Compact, British and very rare, this little rocket should have seen a revival of Sunbeam’s fortunes.
But it wasn’t to be.
We’re at Phillip Island for the big annual classic meeting and this is the very first time this car has run in Australia.
It’s a 1952 Allard J2X, period by the great Carroll Shelby. So it’s got a great history. He won nine out of 10 races with it in the 1952-53 season. My friend Joe Calleja purchased it in America.
We’re running in group JKL, which in the CAMS system runs from 1941 to 1960, so it encompasses a great variety of cars.
The car is beautiful but you have to remember it was 1952. Race cars changed a lot in the years to come – and a seventies or eighties car can feel very good in comparison.
This car was a shock to the system. It’s got absolutely zero brakes. None. Okay, you can see them there and they’re drums, but put your foot on the pedal and the retardation is very slow. So when you get to Honda corner at Phillip Island, you start braking a long way out and as you get there you realise you’re still going too fast! And that’s what they must have been like when they were current.
Now I understand how when Jaguar came out with four-wheel disc brakes, why they were such a revelation.
The seat is something we’re working on too. Even though the car doesn’t have a lot of grip, the seat has zero support and you end up sliding off to one side mid-corner. The concentration levels are high, not because it’s terribly fast, but it takes work to keep it on some semblance of a line. You don’t want to lurch around the circuit.
The engine is a Cadillac. That X in the J2X model designation indicates it would have either the Cadillac or a Chrysler. (Earlier J2s were running flathead Fords, sometimes with an Ardun overhead valve conversion.) It’s 332 cubic inches (5.4lt) and revs to around 5000rpm and this example has a four-speed grearbox. It’s nice and torquey, to the point where I only use two gears going around this track. You can use second, but it’s low and makes a lot of noise and quite frankly you’re better off having both hands on the steering wheel!
It gives you great respect for the people who raced these cars – they have a tendency to take you for a ride. They were different sorts of motor cars, they really were. It’s a different mindset to drive one and you end up chasing it all the time with the steering. There’s quite a lot of freeplay, the chassis flexes and it has a swingaxle front end, where the camber changes through bumps. So you’re sort of chasing this movement and trying to keep it on a line. Moving in to an apex and out again is not a natural thing – it doesn’t want to do it – so you need to coax it more than drive it. It’s really interesting.
Back in this period of the late forties through to the fifties, Allard was a manufacturer of sporting cars, a bit like Shelby was later on. Shelby drove this very early in his racing life and he was quite a successful race driver, before becoming famous for his cars and a disciple of the Ford Motor Company.
He ventured across to Europe as a lot of Americans did in the period, such as Phil Hill and Dan Gurney. Shelby was one of the post-war pioneers in that regard. There’s probably no one better known than him in the motoring world, which makes this a significant car.
Owner Joe Calleja reckons he heard of this car by word of mouth. “They knew I was a Shelby freak and told me there was an interesting Shelby Allard for sale. ‘What the heck is an Allard?’ was my first response. Within a week I owned it. That was it – sight unseen.
“I love the Carroll Shelby story and have a couple of Cobras. I looked at the Allard and it’s a really important car. There are probably three important Allards in the world and this is one of them.
“I decided to buy it, figuring no one in Australia would have seen it before and it may be the only car here that Shelby raced himself. And it’s red!
“The importance of it is Shelby raced it in Argentina and it was really the prelude to him getting into the Cobras. If you have a look at it, the Cobra is a smaller version of the same idea – a British body with an American V8. Really, when you think about it Shelby to America is probably a lot like what Peter Brock was to Australia.”
At the time we did the story, Joe had barely sat in the car, which was at Phillip Island for a shake-down. “I only took it for a quick 200m sprint up my factory driveway and couldn’t stop – so I decided it was JB’s problem! That’s why he’s in it today. If it improves I’ll get in it,” he says, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
“No, really, one of my big dreams is to do the Mille Miglia and that car is eligible.”
Joe owns a really interesting mix of cars, so what’s next on his radar? “I wish I could have owned a GT40 – that’s probably a dream car. Or perhaps a racing Cobra. I don’t know, there are so many great cars. It’s something that needs to be passed by the board (aka Joe’s wife!).”
ENGINE 5.4lt pushrod Cadillac V8
POWER 155kW @ 4500rpm
TORQUE 437Nm @ 2200rpm
SUSPENSION swing axles with coils front, di Dion rear, hydraulic dampers
BRAKES drums (f&r)