Behind so many shattered dreams is an old racing car languishing as a monument to what might have been, if only . . . Back in 1977 the late Ian Bracey, a Lloyd’s underwriter known as the Baked Bean to his friends – was driven by an acute obsession with the Le Mans 24 Hours to build a really special ‘one-off’ racer, with which he and his chums would achieve a lifetime’s ambition to win at the Sarthe as a private entrant.
It was a brave effort. What had cost Henry Ford millions of dollars just 10 years earlier, Bracey was attempting to accomplish with a budget of around £100,000. However, as Henry Ford himself once said of Le Mans: “Dedication counts far more than money. After all Noah was a dedicated amateur, the men who built the Titanic were real professionals.” Bracey was dedicated. But more important to him than winning Le Mans was to do it in an all-British car with all-British drivers.
Apart from the efforts of Derek Bell and Alain de Cadenet, British assaults on the French classic since Jaguar’s victories of the 1950s had been dismal, declared Bracey then. His own efforts in 1977 in a two-litre sports car resulted in retirement after just five hours when the engine gave out, which Bracey attributed possibly correctly to the vibrations of a high-revving four-cylinder motor being inherently incapable of withstanding the high-speed rigours of the original Mulsanne.
A man of action, he quickly built the nucleus of a team around him and began to plan for the 1978 race. The lbec project (Ian Bracey Engineering Company), pronounced ‘Eyebeck’, was launched. A lesser man than Bracey might have spent the winter of 1977/78 looking for a suitable ‘off-the-peg’ chassis, or even a decent used racer with a view to suitably modifying it, but he knew a number of people who had been up those routes before – it simply doesn’t work, unless, of course your motive for competing at the Sarthe is to make up the numbers and have fun.
Bracey would start from scratch. Or rather, one of the world’s top designers, Dr Harvey Postlethwaite, would. The general idea was to replicate an appropriately modified Grand Prix car design — the Hesketh 308 in this case which, in theory at any rate, was not a bad idea. A new aluminium-alloy tub would have to be fabricated and a body designed and built, but the rest was largely available ‘off the shelf’. The Baked Bean was on his way.
The three-litre V8 Cosworth DFV, detuned for long-distance durability, was the preferred power unit, it had the advantage of proven reliability, ready availability and no shortage of usable ‘grunt’. And a Newland FG400 five-speeder was bolted behind it. The Newland was a natural choice, having been originally designed to work in conjunction with the DFV. Suspension components double wishbones up front and twin trailing arms, parallel links and top links at the rear -would be supplied by Lord Alexander Hesketh’s racing concern. In fact, the boys in his Lordship’s Formula One workshops agreed to put the whole thing together.
Then, as now, the pressure on the workshop staff was considerable, and as time ticked by progress on the lbec got well behind schedule. With the first official timed practice just a few weeks away, Bracey’s dreams were slipping into Oblivion. Drastic action was needed.
Bracey enlisted the help of Chris Witty to take charge of the project’s dynamics, and, without further ado, the whole shooting match half finished tub, boxes of Hesketh bits and pieces was transported to Lyncar’s engineering workshops in Slough. The real race from then on was against the clock; many of the Hesketh bits were discovered to be old and unusable, and there were less than six weeks left to build the lbec-Hesketh 308LM, as it was officially called by that stage, from scratch.
The stunning bodywork, which was windtunnel developed, was constructed largely from fibreglass by Bob Curl of Marchant & Cox, and Bracey gathered around him a number of extra grafters, including Bubbles Horsley, who was to act as the team’s circuit manager. While work progressed on the car, Bracey produced a simple publicity brochure a nice collector’s piece in itself aimed at gaining sponsorship for the Le Mans assault.
As an underwriter, the Baked Bean was not short of the right sort of contacts in the business world. And Bracey needed their help. As Alain de Cadenet once remarked: “To keep a car steady at 210 mph on the Mulsanne straight, you need a degree of financial stability.”
Ian Bracey had already spent a considerable sum from his own pocket to come this far. Some £17,000 had been alotted for the design and building of the car, £5000 for the bodywork, £15,000 for a brace of ‘Cossies’, £1500 for the gearbox, £5000 for chassis spares and a host of other bits and pieces, all adding up to a grand total of £81,300 a fair sum for a privateer. (But as an aside, less than a tenth of the cost of competing with a similar project today.)
The motor racing industry, of course, helped considerably; Ferodo came up with a set of brakes, Cibie the lights and so on, but it was Ian’s pals in the City who contributed a large chunk of the cash required to actually get the car to the circuit. Things were just coming along nicely, although the panic and the pain were far from over. Especially the pain. Bracey employed Guy Edwards and Ian Grob as his principal pilotes, Bracey’s own skills behind the wheel acting in a support driving role.
Ironically, the Baked Bean’s considerable attempts to limber up and increase his stamina for the race jogging around the unforgivingly hard streets of London landed him a briefly incapacitated ankle. Exit racing driver Ian Bracey. But then there was a stroke of luck. Sponsorship guru Guy Edwards turns up with a spare Ford DFV engine and, incredibly, financial backing from Chrysler, a deal akin to Marlboro supporting an international no-smoking campaign. But it happened and it was most welcome.
Equipe lbec reached Le Mans in time, not fortuitously, but by sheer hard work and the determination to see the project through. But Le Mans is no respecter of good people’s hard work and well placed intentions. As six-times winner Jacky Ickx once noted: “You can have the best driver, the most reliable car, the fastest engine and lots of good luck and still finish last.” Or worse, not finish at all, as many entrants have discovered over the years.
The team had two DFVs, one for practice and a special race engine developing approximately 450 bhp at 10,200rpm and maximum torque of 256Ib ft at 8600rpm figures which, frankly, were fairly typical of most three-litre Le Mans cars for the previous 10 years, but good enough for the lbec to record a top speed of 217mph through the trap at Mulsanne.
Edwards duly planted the new car in a firm 13th position on the grid, with an impressive average speed of 133 mph.
When Keith Duckworth remarked that winning Le Mans must be easy on the grounds that “someone does it every year”, he was right in one sense, but 13th place was to prove unlucky for the lbec. During the race, mechanical maladies dropped the car to 42nd place in the early stages, but with some spirited driving and a little luck the car gradually climbed back up the field.
A decent finish was on the cards, but at around nine o’clock on Sunday morning several thousand pounds worth of Cosworth detonated itself, sadly putting an end to the lbec’s 1978 Le Mans challenge. It had been a noble and praiseworthy effort. Bracey and his team proved above all else that amateurs could take this, the greatest race on earth, seriously on a fraction of the budget used by the big factories.
After Le Mans the car languished, a Cinderella returned from the ball. Flying one day, obsolete the next. That the Baked Bean was prepared to put so much effort into one event was a fine example of the fascination the Sarthe circuit has always held for British fanatics.
However, the lbec was eventually exhumed and resurrected to fight again, as old racing cars are apt to be. When the BRSCC began the Thundersports series, it proved ideal a hairy big banger which David Kennedy, Divina Galica and Malcolm Clube all drove in turn to good effect over a period of some five years.
Current owner Clube describes the lbec as having “real voltage”. The only problem with the car in its Thundersports days was chronic overheating, which was easily solved by changing the ‘slimline’ water radiators for a brace of bigger ones. The original Le Mans nose panel was also changed for a more modern unit at roughly the same time “What is so striking about driving this car, particularly at Brands Hatch, is its ability to glue itself to the ground,” says Malcolm. “The grip is only believable when you realise what the chassis does to your neck muscles.”
But having performed in its last race at Brands Hatch in 1988, where it won its class, the lbec is now languishing once again. It clearly shouldn’t be. Now fitted with a 4.2-litre Cosworth engine — thought to be one of three in existence — producing around 525bhp, the noise it makes is not the familiar barking of a well-honed Cossie on song, but the scream of a Cossie that’s never used for the purpose its designer, Keith Duckworth, originally intended.
A racer with a ground-shuddering presence, the lbec is a car with a tangible soul. Every component either gleams, or groans in protest at being so under-employed.
Devoid of its shapely bodywork, the true craft of the racing car manufacturer is revealed. And it was sobering to think that the craftsmen who put this all together did so in just a few weeks. The tub, which is made from a combination of NS4 and L72 alloys, is a classic pre-composite structure, a metal sculpture with the engine bolted directly behind it. And the shapely camshaft covers are almost completely concealed by an octet of perfectly tuned exhaust pipes. Their silence is horrible.
For readers who haven’t experienced the pleasures (and pains) of driving a powerful racing car like this, mere words are incapable of conveying what it’s really like. At 180 mph, the downforce on the nosecone alone is equivalent to a small elephant sitting on the car. At 217 mph that becomes a large elephant. From standstill to 100mph takes less time than dialling a London telephone number, and braking forces are incomprehensibly powerful.
But it sits there in its hideaway, the original Le Mans nose panel propped vertically in a corner, gathering dust, along with a spare set of wheels with their fat slicks neatly scuffed.
Standing still, it’s fast. It could never be anything else.
This is not an lbec, this is the lbec. And it will always be special.