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In praise of the Allard Atom, the world’s smallest race car

Published in blog.hemmings.com

If you need any further proof that we’re living in the wrong timeline, then consider this: Allard – maker of monstrous British sports cars powered by American V-8s – only built two Allard Atoms instead of entire fleets to swarm city streets around the world. What’s more, they never even turned a wheel in anger like they were intended.

The story of the Allard Atom, as Tom Lush told it in “Allard, the Inside Story,” starts with Ronnie Greene, the manager of the Wimbledon Speedway, a motorcycle track in southwest London. Greene, Lush wrote, noted that speedway racing in England was waning in the mid-Fifties and “thought that perhaps car racing would bring back the crowds.” Fullsize cars wouldn’t exactly fit on the small speedway, so he approached Sydney Allard to build an itty-bitty racer, one that would use the same JAP engines the motorcycles ran.

Allard, in turn, sketched out a design and handed the job to Gil Jepson, who built a chassis using channel-section steel left over from the Allard Clipper microcar project. Wheelbase would measure just four and a half feet; front track came in at 3 feet, and rear track 3 inches shorter. Jepson added quarter-elliptic springs to the beam front axle, but mounted the rear axle solidly to the frame via a couple carrier bearings.

To fit both the driver and the engine, Jepson mounted the latter – a 500-cc single – aside the former and had it drive the rear axle via a chain and removable sprocket. A set of 13-inch Ford 100E wheels and an aluminum body then rounded out the package. No transmission, no brakes. Drivers were apparently expected to toss the little car into turns to scrub speed.

Painted in bright colours and named the Atom, it was put on display on a raised dais at one evening meeting in June, and shortly afterwards was tested on the empty track by Ronnie Moore, the 1954 World Speedway Champion. It went quite well, though suffering from insufficient head of petrol from the tail-mounted, gravity-feeding tank. A pump was fitted, driven off the axle shaft, and performance was much improved, but after several laps Moore overdid things on one corner and the car overturned, breaking his collarbone. Not surprisingly, his interest waned a little after that.

British Pathe got Cyril “Salty” Brine to show off the Atom (speculation: the name might have been influenced by Aston Martin’s diminutive prototype of the same name) and quoted some performance figures: 1,200 pounds (Lush claimed 278 pounds), 116 mph top speed, 50 mph average speed around Wimbledon. Allard built a second to try to drum up interest in midget car racing in the UK, but the enthusiasm wasn’t there.

Coulda made for lotsa fun. Spiritually, we see the Allard Atom in one-offs like Trooper Trudeau’s four-wheeled sidecar and the more recent Emporium Garage Autoscooter (anybody have an old sidecar lying around?). And, of course, the Atom name eventually lived on in another minimalist British car built by Ariel.

As for the two Allard Atoms, at least one survived into the Eighties, though with the smaller wheels and tires, it looks more like a King Midget.

As for Wimbledon Speedway, Greene apparently didn’t have all that much to worry about: Motorcycle racing continued there – and later included auto racing – until 2005.