On the road with a CanAm Lola

“What have we here,” asked the men in blue, examining in amused disbelief the improbable apparition of a blood-red CanAm Lola parked at the side of the A10. They couldn’t have been more surprised if a flying saucer had landed in front of their 200,000-mile-old Rover. I squirmed in the driver’s seat, thankful for having seen them before they saw me and hoping that the Lola’s owner Rod Leach had covered every detail in the rule book during this monster racing car’s conversion for road use. Fortunately the two Policemen turned out to be friendly characters, who had flagged me down more out of curiosity than any over-zealous exercise of the law. Having satisfied themselves at a glance that all the essentials were present and correct they concentrated conversation on the Lola and the longevity of police Rovers. Would that all traffic Policemen were so pleasant!

Had this little incident had more serious consequences I could have blamed reader Barrie Crowe, whose sarcastic jibe in our letters pages at Rod Leach’s boast of a 50 mile road journey in his 1968 CanAm Lola T160 Spyder brought a swift response from Leach in our January correspondence columns and an invitation to me to try this awesome machine.

Part of Leach’s private collection, not one of his sales stock, this road-going Lola is regarded by its enthusiast owner as something of a temporary novelty. He agrees with my sentiments that one day it ought to be, and probably will be, converted back to racing trim, for which purpose he has all the necessary bits, including a full-race, fuel-injected, 5.4-litre, 500+ b.h.p. Chevrolet V8 engine to replace its relatively “cooking”, 300+ b.h.p., 5.3-litre Chevrolet V8.

Chassis number SL160/9, this Lola actually ran in the 1968 CanAm series, though pedantic details are in short supply. The story has it that this was the Chuck Parsons Simoniz Special, a successful car by T160 standards that season, though that isn’t much of a boast, for the model was disappointing in a season when McLarens totally dominated this SCCA Group 7 Championship, won by Denis Hulme with a 7-litre M8A. Eric Broadley verbally cringed when I asked him about the T160 over the telephone. In spite of a bevy of top class drivers, such as Andretti, Savage, Gurney, Posey, Scott and Parsons, the T160 could finish no better than 9th (Posey) and 10th (Parsons) in the Championship. Lola had to persevere until 1977, when Tambay won the Championship in a T333CS, to repeat Surreys’ victory with a T70 in the first CanAm series in 1966.

All sorts of V8 engines were fitted to T160s in 1968 in desperate and unsuccessful efforts to break the dominance of the 7-litre alloy block Chevrolet engines in the McLarens, Parsons tried both 7-litre and 6.1-litre Chevrolet engines. Posey ran 7-litre and illegal 7.2-litre units, Gurney and Andretti experimented with Ford’s all-aluminium 4-cam Indianapolis V8s, there were attempts with 5-litre and 5.3-litre Gurney-headed Ford engines, and others tried small-block Chevrolet engines.

Leach has no record of when his T160 received its small-block Chevrolet racing engine, but it certainly ran this after it joined the “fleet” at the Quaker State Racing School in 1971/72. The School eventually sold SL160/9 to a private owner in South Carolina, who carried out the bulk of the road conversion, including the engine change. Leach acquired the car in late 1977.

The new owner found himself with a very grubby, immobile machine painted in a hideous red, yellow and purple chevron colour scheme. Allen Seymour of Winchmore Hill, who specialises in a very fastidious form of concours-standard car valeting painstakingly removed all the filth to produce a magnificent finish throughout the chassis. This revealed the car to be in extremely good and original shape, with no sign of damage to the tub. Brian Angliss of AutoKraft resprayed the well-preserved glass-fibre body sections and sorted out the inoperative engine, replacing the Autolite carburetter with a 650CFM Holley on an Edelbrock manifold and fitting a dual point Mallory distributor. The well-worn multi-plate racing clutch made way for a single-plate diaphragm item.

Most of the modifications for road use were fitted in the USA, including very efficient silencers fixed into the massive racing exhaust manifolds; except on full song this Lola is discreetly quiet. The brilliantly simple handbrake hinged horizontally from the right-hand cockpit side pulls down the footbrake pedals by means of cable and pulleys. With the four-pot aluminium calipers clamping the pads on to all four 12 in. x 1.1 in. ventilated discs this has to be one of the most efficient handbrakes in the business and is legal because the hydraulic system is split. A tiny 160 m.p.h. speedometer is driven by cable from a curious split-pin device at the back of one front hub. A short windscreen wiper operates on the vestigial screen, while windscreen washers are tucked into the duct behind the radiator; the idea is that they squirt vertically until the water meets the air-flow over the nose. Sidelights and winkers but no headlights were on the car when Leach acquired it. Motorcycle headlamps sprouting on brackets from the radiator duct were fitted as a temporary measure, as shown in our January issue. Since then Angliss has faired rectangular Escort headlamps very neatly into the wings.

In all other respects the car remains pure, original Lola racer, right down to the magnesium wheels, suspension, brakes and brake ducting, coolers, five-speed Hewland LG 504 gearbox, catch tanks, 25 gallon bag tanks in each sill and Aeroquip pipework. Part of the T160’s problems revolved around aerodynamics and front and rear body sections were changed during the course of the 1968 season. This car seems to have been brought up to date for the 1969 season with that year’s improved T162 bodywork, or it may be that the panels were developed for the T160 late in the 1968 season; CanAm information is hard to find. A rear wing came with the car, but is impractical for road use. The 9.5 in. front rims and 17 in. rear rims are shod with Goodyear Blue Streak Sports Car Special tyres, wet weather “racers”…

Barrie Crowe may have been cynical about Rod Leach’s 50-mile journey, but I for one wouldn’t dare to venture so far; this is far too conspicuous a car for any serious journeys, as my meeting with the Hertfordshire Constabulary proved. I restricted myself to a brief drive around Leach’s Hertford Heath locality. Though a dauntingly big car to look at, the driving seat seemingly feet away from the flanks, it seemed to shrink once on the move. And I certainly knew I was moving, the air-flow rammed directly into my face by the little screen with a force that felt enough to drag off my cheeks. Pebbles peppered through the louvres in the tops of the wings and charging past lorries was a painful business. Emasculated may be, but over 300 b.h.p. in 1,425 lb, with very little drag, gives a performance which few road cars can hope to match, the thrust in the back relentless. Talk of roadholding and handling is academic, the chassis potential so far beyond the possibilities of the engine and road conditions. The Goodyears simply bit harder into the tarmac as more power was applied and there was no need to call on the quick steering for correction. The brakes were awe-inspiring, even though not warmed up. A CanAm Lola driver had two brake pedals, operating on the same fulcrum, just in case more pressure was called for. This Lola’s worst feature was an abominable gearchange via the long lever on the right hand sill; the Hewland had obviously seen better days. Surprisingly, the ride was good, the engine placid, though loath to fire at low revs.

All in all Leach’s Lola is not the most ideal of road cars, though it’s certainly exciting. “Its b….. silly really,” he admits, but what would the world be without eccentricities. — C.R.