Obituary: Eric Broadley

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Eric Broadley, the founder and leader of Lola, who died on May 28 aged 88, had a place at the top table of motor sport’s most visionary and versatile design engineers.

Along with the likes of Colin Chapman and Major Arthur Mallock, Broadley was responsible for the pioneering boom days of the British motor sport industry, having masterminded a remarkable variety of Lola models ranging from Formula Ford chassis through to customer F1 projects. His influence and ideas were instrumental in ensuring that British engineering became dominant in motor sport during the second half of the 20th century. The legacy of that can still be seen in modern Formula 1.

A prolific thinker and practical craftsman, Broadley’s early interest in architecture morphed into mechanical aptitude and by his late teens he was starting to take an interest in the racing world. He began competing with cousin Graham in a pre-war 750cc Austin before graduating to a more powerful design of his own making, dubbed the Broadley Special. The pace of this car was such that Broadley’s ‘Lotus beater’, the subsequent Mk1, became the car to have in 1958 and from it was born a new marque – Lola.

The origins of the Lola name are shrouded in mystery. It was initially believed to have been taken from a favourite Broadway musical of the time, Damned Yankees, in which a song – Whatever Lola wants – is devoted to Gwen Taylor’s character Lola.

In his later years, Broadley told me that he’d forgotten the exact reason for choosing the name and that he might have done it to “rev up Mr Chapman” with a similar moniker to his own emerging company.

Lola’s first Mk1 chassis were designed to house multi-format engines and gearboxes. Here were racing cars that the customer could adapt – it became the Lola way and the company’s subsequent focus on customers became one of its calling cards. 

Lola grew incredibly quickly. After producing a couple of Formula Junior designs, one of which took Richard Attwood to a Monaco victory in 1963, Broadley was commissioned to build Bowmaker F1 cars for Reg Parnell. The car was tidy, but its only successes were a win for John Surtees in the 1962
2000 Guineas at Mallory Park and a fortuitous victory for Bob Anderson in the 1963 Rome GP. Around this time Broadley came to the attention of Ford, which was on a quest to beat Ferrari at Le Mans, and it was a Broadley design that ultimately became the GT40. 

F1 forays would come in fits and starts over the next four decades, but other categories featured many design classics such as the iconic Lola T70 Spyder and Coupé, the T330/T332 Formula 5000 cars and a series of 2-litre sports cars that proved very successful on the national and international endurance scene throughout the 1970s.

By 1971 Lola had settled in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, lured by low land prices. There Broadley assembled a concentrated team of mechanics, design engineers and fabricators. Among those passing through over the years were the likes of John Barnard, Bob Marston, Patrick Head, Ralph Bellamy, Mark Williams, Ben Bowlby and Julian Sole.

Lola’s record at Indianapolis was the best of any overseas constructor for decades. Graham Hill became the first English driver to win at the Brickyard in 1966, with the Lola T90 Red Ball Special, while Al Unser Sr took the 500-mile triple-crown – Indy, Pocono and Ontario – in a Lola T500 in 1978.

Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr, Nigel Mansell, Paul Tracy and Michael Andretti all took CART and Champ Car titles in Lola chassis, while Arie Luyendyk took Lola’s third Indy 500 win in 1990.

The firm’s most promising F1 venture came with French team Larrousse from 1987-1991, Aguri Suzuki scoring a podium finish in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix.

Always a thoughtful and unobtrusive presence, Broadley was never more at home than designing and developing a racing concept. The business element of his vision was often directed by others, notably from the 1970s to the ’90s by
a combination of Derek Ongaro and Mike Blanchet.

In 1997, the disastrous Mastercard Lola F1 project brought about the end of Broadley’s era at the company he founded. The shakeout came later that year and from the ashes emerged the second phase of Lola’s history under the custodianship of Martin Birrane, who reinvested and reaped renewed success in Champ Car and endurance racing.

That Broadley passed away on Indy 500 race day and was laid to rest during Le Mans week seems somehow fitting, in keeping with his inexorable passion for two of the world’s greatest races.

He spent his final years living close to the Lola base in Huntingdon, in a farmhouse in the village of Broughton. Very occasionally he would visit the workshops, talk to old employees and look over the latest Lola LMP cars in thoughtful contemplation.

Motor Sport extends its sympathy to Eric’s widow Julia O’Ryan, daughters Penny and Diane and son Andrew from his first marriage.