Past, present, future

Lola is about to produce a new run of the beautiful T70. So we thought it would be nice to whet Ian Flux’s appetite with an ex-Bonnier car.

Flux is right of course. It really is beautiful. In your mind’s eye, this is how a sports-prototype should look, all beefy and curvaceous: none of that geometric, square-cut nonsense. A car that was conceived with the aid of nothing more exotic than a vivid imagination and a slide rule. Others patently think the same, not least Lola Cars, which is to reintroduce its most famous offspring — the T70 — at January’s Autosport International show. Plans call for a batch of ‘continuation cars’, all of them eligible for FIA ‘passports’ that will enable owners to campaign the fresh-out-of-the-oven Chevy-powered racers in historic events.

Whether this is strictly in keeping with the spirit of historics is a moot point. Ian Flux isn’t bothered. He’s too busy salivating: “It’s just beautiful.” An emotional moment too, as the former Lola works driver (“I raced Sports 2000 in the States. I can safely say that I won for Carl Haas before Mansell did”) straps himself into Nigel Hulme’s period example before heading out on to Silverstone’s National circuit: “Me and the old man went to watch the ’68 Tourist Trophy at Oulton. It was quite a trip from Cobham in a Lotus Elan. My dad was involved in plant hire and met Sid Taylor at the JCB factory who said, ‘You must come along’. Anyway, I got to sit in Denny Hulme’s car before the race. It was magic. Then Denny saw me and wandered over. I couldn’t believe that the reigning World Champion was actually speaking to me. When you’re 11 that’s a big deal. I’ve wanted to drive one of these ever since.”

His enthusiasm is entirely understandable: just about everyone who’s ever driven a T70 has come away enamoured. But, truth be told, at international level it wasn’t all that successful. After building his striking 289cu in Ford V8-powered, mid-engined MkVI GT, Lola’s Eric Broadley effectively took a sabbatical to produce the Blue Oval’s Le Mans challenger for 1964: the GT40. After his experience with the MkVI’s spaceframe chassis, he outlined the Detroit sports-racer with an aluminium-skinned monocoque, but Ford’s engineers insisted on steel. So it was heavy. And rustprone. By the time he’d honoured the agreement, Broadley had already laid down plans for the car he really wanted to build.

The result was Lola’s Group Seven T70 Spyder, and factory driver John Surtees steered the Team Surtees car to 1966 US Road Racing Championship honours “It was a good design,” recalls Tony Southgate. “I was effectively Eric’s right-hand man at the time. He would produce the concept and suspension geometry and I would fill in the rest with some sound engineering, although Mike Smith did the doors. I hated doing doors.” Styled, if only in part, by Kiwi Jim Clark of Specialist Mouldings, it was a looker too. “I’d studied architecture but didn’t want to spend my time doing pig pens so I came to England,” laughs Clark. “We did all sorts of stuff at SM including the Chevron B16 and the McLaren M6GT.”

The prototype coupé was the star turn at the January ’67 Racing Car Show at Olympia. It was powered by a small-block Chevy V8, though the big news was that two chassis were destined for Le Mans with Tadek Marek’s Aston Martin units. The first customer car was delivered to Jackie Epstein, who gave the model its maiden outing in the Spa 1000Km. Sharing the drive with Paul Hawkins, he finished a respectable fourth overall, despite having to run in Group Six as a sports-prototype rather than Group Four, as the car hadn’t been fully homologated.

At the Nürburgring 1000Km a works Aston-powered car driven by Surtees and David Hobbs qualified second overall behind the Phil Hill/Mike Spence Chaparral, only to retire early on during the race with suspension breakages. Come Le Mans, the two-car Aston bid ended in disaster: the Surtees and Hobbs car retired after three laps with piston failure, with Chris Irwin/Piet de Klerk following suit 22 tours later with crankshaft maladies. The Newport Pagnell V8 wouldn’t appear again at the Circuit de la Sarthe until 1977.

For the rest of the season the works and privateer entries, now Chevy-powered, ran at the front but outright success at championship level proved elusive. Elsewhere there were wins: Hulme triumphed at Croft in Sid Taylor’s MkIII, Hawkins in the Gallaher GT Trophy at Warwick Farm and the Cape Three Hours at Killarney, a round of the Springbok series, but the car hadn’t displayed its full potential.

Displacement was capped at five litres by the CSI for ’68: the Chevy unit started as a 5.3, but Traco developed a short-stroke 304.6cu in version. Regardless, very few of the then Group Four-homologated T70s raced seriously at championship level. Sixth in the BOAC 500 for Jo Bonnier and Sten Axelsson was the only top six placing in the International Championship of Makes. At national level, however, it proved unbeatable, winning every British Group Four race that year: Brian Redman at Oulton Park, Denny Hulme at Silverstone’s May and Martini 300 meetings, Frank Gardner in the same Taylor car at Mallory Park and Brands Hatch, and Mike de Udy at Oulton Park.

For 1969 Lola introduced the MkIIIB, with a new all-alloy monocoque that owed some of its architecture to the T160 Can-Am car. Outwardly identifiable by its use of four rather than a single pair of headlights, and forward-hinged (in place of gullwing) doors, the newest strain was breathtakingly gorgeous.

Lola took seven out of eight British GT races during the year but the T70 still fell largely short on the world stage: the exceptions were the hurriedly completed Penske-Sunoco car of Mark Donohue and Chuck Parsons taking victory at the Daytona 24 Hours after all its rivals broke, and Bonnier finishing second in the final championship round at the Österreichring. Four wins out of five races in the Springbok series rounded out the Lola’s year.

The beginning of the end started in 1970: there were no major placings for T70s in the International Championship of Makes, although Richard Attwood took a win at Montlhery and again at Dijon. JeanPierre Beltoise took the model’s last real success at Magmy-Cours in July, driving David Piper’s example.

‘Our’ car, chassis SL76/153, was the last of the original batch of 15 MkIIIB coupes. Originally sold to Lola concessionaire Joakim Bonnier in March 1969, it passed to Terry Crocker, who raced it with little distinction in Interserie events the following year with a Vegantune-Chevy engine. After numerous failures to start (and finish), the car was moved on again by AJ Motors, Crocker’s firm, to Brazilian Antonio Carlos Avallone, who took a pair of top-five placings in the 1971 Interlagos 500Km and the Grand Prix of Taruma during a packed season, occasionally sharing with Wilson Fittipaldi and alternating between Chevy and Chrysler power. At the end of the year it was shipped out to South Africa, where it remained until 1994, when Italian Mauro Borella discovered the car in a derelict state. Super-successful historic racer Nigel Hulme bought the remains two years later and entrusted the restoration to Lola specialist Clive Robinson Cars. He’s since won around 30 races with it.

Like a Jim’ll Fix It beneficiary, Flux is at his most animated: “There are certain things that have an impact on you, but you don’t realise until later on. I can remember the first time I heard a T70 and it obviously must have had some sort of influence on my subconscious. I just love the sound of a race-prepared American V8. As soon as they started it up it was like 1968 all over again. And the way you feel when you first pump the accelerator and get pushed back in your seat… that’s my buzz for the week!

“It really is a nice car to drive. The torque spread is very broad and it will rev to 7200rpm. I raced a Can-Am Lola T530 for two years in the 1980s and this feels fairly similar in that there are two ways of driving it: in qualifying I used to use all the gears and in the race would mostly stick to fourth and fifth, relying on the brakes that bit more. This is the sort of car with which you can give it death and then back up a bit. It’s very honest that way, although I’d like to try it on slicks. On grooved rubber you have to throw it around to keep up momentum, but that’s no hardship. The steering is really accurate: old Eric did a cracking job on the geometry [the rack is a modified BMC 1100 item]. In fast corners it doesn’t go all light on you — that’s something I hate. I remember driving a McLaren M6 Can-Am car a while back and into Woodcote it got all eerie which does tend to focus your attention.

“The gearbox has a normal H-pattern and the changes are OK but these massive Hewlands [LG600 in MkIIIBs] are a bit tractor-like: there was some backlash in the crown and pinion so you just have to be forceful with it. The brakes are better than I expected too. Going into Becketts I was doing about 145mph. You just come off the power and leave a nice long braking distance — I’m not that trusting! What I really like about Lolas is that my feet always fit the pedal box: I must have the same-sized plates as Eric Broadley.”

So was it worth the wait? “Definitely! I’ve tested a few cars from this period and you’re always a bit unsure whether you’ll get on with them. I know Nigel has raced this car for a while, so I took it as read that it would be well sorted. I really like it and would love the opportunity to race one — carefully: this isn’t a car to crash in. Safety measures have moved forward a bit since the T70 was designed. There’s only glass-fibre, a bit of aluminium and the nose frame between your feet and disaster. But that said, I love anything with more than 400bhp so yes, I’m interested!”