Warhorses: Lola T290, chassis number HU22

While impecunious privateers in the '70s felt momocoques were flimsy and no rugged enough, this car proved them wrong, says Marcus Pye

1290 chassis HU22 — or 'Old Faithful' as it is affectionately known to Dorset Racing's Tony Birchenhough — has the finest CV of any 2-litre Gp6 sports prototype. With five Le Mans 24 Hours starts and 25 gruelling world championship rounds on a staggering 80-plus race logbook, it's no contest. Following an amazing success record in contemporary events over 11 seasons, it's now a Historic racer, driven by the man who knows it best. And its still boasts the original 1972 monocoque.

The Le Mans statistics are remarkable, particularly since Birchenhough's tiny team tackled the world's greatest endurance event from 1976-80, with 12 different drivers. That the car finished four times, winning the coveted Index of Performance (for fuel efficiency) twice, and completed no fewer than 8852 punishing miles of the celebrated French track, is extraordinary. And that's not taking into account the fact that it had already been campaigned incredibly hard for four years.

British marques Lola and Chevron were arch-rivals in the class, with very different design philosophies. While Derek Bennett's Bolton-built Chevrons had relatively simple spaceframe chassis, down in Huntingdon, Eric Broadley took the sheet metal monocoque route for his Lolas. Both schools had strong followings, although most privateers opted for Chevrons because they felt tubes were easier to repair, especially in the field. Unfortunately for the northerners, Lola was ahead of the game.

Their T210 caught Chevron napping in 1970, the open-topped Lola running rings round the gorgeously sleek B16 coupes. Bennett countered with a cut-down `B16S', in which Brian Redman beat Jo Bonnier in the epic race of the era at Spa, lapping four seconds faster than his outright record in a Porsche 917 and snatching the manufacturers' title. It spawned the classic B19 for 1971, but Helmut Marko won the crown in a B12. While Chevron continued its theme, Lola responded for 1972 with a new family of cars which would outlast Group 6.

The T290 was neat and elegant, the curvaceous beauty of its lines in stark contrast to those of Chevron's B21 chunkier hewn-from-solid look. For poise and balance, its engine sat well forward in the chassis, mating to the Hewland FG400 gearbox via a long bell-housing. Radiators sat either side for endurance racing, protected from below by rigid sills and fed by fluted ducts in the flank panels. Suspension was conventional wishbone, with outboard brakes all round (the rears went inboard from 1973, but remain there on HU22), the whole wrapped in a stylish low-drag body.

HU22's history begins very successfully when Guy Edwards' works-assisted Barclays International machine won first time out, at Snetterton on Good Friday, 1972. It was then whisked to the Nürburgring's Interserie event, where Guy won his class on Easter Monday. Six days later, he was sixth in Paul Ricard's European 2-litre race, before heading back to Brands Hatch where he and David Hobbs won their class in the 1000Km. A fortnight later, Guy was second at Vallelunga's Euroround. The pace never slackened.

"It was a lovely car," says Edwards, "a joy to drive after the T212, which was a twitchy, short-wheelbase thing. I didn't have the experience to stay with the hot boys like Vic Elford and Helmut Marko. When you stepped over the limit in a T212, there was nothing you could do. I destroyed seven tubs that season. But the T290 was special out of the box."

Edwards stopped winning abruptly, once reliable Ford FVC engines were forsaken for Cosworth's powerful but fragile Chevrolet Vega-based EA. Guy persevered in Europe and South Africa's Springbok series in the winter (sharing with Paddy Driver), and into 1973, a decision which arguably cost him the European title. "The winged T292 was the best car I ever drove," he says, "nothing came close. It responded to tiny changes, and handled brilliantly. After a couple more Vegas blew, I went back to FVCs." Victories at Clermont-Ferrand and the Osterreichring followed, but Chris Craft and John Burton remained beyond reach.

Meanwhile, Birchenhough had bought Edwards' T290 for £2200, complete with an FVC. The farm equipment specialist had taken over Guy's T212 a year earlier, after his Chevron B8 was rendered obsolete, and had watched the new generation car with awe. Once its pale blue livery was supplanted by red paint, HU22's adventures really started.

Previously a combatant in the dizzy world of one-litre Formula 3, Birchenhough adored the lifestyle of the impecunious racer. Long tows from Dorset to the Continent would have deterred less stout individuals, but the lure of world, European 2-litre and Interserie championships was too great for him and his staunch associates.

"As ordinary folk, we shared the world's finest circuits with the aces. They'd blast past our little car with great regularity," says Birchenhough, "but being overtaken by a Porsche 917 or Ferrari was awesome — an unforgettable experience, a privilege."

With co-drivers Brian Joscelyne and Lee Kaye, Tony made four trips to the Nürburgring and one to Spa — in 1973 alone. Third in class in the 'Ring 1000 with Kaye was a highlight, but the season was split by a seven-week sojourn to Portugal and Angola, its colony in West Africa. "After Villa Real — one of the most unbelievable circuits ever, with its narrow viaduct — and Estoril, the 2-litre cars were flown to Angola in a cargo plane," Birchenhough recalls. "The reception we received was astonishing.

"Three races in three weekends, on a new circuit at Luanda, six hours on the streets of Nova Lisboa, and at Benguela — a beautiful place — were hard work, but it was a fantastic holiday. We went in 1974 too, the last time the series ran, which was especially memorable. At Nova Lisboa a pedestrian bridge half fell into the track as the cars left the start. Somehow, we all scraped through. And then I won the Benguela 500kms, driving alone. Emilio Marta, who owned the Luanda track, was so impressed with the T290 (by then in T294 bodywork) that he offered me a straight swap for his Ford GT40."

Four 1000-kilometre races and the Spa 750km were tackled in the 1975 world championship, and the 100 per cent finishing record speaks volumes for Dorset Racing's preparation. Although an essentially amateur effort, it had a distinctly professional air to it, with Chris Crawford [later of ADA Engineering, and Nissan's BTCC team, and now running Group C cars in Historic events] and Andy Britten [who took over ADNs gearbox business] on the beer-and-hamburger roll as mechanics. Who mentioned pay?

Inspired by their results, Birchenhough, Joscelyne, Ian Bracey (the Lloyds insurance man a team regular in '75) and accountant Simon Phillips took the plunge and entered Le Mans for the first time in '76.

"With a budget of £9000 it was ludicrous, but we finished, second in class, and were hooked," says Tony, eyes alight "Having just done the Monza and Imola 1000-kilometre races, it made it a triple success."

Spiralling costs of competing restricted outings in later years, but the T290 soldiered on, albeit in different clothes as aerodynamic development slung rear wings further back for greater speed on the Mulsanne.

"It ran arrow straight — unless some other bugger pinched your air — and would pull over 170mph in qualifying trim," says Tony. "Having made the cut, we'd put a detuned engine in for the race. On the later Richardson BDG engines, which replaced our FVCs, we cut maximum revs to 8400rpm through the gears and 8700rpm in top to make it last".

Stalwart Ian Harrower, Dutchman Ernst Berg and Irishman Martin Birrane raced in 1977. Although running at the end, they covered insufficient distance to be classified.

The only bitter disappointment of Dorset Racing's Le Mans record came the following season, when Juliette Slaughter — the first British woman in the race since 1951 — and Joscelyne joined Birchenhough. Engine failure put them out before midnight.

Nick Mason — architectural student turned rock musician — entered HU22's life in 1979. Teamed with old hands Tony, Brian, and the capable Richard Jenvey, the Pink Floyd drummer had a dream run at his first Le Mans, finishing 18th overall, runner-up in class. Mason returned in '80, with the versatile Peter Clark and Birrane, to finish third in the 2-litre split. He also had the car painted to promote his band's album The Wall at the 'Ring in '81.

Group 6 cars became ineligible for contemporary events at the birth of Group C in 1983, and were too modem to contest Historic races, the cut-off point for which was then 1971. Having reached the end of the road, for the time being at least, the later chassis were redundant. Mason duly bought the T290 from Birchenhough, adding it to his eclectic Ten Tenths collection.

A new chapter began 10 years later when the car was invited to a demonstration at Le Mans. Mason asked Birchenhough to prepare it, back in Dorchester and, following subsequent demos, he subsequently restored it to original T290 spec for Historic events. Now gracing the European Sports Prototype Trophy series, the Lola also raced at Dijon last year, where Tony's godson David Alborough co-drove. Now Birchenhough is looking forward to the Le Mans Legends race and a return to La Sarthe in 2003.

"It's marvellous to have the car back, and very generous of Nick to allow me to exercise her," says Birchenhough. "Racing cars quickly go sad if they are not used

"We competed for fun throughout a golden age of sportscar racing. But without the support of tremendously talented people, including Dave Scotney of Lola, it could never have happened. Having survived 29 drivers [a veritable A-Z, from Eddie Arundel to Manrico Zanuzo], 33 circuits, five Le Mans and 16 1000-kilometre races, this Lola is dear to my heart. After 28 years, I know her better than my wife."