Restoring Europe's First Dragster

Stuart Taylor Allard


The father of British drag racing, Sydney Allard and his 1961 Allard Chrysler dragster, drawn by Stuart Taylor. (One of a series of limited edition prints available from www.allardchrysler.org)

Drag racing has come a long way since its beginnings in the USA during the late 1940s. And although it had a culture of straight-line sprinting (runs against the clock rather than a knock out competition) dating back to the early 1900s, Europe had to wait until early in 1961 before it saw its first dragster. It was born when British sports car manufacturer Sydney Allard stormed into the office, slammed a copy of a Hot Rod publication featuring Chris Karamesines’ Chizler dragster onto the table and announced,

“We’re going to build one of these”.

The Allard Chrysler being built in 1961. Sydney Allard watches from the cockpit as designer David Hooper (left) checks the plans and John Hume (right) adjusts the steering. (source Crazy Horses, National Motor Museum, Beaulieu)

Work on a 354 cubic inch Chrysler Hemi engine commenced in his London workshop during 1960 and speed equipment was ordered from Dean Moon in the USA. He decided on a front mounted blower rather than top mounted as on the Chizler because there were no official drag racing regulations in existence in Europe at the time. Royal Automobile Club (RAC) building regulations for cars used for sprinting and hill-climbing had to be followed and these were pretty general to cover a range of competitive disciplines. This would severely limit Sydney’s first attempt at building a dragster because it meant the new car had to have front brakes, covered moving parts plus front suspension. With covered moving parts a front mounted blower enabled better streamlining. And in truth, initially the car was seen as a way of putting a bit of ‘jazz’ into sprinting (which was suffering a bit of a decline at the time) rather than bringing the American sport of drag racing to the UK.

The car was first shown at Brands Hatch in the Spring of 1961. It was without its bodywork and although the car was not run on the track the blown and injected Chrysler Hemi V8 engine was fired up. Britain heard its first American-styled dragster.

The dragster is unloaded at the 1961 Brighton Speed Trials (source Crazy Horses, National Motor Museum, Beaulieu)

Sydney held a ‘live’ press demonstration of the car on the old Club Straight at Silverstone, but the first appearance of the dragster in front of the public was at the long-established Brighton Speed Trials in 1961 (the first of these events was held in 1905). During the rest of the year and through 1962 its ‘art-deco’ styled body could be seen at sprint meetings and shows throughout the UK, putting down mid 10-second standing start quarter mile times with estimated terminal speeds of around 150 mph. The fuel used was methanol with a small percentage of acetone. Thoughts about developing drag racing as a sport in the UK were taking hold.

In July 1963 Sydney received a telephone call from a speed shop operator and drag racer in Las Vegas called Dante Van Dusen. Duce, as he preferred to be called, issued a challenge that he could beat the Allard Chrysler and Sydney accepted. Duce mentioned the project to one of his speed shop suppliers Dean Moon and Dean offered to provide his 600 bhp 350 cubic inch Chevrolet V8 engined Mooneyes gas dragster for the trip.

Moon mentioned this at a meeting of the then recently formed Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) and they put up a trophy for the winner – the SEMA Trophy. Mickey Thompson was at that SEMA meeting and he immediately made plans to join the party as an uninvited guest.

Sydney Allard (right) in the Allard Chrysler lines up alongside Dante Duce (left) in Mooneyes in 1963. Dean Moon does the flags. (source Crazy Horses, National Motor Museum, Beaulieu)

Allard and Duce first appeared together on the old Club Straight at Silverstone on September 10th of that year. Then at the 58th Brighton Speed Trials, the second event of the Challenge, Sydney and Duce were joined by Mickey Thompson with his blown and injected V8 Ford powered nitro burner, the Harvey Aluminum Special.

The dragster demonstrations were saved until the end of the day and the 30,000 crowd was shocked into disbelief. The next event in the Challenge series was held at RAF Church Lawford, followed by RAF Debden the next day. Even though it was not promoted as a spectator event, around 5000 people blagged their way past astonished RAF Debden Police and lined the strip. The spectacles fired the imagination of hundreds of budding UK hot rodders and drag racers.

Duce and Dean Moon returned to the USA very enthusiastic about the UK trip. Moon offered to be a spokesman for the idea of getting a team of American racers across the following year and within a month Sydney Allard and Wally Parks of the National Hot Rod Association in the USA were in discussions. The resulting 1964 International Drag Racing Festival series of six meetings was held over three consecutive weekends in different parts of the country – Blackbushe, RAF Chelveston, RAF Woodvale, RAF Church Fenton and RAF Kemble.

The American team of top stars was selected in match-race pairs of the most popular drag racing classes at that time (dragsters, gassers, factory experimentals and drag bikes) and consisted of Don Garlits, Tommy Ivo, Bob Keith, Tony Nancy, George Montgomery, Keith Pittman, Ronnie Sox & Buddy Martin, Dave Strickler & Grumpy Jenkins, Dante Duce, Doug Church, Bill Woods and Don Hyland. Sydney’s son Alan Allard took the Allard Chrysler to a best time of 10.28 seconds at 150 mph.

The Allard Chrysler at the 1964 International Drag Racing Festival. (source Crazy Horses, Gavin Allard collection)

By this time it had become clear that the 1961 Allard Chrysler dragster was now well past it’s sell-by date. It had become obsolete with no chance of development to modern standards due to the RAC regulations in place when it was built. So they commenced building a new dragster, this time one designed solely for drag racing (RAC rules now included drag racing regulations) rather than a highbred for sprinting, but they used the engine and front-mounted blower from it’s predecessor.

The original 1961 Allard Chrysler rolling chassis was stored at one of Allard’s London workshops, but after Sydney died in 1966 it was moved around Southern England when his companies were split up, ending up in Alan Allard’s barn for many years. Alan handed it over to Allard Owners Club member Brian Golder in 1979 who carried out a part restoration of the rolling chassis and body before loaning it to the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu. After Brian’s death it was bequeathed to the museum. There it has remained on display for many years with most visitors not really recognising its historic importance until recently.

It was 2008 before the latest chapter of the Allard Chrysler dragster’s story was written. During research for his book for Haynes Publishing called Crazy Horses – the history of British drag racing, author Brian Taylor became very aware of the excellent condition of the car and its importance in the sport’s history as Europe’s first dragster. He judged that it wouldn’t take too much work or funds to get it back into condition where it could be ‘cackled’ and paraded.

He contacted Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and after a series of meetings the Museum Trust gave the thumbs up, so Brian formed a group of enthusiasts who could start raising the funds and provide the expertise to take the project forward – hence the Allard Chrysler Action Group (ACAG).

Brian acted as Chairman of the ACAG liaising with Doug Hill, Chief Engineer and Museum Manager. Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason agreed to be the group’s Patron. He is Chairman of the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu Trustees Advisory Council and a Trustee. The first job was to thoroughly inspect the car to see what was needed and establish some kind of budget and task list. Fortunately one of the group was David Hooper who designed the car for Sydney in 1960 so his input was invaluable.

ACAG members and National Motor Museum, Beaulieu staff inspect the car. (source ACAG, Alan Currans)

ACAG members with Patron Nick Mason at Beaulieu. The 1963 SEMA Trophy is in front (source ACAG, Simon Maurice)

The band of supporters gradually grew. Along with cash donations, the sales of items like special ACAG T-shirts, Polo shirts, a range of limited edition prints, a special Christmas Card and an audio CD of a tribute song recorded by Canadian guitarist and vocalist Ked Dieter, all helped swell the funds. By the end of 2009 they had raised enough money to place an order for a replacement 354 Chrysler Hemi V8.

Prints of paintings by Paul Whitehouse (shown), Tommy Vågen and Stuart Taylor helped raise funds (source ACAG)

The ACAG struck lucky by making contact with Project 1320 Chairman Traci Hrudka in the USA. Traci’s father is Joe Hrudka, the man who created the Mr Gasket business. Project 1320 is a Charitable Trust producing the history of American drag racing in a series of films and it has a board of Directors that consists of a ‘who’s who’ of drag racing legends. Along with Traci is Harry Hibler, Steve Cole, Don Ewald, Carl Olson, Doug Dwyer and Wayne Wolfe. Advisory Directors are Don Garlits, Wally Booth, Darwin Doll, Stephen Krystek of Synthetic Human Pictures and Bill Pratt. Others involved include Jon Lundberg, another famous NHRA announcer Dave McClelland, along with Steve Gibbs. It is supported by such organisations as NHRA, IHRA, NHRA Motorsports Museum, Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, SEMA, Petersen Automotive Museum and many more. They adopted the Allard Chrysler restoration project as part of their mission and promoted it in the USA.

Traci Hrudka became Co-Patron of the ACAG in October 2009 and she said,

“We are really excited to be working with the ACAG and the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu on this historically important project to restore Europe’s oldest dragster. Sydney Allard provided that vital bridge to Europe for American drag racers during 1963 through to 1965, and so for drag racing enthusiasts across the world, Sydney and his Allard Chrysler dragster provide a unique marker in internationalising the sport”.

Another American personality who became interested in the project was American motor sport personality Linda Vaughn.

Classic Linda Vaughn photo from the 1970s. (source Linda Vaughn)

Linda is a SEMA Hall of Fame member and today makes appearances at many car shows and automotive races. And in recent years she has been elected into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Linda graciously accepted Honorary Membership of the ACAG early in 2010. She said,

“I’m so pleased to be able to help out with this important project. Until now I didn’t realise that Sydney’s first dragster was born in 1961, just as I was starting out on my career in drag racing, so that makes it extra special”.

These American supporters were very important to the project because they don’t make 354 cubic inch Chrysler Hemis any more and it was obvious that the USA was the place to source the parts and the expertise. After some research the ACAG chose Michigan based engine builders and nostalgia specialists Booth-Arons to re-create the engine. A complete and accurate replication was not possible due to some 1960s parts manufacturers not being around anymore and other original details missing from the available information. Booth-Arons recommended that the new engine be built to take high nitro loads (90%) for the best ‘cackling’ performance. This would also toughen up the engine, making it less likely to fail. But aesthetically it would be exactly the same as that built back in 1960/61.

They located a 1956 354 Chrysler Hemi engine with original paint and decals on the valve covers – a truly unmolested and perfect starting point having originally been an industrial engine.

The 354 Chrysler Hemi heart of the car at Booth-Arons in Michigan before work commenced (source Sam Eidy)

Fortunately several American performance parts manufacturers showed interest in the restoration and wanted to be associated with the project. Crower donated the special custom ground cams and springs. Racetec Pistons designed and made 10 billet slug pistons at no cost to the project. Littlefield Blowers part-donated many hours work on modifying the Beaulieu supplied blower.

Manley Performance Products Inc donated valves, valve guides and seats. Trip Manley is Vice President of Manley, a company with a relationship with Booth-Arons that goes back to Trip’s father Hank and Denny Hummel. When Trip heard about the Allard Chrysler dragster restoration he was keen to become involved.

He said,

“After talking about it with Denny we decided to utilize our very best ‘Severe Duty’ stainless steel, 3/8” diameter, Pro-Flo design intake valve blanks and our ‘Extreme Duty’, 3/8” diameter exhaust valve blanks…..precisely machined for this 354 Hemi application. These are the exact same exhaust blanks we utilize for all of our Top Fuel and Funny Car competitors”.

Trend Performance gave the pushrods and piston pins. John Williams is the Plant Manager there and he said,

“Trend Performance welcomes the opportunity to participate in a programme such as this to both preserve and promote the racing industry”.

John Williams of Trend Performance (source Trend Performance)

Hilborn Fuel Injection supplied a 2-port injection system and fuel pump. Edris Snipes is Vice President of the company and she said,

“Hilborn Fuel Injection is pleased to acknowledge the importance of the Allard Chrysler dragster in UK drag racing history and is proud to celebrate its legacy through participation in its resurrection. This restoration project will most certainly help to commemorate and perpetuate vintage drag racing heritage”.

Hilborn also supplied the artwork for the logo that was in use at the time the dragster was built and the ACAG has been given permission to use this on promotional wear.

CMW Oil donated oil and assembly lube. Bob Coulsimao of CMW said,

‘CMW Oil and CMW Motorsports are involved in all aspects of motorsports and it was an honour when Booth-Arons approached us to participate in the restoration of Sydney Allard’s original dragster. We are delighted to be associated with it’s restoration.’

Denny Hummel of Booth-Arons actually built the engine. He said,

“Booth Arons is both honoured and excited about being chosen to carry out the restoration of the Hemi engine for the Allard Dragster. The project has been a labour of love and one of great excitement. Following the storied career of the Allard dragster has made this project a historic event for us, and to have the name Booth-Arons associated with the Allard Dragster is an honour of a lifetime. We are looking forward to seeing the Allard breath fire and belch thunder again”.

The re-created 354 Chrysler Hemi with blower almost ready for shipment. (source Sam Eidy)

It has taken 12-months to complete but the latest news is that the re-created engine is about ready for shipping. Stuart Bradbury of US Automotive of Bedford has been handling the overall USA-UK logistics and technical liaison. Award winning global freight forwarding and logistics company SBS Worldwide agreed to sponsor the engine’s transport to the UK. SBS is a privately owned British company that commenced trading in 1983. With its Head Office in Dartford, Kent it has six offices in the UK and four in the USA; Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. It also now has fifteen offices in China. Dennis Potts of the Chicago office is handling the USA logistics.

Nick Walker, SBS Group Managing Director, says,

“We are pleased to work with our client US Automotive and with the ACAG to help restore this historic vehicle, Europe’s first ever dragster. As a British-based company with a strong US presence, and a number of significant clients in the automotive sector, we feel a special affinity with this project.”

2011 marks the car’s 50th birthday and plans are being made for it to visit the USA. The Project 1320 team in the USA is working with the ACAG to achieve this with the possibility that the Mooneyes dragster will appear in the UK at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu during the same period. At the beginning and end of the swap period there will be opportunities for these two iconic cars to appear side-by-side for the first time since 1963.

The ACAG has a website www.allardchrysler.org and the Allard dragster has its own Facebook Page. So far the ACAG has raised most of the funding for the restoration themselves by donations and selling merchandise – with the welcomed product support from American suppliers and financial input from UK insurers Performance Direct and the recently announced sponsorship of SBS Worldwide. But much more is needed to complete the job. If you would like to help fund or sponsor this unique and exciting project, or purchase ACAG merchandise, then contact brian@allardchrysler.org or visit the website merchandise page.

The full story of Sydney Allard and his Allard Chrysler is included in Brian’s book Crazy Horses – the history of British drag racing published by Haynes. To get your own copy visit Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

This is a quest post by Brian Taylor, the author of the Crazy Horses.


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