British Motor Museum Volunteers

British Motor Museum Volunteers

Monday 8 July 2019

Into the Woodies

Collections Centre volunteer and guide Cameron Slater, writes another fascinating blog with a family connection.

There are many surprises in being a volunteer at the Collections Centre of the British Motor Museum – visitors with amazing stories, visitors with unexpected cars, visitors from faraway places, and so on,  but let me tell you about one very big surprise that, for me, was much closer to home.

I was browsing the bookshop section of the Museum shop one day and came across a copy of Alvis Cars 1946-1967 The Post War Years by John Fox (Amberley Publishing 2016). I already owned John Price Williams’ book of almost the same title, but on the basis that you can never have too much of a good thing, I bought the Fox book too. I have always had a soft spot for Alvis cars since I bought my first one  -  a 1959 TD 21 -  in 1975 for £250. Since then I have owned a 1964 TE 21 and a 1937 12/70 Saloon.     

The Fox book is an interesting collection of pictures of all the cars Alvis produced between 1946 and the end of their interest in car production in 1967. Now, despite my fascination with Alvis cars, there’s one model I’ve never been interested in – the TA14 - which I’ve always thought was a fairly dull car. However, its Utility derivative, the Shooting Brake - the Woodie - has always been a source of amazement that so many different styles could evolve around one very elderly chassis design.        

So as I flicked through the TA14 section of the book and came to the two pages devoted to the Shooting Brake, I was suddenly struck by the name ‘Gaze’ in the accompanying text. This is my wife’s family name and it’s quite an unusual one and here it was in reference to pictures of two TA14 Woodies with bodies by Gaze. So that’s what started my hunt through the Woodies, my wife’s family history and the history of the TA14.

William H Gaze, the son of a master carpenter, founded the firm of building contractors, W.H. Gaze & Sons, in 1879 in Kingston on Thames. He was my wife’s great grandfather. The business thrived and, according to Gaze’s obituary in The Surrey Comet in 1934, the firm was responsible for the appearance of much of the centre of Kingston. Their first major contract was for St Luke’s church with the accompanying vicarage and school. In 1902 the company built the Kingston Public Library, which was opened by the Scots-Canadian philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. As the business grew, it moved into bigger and bigger premises in the town and by the time of William’s death in 1934, W.H. Gaze & Sons employed over a thousand men and had a weekly wages bill of around £6,000. 

Over the years the firm developed other interests such as furniture-making and carpentry but their most famous legacy is the Gaze All-Weather, Non-Attention Hard Tennis Court. This was patented by Gaze and examples of these tennis courts were installed in many of the large properties of the wealthy in and around Kingston and by various municipal authorities. Indeed, the Corporation of Torquay invested in 21 Gaze Hard Courts on which the Davis Cup of 1937 was played.  And when my wife, Jeanne, first attended The Weald School in Billingshurst, she was amazed and delighted to see the W.H. Gaze logo on the net supports of the school tennis courts. The logo is a stylised version of an Egyptian hieroglyph in the shape of a gazelle.

So far, so fascinating and I’m grateful to my wife’s sister, Lynne, for giving me access to her researches into the family history. But she didn’t know about the Alvis connection. Now, by 1947 the W.H. Gaze company must have been highly skilled in wooden construction of all kinds. As builders, they would install wooden windows, doors, staircases, panelling and a host of other features of house building. In 1943 all their carpenters were diverted into war work, building wooden landing craft for the D Day invasion the following year and, rather gruesomely, coffins, presumably for the inevitable fatalities of the invasion.

After the war, therefore, it would have been, I guess, another useful business opportunity to use the skills of their carpenters to build wooden bodies on the chassis of established vehicle manufacturers. In the immediate post-war period, the wooden-bodied shooting brake or utility was a popular body style since car manufacturers were bedevilled by the shortage of steel. A wooden body, therefore, made a lot of sense to both manufacturers and buyers because Woodies were classified as commercial, so buyers did not have to pay quite high levels of purchase tax which were imposed on new cars at this time.  In addition to Alvis, manufacturers such as Allard, Lea Francis, Austin and Morris all delivered chassis to coachbuilding and other companies to be turned into Woodies. The main museum at Gaydon has a very well preserved Allard P2 Woodie, which was originally part of the James Hull collection. The difference with this particular model is that the body was built by the Allard company itself.
So while W.H. Gaze & Sons was not an established coachbuilder, it did have a pool of highly skilled and experienced carpenters who would have been able to turn their hands to any kind of wooden construction. Now there was no TA14 Shooting Brake built at the Alvis factory in Holyhead Road in Coventry, so all of them – and they were very popular – would have been built by outside firms. The chassis were delivered already fitted with front bulkhead, dashboard and driver and front passenger seats which were trimmed in leather in contrast to the utilitarian accommodation of the rest of the car.

It is thought that somewhere around 500 TA14 chassis were delivered to outside coachbuilders. It is not known how many bodies Gaze built on the TA14 chassis, but Colin Peck in his book British Woodies from the 1920’s to the 1950’s (Veloce Publishing 2008) believes that the number was ‘significant’ and that the firm also built bodies for Lea Francis.

However, Gaze did not sell or market the cars under their own name and it is more than likely that most of the bodies were ordered by Alvis distributors such as Brooklands of Bond Street, Vincents of Reading and Reliance Garage of Norwich. These companies would then brand the cars with their own logo suggesting that they were the constructors and thus contributing to the situation where W.H. Gaze is almost unknown as a manufacturer of motor car bodies.         

There were, of course, a number of well-known coachbuilders who used the TA14 chassis as the basis for their work. The standard saloon was bodied by Mulliners of Birmingham who also produced a drophead version. Another drophead version was built by Tickford of Newport Pagnell. Richard Meade of Dorridge also produced a drophead as did Carbodies of Coventry. There was a very attractive two-door coupe version by Duncan of North Walsham, Norfolk and A.P. Metalcraft of Coventry produced the body for the TB14 which was the two seater, open-top, sporting body on the TA14 chassis.

I began by saying that I thought the TA14 was a dull motor car. Now, I’m not so sure, especially since I’ve discovered that I’ve married into the family who helped make the Alvis TA14 the most popular Woodie of its day.

And here’s another thing: the man who persuaded the Earl of March to turn the disused airfield at Goodwood into a motor racing circuit was called Tony Gaze – but that’s another story.

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