Old Cars Weekly archive – August 28, 2008 issue
By John Gunnell
Frederick and Alberta Berndt’s 1938 Lagonda V-12 Drophead Coupe is a luxury car outside, inside and under the hood. It was originally built for a titled nobleman in Como, Italy, but it didn’t always get “royal treatment.” It took Berndt’s mechanical skills and the cosmetic magic of a Canadian restorer to bring the car was back to its original grandeur after Berndt purchased it.
Lagonda has an unusual history. It was an English company, but was founded by an American named Wilbur Gunn and the name is taken from the Indian name for a river that runs through Springfield, Ill. Gunn originally went to England to sing in the opera, but before the turn of the century, he was building motorcycles in his Staines shop called Lagonda Engineering Co.
In 1905, the firm changed to building three wheelers to which Gunn later added a steering wheel. Since he was already to about 75 percent “automaker” status, in 1908, he built a four-wheel vehicle using unit construction, but clinging to a cycle-like V-Twin engine. Then he designed a 20-hp four and a 30-hp six. In 1909, a Lagonda raced at Brooklands.
After winning the 1910 Reliability Tour in Russia, with a run from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Lagonda found a market for its products in Russia. Three years later, the company started making its own engines and formed Lagonda, Ltd. It produced a smaller 1100-cc four-cylinder car, before turning to World War I armament production.
After World War I, the smaller car, with a new 1.4-liter engine, was modified for racing. The standard model remained in production until 1926 Wilbur Gunn passed on in 1920, but his death didn’t halt Lagonda’s growth. The company manufactured at least 6,000 cars between 1913 and 1926.
By that time it was offering larger cars, too, including a two-liter twin-cam four with heavy coachwork. Some of its big saloons could go 60 mph. A “speed” model with a three-liter six-cylinder engine made news in 1928. Lagonda’s racing team finished seventh at LeMans in 1928.
A new Lagonda with a supercharged two-liter engine was exhibited at the Olympia Show in 1930. This engine developed 100 hp and had a 90-mph top speed. Also offered was a new six-cylinder model using a 1991-cc engine built by Crosley.
With coach-built bodies in the spotlight during this era, Lagonda started going that route. Larger power plants, such as the 4.5-liter push-rod, overhead valve six in the M45 model, set the pace. The M45R Rapide models could do 100 mph. A sports version of the 4.5-lter Lagonda won the French Grand Prix at LeMans — a rare treat for an English automaker
Lagonda sales suffered during the Great Depression and the company entered receivership in 1935. A man named Alan Good purchased its assets and formed LG Motors (Staines) Ltd. Good made W.O. Bentley, the technical director of Bentley’s Lagonda and he designed two new models with Meadows engines, plus the V-12 like the featured car.
The V-12 model had a torsion bar front suspension and its engine featured a double overhead cam setup. It was capable of speeds in the 105 to 110 mph range. A pair of special-bodied V-12 two-seaters ran at LeMans in 1939, finishing third and fourth. The Berndts’ car has a chassis that is virtually identical to that of the LeMans racing cars’ chassis.
Berndt has been told that his car was sent back to England, in 1995, to be refurbished. The man who owned it at the time died and his heirs did not want the car. Somehow, the Lagonda wound up with a car collector in Des Moines, Iowa, who had mostly Model T and Model A Fords.
According to Berndt, the car looked as if it had been “painted with a broom.” The red leather upholstery was cracked and the seams were torn. Fortunately, the car was mostly all there.
Fred, a former Buick dealer in Milwaukee, does the mechanical work on his own cars. The Lagonda’s beautiful V-12 reflects his rebuilding skills. He works with a restorer from Canada who painted it an Aston Martin Blue. The interior was redone with Connolly leather in Magnolia color. Berndt says he drives the Lagonda about 3,000 miles a year.
The car has taken a People’s Choice award at Meadow Brook and was voted the Most Elegant Car. It has also taken trophies at The Masterpiece. Berndt says there are two of nearly everything on the Lagonda — two overhead cams, two fuel pumps, twin ignition systems and two S. U. carburetors.