Rumours of exciting cars lying forgotten in garages are sometimes true, as John Starkey found it.
With the discovery and subsequent sale at auction of the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 found in an Angolan scrapyard recently, the car world has once more been fascinated to find that a few rare jewels still exist in their original state.
Yet another has recently come to light — Lola 170 Mark III coupe, chassis no SL731/121. This car’s claim to fame is that not only is it one of only two Lola-Astons made, but it has also had one of the most illustrious careers of any of the T70s built.
The author discovered this time machine whilst researching material for his book on the Lola T70, published in late 1993. Whilst I was viewing two other T70s which have been in pieces for many years, squirreled away in a shed, I was told that another one, a coupe, lived not 12 miles away! I made contact with the owner, who confirmed that he had owned the car for some 24 years and that it had not been run or moved for some time. Upon asking whether I could view the car, the owner invited me to visit him that afternoon.
Drawing up outside a detached house in a suburban street, I was welcomed inside and given a cup of tea. After chatting for a while, I learned that the car was “ex-Surtees” (aren’t they all?) and that the owner had bought the car in 1970. “Oh, yes, I used to follow my family with it when they went on picnics. It always created a great sensation on the roads around here.” He then asked if I’d like to see the car. We passed through a connecting doorway from the kitchen into the double car garage where resided a leviathan of an Edwardian Renault, the owner’s current passion.
Sure enough, lurking no higher than the top of the wheels of the Renault, was a dark red Lola. I caught my breath when I realised it still had the small lights attached to the bodywork to show the racing numbers during the Le Mans 24-hour race. Together the owner and I pushed open the outside door of the garage, which had certainly not been opened for some time, and daylight fell upon the T70, showing off its beautiful lines.
After taking some initial photographs, I opened the gullwing door and looked inside at a cockpit which looked just like the factory photographs from 1967. I peered at the chassis plate and received a shock. There it was — SL73/121! I asked the owner what he knew about the early history of the car, and he said that all he knew was that the previous owner had said it had been one of the Lola-Astons and had been driven by John Surtees at Le Mans. For many years I had been told that this particular Lola-Aston had resided in America, but there was no doubt, even with the Chevrolet engine now installed, that this was the real car. It sported the distinctive chassis modifications which are specific to the Aston Martin engined T70s.
SL73/101 was the first Lola-Aston built, and was displayed to unanimous public approval at the Racing Car show at Olympia in January 1967. Aston Martin had been looking for a racing test vehicle for its new V8, and Eric Broadley had been approached by Jackie Epstein to build a coupe version of the 1966 Can-Am-winning T70 spyder. After first testing the engine (DP218) in a T70 Spyder, Lola then installed it in its new coupe for Team Surtees to run.
At the Le Mans test days the car was third fastest in the dry and quickest of all in the wet. Worryingly, the engine would not pull over 6000rpm on the Mulsanne straight, but Aston Martin was confident that the Lucas fuel injection shortly to be installed would cure this problem.
May 28 saw SL73/101’s competition debut at the Nurburgring 1000km, where John Surtees and David Hobbs put it on the front row of the grid, alongside the Chaparral on pole. Although Surtees stalled the engine at the start, he was up to seventh place by lap seven when a rear wishbone broke going down through the Fuchsrohre. “Big John” wrestled the car to a halt without damage to either himself or car, but the T70 had to be retired on the spot.
Three weeks later came Le Mans, SL73/121 was brand new, and, fitted with a longer tail made of aluminium, was down to be driven by Surtees and Hobbs, whilst the Nurburgring car’s crew comprised Peter de Klerk and Chris Irwin.
Both cars were troubled in practice by overheating, and the Lola mechanics looking after chassis set-up claimed that the injection timing was 180deg out. In addition, John Surtees had done a sponsorship deal contracting the cars to use Marchal spark-plugs, against Aston Martin’s advice. The stage was set for a fiasco.
Surtees retired first. Poor 121 was out after just three laps with a burned piston, and 101 went out with a cracked crankshaft damper only thirty minutes later. The cars went back to the factory to be re-engined with Chevrolet pushrod units. 101 was sold to Max Wilson, a privateer who had little luck with the car before selling her to Jo Bonnier, who went on to have a very successful 1969 season with her, and became Lola’s European agent. After numerous vicissitudes, the car is today in the hands of a very enthusiastic owner who races her as much as possible in historic events.
Meanwhile 121 had stayed with Team Surtees, and one week after Le Mans had taken part in the Reims 12-hr race, an event starting at midnight and utilising three public road straights to boast very fast lap times indeed.
Surtees took the first stint, and right from the off the four Lola T70s left the rest of the field for dead. Paul Hawkins led, driving Jackie Epstein’s SL73/ 112 and averaging 149mph — in the dark with full tanks. This was faster than the F1 record held by Bandini, and as the circuit was closed shortly afterwards will stand as an all-time record. On the straight Paul was seeing over 190mph, and it is possible that Surtees, following in Hawkin’s slipstream, over-revved the 5.9 Chevrolet, as Epstein had had a special high top gear cut for the event. Whatever, after three hours, SL73/121 retired with a broken crank.
Back in Britain, Surtees and Hobbs drove 121 again on July 30 in the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch. The car took the lap record, but retired with fuel pressure problems. The Team Surtees T70 entered one more race, this time at Croft in a two-heat race with Hobbs driving solo. In the first heat the crown wheel and pinion stripped, putting Hobbs out, but after frantic work in the pits the big Lola started Heat Two from the back of the grid. In Pouring rain David Hobbs overhauled everyone else, including Denny Hulme who had won the first heat in Sid Taylor’s white and green T70 coupe, SL73/102, and went on to win.
The car was now given back to the factory from where Jackie Epstein purchased her during the winter of 1968. The factory had homologated SL73/101 in Group IV with a five-litre (305cu in) motor fitted, and Epstein wasted no time in entering 121 for the BOAC 500 race at Brands Hatch, where together with co-driver, Ed Nelson he struggled through to the finish after the fuel bag split. At Spa in May for the 1000km, Epstein was out when a head gasket failed, but after having had an Alan Smith roller-cam engine fitted, the car was fourth in class at the Norisring.
Jackie got to drive the car again on July 27 for the Martini Trophy at Silverstone, but he was T-boned by Ron Fry’s GT40 and the car had go back to the factory for tub repairs. It also collected a set of dark purple body panels left after a customer had failed to collect them.
David Hobbs had the chance to drive 121 again at Brands Hatch on September 2. This was for the Guards Trophy, and Hobbs, despite a seized wheelnut and with the wrong tyres fitted, managed this time to finish, albeit in 21st place.
Epstein and Nelson entered Le Mans in September, where, with nothing to do on the morning of the race, Jackie’s mechanics fashioned a huge imitation clockwork key and fixed it to the roof. As 4pm approached, the mechanics grabbed the key and pretended to wind up the Lola, much to the crowd’s amusement. They lasted longer in the race than any of the other Lolas entered, retiring in the seventeenth hour when the gearbox failed.
After this, Jackie Epstein took the car to South Africa for the Springbok series where he shared the car with David Charlton. In four races, all held in glorious sunshine, they recorded a win, one second, a seventh and a 21st.
On his return to England, Jackie Epstein sold the car to Brian Bolton, who in turn sold it one year later to the present owner, having never raced It. The present owner registered the car for the road and used it occasionally until 1975, when he laid it up. In November 1995 I sold the car on behalf of its owner to a French collector who is so delighted with it that he is having the car restored tastefully to its Aston Martin-engined configuration. When the car is complete, the new owner intends to race her in a new series for this type of car which starts in May 1996.
We all dream of finding a ‘Bugatti in a Barn’, but although I like Bugattis I doubt that any one of them could have given me the sense of excitement I felt as that garage door was rolled back to show this particular Lola. With its history of twice taking part in the classic Le Mans 24-hours, and of being raced by such names as John Surtees and David Hobbs, and its condition, still more or less as last raced in early 1969, this must be rated as one of the last great finds in the historic racing world.