Brian Sewell reports on the muscle car that almost won Le Mans despite a shattered gearbox

For a marque that was founded in 1937, withered away in 1959, and produced fewer than 2,000 cars, Allard is bewildering in the number of its models, names and identification codes. Only a nerd preparing for Mastermind could tell all the distinctions between the J1, J2, J2R, JR and JLX, the K2, K3, L, M1 and M2X, the P1 and the P2 - and there were more, all produced in numbers that as often as not failed to sell in double figures. Yet this was a marque that won the Monte Carlo Rally with its maker at the wheel, and might well have won Le Mans had its gearbox not disintegrated, leaving it with only top - even so, it was placed third.

Sydney Allard was an enthusiastic racing driver before the Second World War. As the owner of a garage in Putney, just off the Upper Richmond Road, he built a trials special for himself in 1936, based on a British Ford V8 chassis, considerably modified and with the engine mounted far back to give it 50/50 weight distribution. With independent front suspension, then very rare, and very good brakes for the time, it was brilliantly successful. Allard, then only 26, made a dozen more for sale, fitted with either 3.6-litre Ford V8 engines or with the 4.4-litre V-12 of the Lincoln Zephyr. These few cars were enough to convince him that he should make more, but the war interrupted this development, leaving him, however, with a large enough stock of Ford chassis and engines to announce his return to production in February 1946.

He had meanwhile designed four elegant and streamlined bodies that had no English precedents but faintly echoed the trends of French coachbuilders. At new premises in Clapham High Street, three of these, all open, were assembled, to be immediately praised for their light weight, brisk acceleration, high cruising speed, chuckable roadholding, steering, brakes, engine flexibility and "strikingly modern lines''.

It was, I believe, these "strikingly modern lines'' that proved the undoing of these cars. The sporting motorist of the immediate post-war years was not seduced by elegance, did not believe in streamlining and held creature comforts in contempt.

In 1950 Allard gave way to the mockery and built the first J2. Gone were the long (and empty) snout and the imposing wings with built-in headlamps; the front wings were of pre-war motorcycle type, the headlamps small and separate, the windscreen could be replaced (for the really tough) by two tiny curved windshields, and - joy of joys - the bonnet was tied down with a stout leather strap in homage to vintage motoring. It was long and low; in profile it seemed to nod to the late Thirties Italian and German notions of a racing car, but seen head-on, its sense of line and curve completely disappeared, to be replaced by a face of brutal vintage style. A road tester described it as "the finest sports motor bicycle on four wheels". Under the bonnet lay an engine that did not belie this impression.

This was a Cadillac V-8 of 5.4-litres, producing 160 bhp at 4,000 rpm - a figure almost twice the 85 bhp of the Ford V-8 that had until then powered most Allards.

Like most American engines it was built to be bullied without bursting and to be neglected without ever breaking down - 50,000 miles without an oil change, so to speak. At Le Mans it ran for 24 hours (in top gear only) at an average of 87.8 mph. In ordinary road use it could hold 100 mph, at which the engine was turning at 4,000 rpm; 120 mph was within its reach, and its 0-60 mph acceleration was 7.4 seconds; overall its performance figures were close to the fastest ever recorded at the time.

This utterly reliable engine was allied to a chassis into which Allard had put all his racing and rallying know-how in terms of direct steering, massive brakes and a De Dion rear axle that made it possible to drive with wonderful abandon.

The Cadillac engine was available only in America. In Britain, bleak with austerity, food rationing still in force, it could be had only with a comparatively feeble 3.9-litre Mercury engine. Of the 173 built between 1950 and 1954, a few had Chrysler and Oldsmobile engines, but the true classic was powered by Cadillac.

It was not a car for hill-climbing; with a ground clearance of only three inches this was an out-and-out racer for the smooth roads of California, not for English roads as they were then.

In concept this Allard was a vintage sports car, outright performance having absolute primacy over comfort and convenience. It had, alas, little impact in America, for a softer generation there was at the wheel by 1950, and though it could out-perform its Jaguar contemporary, the XK 120 Roadster, it was considerably more expensive, could not match its modest comforts, and could not - as every one of these Allards was made for the driver ordering it - be bought and driven off at whim.

The last J2 was delivered in 1954. In 1959 production officially ended, and Sydney Allard died in 1966. Very soon after, his factory was wiped out by a fire.

Search for used cars