The post-World War II influx of exotic European racing marques like Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche and their dominance on American tracks caused some homegrown racers to rethink their approach to the sport. For many sportsmen on a tight budget, the answer lay in the combination of a small, lightweight chassis and large-displacement engine, most notably a Cadillac or Chrysler. In the early 1950s, the most successful sports car in American racing was based on that very formula, and it came from English manufacturer Sydney Allard, whose roadster-bodied Allard J2 was specifically built to accept large American V-8 powerplants and their strong drivetrains. Capable of accelerating to 60 MPH in under 6 seconds and with a top speed in excess of 150 MPH, the J2 completely dominated the budding SCCA circuit in the United States for two years and, in doing so, proved vital to launching Carroll Shelby’s almost mythical career as a professional race driver, Le Mans winner and manufacturer of the World Championship-winning Cobra.
Shelby had barely begun driving in competition when Louisiana businessman Charles Brown hired the young Texan in March 1952 to drive his Cadillac-Allard, J2179, at the SCCA-sanctioned Pottsboro hill climb. Shelby deftly handled the over-powered racer, overwhelming the competition and serving notice of his considerable talents. Two more wins in SCCA regional races earned Shelby widespread recognition as a consistent winner and drew the attention of Aston Martin owner David Brown, who gave Shelby his first race as a professional driver in 1954. Shelby continued his rise to the top of the sport, winning the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans with Roy Salvadori driving an Aston Martin DBR1.
Shelby returned from his years in Europe having driven almost every kind of race car imaginable, including Grand Prix Aston Martins and Maseratis. Armed with that wealth of experience, he was convinced he had the formula to build a fast and reliable sports car that could take on the world’s best and win. But that formula did not have its roots in the Aston Martin that—with its economical inline-6—was typical of the European sports car model. Instead, it reached back to the lightweight platform and big-bore American V-8 of Charles Brown’s Cadillac-Allard J2.
Two events then serendipitously converged to give Shelby the raw ingredients for his world-beating creation. A.C. Cars of England announced its new Ace roadster chassis, and Ford began producing a new, lightweight V-8 with seemingly unlimited potential. Following the proven Allard formula that had given him his first wins as a driver, Shelby sold both Ford and A.C. Cars on his plan and created the legendary Cobra that eventually won the GT World Manufacturer’s Championship.
And it all began with Charles Brown’s Cadillac-Allard J2, Serial No. 179.
The last of a total of 90 J2 Allards built, J2179 was ordered on August 15, 1951, with special instructions for black paint, red leather upholstery and a “bulge in the bonnet to take Cadillac.” It was then shipped to Texas and fitted with a 331 CI Cadillac V-8, after which it was purchased by its original owner Charles Brown of Monroe, Louisiana. Records show that J2179 was twice driven by Fred Cook, and then raced at least three times in SCCA competition by Carroll Shelby to three wins.
“I’m not going to quarrel with anyone who might feel like calling this machine a hairy brute,” Shelby wrote later of the J2, observing that, “once you got to know its temperament and master some of its oddball traits, it took something costing twice as much to beat you”—a fairly accurate description, in fact, of his own legendary machines.
Allard J2179 essentially launched Shelby’s career beyond all expectations. This success led to more drives in powerful lightweight racers. He raced for the late, great owner-entrant John Edgar, as well as Tony Parravano. His success in their Ferraris and Maseratis led to David Brown, the owner of Aston Martin, inviting him to join his works team. This culminated in the aforementioned 1959 victory at Le Mans with Roy Salvadori co-driving.
What happened to J2179 was typical as the development of newer, faster racers came along. Charles Brown sold the car to Wilfred Gray from Indianapolis. During the mid-‘50s, he raced the car in SCCA events at such venues as Elkhart Lake and the remarkable Mount Equinox. What makes Mount Equinox so spectacular is its 3,000-foot elevation change in a span of just 5 miles; it is perhaps the steepest hill climb in North America. The next owner, Dan Saunders, raced the Allard at Wilmot Hills in southern Wisconsin, Wilmot Hills doubling as a ski hill in the winter and serving as a race track while the snow was gone.
In 1972, Chris Leydon acquired J2179. It was about this time that the older race cars, long viewed as uncompetitive, started to be considered part of automotive history. This warranted recommissioning. In the case of J2179, this included period colors of a red exterior and black interior, a full windscreen and wire wheels.
The winning Sir Stirling Moss and J2179 were featured together in a program titled, “The Great Classic Cars.” From there, the car continued to be enjoyed and treasured over the years. The next big event was the 1997 Monterey Historic races, the significance of that event being that Carroll Shelby was the honoree on which the weekend’s festivities were centered. The idea of Shelby being reunited with the car that launched his career is remarkable for any enthusiast of historic racers. In 2005, J2179 was part of the “Gotta Have It” television program. Its most recent event was the 2015 Allard Reunion at Elkhart Lake.
J2179 has been restored to its original color scheme of black with red leather upholstery and is equipped with its believed-original Cadillac V-8 along with the proper transmission. The Cadillac engine is fitted with triple Stromberg 48 carburetors on a vintage Weiand intake manifold, a Crane Competition camshaft and the custom exhaust originally built and installed by a young fabricator who would go on take his own place among the giants of racing, Mickey Thompson. The period-correct wheels and tires are in place along with the numerous other details expected of a racer of this importance.
Undoubtedly one of the most significant of all Allards, J2179 played a major role in automotive history. It not only launched the career of Carroll Shelby, but also served as Shelby’s inspiration for the world championship-winning Cobra.