

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