The luxurious Lagonda
Feb 14, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Lately I’ve been thinking about cars. While I adore my car (which is on its way to becoming a vintage marvel in its own right!), perhaps the time is right to find something new. Admittedly I think the Tesla has a certain Art Deco appeal to it. For some reason, when I see its smooth lines easing through the traffic I think beaded gowns and intrigue. Probably a bit over-the-top and fanciful, but that’s how us vintage enthusiasts are wired! We’ve seen the colorful advertisements of the 40s and 50s, where high-fashion met horsepower, and we yearn for that kind of connection again. I wonder if the modern driver isn’t as overjoyed by their cars because they’ve become numb to technological advancements. Nowadays it is handheld products that wow us – the latest smartphone or tablet flush with ever-increasing power. But if there is one fictional character who, upon being transported to this day and age, would retain that love of cars it is the good Captain Arthur Hasting. We first introduced him in our post on Hercule Poirot. While he drove many cars during the series, he always waxed poetic about one in particular so let’s learn more about his beloved brand – the luxurious Lagonda.
Lagonda debuted in Great Britain around the turn of the century. Decades later the company was purchased by another high-end manufacturer (Aston Martin), following the war in 1947 and the brand continues on to this day. Lagonda was considered “the finest of fast cars” – a fact Aston Martin likes to remind us – but what I find most intriguing is the man behind the legendary car marque. Born in Ohio, Wilbur Gunn started out his career life as an opera singer. In 1891 he traveled to England, hoping to find a new inspiration and audience for his craft. For a few years he found success as a tenor, even being listed as an artist at a concert at Kensington Town Hall. By 1904, feeling his singing career was at an impasse, Gunn found work as a speed boat and motorcycle engineer in Staines, England. With the waterfront beckoning he made a steam yacht called Giralda, racing her at every opportunity for bragging rights as the fastest on the Thames. This singer, with a need for speed, soon began tinkering at home, making small scale motorcycles.
Fun fact: Lagonda takes its name from a stunning gorge near Springfield, Ohio
These first motorcycles, built quite simply in his garden shed, showed the promise of great engineering. With such power, the 1905 prototype won a time trial! A couple years later and Gunn was tackling car design. As with his motorcycles, the focus was on performance. The debut car, appropriately called the Torpedo, won the Moscow to St. Petersburg trial of 1910. The buzz from this event won over the Russian motoring community and made the Lagonda the darling of the racing elite. The invention of the fly-off handbrake cemented its status. This mechanism allowed for quicker acceleration from a starting position and better handling in corners. Music to the ears for many a driver!
Sadly, in 1920 Wilbur Gunn passed away. The company continued producing sports models that blended high-end design and personal comfort with incredible power. During the 30s Lagonda collaborated with other high-profile names you’ll probably recognize: Maybach, Bentley, and Crossley. These partnerships gave Lagonda a strategic advantage, but that prestige came at a price. A quote from the 1939 New York motor show captures it perfectly “The highest price car in the show this year is tagged $8,900. It is a Lagonda, known as the “Rapide” model, imported from England.” To put it in modern terms – this car would cost you $157,000 today!
During WWII Lagonda, like other manufacturers, devoted their energy and resources toward the war effort. In addition to making artillery, they developed flame throwing technology for armored vehicles. Following the end of the war Lagonda was purchased by Aston Martin. The brand was sometimes touted, sometimes shelved, leaving many car enthusiasts on pins and needles. Most recently, in 2009, Aston Martin released a reboot of the iconic Rapide. Today’s Lagonda models sell for upward of one million pounds and continue to whet the appetite of serious collectors worldwide.
I adore this origin story because it just goes to show all of us that life can take you on a variety of unexpected adventures. I bet Wilbur would have thought you crazy if you would have told him he’d leave the world of music behind to find international success as a car manufacturer. But that’s just what occurred and we see it time and time again as we learn about icons from the past. So dear reader, be kind to yourself it you find life pivoting when you least expect it. You may just end up becoming an inspiration for future generations!