Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Classic car for a classic race

Calgarian's Allard J2 his ticket to Le Mans next month

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The winners have been presented their trophies and laurels, the hundreds of thousands of fans have left the track and the pit lane and paddocks have emptied of the high-tech exotic machinery, the crews and the drivers that contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans June 16-17. The Circuit de la Sarthe is quiet now.

From July 6-8, however, the stands will once again be filled and the air will be punctuated with the sounds of race cars, more than 600 of them, all harking back to a time when motorsport was more glamorous and dangerous.

It's the biannual Le Mans Classic, a weekend festival of vintage sport and racing cars. All cars entered in the Classic must have raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans between 1923 and 1979, or at least be of the same model.

Bob Francis of Calgary will be there, not as a spectator but as one of only two racers from Canada (the other is his co-driver, John Thompson). It's not Francis' track experience that allows him the bucket-list experience of blasting along the Mulsanne Straight at speed -- he just earned his FIA-approved competitor's licence -- but his car, a 1951 Allard J2.

In the world of classic automobiles, where the greater the car's race history, the more exalted its status, Francis' Allard is gold. The cycle-fendered sports car was Englishman Sydney Allard's personal race car and he campaigned it in the most important sports-car events of the day, including the 1951 Targa Florio and Mille Miglia.

Francis, the president of Agriteam Canada Consulting, says he has always had an interest in vintage cars. "And I've always had an interest in the Mille Miglia. I think it's a fabulous race."

It was Francis' desire to drive in the modern version of the Mille Miglia -- the Mille Miglia Storica, a weekend homage that takes place in Italy each May and attracts the crème de la crème of cars from the years 1927 to 1957 -- that launched his search.

"I started to look (for) a car that would (be) eligible," Francis says. "I always liked the look of the Allard and the story behind Sydney Allard. I couldn't afford a Ferrari or a Maserati -- they're multimillion-dollar cars. You can get in with something like a Jaguar XK120, but there are a million guys applying with Jaguars, so the chances of getting in with a Jaguar are very slim. But I noticed there was one Allard that had raced in the 1951 Mille Miglia (which makes the car eligible for the Storica). They're not cheap either, but they're not a fortune."

After having no luck finding a suitable one in the United States, Francis started talking to dealers in the United Kingdom. "I ended up talking to one dealer who said he knew where the original Sydney Allard Mille Miglia car was," he explains. "I convinced him to track the (owner) down for me, and I managed to talk the fellow into selling it to him. Then I went over to England and inspected the car. It was as described, so I bought it.

"The people who maintain the car for me arranged to get it in the Mille Miglia. I did the first race with my wife back in 2009. We've done it three years running now."

Because of the car's direct association with the 1951 Mille Miglia, it is automatically eligible to compete every year rather than being put on a waiting list.

While the J2's racing history in the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia are confirmed, the probability that it also ran at Le Mans isn't quite as solid. Francis says he has been looking through Allard records with Gavin Allard, grandson of Sydney and archivist and historian of the company, which ceased operation in 1959.

"We cannot find any other car that fits the description (of the car) that Sydney Allard could have raced in 1951 at Le Mans. I have the build sheet for the car and the build sheet says (it) was to be built according to Le Mans specs. Putting that all together, we're surmising that this was the car that raced at Le Mans in 1951."

Francis is a huge fan of Sydney Allard, who died in 1964. "I liked the fact that Sydney Allard was a bit of a privateer in his racing career. He was competing against the big boys -- Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes -- and he managed to build his own cars while on a shoestring budget, and he managed to do quite well for a while."

Allards are considered by many to be one of the original Anglo-American hotrods. The Allard Motor Co. produced the bodies and chassis, then stuffed big American V-8 engines in them -- Ford flatheads, Chrysler hemis, Cadillacs and others. Francis' J2 is fitted with a 331-cubic-inch (5.4-litre) Cadillac that puts out approximately 300 horsepower. Considering the car weighs a little more than 800 kilograms, that's an impressive power-to-weight ratio. The car originally came with a LaSalle three-speed manual, which Francis still has, but it has been upgraded to a more modern four-speed.

"It's a lot of fun to drive," he says. "It doesn't corner all that well, but it has incredible acceleration. I have one of the fastest cars out there on a straightaway, but as soon as I get to the corners, the slightly more modern cars beat me in that regard. It brakes terribly. It has drum brakes on it, so it either pulls left or pulls right."

The car also tends to hunt. "If you're driving on a nice, smooth racetrack, it's a very stable car," Francis says. "If you're driving on the back roads of Italy, it jumps all over the place. It follows every rut in the road, so you have to hang on to it with both hands if you're driving at high speeds."

In preparation for Le Mans, the J2 is being fitted with a roll bar and racing harness. "I'm also having the engine rebuilt as we speak. It was a little tired, so we're just freshening it up."

Francis admits to being both nervous and excited about his upcoming debut at the Circuit de la Sarthe. "I'm quite excited about the fact that the first time I race (with a competition licence) will be at Le Mans. That's kind of jumping into the big leagues."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2012 F4

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