How a Good Deed Led to Ownership of a “Rara Avis”*
John Harriman

The car pictured is a 1934 Alvis Speed 20 SB with open tourer bodywork by Cross and Ellis. Though never officially exported to the States (there are only 27 Speed 20s in this country), Alvis cars were very popular in Great Britain, meriting an annual “National Alvis Day” celebration. In character, they were something of a “BMW” in their day. The Speed Twenty line is credited with bringing Alvis through the Great Depression. Though Alvis cars were still manufactured into the mid-sixties, the company never fully recovered from a complete destruction of the factory in Coventry by German air raids during World War II.

“Black Beauty,” as my children call her, can often be seen on weekends motoring north on Skyline Boulevard to the intersection of Highways 35 and 9 where they enjoy hot dogs courtesy of “Mr. Mustard” and motorcyclists check out the old car.

The ownership history of “Black Beauty” involves many people, including a British four-star general, Sir Charles Grant Pitchford. In 1956, Tom Rowan, formerly of my Las Cumbres mountain community, had the car brought over from England. He used it as a daily driver in Los Angeles, climbing over the Santa Monica Mountains to work. Hence, it should come as no surprise that it can handle the drive up Black Road or Route 9 to Skyline. Tom restored the car from 1991 through 1997 at considerable expense. I am the ninth person to own the car.

I became owner of the Alvis after helping Tom find a buyer for his house. The result was that Tom and his wife invited my wife and me over for a glass of wine. Tom made the mistake of challenging me to identify what kind of car it was from across the garage floor. What Tom didn’t know was that I am an avid car history nut, had a model of the same car and thus could readily call out, “It’s an Alvis Speed 20!” He was impressed. When he revealed that it was for sale, you can figure out the rest.

I recently linked up with another Alvis (1938 Speed 25) owner in Los Gatos. We met at the repair shop of the Jag mechanic who helps both of us look after our old friends. We see ourselves as merely the current caretakers of works-of-art that will, with luck, outlive us by many years.

Perhaps someday I can return the kindness of the last owner by bestowing the car on the next caretaker at a reasonable price. The main criteria is, it must go to a “good home.”

* (Latin for “rare bird”)


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