A British Heritage Founded By An American
While most classic car enthusiasts associate, quite rightly, the name “Lagonda” with the legendary car marque, not many would know that the name originates from the US and not the UK! The company’s founder was one Wilbur Gunn, who first lived in a small town named Lagonda, in the state of Ohio. As it turns out, Gunn was a man of many talents, not the least of which was as an accomplished opera singer and manufacturer of steam powered boats.
But it was when he turned his talents to automobile
manufacture that the name Lagonda was on everyone’s lips. Originally manufacturing cheaper 3-wheeeler cars, it was during the immediate pre WW1 era that Gunn developed a high-quality small car, which performed extremely well in reliability trials up to 1914.
Needless to say the war period put pay to any rapid expansion plans of Lagonda, and so the company was forced to wait until the 1920’s to again embark on a manufacturing plan. During the war Gunn had taken time out to study the emergence of other marques both in Britain and in Europe, and he became convinced that the company should concentrate their efforts on the production of high-quality sports cars.
The first of these was the 1927 Speed Model - also known as the 2 litre. The “Speed” featured a four-cylinder 1954cc engine with twin overhead camshaft valve gear, and could be optioned with a supercharger. Like most such 'vintage' sports cars, it had a rather flexible separate chassis frame with beam axle’s front and rear and half-elliptic leaf springs. In standard form, the “Speed” was a solid performer, capable of up to 80mph; the supercharged version could match the 80mph top speed in 3rd gear, and was good for 90mph in top.
In 1928 Lagonda released the fabulous 3 litre model; using a lengthened version of the 2 litres chassis the car featured a six-cylinder 2931cc engine. In 1931 the Weymann bodied “Selector Special” was released – and it featured the wonderful “Maybach” pre-selector transmission. This unique design endowed the car with two different sets of four ratios, and since it was also possible to use no fewer than four reverse ratios, it was advertised as the “12 speed Lagonda” – perhaps wishful thinking by Lagonda’s marketing department.
The 4.5 litre M45 model was announced in 1933, and was to become the best known and most successful of the first generation sports Lagonda’s. This model was fitted with a six-cylinder overhead valve engine from Meadows – in fact it was the same basic unit as that used by Invicta, except that the Lagonda unit produced more power.
A more highly developed model named the M45R was produced, which developed 130bhp at 3800rpm, and was good for a top speed of 90mph. In 1934 and 1935 the 4.5 litre became the first Lagonda to taste serious race success when the “works” cars came fourth in the 1934 Tourist Trophy, while Hindmarsh and Fontes won the 1935 Le Mans
race at an average of 77mph!
For those that love British marques, it is interesting to note that the Le Mans victory by Lagonda was a shining light in an otherwise dark period – falling between the end of the Bentley era in 1930 and the start of the Jaguar era in 1951. Celebrations were to be short lived. The receivers had been called in just before the Le Mans race, and in their wisdom decreed that no public benefit could be taken from the win.
Just why you would want to “hide” such an emphatic victory when selling a going concern remains to us a mystery, and so the company seemed to fall into the lap of one Alan Good, who paid £67,000 for the company plus £4000 for stock (conspiracy theorists unite!). Production re-commenced, but only of the larger 4.5 litre models and, in September, an improved LG45 version was released.
Good’s strategy was to secure talent from other manufacturers. First to join the Lagonda team was Walter Owen (W.O.) Bentley, who was now free from his contractual obligations with Rolls Royce. His contribution to Lagonda became immediately apparent when he influenced the latest engine design, complete with a cross-flow cylinder head
Body engineer Frank Feeley was given the task of creating an eye-catching sports car body for a new derivative, the LG45 “Rapide”, the result being reminiscent of the Mercedes 540K Models. The “Rapide” featured huge outside exhaust
pipes and an enormously long bonnet. It is claimed by some that W.O. Bentley
did not favor Feeley’s design, particularly as the styling seemed inspired by his race track arch rival Mercedes, but at the time he was so busy developing his new engine that he choose not to protest.
The new engine, as developed by Bentley, was shown in prototype
form in 1936, but was not ready for sale until 1938. It was an ambitious plan, putting a powerful engine in a large body to ensure the vehicle reached the holy grail of 100mph – and capture some of the kudos attributed to the 1930 8-litre Bentley.
The ensuing years since 1930 had seen rapid development of engine design, most notably by Rolls-Royce and their Phantom III V-12 engine; the innovation of the RR engine should not go unmentioned, for this is one of the few times in automotive development that designers did away with the tried-and-true formula of simply increasing
engine capacity. Good would not only have Bentley on his team, but would also entice other Rolls-Royce engineers to join him at Lagonda.
Together, the team developed a beautiful 4480cc V-12 engine with a single overhead camshaft valve gear to each bank, being good for 157bhp at 5000rpm. A competition version developed 207bhp, at 5500rpm. The chassis featured independent front suspension, by wishbones and longitudinal torsion bars, for the very first time on any Lagonda, while the rigid rear axle rode on half-elliptic leaf springs.
Most V-12 chassis were fitted with big and graceful saloon car bodies, but there were a few sports cars, and the factory also built competition models for the 1939 Le Mans
. They were indeed a wonderful and expensive car, which is probably a good thing as it would take some time to get the V-12 model into series production. Reliability was one of the only obstacles, but as luck would have it just as these teething problems were at last being sorted WWII would intervene, and the car would unfortunately be shelved.
As the war was nearing its conclusion, Lagonda engineers set about developing a new model. Rather rashly, someone chose to announce the new car before the war had even ended – not good form! To make matters worse, Good choose to name the new model the “Lagonda Bentley”.
But Rolls-Royce owned the rights to the 'Bentley' marque (even if W.O. Bentley
was working for Lagonda), and naturally they did not appreciate this blatant copyright infringement – nor the fact that while Rolls-Royce had been working so hard toward the war effort, it seemed Lagonda had started preparing for an all out assault on its rivals in the post war period before the war was even won.
Given the reaction by RR, the new car reverted to its basic 'Lagonda' title; but the management of Rolls need not have worried, the lack of sales during the war years had taken a heavy financial toll on Lagonda and the company was simply unable to raise the required capital to put the new model into production. It would be saved from total collapse in 1947 when David Brown purchased it, and merged it with Aston Martin, another marque he had purchased the same year.
Lagonda’s continued to be manufactured using a cruciform-style chassis frame and all-independent suspension. The 2580cc straight six engines featured twin overhead cams, and would receive much acclaim. Lagonda saloons and coupes would continue to be manufactured up to 1953, but the lovely “6” would soon find a home in the Aston Martin DB2, DB2/4 and DB Mk Ill models which would enjoy healthy sales well up to 1959. For the circuit, a completely new racing sports Lagonda was announced in 1954, specifically aimed at the Le Mans.
Typical of previous Lagonda’s, the race special featured a 4.5 litre V12 engine; the engine proved far too complicated to enable reliable racing given its design of four overhead camshafts, 24 spark plugs and three four-choke downdraught carburettors. The body style was similar to that of the six-cylinder engined Aston Martin DB3S, but the V12 made the cars much heavier, and at 2350lb it needed every bit of the 300bhp to make the car competitive. Unfortunately the new Lagonda was not up to the task!