A deceptive Allard J2 gets a second chance at glory

Photography by John Webber

[Author’s Note: After spending more than 40 years in the Allard J2, the Sunbeam Tiger MK II engine that Martin Stickley removed during the restoration was installed in the car it was meant for. During our research for this feature we alerted Norman Miller, a California-based Sunbeam guru who operates the Tiger Registry, to the existence of the long lost engine. He bought it for a MK II Tiger he is restoring.]

In August 1969, several events engraved themselves into the western world’s collective memory. A Hasselblad camera immortalized an image of the Beatles strolling over an Abbey Road zebra crossing. Jimi Hendrix’s electric-guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” wafted over the mud-slick countryside near Woodstock, New York. It was an era that praised the experimental and unexpected.

That same month, British magazine Autosport featured an article written by its editor, Simon Taylor, titled “Driving a Cobra-Engined J2.” Although this Allard was 18 years old when the story was published, it represented the current times quite well: The automaker’s production roadsters were a groundbreaking cocktail of low weight and monster American power, and this particular car’s Cobra engine was an unusual departure from the Cadillac and Chrysler lumps typically installed in its contemporaries. 

Taylor was quite impressed. 

It just thunders forward,” he wrote, “its snub green nose swallowing up the road and its Wagnerian exhausts seeming to blow everything else off the road.” He raved about the car’s “endless acceleration” and its ability to squirt from corner to corner.

This one,” he continued, “goes as well as it looks.” Comparing the hotrod’s performance to that of a factory-built J2, he dubbed this machine “the ultimate Allard.”

That car was truly an impressive performer. However, unbeknownst to Taylor, it harbored yet another unexpected twist—one that meant it wasn’t quite the ultimate Allard Taylor thought it to be. But the past tends to circle back, and 41 years later, this very car got a second chance to earn that title. 

Low Weight and a V8

As many enthusiasts know, British-born racer Sydney Allard was the first production-car builder to come up with the notion of dropping a V8 engine in a light car. The idea came from the success of his V8-powered, home-built specials in trials, rallies and hillclimbs during the 1930s. Fellow competitors became interested, so Allard built a handful of machines and sold them.

During World War II, Allard’s small company concentrated on rebuilding Ford-powered army trucks. After the war, he found himself with experience in manufacturing, a building full of machine tools, and a huge cache of Ford parts. 

Determined to capitalize on the pent-up demand for automobiles, he introduced three models in 1946: the J1, a machine designed for competition; the K1, a two-seater sports car; and the L, a four-passenger touring car. Most were powered by flathead Ford or Mercury V8 engines, and they became known for their strength, reliability and robust performance.

The J2 followed in 1949, and soon a few of these models found their way to the United States. Enthusiasts loved the big-engine, light-car formula and started racing the roadster. 

The finished bodywork reflects extreme preparation: two coats of epoxy primer, Evercoat G2 Polyester high-build primer, sealer, and days’ and days’ worth of block sanding. The final coat is DuPont Chroma One urethane matched to Allard British Racing Green. The paintwork was performed by Dee Newcomb at Gassman Automotive.

About the same time, Cadillac introduced its new 331-cubic-inch OHV engine. Powered by this engine—and later by the Chrysler V8—the J2 quickly became the car to beat. Word spread and demand grew. 

Allard seized the opportunity and started shipping J2s to the U.S. sans engines. Buyers specified their choice of powerplants, the factory added the appropriate engine mounts and adapters, and the engines were installed by Allard dealers or the buyers themselves. A factory brochure stated, “For the benefit of overseas buyers, the chassis has been designed to accommodate various engines, or can be supplied less this unit if preferred.” The J2 was, as its sales literature proclaimed, “specially designed for the competition motorist.”

At the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans, Sydney Allard and Tom Cole drove a Cadillac-powered J2—considered by the racing elite to be the equivalent of a bush-league home build—to an amazing third place overall and first in class. J2s were winning road races across the U.S., beating all types of “proper” sports cars, including Ferraris and Jags. 

To some, the J2 was a mongrel—a cross between a hotrod and a sports car—but it was brutally fast, especially when driven by hotshoes like Carroll Shelby, John Fitch and Masten Gregory. With questionable brakes and handling, it was never meant for the faint of heart. But in the hands of a fearless and talented driver, the J2, especially with a hopped-up Cadillac or Chrysler under the bonnet, was a formidable competitor. From 1949 to 1952, Allard built 90 J2 Competition Two-Seater machines.

J2121

Our featured J2 was built in August 1951 at Allard Motor Company Ltd. in London. It sold to its first owner, Bernard Scott-Wade of Cheadle, Chester, England, in March 1952. It carried chassis J2121 and U.K. registration  FBA 685.

As ordered, it was painted metallic gray, upholstered in blue leather, and fitted with an Ardun OHV conversion. The Ardun, designed by Zora Arkus-Duntov, featured hemi heads with a pushrod-and-rocker-arm design mounted on a Mercury flathead V8. Thus configured, the engine produced about 140 horsepower.

Like all J2s, this one had a hand-formed, all-aluminum body, independent front suspension with coil springs, three-speed transmission, and de Dion rear suspension with inboard aluminum drum brakes. The car cost 999 British pounds—about $2800—which included a full-width windscreen, dual electric wipers, a tonneau cover and an optional luggage rack. So equipped, the car weighed about 2000 pounds.

Unfortunately, the Ardun OHV-conversion engines generally didn’t last long, and this one lived only a month. It was replaced with a Ford flathead V8, standard in the British-built Ford Pilot. Output dropped down to about 85 horsepower. 

The J2 spent the next 16 years in the Midlands of England, moving through a number of owners—seven by 1959. No doubt the car was driven hard, since it required yet another flathead engine replacement during this time. However, there are no records of it being rallied or raced. In the late ’60s, an ex-Allard employee bought the car and changed its color to British Racing Green.

More Power: Always a Good Idea

In 1968, Bob Judd, an American executive who worked in London for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, took ownership of Allard J2121. He had a mind to add more power, and he came across an advertisement in Autosport for a new 4.7-liter Cobra V8 engine and Ford four-speed transmission. He bought them both for 200 British pounds, only about $328. 

Before he made any changes, he drove the J2 to the old Allard factory. He asked the workers who originally built the car if installing the Ford V8 would be considered bad form. “Would it make the car faster?” they asked. When Judd answered that it would, they responded, “That’s what Sydney would have done.”

So Judd took the car to Acre Road Garage in Kingston upon Thames for the swap. The shop’s detailed invoice lists many modifications, including fitting the clutch, throttle linkage and engine mounts; installing an alternator; modifying the driveshaft; and adding two mufflers from a Triumph TR3—imagine the sound! The total charge for these services was the equivalent of $200 U.S. at the time.

The engine is a balanced and line-bored K-code 289 Ford fitted with 0.03-inch-over pistons and oversized valves. It has a date-correct intake manifold with a proper Holley 4140 four-barrel carburetor. An aluminum radiator and hidden electric fan perform cooling duties. Sunbeam Tiger devotees will recognize the distinctive alternator mount, which came with the MK II 289 that was installed in 1968

Noting the abuse potential of this potent package, the invoice also included a warning: “Acre Road Garage wish to respectfully point out that no warranty can be given with the engine or gearbox unit or with any parts as supplied by the owner. Further we will not be held responsible for any defects which may occur in the rear axle unit.”

Whether covered by warranty or not, some abuse apparently took place. When Simon Taylor wrote his Autosport feature on this J2 a year later, he mentioned that, while the car felt very fast, the staff didn’t record a full set of performance numbers because “a recent driveshaft breakage had made [Judd] unenthusiastic about tyre-smoking starts.”

Soon after that story appeared, J2121 found its way to America. For a purchase price of $3500, it joined the collection of Jacksonville, Florida, enthusiast Otto Bowden. Bowden thoroughly enjoyed the car for the next two decades and wasn’t afraid to modify it further, adding red chassis paint, a side-mounted spare wheel, and wide whitewall tires.

 In 1971, J2121 and its owner were featured in national magazines in a Champion Spark Plug advertisement. The ad’s copy described the J2s as “great hairy machines” and “the last hurrah of the fire-and-thunder school of racing.” 

Researching the J2

Martin Stickley, a Winter Park, Florida, enthusiast with a special affinity for British cars, bought J2121 in 2008. By then, the car had been sitting for many years. He was quite familiar with Allards, having previously owned a 1951 K2 that he restored to Pebble Beach standards.

“I was very excited to find this car,” Stickley says. “While it looked pretty good, I didn’t really know its condition. So I had it trucked up to Gassman Automotive Products in Waynesboro, Virginia, where they had restored my K2, so we could research and evaluate the car.” The research began, and in September 2010, when Stickley learned that Allard would be a featured marque at Amelia Island’s 2011 concours, he knew he wanted the car in that show. 

When Stickley had first examined J2121, he saw that it was powered by a small-block Ford and had a four-speed transmission, but he didn’t know the details of the car’s history. “When I bought the car, I got a whole pile of records, all the way back to the original build sheet,” he recalls. “I learned all its history, including the details of the 1968 engine swap and Simon Taylor’s article. I even tracked down Bob Judd, who did the engine swap, and he sent me more information.”

Intrigued by the “ultimate Allard” mantle, Stickley and restorer Mike Gassman elected to return the car to its best-known configuration: the exact trim it wore when it appeared in the 1969 Autosport feature. After all, they reasoned, the original engine had lasted only a month, and two more flatheads similarly fell flat. That Hi-Po small-block Ford, on the other hand, had been residing under the bonnet for more than 40 years, right?

That’s when they discovered the truth: The Cobra-powered J2 wasn’t quite the ultimate Allard everyone had believed it to be. In fact, it was never Cobra-powered at all. 

Stickley and Gassman’s research revealed that the engine Bob Judd purchased in 1968—advertised as a Cobra V8—was actually a 289-cubic-inch, 200-horsepower, hydraulic lifter engine that had been destined for a Sunbeam Tiger MK II. Tiger Registry records showed that, when Sunbeam stopped making Tigers after 1967, a number of never-used engines and Ford transmissions had been offered for sale. Judd unknowingly purchased one of these sets.

Now that the Allard had spilled its decades-old secret, the team decided to install the Cobra engine Judd thought he bought back in 1968. Stickley tracked down a proper 289 Hi-Po engine taken years ago from a Shelby GT350. He had the right engine; now all he needed was to restore the car in time for Amelia Island, a scant seven months away. The scramble began in earnest.

A Simple Restoration

At the outset, the team thought this would be a simple restoration. But, as often happens with old cars—especially fragile aluminum machines with big engines—years of abuse, bad engineering and poorly executed repairs had taken their toll. 

“It was downright scary,” Stickley says. “The frame was twisted. Each wheel was pointing in a different direction.” 

“At first,” Gassman adds, “everything looked pretty cool. But when we started disassembling the car, every time we turned around we ran into another issue. The body itself was the original body, but when we stripped it, we discovered many panels were torn, gouged and poorly repaired. We found gobs of Bondo and replacement sections that had been sort of welded, pop-riveted and even glued on. The body alone took a lot of redoing.”

The car’s front suspension, apparently taken apart for a repaint, had been reassembled improperly, and the front wheels showed inches of toe-out. “It had been hit in the front, maybe in the wheel, and the radius arm was jammed back an inch and a half. In fact, the frame had a “Z” twist. “With the suspension the way it was, it would have been very difficult and downright dangerous to drive this car,” Gassman says. 

Most of the car’s original gauges, all of the switches, and the original steering wheel were long gone. The wiring harness consisted of a spliced-up jumble that included lengths of house wiring. Parts installed over the years came from numerous sources, most unidentifiable. “This was truly a British hotrod, with many changes by many owners,” Gassman explains.

Working under a tight schedule, the team stripped and straightened the frame, then welded up the cracks. Next, they powder coated it and reassembled it with restored subassemblies. They examined every nut and bolt, and machined or fabricated any unavailable parts they needed. A new cloth-covered wiring harness in the proper colors was built and installed. The K-Code engine was rebuilt by Noel’s of Winter Park, Florida, and shipped to Virginia.

In keeping with the “ultimate Allard” theme, the team decided that some improvements were in order for drivability, safety and comfort—comfort being a relative term with an Allard. They fabricated and installed heat shields where needed, including the firewall, and lined the inner fender panels to protect them from rock damage. Other subtle, hidden upgrades include a 20-gallon gas tank and old-style shock absorbers fitted with gas internals. 

“While we made improvements,” Gassman says, “we tried not to make this car overly modern inside or out. For example, we used no pop rivets; we put in only hand-peened rivets. We tried to keep the flavor of a coach-built car.”

The thrash continued, consuming long days and weekends. Three days before the J2 was to leave for Amelia Island, the team drove it for the first time. That’s when they discovered an extreme driveline vibration at speeds over 30 mph. “It would shake the teeth out of your mouth,” Gassman recalls. “It was undrivable.” It turns out that the driveshaft, fabricated many years ago with only one universal joint—and possibly later modified or poorly repaired—was badly misaligned and out of balance, literally whipping under load. 

Scrambling for time, the team engineered and machined a billet snout, one with modern bearings and seals, for the rear pinion spline. Driveshaft Specialists of Texas, responding to an emergency plea for help, quickly fabricated and shipped a custom driveshaft. 

Like magic, the vibration was gone. The guys loaded the J2 on the trailer for the trip to Amelia Island, where, along with a host of other rare Allards, the car wowed the crowds.

The Second Time Around

Despite the numerous surprises and challenges that popped up during the restoration, Stickley is thrilled with the results. Wherever this car goes, it draws an admiring crowd. 

Even when it’s moving, folks shout their approval. “I’ve never had a car quite like this one,” he says. “It’s a neat combination of raw power and beautiful looks. It’s lean, mean and exciting to drive. It’s very strong and very special.” 

So, more than 40 years after this hotrod J2 was first featured in a motorsports magazine, here it is again. This time the Cobra engine is for real, and the car looks like it just left the Allard factory—heck, it’s probably in even better condition. On top of that, it features countless subtle improvements in performance, handling, reliability, comfort and safety while still delivering a ride that is distinctly vintage Allard. As an appraiser recently noted, it’s unlikely that any other J2 has ever undergone a restoration as intense and detailed as the one this car received. He’s probably right.

Since its restoration, this J2 has won an Amelia Award at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance and the Spirit of the Road Award at Florida’s Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance. It has also garnered several class victories and best of show honors.

Sydney Allard would, no doubt, be amazed. And Simon Taylor, who called J2121 the ultimate Allard back in 1969, would be, too. The second time around, this Cobra-powered J2 deserves the title.

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Comments
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slowbird
slowbird UltraDork
9/25/21 12:22 a.m.

Wow, that's a twist for ya. Restoring it not to original condition, and not to the specifcation it was in for many years, but to what it was alleged to have been in, with the Cobra motor it never really had. But you know what? I like it. Much more interesting than the typical restoration story. And the Sunbeam Tiger motor goes to a good home too. Everybody wins.

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