No Lemon Lenham

Though remembered more for streamlined Spridgets, Lenham once had big ambitions. Laurence Meredith investigates.

The history of motorsport suggests that the desire to start up as a manufacturer of racing cars is widespread, perennial and generally foolish. However, it is largely thanks to the large army of fanatical one-man bands that Britain's racing car industry is, and has been for the best part of four decades, the envy of the rest of the world.

Charles and John Cooper started the post-war trend of making production racing cars and selling them to privateers, and others — dozen and dozens of them — followed suit. Almost without exception, the motivation behind this fledgling cottage industry was provided by the thrill of racing motor cars — earning a living from such a precarious pastime was a bonus.

Roger Hurst was one of the many who, during the 1960s, became badly bitten by the desire to go motor racing. After the marriage of the existing Lenham Motor Company to Hurst's racing efforts in 1969, Lenham-Hurst was formed with a view to building a new breed of clubmans and formulae machines, which drew broadly on state-of-the-art technology and design thinking.

Up until this time, Lenham, which was run by partners Julian Booty and David Miall-Smith in the Kentish village of Lenham, had concentrated its efforts on fibreglass products such as Spridget panels, hardtops, and bodies for the Arkley SS kit, plus some vintage car restoration. Racing car production began as a publicity scheme to promote a future road-going GT design, and the first car, a closed coupe, was up and running before the end of the 1968 season. A real stunner it was too. And let's not forget that it took some considerable effort to stun the car world towards the end of the 1960s.

On the road there were the Lamborghini Miura, Dino 246 and Daytona Ferrari, and out on the tracks there were Chevron B8s, Lola T70s, Ferrari P4s and a plethora of purposeful Porsches. Yet the little Lenham still managed to make an impression, albeit at a lesser level than the dizzy heights of the big factory efforts.

Known as the Lenham GT, this car was, according to the company's publicity literature, also intended as a fast road car — but things didn't exactly turn out that way. However, it stands today as a testament to the art of the best special builders. And the specification of these cars, which has stood the test of time well, is classic, straight out of the 1960s. Julian Booty designed the reinforced plastic bodywork which is the coupe's most stunning feature, it clearly hasn't dated one jot. The shape, which was more or less aerodynamically sound without the benefit of having been tasted in a wind tunnel, is a curious amalgamation of styles that might have easily emerged from one of a number of design studios.

The front end is vaguely reminiscent of a 718 RSK Porsche, whereas the tail, with its slatted window, is almost Chevron-like. And then there are the gullwing doors. Doors have presented race car designers with something of a challenge for years — to say the least, they are something of a pain — and the gullwing layout provides a neat solution, especially when there are side-mounted radiators and fuel tanks to take into consideration. But there's one big snag with gullwings. Invert the car and in the car you stay; there's little chance of getting out without external help. But this aside, the style is undeniable. (The door problem vanished when the regulations governing 'clubbie sports' changed and ushered in a spyder version.)

Remove the nose and tail sections, and you're left with the raw bones of Roger Hurst's evident enthusiasm. The chassis, designed by Peter Coleman, who had a workshop next door to Lenham, is largely spaceframe, with the central tub reinforced with aluminium-alloy sheet. A full monocoque would have been too expensive, and in any case, if a spaceframe was good enough for the Porsche 917, Hurst considered it good enough for his purposes.

"The coupe was the ultimate development of the spaceframe concept before monocoques became the sportscar norm. It really was the most important car to me," says Roger.

Suspension is by double wishbones and coil springs front and rear, and there's high ratio rack-and-pinion steering for crisp response through the twisty bits. Slotted north-south amidships is the really useful part — the 1.6-litre four-pot Lotus twin-cam which, as built by Chris Steele, developed around 140 bhp.

This sounds positively pedestrian by today's standards, but then, as ever, the power-to-weight ratio is what counted — and it counted a lot too, for this little gem was capable of propelling the Lenham up to a top speed of 140 mph, the benchmark figure of 60 mph arriving from rest in around seven seconds. And 'clubbies' aren't a whole lot quicker today.

Following Colin Chapman's example with the Lotus 23B, the gearbox was a VW Beetle-based Newland five-speeder with a limited-slip differential, and the entire assembly was mated directly to the engine and neatly slung out in the tail.

No-one has ever sat in the cockpit of a Lenham GT — plenty have lain down in one, though. It's all very snug and glovelike, and what you see ahead of you is all you need to see; there are three gauges at the base of the windscreen, a couple of 'high-profile' wheel arches and the long road ahead. Naturally, the gearchange is on the right, and the steering wheel is a little tiny thing that sits in your lap.

Tractable, drivable and far from fussy, this is surely the kind of car that should be racing at Le Mans today, an inexpensive privateer's dream and one with which the ordinary man in the street can really identify. Interestingly, it's the cornering ability of this car that ultimately may hold the key to the future of our sport. It goes without saying that the roadholding is safe, secure and very 'flat', but the difference between the Lenham and today's racers is that you have to drive the Lenham, there's no ground effect, no wing, no problems setting up and no BS.

You just get in it and away. With the possibility of watching cars that slide through corners on the limit, the oft-voiced criticism that motor racing — even at club level — has become something of a procession, could be answered overnight. After all, the 1950s/1960s isn't known as the 'classic' period for nothing.

Low, purposeful and effective, the little Lenham was ahead of its time. With lessons learned from its first year on the track, the first car was rebuilt with modified chassis and suspension, renamed the Lenham P69, and shown at the 1969 Racing Car Show. An item in MOTOR SPORT written two years later states that the company turned down requests for replicas at that point, but that this public interest did spark off the building of series race cars. With the previously standard twin-cam brought up to race spec; and the body changing to a spyder late in the year, Ray Calcutt drove it in the 1969 season and won his class in the STP/ Motoring News Championship — perhaps Lenham's finest hour.

By 1970 Roger Hurst had bought out his co-partners in the business and was offering the P70 to customer order, with Ford 1300 and BDA 1600 engine options, as well as the Lotus. He alse set up a marketing facility at Le Havre, France. Sold under the Darnval name, Lenhams found a market in France amongst club racers and hill climbers; but Hurst could not keep pace witb demand and his backers duly returned a number of deposits. Which was a great pity, especially as one client wanted them to build him a P70 coupe to contest the Tour de France.

During 1970 Hurst commissioned a more ambitious project, a World Sports Car contender packing a three-litre Repco V8 with Hewland FG300 gearbox. Broad and muscular, and featuring the nose winglets of its rivals, the LenhamRepco nevertheless proved a disappointment. Slated to debut in the 1971 BOAC 1000 at Brands Hatch, driven by Calcutt and Hurst, the machine was not ready in time, and a week later the engine blew up in testing — the penalty, perhaps, of using a four-year-old ex-works unit. It failed to qualify for Le Mans that year and vanished from view.

Next step? Single-seaters. Formula Ford, with Chris Alford as 'works' driver, and Formula Three cars followed. Roger also became involved in contract work for the fledgling March concern hut, along with his motor racing exploits there now came a lateral and somewhat bizarre, though clever, temporary departure from cars.

Remember Carnaby Street and the 'anything-goes-in-clothes' looks of the early 1970s? And remember the craze for wearing replica German wartime army helmets while riding your Triumph cafe-racer? Well, Roger Hurst's company manufactured them — from fibreglass. what else? And they made money too!

Through the 1970s, Lenham-Hurst continued making and selling a variety of formula cars to the same high standards, manufacturing not only body and chassis, but producing its own castings locally. There were cars for Group 6, Sports 2000 and even a couple of Le Mans specials but, as time marched on, the lives of the fun racers began to change. And rapidly too.

"In the early days — from the mid-1960s in my case it was possible to build a racing car, use it all season long and survive reasonably well on the start money offered by the organisers to various circuits," says Roger. "Then, and I'm not sure exactly when, everything was suddenly different. Motor racing started to become impossible without sponsorship and a lot of money.

"In my day, we obviously took our motor sport very seriously, but also had a lot of fun at the same time, which makes me so sorry for the youngsters today. They can't do anything in a racing car until they've got a sponsor, and once having found support, the pressures to succeed are so great that there doesn't seem to be any time, or inclination, for enjoying the things we had."

Today, Roger Hurst is still very much involved in motor racing, dealing in old racing cars and parts, but it appears that the Lenham story just will not end. A couple of years ago, Roger was commissioned by fast food giants, Burger King, to build a brand new coupe bodyshell along the lines of the original Lenham Hurst GT.

They wanted it for display purposes in their London Leicester Square branch," he says. "It had mirrors and flashing lights all over it, supposedly representing some sort of car of the future, which made me smile. What a pity they didn't ask me to make a car for each of their restaurants around the world."

But this was typical of the odd requests Hurst has had over the years. "In 1970 NSU ordered a chassis and bodywork and obviously I was only too glad to help," explains Roger. "They wanted a car for the purpose of fitting and testing their Wankel rotary engine and, after we'd finished building it, the car was crated up and posted to Germany. Strangely, I've heard nothing about it since. I don't know what it was really used for or whether it still exists."

Roger Hurst and his Lenham concern lived and breathed through some of motor racing's most exciting and technically important days. A small firm, it stayed afloat by hard work and, along with dozens of other special race car builders, contributed to a British industry which remains at the top of the global tree. Long may their legacy last.