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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