Eric Broadley tells the story of Lola Cars 1959-1989, Part 2

In the second of a two-part interview, Eric Broadley of Lola Cars recalls the uneasy genesis of Ford’s celebrated GT40, extols the virtues of Indycar racing as a market for the constructor, and speculates on the future of his company after thirty years of seeing which way the wind blows.

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Market forces

Apart from the Mk1, Eric Broadley’s best designs have been drawn on a large canvas, and one immediately associates Lola with such as the T70, the T330 series of Formula Atlantic/Formula 5000 cars, and any number of Indycars.

At the 1963 Racing Car Show he unveiled a sensation, the Mk6GT. This was the first of the modern big banger GTs, a rear-engined car with a 4.2-litre Ford V8 engine and a monocoque centre section. It was a brilliant stroke but too complicated and expensive for a small outfit to run and develop successfully, and it did not appear very often. When it did race, it was quick but unreliable.

Meanwhile Ford had decided it would like to win Le Mans, and came close to buying Ferrari. When that deal fell through Detroit cast around and hit upon Lola. For a struggling company the deal was irresistible: Lola would act as a consultancy to Ford Advanced Vehicles for one year, receive an appropriate fee, and be allowed use of a new factory at Slough for a further six years. Thus Eric came to design the immortal GT40, the direct descendant of his Mk6 – a fact which is sometimes overlooked since another engineer on the project has given interviews which suggest he was responsible.

“It wasn’t a very comfortable time but then working with big companies is rarely comfortable. It was a lesson of the importance of maintaining one’s own independence and keeping the company self-contained. It was our fault really, we allowed too much involvement from Ford, they were too deeply involved with everything and the consequence of that in the big company is that certain individuals will take advantage.

“To make a project like that work it is necessary to maintain the two sides. They must work closely together but they must maintain their separate identities because the big company has come to the specialist to do a job for it. If they get themselves too involved they must screw it, otherwise there is no point going there in the first place.

From the archive

“Ford did the styling and we threw it back to them several times and told them what we needed. But you expect that, the mechanical design they stipulated. What actually happened was that initially we were given a free hand to design within a shape, and to change the shape as necessary, but other people got involved with their own ideas of the future of the project, and they stipulated policy on construction and that kind of thing, which was a bad move. The car was far too heavy and this is why I say demarcation must be maintained.

“Initially it was going to be a very advanced aluminium monocoque, but you get guys who bullshit their way onto the horizon and there was this guy whose idea of the whole project was that it would be the basis of Ford production sports and GT cars which is why the GT40 was made of steel. It was a mind-bending job in the time available to produce a steel monocoque without any proper tooling – I don’t know how we managed it.

“I said, look, if you are going to build a race car, build a race car, don’t try to turn this thing into a semi-production car. It’s not raceable. It ended up with a head-to-head with one particular guy, and I couldn’t see the point of continuing. The infiltration had got to a point where it had clearly gone wrong, and I wasn’t prepared to put up with that. It was basically my fault for not holding the situation together in the first place. In retrospect it would have been very difficult to do but I should have done it.”

As soon as he was independent again, Eric built the car he wanted to make for Ford, the T70, which was the first Lola since the Mk1 to become a consistent winner – even although the whole series, from 1965-69, took only one World Sports-Car Championship victory (at Daytona in 1969). Still, it was a popular privateer’s car, and one took John Surtees to the first Can-Am Championship in 1966, a title Lola was to win six times.

Along with the T70 came the T80, Lola’s first Indycar, and Graham Hill used its successor the T90 to win the 1966 Indy 500.

The company has since been a mainstay of Indycar racing, though not consistently so.

When a rule change in the winter of 1967-68 saw wholesale cancellation or orders for the T70, Lola appeared to be in trouble. But at the same time Formula Atlantic/Formula 5000 was about to start, and by building a simple spaceframe to take T70 spares, the T140 was born. It was a basic car, but sound, and Bobby Brown used one to win the first Atlantic Championship. Lola continued in the category for the next ten years.

Most of the best Lolas have been like the T140 – big, competent and user-friendly – and the firm has not tended to be associated with technical innovation. An exception to this general rule came with the T150/152 Indycars which used to Hewland four-wheel-drive system. In 1968 and 1969 Al Unser showed well with these cars, and took third place in the 500-miler in ’69, the best result a 4WD ever achieved at the Brickyard and a performance which helped both to ensure that 4WD would be banned there and to encourage Formula One teams to pursue the same chimaera.

Recently, however, Lola has managed to combine technical innovation with user-friendliness, two things which are so often incompatible, by introducing its “Black Box” Intelligent Instrumentation System. This is an advanced on-board computer system which learns a circuit and monitors a car’s performance in every corner. At the end of a test session or race, one simply plugs in a printer to receive a corner by corner, lap by lap analysis of rpm, time, road speed, and turbo boost where applicable.

Such systems are already in existence in F1, but this is perhaps the first tailored to the regular customer teams running without a huge budget.

It is also a dramatic illustration of the shift which Lola has made in the past two or three seasons. In the past it has tended to be a passive supplier of cars, in the sense that it has responded to the market and not tried to lead it. Thus in 1978 Al Unser in a T500 became the first driver in history to win all three American 500-mile races in a season, but then five years passed before another commission came and during that time Lola made no Indycars.

Much the same pattern, or lack of it, has been followed throughout Lola’s history in most categories: you could never tell what it would be making the following year. The company’s response to one of its cars winning the 1984 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch was to pull out of Formula Ford.

Then the model range came about as a reaction to the predicted market, which led to a few blind alleys, but in recent seasons Lola has stabilised its model range with an emphasis on Formula 3000 and CART, and been more successful as a result. It is now looking ahead in a way it has never done before, and the Nissan Group C project is indicative of a new policy of long-term planning.

The company has made so many models that it would be impossible to cover them all. Many at the factory think the outstanding one was the T330 FA/5000, which was not only very successful on the track but also made Lola a lot of money during its seven-year production life and, converted to Can-Am spec, won three straight titles in 1977-79.

When asked for his own nominations, Eric gives “The Mk1, I suppose the GT40 was a pretty good car, then there was the T70 series, the Indycars around 1969-70, the 2-litre sports-cars around 1973, the T330/2 and, I suppose, some of the cars at Indy now.”

Lola is riding high in CART these days, having replaced March as the customer’s favourite. This year it may make as many as 40 cars, with the limit being set by its physical capacity (it employs 100 people in its 23,000 sq ft Huntingdon Factory) rather than by demand. But there are signs that CART is about to change with the arrival of Porsche and Alfa Romeo and the rumoured interest of Honda and Renault.

“One of the reasons for the success of CART is that they kept it simple. A lot of teams are headed by entrepreneurs who are involved in other businesses and their racing is a hobby. They are able to buy the equipment and engines and be competitive, which is totally different to Formula One where you must build your own car and, while you can buy an engine, when it comes to the point it must be a special deal. And all the teams are professionally run: the people involved do nothing else.

“The Formula One concept wouldn’t work in the States because you wouldn’t be able to raise the money to do it. In fact a lot of the people running the teams are partly funding themselves and I suspect very few of them could actually justify it commercially. You have a situation where you have a very successful form of racing, you have these people who want to be involved and are prepared to put money into it, and it’s a good operation. They’re nice people to work with, and we really enjoy CART; I don’t say we don’t enjoy Formula One, bur CART is different.

“The trouble is I think CART is losing sight of its initial concept which has been so successful. Maybe they have been driven that way by natural forces but if, say, Porsche comes in heavily, and Penske is already in heavily, and they are joined by one or two other teams, then the ordinary guy is going to find it hard to stay competitive. Then I think you have a problem.

“At the moment we are working very hard on new Indy designs. In fact we are working two years ahead so we are advancing quite rapidly, and it is going to be quite difficult for newcomers to make a good impression. But if they really put a lot of effort into engines it could be another matter.

“We feel we can cope with the situation until we get to the point where the teams have got to do a vast amount of testing, as in Formula One. When that happens budgets will rocket and teams will drop out.

“At present you can’t afford to give them anything that is too difficult to maintain and to run because they have a tight programme. You can’t get millions of super mechanics, so our cars have to be designed to be run by comparatively ordinary guys, which is one of the areas we really gained. The detail and the actual workability of the cars is an important factor.

“While CART is our main market at present, motor racing has always been about doors opening and closing, and if that particular door closed on us then we’d look for another one to open. There are a lot of doors in racing, and if CART did get taken over by major teams and the market faded away, I think we would switch to doing more special projects like the Group C car.

“I have pretty firm views on how the next five years are going to develop on all fronts, and being pretty positive in this business is good. The particular direction though is something we have studied quite carefully and I had better keep that close to my chest at the moment.

“I don’t see any major changes in the areas we are involved in unless there is quite a change in the rules. Our current mix is quite a good balance between straight commercial and engineering projects – how we will spread that in future is difficult to say at the moment because we are really trying to consolidate and organise what we are doing. When we have done that it may open up other possibilities, I suspect it will.”

Other motor racing manufacturers have been lured by the opportunities presented by selling their expertise as consultants to industry, and some years ago there was talk of that at Lola.

“Consultancy makes a lot of sense from the book-keeping point of view, since it makes business much less risky,” says Broadley, “but if a big company comes to a small company such as ours to do a project, they expect to have the best that we can produce, and it brings the problem of finding another super guy to lead it with back-up staff and the whole organisation to go with it. When we went to Formula One, we couldn’t head it properly and went wrong. If you get into a consultancy contract and it goes wrong, you have lost your reputation so it’s a very difficult area.”

Five years ago Lola employed just forty people, of whom only four were on the design and engineering side. In that brief period the overall size of staff has risen by 250%, while the engineering side has increased by 550%. Ironically, in the same period, overall Lola production has actually dropped, but then the bulk of the output was Formula Ford cars which made little, if any, profit.

“I suppose the basic change over the past few years is that I used to run things as a one-man band, but now I have good management and engineering teams. We employ about a hundred people, of whom the engineering staff is about 22 but growing rapidly in relation to the shop-floor people, and I can see us getting to the position where it’s 50%. We don’t make everything in-house so it’s not quite a true picture. We do nearly all the composite work and a lot of the fabrication, but a lot of the sheeting and pattern work is put out, and we buy in a lot.”

Lola has been with us for thirty years, and no other major builder of production racing cars comes close to that – although Crossle and Mallock were both formed about the same time. Lola’s survival is especially remarkable when you consider the long, long list of outfits which have come and gone in those thirty years. We asked Eric whether he had any unfulfilled ambitions.

“It would be nice to win the World Championship and Le Mans, but outside of motoring something like a boat for the America’s Cup would be an interesting project. I am very interested in sailing – I still do a bit when I have time – and aerodynamics is now a major part of boat design.”
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