A real handful
With glamour and excitement returning to sportscar racing in the last few years, the spiritual roots of many modern sports cars such as Jaguar XJRs, Porsche 962s and Sauber-Mercedes C9s can be traced back more than twenty years to the “big bangers” of the Sixties and early Seventies – to a time regarded by many as a golden age of sportscar racing. We are therefore beginning an occasional series on those “big bangers”, commencing with the first of a two-part article on the Lola T70.
The flag dropped. The big red Lola T70 pushed between the two winged ivory Chaparrals on the front row, skittered round the first bend on cold tyres, and was gone in a cloud of stardust. Seventy laps later, John Surtees crossed the line to win the 1966 Las Vegas Stardust Grant Prix, the first CanAm race, and more than $50,000.
The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) had run races for modified sportscars since the Fifties, and in 1963 had instituted the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC). Jim Kaser of the SCCA, and Al Bochroch the author, had worked long and hard to introduce an international big-money road racing series for sportscars, and one which would draw the world’s best drivers to race against each other.
In 1965 the FIA/CSI adopted the SCCA rules and called the cars Group 7, Unlimited-Capacity, Sports Racing Cars. The following year, the Johnson Wax Canadian American Challenge was born with a six-race series and an overall purse exceeding $350,000. Lotus, Lola and McLaren coupled their chassis skills with American horsepower and went hunting dollars.
McLaren, and Chapman with the Lotus 30, had gone out to the New World in 1964 to learn. Eric Broadley and Lola resources were at this time contracted to Ford to help design and build the Ford GT40. By 1965 McLaren had designed and built a new space frame car, Chapman had tried to sort the backbone-chassis Lotus 30 by revamping it into the 40 (a car with ten more mistakes than the 30, as one driver put it), and Eric Broadley designed and built his monocoque Lola T70.
There was one American challenger – the superbly-constructed and technically brilliant Chaparral – but Jim Hall made them only to race, not to sell, so the British firms cleaned up the dollars with customer cars which, apart from development, were no different from the works cars.
The Lola T70 was a welded and riveted sheet-metal monocoque, and Broadley was at last able to do what Roy Lunn had not allowed him to do on the GT40 – use alloy for parts of the tub. Front and rear sheet-steel box sections held the suspensions, a steel floor section extended to alloy pontoon fuel-tanks and light alloy transverse bulkheads. In the constant search for weight-saving, fuel bags were not used; instead, the tanks were epoxied on the inside seams. Even pipe brackets were eschewed, with polystyrene foam poured in which provided ample support for the pipework.
Broadly designed the wheels at 15in, so that he could use very large Girling brake discs and large calipers. Still learning from the GT40, these discs were set into the airstream, and not shrouded by the wheels. Even the front disc calipers were set ahead of the disc into the airstream to aid cooling. This positioning of the discs also meant that should 14in or 13in wheels prove better in the future, they could be fitted without modification.
Suspension was by conventional wishbones at the front, with inverted lower wishbones and single top links with twin radius-rods at the rear. The front anti-roll bar acted on the lower wishbones, with the rear anti-roll bar acting on the top links. Combined Armstrong coil-spring damper units were fitted all round. BMC stock rack-and-pinion steering was mounted high behind the front axle line. Glassfibre body panels were designed by Peter Jackson’s Specialised Mouldings firm, as all other Lola bodies had been since the 1100.
Broadley designed the tub to accept any US stockblock up to six litres, although initially the car was offered with the 4.7 Ford V8 or the 5.9 Traco-tuned Chevrolet. Both used downdraught Weber carburettors, and were fed by electric Bendix fuel pumps. The Ford engine was considerably cheaper than other engines, and it was hoped that its lighter weight would compensate for its lower power. It didn’t.
Most customers opted for Mike Hewland’s new four-speed constant mesh LG500 gearbox, specifically designed to cope with the enormous loads imposed by these large, powerful engines.
The LG500 was designed to handle up to 550 bhp, and was the first Hewland box to employ an integral oil pump. The casing was finned magnesium alloy and the all-up weight was only 125lb. Fourteen different gear sets were provided, and it was possible to change all ratios in 30 minutes.
Wheelbase of the Lola T70 was 7ft 11in, track front and rear 4ft 6in, overall length 13ft, width 5ft 8in, and height 31in.
Developing such cars into winning racers was a major task. Bruce McLaren and Jim Hall did their own testing, and Lotus had Jim Clark to tame the awkward Lotus 20 and 40. For Lola, John Surtees, who had a long association with the firm in Formula One and Two cars, set up Team Surtees, effectively as a works team.
The T70 was phenomenally fast in testing, and soon started shattering track, and even Formula One, records. The 1min 36.6set at the Oulton Park Tourist Trophy race in May was 1.2 seconds below the F1 record, and a 1min 31.0sec lap at Silverstone at the International Trophy meeting was 1.5 seconds inside that of the F1 BRM.
By June, Surtees had reduced his Silverstone time to 1 min 28.3sec and the RAC was concerned that F1 cars would be overshadowed at the British Grand Prix! They offered only nominal starting money, at which McLaren and Surtees withdrew.
The first chassis, SL70/1, went to Team Surtees, the body painted a brilliant red with green fore-and-aft stripes. Its first engine was a 4.5-litre Traco-Oldsmobile, then a 4.4 Chevrolet and by the TT a 5.9 Traco-Chevy.
Harold Young Racing bought the second chassis for David Hobbs to drive. This car was given a 4.7 Ford V8, which was just not fast enough to keep up with the 5.9-litre cars, but it says a great deal for Broadley’s design that drivers were able to utilise all the available power. In August the team received its own 5.9 Chevrolet, only to suffer gearbox trouble!
The third chassis had gone to Lola’s US concessionaire John Mecom. Driven by ex-patriot Britisher John Cannon and Jack Saunders, it showed well at Sebring in March, before retiring with oil cooling problems to its 4.7 Ford V8.
Chassis number four was returned to the works as faulty, and was not reissued as SL70/4. Number five went to Mike Taylor of Taylor and Crawley for David Cunningham to drive, and number six to John Mecom for Walt Hansgen to campaign in USRRC races along with SL70/3.
Exciting to watch, the Lolas were obviously a real handful to drive fast. The star drivers were spectacular, but at 1375 lb the car was still too heavy, and halfway through 1965, Broadley was already designing the Mk II, designated SL71.
The tub was now all alloy. The heavy spare wheel and radiators in the nose of the Mk I had caused bad grounding under braking and stiffer springs had to be fitted. A spare wheel was not going to be required under the 1966 regulations, and the redesign offered a lighter front end and sleeker nose, giving better airflow to the radiators.
A second problem had been the epoxied fuel-tanks. The harder the cars raced, the more the chassis flexed, and eventually the tanks started leaking. Broadley reluctantly fitted bag tanks into the Mk II’s pontoons.
The first Mk II, chassis 16, was tried out in the USA in July, but its first serious race was the Guards International Trophy at Brands Hatch on August 30, when John Surtees romped home more than a minute and a half ahead of Bruce McLaren. Jackie Stewart had joined Team Surtees and came third in SL70/1, but Hobbs, Dibley and Pierpoint all went out with mechanical problems, whilst Walt Hansgen was content with ninth place shaking down Mecom’s new Mk II, SL71/17.
Saloon ace Pierpoint was in the ex-Taylor & Crawley car, which was now owned by David Good. With his brother, David ran the family dairy in Newbury, and the fastest milk-float in the Lambourn Valley! He will be remembered by many for his aggressive hill-climbing style. To drive one of these heavy T70s fast was a challenge; to push one up Prescott in 56.59 seconds took incredible skill. Yet, because one of his arms was withered (though not unusable, as many witnessed), the RAC refused him a track-racing permit.
1965 ended with honour for the Lola T70. Fourteen Mk Is and two Mk IIs had achieved six wins, six second places, three thirds and four fourths in 56 starts – with 16 of those starts succumbing to the major problem of the year, the engine.
The sad note was John Surtees crashing the new Mk II in practice for the Pepsi 100 at the Canadian Grand Prix meeting at Mosport. Going through the right-handed turn one at high speed, the Lola’s front nearside hub-carrier broke and the suspension collapsed; the car went into a terrifying sequence of twisting vaults which took it over the guardrail and the earth bank beyond. Hurtling down the embankment, it came to rest near the tunnel under the track between turns one and two – upside down, with ignition on, fuel-tanks ruptured and Surtees pinned underneath, unconscious.
Two brave marshals saved his life. Ted Milton scraped the dirt and sand from his face so he could breathe, whilst Jim Swan crawled under the car and turned off the ignition. John was rushed to hospital, but by the middle of 1966 was back to winning races.
The wrecked Lola was buried at Mosport, and now rests under the tarmac of the parking lots of a Bowmanville shopping precinct. GJ