The one-owner life story of a 400,000-mile Alvis TE21

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by Nigel Boothman |

This Alvis has had the same owner for nearly 50 years. Its 400k-mile story includes assaults by baboons, daily commutes, weddings and more

This feature is part of Classic Cars’ Life Cycle series, and was originally published in the February 2015 issue. View the contents of the latest issue here.

1966 Alvis is a ‘better idea’ than a new Sunbeam

Neil Benson was a junior accountant with a young family and £1000 to spend on a new car. First stop, a Rootes dealership to check out a brand-new Sunbeam Rapier.

‘It was terrible,’ he recalls. ‘It seemed so cheaply built and offered no value for money, so I started to think about a secondhand car instead. I didn’t decide which straight away – I hated Jaguars – but then, in the first magazine I looked at, I saw a photograph of an Alvis. I liked the shape of the bonnet and the boot; it was a car-shaped car. I thought, “That’s a better idea – I have to find one”.’

He spotted a 1965 TE21 automatic advertised by Hurst Park, still associated today with sales of Alvis and other high-quality British marques.

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Harriet and Mark Benson in Dad’s daily driver, Hampstead, a few years after the car was bought

The car was just a year old, dumped at a considerable loss by the first owner who took fright when the company announced an end to its car production.

Benson recalls, somewhat sheepishly, how he made the deal. ‘It was just in my range, £999 or something. I was interested in it but was unable to come to the showroom, so they offered to bring it out to me.

‘I liked this, and then when we did the test drive I found I coveted it. The salesman asked if I was interested and I stupidly said yes. I tried to back-track by saying, “But I wouldn’t pay a penny over £950” at which point the salesman cried “Done!” I tried to improve the bargain by demanding that wing mirrors were fitted, and he said, “For that money, you can have ******* bathroom mirrors!”’

1968 Speedo cable snaps on a romp up the motorway

Despite being ‘royally shafted’ on the price – Neil Benson thinks he should have paid more like £650 – he very quickly came to love his Alvis. ‘It was very comfortable and the seats were good for a bad back. I removed the parachute-harness belts that were in it when I bought the car and had sliding inertia-reel anchors fitted, which are much more sensible.’

Neil Benson’s wife, Ann, remembers the Alvis entering their daily life. ‘We lived in a very narrow street and I was embarrassed by the way Neil had to park it with the nearside wheels up on the pavement. I thought it was a lovely thing, though.’

Benson put the car into considerable daily use with more than just London commutes to cope with, beginning a long sequence of years in which he racked up an annual mileage of 20,000-25,000.

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This perfect miniature carries the same paint, interior shade and numberplate as the real thing

The total mileage of the car today is reckoned to be around 400,000, but it’s not known precisely because the Alvis is on its third speedometer.

The first one gave up the ghost on a day out, as Benson explains. ‘I was taking the family, including my scaredy-cat mum, up to see people in Nottingham and I was running very late because I’d mixed up Nottingham with Northampton, which is only about half the distance.

‘So I was doing well over 100mph when the speedo leapt to the right and died. It stopped my mother from discovering the speed, though.’

1975 Trauma at Windsor Safari Park and on holiday

One day in the mid-Seventies stands out in Neil Benson’s mind for the horror it brought him at the hands of destructive primates, though it’s probably remembered by his children – then aged about 12 and 10 – with considerable mirth.

‘I took the kids to Windsor Safari Park to see the animals,’ says Benson, looking grim, even now. ‘We drove into the baboon enclosure and they were soon all over the car, doing something unspeakable on the bonnet and ripping the jacking plugs out of the bumpers. They pulled the windscreen wipers off too. It was one of the most traumatic days of my life.’

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The Alvis eventually gained a badge bar, slowly turning from used car to classic

Having discovered that the Alvis was not well-suited to game viewing, the Benson family continued to rack up the miles.

‘I know that 250,000 came up very early,’ says Neil Benson. ‘We used it on holidays to France and elsewhere, and I remember trying to board a ferry with lots of stuff in the boot, which we had to empty to get the rear end of the car off the ground and up the ramp.

‘Another time, I was collecting friends at Heathrow Airport when I knocked the sump plug off on a hidden sleeping policeman and came back to find the car parked in a lake of oil.’

1984 The car poses for pictures on a 21st birthday

For Neil Benson’s children, the Alvis has always been part of the family and Ann Benson has called the car ‘our third child’. It was therefore natural that Neil’s son’s 21st birthday featured a very dapper Benson Jr and his equally elegant sister Harriet posing with the car – already an heirloom, in 1984 – on Hampstead Heath, close to the family home.

Much later the Bensons’ grandchildren have sometimes shown a mixed reaction to the car. ‘They would never let me collect them from school in it,’ says Neil. ‘They thought it was too grand, or something. Even now, they say, “You’re not coming in the Alvis, are you?” yet they love it when we’re all riding in the car and people make compliments. They award points.’

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Mark Benson’s 21st birthday in 1984 was marked by this stylish photo session with sister Harriet and the Alvis, shortly before they were almost arrested for driving onto Hampstead Heath

At this time, the Alvis was still Neil Benson’s only car, though Mrs Benson had various wheels of her own.

However, the Alvis was always used for pleasure as well as business, as Benson explains. ‘I used it on Alvis Owner Club days out, driving tests and so on, but it was always a surprise to me that it’s regarded as a special item.

‘I do cherish it, but it’s just been my normal car. It gets occasional scuffs but I’m not paranoid about it,’ he says. ‘I never have been. The dents are there, but when something really needed doing I eventually got it sorted out.’

1990 Some relief from daily use – time for bodywork

By the end of the Eighties the Alvis’s annual mileage dropped back from 25,000 when a company car became available to whisk Neil Benson to work. Not that he used it all the time, however, but this respite provided a chance to get the utterly unrestored Alvis smartened up a little.

The work was entrusted to Alvis specialist and custodian of ex-factory parts, records and staff, Red Triangle. Localised rust removal became quite a big body refurbishment with new paint, but the driveline and interior remained untouched.

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The Alvis is used and garaged – the two crucial factors in survival, says Benson

To keep its status as a reliable daily driver, Benson had already begun a gradual programme of changes before the bodywork repairs, which was always aimed at offering a greater degree of safety and dependability.

‘I fitted a Kenlowe fan, a brake fluid indicator light, hazard lights and eventually an electric fuel pump. I changed those wing mirrors Hurst Park fitted, too. It’s always had power steering, which is very nice, but it needed an alternator fitted in place of the original dynamo.’

Other additions included the Eighties radio cassette player that still rests in the dashboard, fully functional. It’s out of place in the elegant Sixties dashboard but it’s also part of a classic car whose role as regular transport has endured through several decades – it’s old, but it’s a piece of the story, so why replace it?

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Holyrood Palace at the end of 1997’s RAC Centenary Rally, with Neil Benson (jumper) and co-driver

1995 Wedding car duties and head surgery

The TE21 was a natural choice for Harriet Benson to use at her wedding in 1995, though the more I hear about the car’s place in the family, the more I suspect it would have been invited even it wasn’t required for any transportation on the day. Still, wedding duty is the kind of task that people expect of a classic car, which is what the Alvis had of course become at some point in Neil Benson’s ownership.

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More sporting but less comfortable company on the RAC Centenary Rally

He enjoyed a trip with the Royal Automobile Club from York to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh in 1997, continuing to push up the car’s already impressive mileage. The late Nineties brought a renewed threat to oft-used classics, as lead-based additives disappeared from petrol, so Neil Benson took the opportunity to send the car away for work to the cylinder head.

‘I had hardened valves seats fitted, and since then I’ve run it just like normal on unleaded fuel,’ he says.

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Some ‘blighter’ backed a truck into the radiator in recent times. Benson was annoyed, but not precious enough to have it fixed immediately ©Charlie Magee

Benson has probably spent more time in an Alvis than any other owner you could find, but he admits to knowing his limits when it comes to getting to grips with mechanical work.

‘I’ve always been happy to leave it to the experts. For a long time I used an Alvis garage located in Horley Crescent in Camden Town. However, since that closed the work has been shared between Red Triangle and my trusty friends Peter, Paul and Susan at a little local garage called Auto Action in Hendon. I know very little about what goes on.’

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Harriet and Mark Benson (centre front) with their spouses and children, 2008

2014 Fiftieth birthday beckons for FKE 315C

Suggest to Neil Benson that his car is more of a pet than a daily driver and he is quick to put you straight. ‘I still use the Alvis pretty well every day to drive both to the office and locally.

‘The modern car belongs to the office so the Alvis is the only car I own. However, the car and I are both ageing – I find long journeys in it tiring now, and I can’t hear the phone at 95mph...’

The TE21 has survived incredibly well, for which the original Alvis and Park Ward build quality must take some credit, but Benson has a straightforward theory for its longevity. ‘It’s garaged, and it’s used. Remove one or other of those two factors and I think any car would deteriorate.’

Ann Benson is less easily impressed, saying, ‘She’s had more surgery than I have.’

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The Alvis is still Neil Benson’s only car, pictured here streaking past Regent’s Park on his usual route to work ©Charlie Magee

Nonetheless, the odd bubble in the paint is causing the car’s owner to consider a second bout of remedial bodywork, 25 years or so after the first. ‘There are dots appearing here and there in the paint and they have sinister undertones,’ Benson says. Meanwhile, the leather interior also gives him some pause for thought. ‘I’m tempted to get it done,’ he says, ‘but I don’t mind it looking worn... I’d be doing it for the perceptions of others.’

Still, the car needs to look smart for its next birthday party. The Bensons have been holding occasional bashes to mark significant Alvis anniversaries – 35, 40, 45 years, and the car’s 50th is in 2015.

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Neil is said to suit the Alvis ©Charlie Magee

‘We invite the neighbours and it gets very imaginative. They bring sump oil for the car and champagne for the people, and Ann once had a cake made. She had great trouble convincing the cake-maker that the lettering should be Alvis and not Elvis.’

The day before our photoshoot, Neil Benson had been out in the car and had once again experienced the good-natured reaction the Alvis invariably seems to provoke. ‘A man said, “That’s a very beautiful car”, so I thanked him. However, he then said “And may I just say how well it suits you”.

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It may have covered more than 400,000 miles, but the Alvis still leads an active life ©Charlie Magee

‘I wasn’t sure if this should be taken as a compliment or not, but I certainly went home grinning.’

Thanks to: Neil and Ann Benson, Rob Rowe, The Alvis Owners Club (alvisoc.org.uk), Red Triangle Ltd (redtriangle.co.uk).

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