A dream fulfilled

Humble BMC underpinnings, trusty climax engine and sylphlike body were the ingredients that began a legend in 1958. David Malsher drives the prototype

Anyone with a passing interest in aircraft has a favourite Spitfire: original or bubble canopy, pointed or clipped wings, round or peaked tail, the classic fuselage of Merlin models or sleek lines of Griffon-powered derivatives. R J Mitchell’s original design was never modified inelegantly. But then study the outline of K5054, the prototype: shorn of all but its vital organs, its purity almost makes you catch your breath.

A prototype is a dream made real, rendered exactly as the designer intended. Later, practicality will taint the concept Gazing at the Hall & Hall-restored prototype Lola Mk1, it is hard to picture a car that packs so much grace into such compact (11ft wheelbase) dimensions. An elegant nose, the toned-but-not-bulging muscles of the front wheel-arches, a simple wraparound screen atop a low waistline, and a glorious teardrop-shaped rump. It makes the Cooper Bobtail look prissy, the Lotus Eleven a sacrifice on the altar of aerodynamics.

I have been politely warned by owner Richard Wills that the aluminium body is delicate and thin, so, with feet on the seat and my aims trying to spread my mass evenly, I slip into the cockpit with the grace of a gorilla into a supermarket trolley. Plenty of elbow space, just about enough knee-room and the oddly-angled gear lever is within easy reach.

A slight prod of throttle, jab of starter button, and the 1098cc, 83bhp Coventry-Climax clears its throat and yelps its birth. The clutch pedal’s long travel is at odds with its very low biting point and we lurch away. Acceleration initially disappoints: with a power-to-weight ratio of 225bhp per ton, we should be flying. Then, at 4000rpm, the car gets urgent and is pulling hard at 6000, when self-preservation takes over as the next corner approaches.

Brake in a straight line, change down through the precise short-throw gate (an Austin A35 unit in place of the original A30), turn in late and the BMC rack-and-pinion responds with pin-sharp promptness. It’s as if the independently sprung rear stops still and acts as a fulcrum for the nose, persuading the front wheels to describe a perfect arc, begging the driver to ease back onto the throttle. Even as confidence and speed build, this handling trait remains reassuringly present.

Once turned in to a corner, you can keep your hands perfectly still on the wheel and guide the car through on the gas, its 5.5in rear tyres allowing you to easily find this balance despite the modest amount of power at your command.

In fact, the car faithfully communicates its mood. link round an obstruction and the chassis responds well, though the body lurches a heartbeat behind. Use the adequate brakes to tighten your trajectory mid-corner, it does as bidden. The only way to catch out this car is to turn in early under power and scrub off speed with the front tyres: then, even easing off the gas will leave it uncertain of what to do.

Never mind its on-track ability, this Lola imbues you with the sort of faith you would need to hustle it up an Alpine pass. Put simply, 600 Dig is one of the sweetest-handling cars I’ve driven.