Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Vintage thing No. 45.1 - Candidi Provocatore Allard J1

Is this the ultimate trials car? It may not be the most up-to-date but it's brutally effective. My scrap buddy, Rob Robinson-Collins, and I borrowed it from owner Roger Ugalde for the 2009 Land's End Trial with the result that we both want one.

Rob's a little ahead of me in that game. He has, as the French knights in Monty Python and The Holy Grail would say, "already got one." It is indeed, "vair nass-eh." In fact, Rob's got two Allards, a complete L-type in pieces and another one that had been chopped around to make a kind of overgrown HRF-Opus hotrod thingy. HRF stood for Hot Rod Ford and with a heavy metal Allard chassis and a stonking great Ford V8 it was more of an HRF-Magnum Opus.

Rob was initially looking for a spare gearbox for his other Allard but when he told Tina about what he'd found attached the gearbox of his dreams, she said, "Well, at that price you can't really say no." What a woman!

This latter machine will now form the basis of Rob's J1 replica and he's well on the way to reassembling the shortened chassis members, no easy task as they taper and there's a cruciform structure in between that needs to be modified to fit.

So what did we think of the real McCoy?

We loved it.

Jumping into it from a Mazda MX-5, Rob found the steering wandered a lot if you held the wheel too tightly. "Look well ahead and hold it lightly and it kind of steers itself," he said after a bit. It's not a knack that every driver of contemporary machinery can acquire but Rod quickly adapted during our road miles prior to the trial and found that powering out of corners was the best approach. Potholes and road camber can also get it to weave but with the power on it feels much better.

The gearchange on the three speed box is quite slow and there's no synchromesh on first. The handbrake is on the far side of the gearshift from the driver and is of the pull up variety.

The engine is virtually a single speed unit. I couldn't say what sort of revs we were pulling at any stage but Rob said there was power everywhere. And torque - it talks the torque. It liked to be revved off the line but once under way it just needed the gas kept at a steady mark five and pulled itself out of most situations.

Grip is prodigious and the only time we lacked any during the LET was on the infamous slab on Bishop's Wood. Our wheels were wet and muddy thanks to the cunningly positioned re-start box so they were going but we began to slide backwards. Rob reckons if he'd gone to the righthand side a bit more we might have made it. Everywhere else the combination of vehicle weight and torque made us climb. Crackington was the only section where I had to bounce furiously. That was great fun!

And on Blue Hills 1 we lit up the tyres on the restart and after developing quite a cloud of smoke Rob throttled back in anticipation of failing the section but the hot sticky tyres then bit and the Allard hauled itself off the polished stone setts and we were away.

The engine note is divine. It speaks of stump pulling torque and provided you make sure the single carb is full of juice it delivers a rolling wave of motion that sweeps you up the hills like a spring tide. It's an elemental force and with the pipes cunningly fashioned to blow mud off the leading edge of the rear wheels you sit just above them in a prime position to savour them. It's like falling down a long musical pipe to the bellowing combustion engine down below.

As we burbled through the night I realised that I'd heard a recording of the engine note before somewhere. Eventually I managed to place it. Listen to the very beginning of Garbageman by The Cramps. It seems that the late-and-great Lux Interior must have been a fan of Ford flathead V8s.

There was plenty of legroom, which was a pleasant surprise for Goff Imhof was not as tall as either of us, but the Allard's cockpit was too small for us front to back. I had to get in after the driver and out before he could get out. You have to slide down into the footwell after first standing on the seat squab. The wheel is so large and the distance between scuttle top and seat back so narrow that the driver has to do this first and then wriggle over the gearchange and handbrake to his seat under the wheel.

Note the yellow tape on the steering wheel. Keep this at at twelve o'clock and the wheels are dead ahead.

The dashboard itself appears to have been made out of a thick piece of bakelite an early form plastic associated with early radios. And here is yet another link with the past for Goff Imhof had a business selling and marketing gramophone equipment. And the actual construction of the car's bodywork is credited to Bert West, who worked for Imhof. The original coachwork, which won the 1946 Ostend concours d'elegeance, was destroyed during the car's competition career.

A Morris Minor style foot operated dip switch is close to the seat squabs and is best switched by the passenger by hand as, at night, gearchanging and steering seem more than enough for the driver.

The indicator had a modern warning buzzer nut even this was drowned out by the exhaust note on the open road. And there's not indicator light on the dash and the driver can't see the near side indicator so another of the passenger's duties is to let the driver know if it's still on.

There's no need for a heater. The 3.9 litre Mercury spec engine generates plenty of heat and a lot of it comes up through gaps in the bulkhead and floorboards. If we went through a puddle at speed we got wet feet but these soon dried out and any mud trodden into the cockpit quickly became dust.

The hood was simple to put up but one shouldn't plan to be entirely waterproof. As we crossed Salisbury Plain at night there was a downpour and the hood made us fell quite cosy inside our wet weather motorcycle gear. It's quick to erect and headroom is provided by a piece of bent plastic pipe that slots onto the windscreen and the rollbar. If this sounds crude then it isn't. The piece of plastic pipe is light, stows a way neatly and won't rust. It's easy to fit, too, as it flexes just enough to fit firmly. There are zips in the hood because otherwise you'd never be able to get in or out with the hood up. The zips might annoy some artistic and sensitive people because they can jangle a bit at speed but on Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme I was always given the squeaky rucksack since I rarely even noticed such things.

In my first blog about this magnificent car I mentioned the ghosts of past competition successes hanging heavy on it and the windscreen wiper is particularly haunted. If you look closely you will see that that the windscreen linkage in front of the driver is held together with an Allen key and some tape. There's probably a story behind this ghost but maybe it's lost in the mists of time. I remember John Aley, the esteemed Charirman of the Motor Cycling club for many years, admiring "acts of mechanical heroism" in the dark, in the rain, during a trial. While not quite up there with change a diff on a Midget on Beggar's Roost or a halfshaft on an Escort at Blue Hills, this cunning repair is another of those things that make this Allard J1 such an interesting car to examine closely.

After my apprenticeship with Hillman Imps I was concerned that the Allard was running hot. Cruising along the main roads at about 55mph, the needle was as far as it could go - passed the highest mark and even beyond the letter H for Hot. In addition to the large standard engine fan there was an electric fan and it was my duty - in addition to operating the windscreen wipers and dipping the headlights - to act as a human thermostat and regulate engine temperature. But in the end I left the electric fan switched on all the time. The engine didn't boil and didn't seem distressed. Roger later re-assured us by saying that he thought the gauge was not properly matched to the sender unit. The engine apparently warmed up from cold very quickly and it's a great cast iron lump so I think he's right.

We didn't have to anything to the Allard during the trial. Oil and water remained at constant levels over 500 miles and the only things we did were re-let down the tyres and pump them up again. This was made very easy by a bottled of compressed air. A large label on the dash served to remind us to turn the air supply off when we didn't need it in case the air leaked out. I don't think we had a foot pump between us so would have been really stuck. And of course there was no cigarette lighter to power a little electric pump. For observed sections we ran at about 10psi and at 26psi for the road.

We did add a drop or two of petrol into the tank, though. The Allard does about 18mpg. It only has a single carb but considering what sheer usable performance there is for trialling we are still slightly in awe of this version of the Ford V8.

At the top of Blue Hills, we met a lot of people, not least of whom were Roger Ugalde himself and Graham Greenwell, who owned the car before Roger and resurrected it after years of inactivity. Here they are, examining the engine bay. As so often happens with Vintage Things, there is always plenty to see when a bonnet is opened and one recent innovation is an alternator that masquerades as an old fashioned dynamo.

This really worked, too. We were following a vintage MG for some of the night section to Rodney's Revenge and he complained that we were driving on full beam. We weren't. We showed him what full beam was like compared with dip and became quite thoughtful ourselves. They were every bright. Rob had a go at adjusting them downwards as I pumped up the tyres after Rodney's Revenge but there was only so much we could do. MGs of that era have a vertical dynamo that also drives the camshaft. Not a bad idea until the seals give way and over lubricate the dynamo to extinguish any sparks. With more modern seal materials this can be overcome but the best place for our new friend in the MG was really behind us - there was light for all of us then.

Another cause for remark at the top of Blue Hills was the lack of bash plates. The Allard stands so tall that ground clearance was never an issue.

We had breakfast the following morning with James Smith and Dave Loveys. These chaps were both Allard enthusiasts of many years standing and had been competing in a BMW 318iS prepared, of course, by Dave Turner, the great BMW trialling exponent (good word).

Dave and James told us a great deal of Allard lore over our full English blow out in The Inn for All Seasons. Dave said the trick with getting more power out of a side valve engine was not bumping up the compression ratio but getting good gas flow out of the exhausts. I'd already noticed these rather nicely made headers on the Allard. As to what sort of power output the engine gives out, your guess is as good as mine. 120 bhp? But torque is clearly adequate - more than adequate most of the time.

So an Allard is our trials car Holy Grail. They take a bit of finding and are quite old but the search is always worth it. Fortunately, there the similarity stops. Not only those purest in heart and mind can get to grips with an Allard although I've been feeling strangely Galahad-like ever since our wonderful drive in the 2009 Land's End. It would be difficult to top that kind of experience - well clearing a few more sections would have been nice - but Rob and I are extremely grateful to Roger for letting us sample the delights of a real works Allard J1.

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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Vintage Thing No. 12.1 - Trojan Utility in trials

While I was in the queue for a cup of tea at the Bridgewater control on the Land's End Trial, I fell into conversation with the crew of one of the 1488cc Trojan Utilities and took the opportunity to ask them how much preparation they had done to their cars for trialling.

There were two Trojan Utilities entered in the trial together one crewed by John Wilson and Richard Potter from Portchester and the other one by Steve and Phil Potter from Fareham (where, as the song goes, "all the whores wear Calico draws and I knows how to tear 'em.")

I haven't tried this myself you understand. I have simply been assured of this quaint custom by friends of mine who live in those parts.

I'd seen them working on their Trojans at the start at Popham airfield and feared the worst but they were simply trying different carburettor settings. This proved to be a common theme throughout the trial because, before each section, up would come the floorboards and various adjustments would be made to the underfloor engine and transmission that are features of these fascinating little cars. This is the trialling equivalent of mild mannered Clark Kent entering a phone box and re-emerging as Superman, for these subtle mods to fuelling and gearing endow the Trojan Utility with extra special hill climbing abilities. And after their heroic perfomance was over, up would come the floorboards again and they would be quickly converted back to respectable family transport more suitabel to the road.

Essentially, these cars have been built to trials tune that was evolved by the works back in the 1920s. Trojan entered what were then sporting trials as a means of gaining good publicity and there wasn't much that they couldn't climb, even if they only vame up very slowly. The tuning to the engine wasn't particularly radical but by careful attention to ports and carburation power increased to a heady 15bhp at 1,500 rpm. The guys have discovered that anymore super tuning compromises drivability and reliability.

The crew also paid careful attention to the gearbox oil because the gearbox has no seals it and effectively works like a Scottoiler on the rear chain.

The skinny little tires slice nicely through the mud to find grip and the exhaust note is extremely distinctive, sounding like a series of pop guns being let off in quick succession and not really like a car engine at all.

The final results of the trial haven’t been published yet although we shouldn't have much longer to wait.

But these ancient little cars, struggling up the roughest "roads" in the west country with an exhaust that sounds like a cheap sound effect, gamefully finding grip just when it looks like they've ground to a halt, cannot be beaten in terms of pleasing the crowd who, to a spectator, will them on.

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Friday, 17 April 2009

Vintage thing No. 16.1 - the Cox-Triumph outfit

At the Wilsey Down Control on the Land’s End Trial, Rob and I spotted our old outfit. It was running a bit late in company with Dave West on his XT350 and was crewed by its new owners Peter and Shani Adams.

Although behind schedule, Peter and Shani were obviously enjoying themselves and had already got to know their chariot a lot better on this their second outing on the bike. Their first was the Exeter back in January.

Shani had become something of a workshop widow over Christmas as Pete took the Cox-Triumph apart and put it back together again. As he said to Rob, “It’s got all the right bits on it.”

During re-assembly, he added a very nice crankcase breather (like a little air filter it was) and he reduced the size of the seat box and panelled in the rear brackets on the very back of the chair to allow more floor area and bouncing opportunities when traction is needed.

Rob approved of these modifications and the bike sounded just as good as ever when Peter kicked it over. The only thing that might yet improve it is a pair of shorter forks. These would make getting away on the restarts easier.

Shani asked me what was better to be a passenger on, outfit or car?

This is a very difficult question to answer so I’ll say they were equally as much fun but for different reasons. On both machines the passenger was not really a passenger – there’s a lot to do to help the driver on the Allard like dipping the lights, operating the windscreen wipers and monitoring our water temperature. Steering and changing gear on a car of that vintage takes a lot of concentration. I also did the map reading with the Allard whereas on the bike Rob had his patented illuminated route card on a roll thingamajig. I was physically more active though on the road as well as on the sections.

Shani said, “I was the one to asked Pete to get an outfit after watching them going up Simms. I wanted to feel I was a real part of the team, and the outfit seemed to provide a much better option for this than a car.”

From their cheerful expressions I would say they don’t regret this approach.

We wished them well as they set off and I said that the next hill, Bishop’s Wood, was our favourite section in 2005 because we bounced from one side of the sunken lane to the other. It felt like we were flying at low altitude.

Well, here’s what Shani made of Bishop’s Wood.

“Pete and I had a fantastic time on the Triumph Cox, Bishops Wood was a blast! No part of my body was attached to the bike as we flew over the rock outcrop apart from my hands holding on to the straps for dear life. What a shock seeing that vertical rock face as we raced around the bend to see it face on! I thought to myself 'Pete don't lose it now' and screamed a lot of encouragement to him to keep going. He didn't need it though and we live to tell the tale.”

That pretty much matches my memory of Bishop’s Wood.

“I cannot say for sure whether or not our wheels left the ground on Bishops, I may have had my eyes closed! Pete is still building up the confidence to wheelie up the hills, but I am sure he will get there one day. This was only our second outing on the bike and we cleaned 5 hills and 1 special test.”

Hmm, that sounds better than us on our first LET.

“I am not sure which was my favourite hill. Darracott had me jumping from side to side to keep the beast stable and the chap who we pulled up behind at the end to re-inflate the tyres gave me a look as if to say what's all the heavy breathing for! Bishops was just a blast, so they come very close together in first place.

“I couldn't believe we managed to get off the start line at Ladyvale, let alone restart, but due to the change in tyre pressures the bike did it easily.

“Blue Hills was spectacular and we had an uproar of applause on 2 – this wasn't due to cleaning it though, just down to the sheer effort we had to put in to get it up the hill after not being able to get enough momentum after the restart to clear the slate slippy bit.”

Getting off the start line defeated us when we tried Blue Hills 2 but what Shani doesn’t say is that they came up the hill in instalments, first Pete on the sidecar and then Shani, who somehow got left behind, running up afterwards. Check out pictures 434 to 436 on John Salter's website.

There's another good couple of shots of them on Hoskin Hill here.

They are now part of the LET legend due to their performance on Blue Hills 2 for practically every photographer there must have taken pictures of their heroic ascent. They even made the Cornish Guardian.

As we travelled from section to section in the Allard, our exploits on the Cox-Triumph came up a couple of times. Ron seemed to want to buy it back. We certainly had some fun with it.

But the problem for him is a dodgy back and shoulder – relics of some rugby injury I believe – that limit how far he can ride a bike before too much pain sets in.

After we saw Pete and Shani, the matter of buying it back didn’t crop up again. It was so good to see it used and appreciated by such a likeable pair. Long may they enjoy such a well-sorted machine.

“We are going to head out for the testing trial for a giggle and take the kids so that they can see the fun and maybe even have ago. Our little 8year old has a small bike and blasts around our field like a pro. Our eldest 9yrs sticks safely to the quad, I think he will make a better Marshall!”

I haven’t been to a Testing Trial for years. Some reckon they are actually harder on the machinery than a long distance event but I seem to recall a kind of picnic with great enthusiasts and fantastic machinery.

But I’m sure there will be a big welcome from the trialling fraternity for all members of the Adams family!

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Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Vintage Thing No.45 - Candidi Provocatore Allard J-type

This picture of a splendid old war horse basking in the sunshine at Wiscombe Park hillclimb back in 2008 defines the concept of Vintage Thing. The ghosts of many competition successes hang heavy on this Allard J1. Not many cars have been haunted by so many benign (petroleum) spirits.

It started life as Geoffrey Imhof's works team car and he campaigned it vigorously in trails, rallies, hillclimbs and races until the powers that be decided Allards were a bit too successful. Never knowingly over-restored but extremely sympathetically maintained, it bears its history proudly and although some people may turn their noses up at its allegedly scruffy appearance, to me it is a thing of great and brutal appeal. To learn more about this car's illustrious history visit the Candidi Provacatore site here.

For some years it's belonged to Roger Ugalde who still campaigns it in classic trials whenever he gets the chance. With a 3917cc (81mm x 98mm) Ford side-valve V8 the performance can hardly be described as peaky or temperamental. An Allard J1 weighed only sixteen and a half hundred weight (that’s about 840kg) and if the engine is putting out about 120bhp (roughly 90kW) that’s a power to weight ratio of 9.9kg/kW – that’s on a par with a BMW 318. As for torque, let’s just say it’s of the steam locomotive variety.

In short, this car is a 1946 version of a Caterham 7.

When new, it would have looked something like this and it wills rakish lines were enough to win a concourse d’elegance on the continent where Maurice Chevalier (no less) tried to buy it for two and a half times the price of a new J1. Bear in mind the fact that most sports cars of the era still had vertical grilles and you can imagine the impact that this would have made on M. Chevalier.

Gradually, the rigours of competition took its toll and after many scrapes and bangs, and constant reconstruction to keep ahead of the opposition, this wonderful trials car evolved into its present form.

They only ever made 12 Allard J1s but quite a few replicas reconstructed over the years from the longer wheelbase L types. Sydney Allard "... decided the new trials J model was to be sold only to 'proven' drivers who would use them in competitions. It was not to be publicly advertised as this would draw too much attention, to the possible detriment of sales of the standard range."

One of my friends, who you will have heard of before on this blog, is in the process of creating a J1 replica in addition to restoring an L type. Rob Robinson-Collins, as well as being my scrap buddy, is lurking in the background of this picture of a blue J1 replica owned by Nigel Brown and entered in the 1998 Land's End Trial, when Rob was competing on a Greeves 250 trials bike.

Anyone who owns an Allard of any description becomes Rob's new best friend and, needless to say, he knows Roger Ugalde very well, so well in fact that Rob has borrowed the Candidi Provacatore team car for the 2009 Land's End Trial.

Initially, his co-driver, navigator and bouncer (for when the going gets rough)for the 2009 LET was to have been Robert Hall, one of his relatives, but he's out of the country for Easter. Some say he's fled the country and emigrated to Canada or somewhere without an extradition treaty, allegedly out of sheer terror at the prospect of riding shotgun in such a device during a religious festival. Consequently, I have stepped heroically into the breach and will be masquerading as Robert Hall, although my true identity will be our little secret. This means that the Team Robert sidecar crew (aka Binky and Ginger) are re-united and will be riding again in a classic trial.

We have a less than illustrious history with this car already. We borrowed it off Roger once before, for the 2004 Exeter Trial but we broke it even before we got to the start. The engine started making terrible rattling and knocking noise and we couldn't bear to proceed any further.

It was a good thing we didn't.

One of the big ends had let go, sending its piston and conrod on a one way suicide mission to the top of the cylinder bore. The piston hit the head and swelled a bit with the impact, seizing in the bore. Well, the top part did. The lower section of the piston around the gudgeon pin got dragged back down the bore by the rattly crank and big end.

We had to return to Roger's house on the back of an AA lorry. When Rob phoned Green Flag, they’d never heard of an Allard and when they asked what year it was and he said that it was made in 1946 they said they were terribly sorry but they only cover cars under 12 years old. One of the advantages of AA membership is that, even as a passenger, you're still covered so we came home on my membership. And Rob has been a member of the AA ever since.

Roger was very kind about the breakdown. He said something along the lines that it had been making a funny noise for ages and it was just our bad luck that it went when it did. We felt terrible but he was just as disappointing for us. The car's been fixed now and Roger took the opportunity to make some upgrades such as an alternator that looks just like an original dynamo. He used it to successfully complete the 2009 Exeter Trial earlier this year and now it's our turn as Roger is Clerk of the Course for these year's Land's End Trial, the 87th LET no less and 101 years since the event was first held.

As you can imagine, I am extremely excited about the prospect of riding in this magnificent car again. We'll be running in Class 7 and starting from Popham airfield on the evening of Good Friday, running as number 156. Come along and say hello if you see us. We'll be the guys with the wall-to-wall grins. (Photo by Derek Hibbert)

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Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Wormton Lamb competition

5 people have just won copies of The Wormton Lamb in a competition run by Zopa the internet social lending network. I should be able to get them in the post on Saturday.

The Wormton Lamb is released on 11th April. I won't be involved in a huge media event - on that date I'm crewing a 1946 Allard in the 2009 Land's End Trial for a mate of mine who was let down by his navigator/co-driver/bouncer-for-when-the-going-gets-sticky.

So obviously I've got my priorities right.

I should also point out that any similarities between classic trials and The Wild Hunt in my books about Hob and Anarchadia are purely coincidental.

More about The Wormton Lamb dreckly.

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