1939 Lagonda V-12
June 9, 2008 10:32 AM
In 1891, American Wilbur Gunn relocated to Britain to pursue a career as an opera singer, and open a branch of his father's Lagonda company. Named after a river in Gunn's hometown of Springfield, Ohio, the company manufactured tube cleaning machinery and steam equipment. After developing a reputation for betting and winning on his steam yacht as the fastest boat on the Thames, Wilbur settled down with a widow near the river Staines and began tinkering with engines in the greenhouse, eventually setting up shop to produce his motorbikes, and making a name for himself on the racetrack. Eventually, he progressed to three-wheeled forecars, the success of which prompted him to take a more serious look at automobile manufacturing. In 1907, Gunn introduced his first car, the 20-hp six-cylinder Torpedo, which won the Moscow-St. Petersburg race of 1910, and was rumored to be Tsar Nicholas II's favorite vehicle.
Following Gunn's death in 1920, Lagonda changed hands many times, pausing during the war to manufacture artillery shells. Despite its respected reputation, the company went into bankruptcy in 1935. But young investor Alan P. Good had deep pockets and a good idea. Sensing that W.O. Bentley wasn't thoroughly satisfied with working for Rolls], the men that had essentially shanghaied W.O.'s own company, Good brought him into the Lagonda fold as the first order of business. Along with ex-Rolls Roycers Stuart Tresillian and Charles Sewell, and design genius Frank Feeley, W.O. swallowed his distaste for the primitive conditions of Lagonda's factory, and got to work on the new engine that was to become his masterpiece, the V-12.
The Lagondas of the 1930s were roadworthy but rough, so W.O. had his work cut out for him. Although the prototype for his V-12 was shown at the Olympia Motor Show of 1936, it wasn't ready for production until 1938. The second V-12 ever to be produced in Britain, Bentley's single overhead cam, 60 degree, 4.5-liter engine had two of everything - SU carburetors, electrical coils and fuel pumps. And, it was the most powerful engine on the road, producing 180 bhp, and top speeds in excess of 140 mph, redlining at 5500 rpm. In short, it sported all the best characteristics of the legendary Bentleys of yore, including its majestic roar.
Good challenged Bentley to create the racing version of the V-12 six months prior to 1939's LeMans. Rising to this impossible challenge, the two Lagondas that competed finished an amazing third and fourth in the world's most demanding 24-hour race. Meanwhile, the production model of the V-12 was made available in a variety of body styles, including saloon, drop-head coupe, touring, and limousine. Only about 190 were hand built before the outbreak of the Second World War, which sadly cut short its development and production. After the war, Lagonda was taken over by David Brown, and folded into his Aston Martin.