Have a "full-on thrash!"

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179

With a brilliant Revival race as his inspiration, that’s what our man was told to do with two Can-Am greats – Lola’s T70 Spyder and McLaren’s M1B
By Andrew Frankel

Did you see the Whitsun Trophy at last year’s Goodwood Revival? If not, and in the scope of what’s relevant to this story, you missed two things. One was one of the best Revival races ever, two was all the explanation you needed as to why the Lola T70 Spyder and McLaren M1B were not just the fastest cars of their type, but at the time the fastest racing cars in the world.

One example of each took off from the first two places on the grid and spent the next 25 minutes embroiled in a tyre-smoking, opposite-locking, crowd-thrilling battle for victory. And while two cars running in such close proximity usually has the effect of slowing both down, this time they went faster and faster. In the end the McLaren lapped the 2.4-mile Sussex circuit in 1min 19.3sec, over a second under the outright lap record set by both Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart in 1965 in their Formula 1 Lotus and BRM. And that was the car that came second. The Lola put in an astounding 1min 18.9sec lap and won the race by just 1.6sec, at an average speed of almost 108mph.

“It was a fabulous race,” recalls Roger Wills – and he was in the McLaren. As for Andrew Smith, driver of the Lola and new Goodwood lap record holder: “I emerged with the biggest smile on my face you’ve ever seen.” And with good reason.

Those cars are these cars, probably the most competitive examples of the fastest cars to compete in the inaugural Canadian-American Challenge Cup, better known as Can-Am.

Noise problems being what they are at Goodwood, we’ve decamped to Brands Hatch to find out more, with Roger and Andrew keen for me not to have a gentle tootle around the track, but something closer to a full-on thrash.

Both cars were at Goodwood not because of their Can-Am history but because they were constructed as Group 7 racers – that gloriously loosely-worded FIA category of racing car that allowed Can-Am to be conceived and, for nine fabulous years, produce the most powerful, extraordinary looking and quickest racing cars the world had seen. Quicker even than F1 cars were then? You’d better believe it.

At the time Lola was considerably more established than McLaren. Eric Broadley brought it into being in 1958, and by the time the first T70 was produced it had a succession of sports cars (including the GT40-inspiring Mk6 GT) and single-seaters all the way from Formula Junior to Formula 1 under its belt. McLaren was a beginner, yet to make its first F1 start. Indeed its first home-grown car, the M1, had run only at the end of 1964. Even so it had put on a good show and become an even bigger success commercially than on the track, thanks to a deal with Elva to manufacture and sell cars to US customers.

This car, retrospectively known as the M1A, paved the way for the mechanically similar but rebodied M1B in time for it to race in 1965 and, most importantly for this story, play a full part in the first Can-Am season in ’66. The Lola T70 also raced through 1965, but the car you see here is a Mk2 unveiled at year’s end for use the following season.

Conceptually they appear similar. Both feature low-slung bodywork and the mid-engined configuration that was by now de rigueur for any race car manufacturer wishing to be taken seriously at the top level. Likewise both were engineered to accept more than one engine from suppliers like Oldsmobile and Ford, but it was Chevrolet that enjoyed utter dominance in the back of Can-Am racers from the start of 1966 to the end of ’71. In fact, just two races were won by cars powered by anything else: Dan Gurney at Bridgehampton in a Ford-powered T70 in ’66, and Tony Dean driving his Porsche 908 through a demolition derby at Road Atlanta in 1970.

Both cars here, the ex-Parnelli Jones/Al Unser T70, chassis SL71/24, and M1B 30/06 raced by Carl Haas/Marshall Brooke Doran, come with Chevy small-block power, though the Lola started life with a Paxton supercharged Ford engine, discarded when it was found that impressive power came at the cost of reliability. Both put their considerable power through the rear wheels via Hewland’s ox-strong LG600 gearbox.

But these cars are different and you only need sit in them to see how. While the McLaren was built traditionally using a spaceframe chassis and stressed-skin construction, the T70 has a full aluminium monocoque, still a novel concept among mid-60s racers.

Both look scary, the McLaren more so. Their 5.7-litre Chevrolets must retain the wet sump lubrication they used in period, and that’s the only reason they don’t rev past 7500rpm or develop much over 500bhp. But in cars that must weigh little more than 800kg, you’re still looking at a power-to-weight ratio not even today’s most powerful road car, the 1200bhp Bugatti Veyron Super Sports, can approach.

Then again, in the world of racing cars from this era on that’s not such an astounding statistic. My worry stems from the fact that all this power is fed to the Tarmac through the comically compromised medium of a skinny crossply Dunlop racing tyre. Through years of racing old sheds I am intimately familiar with this brand of rubber, and can tell you it makes a 1600cc Alfa seem overpowered. I suspected that what I was looking at was the greatest mismatch in tyre to power since the days of pre-WWII Mercedes and Auto Unions. I’d driven a T70 before, but it was a later MkIIIB sitting on tyres that seemed to take up half the space between the rear wheels – and even that lacked grip relative to power.

At least both cars fit, as Smith and the M1B’s other regular driver, Joe Twyman, are well over six foot. In cars like these, not being comfortable behind the wheel is one more thing to think about, one more reason to make a mistake. And mistakes in Can-Am cars are rarely small.

*

I try the McLaren first. I love the way this car looks. It’s not as classically pretty as the Lola, but anything it loses in pulchritude it makes up for in sheer menace. It’s also the first McLaren built during its founder’s lifetime that I’ve driven, and as I settle in I think of that orange bodywork, the kiwi on its flank and all that would go on to mean. The factory M1Bs started 1966 using Traco-Oldsmobiles before opting for Chevy power, but despite leading races and setting fastest laps the M1B would never win in Can-Am. Instead Bruce McLaren and his design team watched and learned from it. Using the skills of such as Robin Herd and Gordon Coppuck they incorporated all they’d found out into the M6A and never looked back: in 1967 McLaren won all bar one round, leaving the last race of the season as a scant consolation for Lola.

I always acquaint myself with the cockpit of any racing car before heading out. Not only has it served me well to know where the oil pressure gauge is, it helps provide a flavour of the machine. And this is a no-nonsense driving environment. Small dials pepper a crackle black dash, with a central Smiths rev-counter different in no important way to those in pre-war cars save calibrations extending up to 9000rpm. You sit low and snug in the car, the relationship between you, the pedals, wheel and stubby gear-shifter pretty perfect.

The whole car shakes when the V8, fed by a quartet of Weber 48 IDA carbs, fires up. Or maybe the car’s perfectly still and it’s the planet rattling beneath it. First is back and across the gate; the clutch is not too sharp and it chunters easily enough out onto the track.

You don’t have much time to get bored on the Brands Indy circuit, even in a road car. I’ve done races here in little tin-tops with a quarter of the power of the McLaren and still wished the straights were longer. You don’t feel this in an M1B, because there are no straights at all.

As predicted at first the power, or more precisely the torque, defines the whole driving experience. Coming out of little 1965 F1 cars with their 1.5-litre, low-torque engines that revved to 11,000rpm into one of these must have required total mental recalibration. I guess that on the long straights of American circuits you’d still have to pay a lot of attention to gear ratios, and possibly even at Goodwood, but here whatever gear you’re in seems to provide a bigger bang in the back than expected.

Then, as the laps accrue, the experience starts to normalise. Ask those who raced Group C cars at Le Mans before they introduced chicanes into the Mulsanne Straight and they’ll tell you that if you give it long enough, even 240mph can seem pretty normal. It’s the same here: you get used to the manic thrust, the insatiable appetite for gears and the feeling of scenery stretching like elastic around you. Soon it’s neither confusing, nor even that frightening – just thrilling.

Best of all you can now think about what the rest of the car is doing. My worst fear was that the combination of a large engine swinging around behind my head while doling out wads of power its tyres were ill-equipped to handle would lead to a hideously tricky, twitchy car.

Quite the reverse. In fact it appears the M1B has been set to ensure none of these traits is exhibited. It feels quite soft at the back, so combined with the engine weight it blends tremendous traction out of each corner with remarkably benign understeer on the way in. If anything – and I never thought I’d say this – it feels a little too eager to run wide and a little too unwilling to react either to a lift or a prod of the throttle to neutralise it. I think the easiest way of getting into trouble would be realising the need for drastic action to keep the car turned into the corner.

The Lola’s waiting for me. I’ll declare an interest and say I’ve been in love with T70s probably since before I could say ‘T70’. But after the McLaren, stepping aboard the relatively sober-suited Lola lacks the same intoxicating brew of thrill and foreboding. I’m not sure why, probably because I’d been less scared by the McLaren than expected and because it’s not the first T70 I’ve driven. But it also seems the more advanced, clearly conceived car. The metal monocoque wraps reassuringly around you while the gauges are more closely grouped and easy to see.

Much is the same, from the thunder of the V8 to the heavy but precise feel of the gearbox. The power trains of both cars are, for these purposes, effectively identical.

Spending all those laps in the M1B means I can drive the Lola fast straight away. At once it’s easy to see why they were so closely matched at Goodwood. The Lola should be lighter, but if there is any difference in straightline speed you’d need a stopwatch to discern it.

There were, however, two quite pronounced differences. In the McLaren’s favour were its brakes, which offered a more reassuring pedal feel and stronger retardation than the Lola. Helping the Lola’s cause was its handling. It didn’t feel as if it would corner significantly faster than the McLaren, but it was better balanced on the way in, more sensitive to the throttle through the apex and far more neutral as power was reapplied. I was confident sliding it around, happy that it wouldn’t bite.

*

John Surtees didn’t just win in the T70, becoming Can-Am’s first champion, he was instrumental in its development and today stresses that, “what we wanted to do above all else was make a driveable car, a car without vices. It had a lot of understeer at first but we made it more neutral and easier to drive.

“We were up against it because cars like the Chaparral [2E] had works engines and a moveable wing, while we had a van with a driver/mechanic just like in my early F2 days. But despite this the car was very competitive.”

You can say that again. The 1966 Can-Am season comprised six rounds, of which Surtees won three, with one apiece to Gurney and Mark Donohue. Only once, at Laguna Seca, did Phil Hill’s Chaparral spoil Lola’s party. “Winning that title was superb,” says Surtees. “Once it was developed, the car was terrific to drive.”

His fastest rival, the M1B-borne Chris Amon, thought the McLaren a better car than the Lola: “It seemed to have the edge in the corners, but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot with the engines.” He’s referring to the light but small Olds the M1B first ran and then, trying to get on terms with Lola, the Tecalamit fuel injection used on the Chevy which was “as sophisticated as a pressurised watering can”. But he still loved it. “I hated the 1.5-litre F1 cars – no power, even less torque and if you got them sideways they stopped. Here were cars that even in the early days had over 400bhp, double what we’d had in F1. I grew up in a Maserati 250F which drifted everywhere and you could drive these like that.”

As ever, time and the circuit are too short. And the thought of being let loose in either car at a venue like Laguna Seca is tantalising to the point of pain. With their slippery shapes and no downforce measure more advanced than a strip of vertical aluminium across the back of the car, they’d have reached absurd speeds in no time. At Brands they felt caged, forced to throttle back as soon as they’d got into their stride.

But who am I to complain? These are the two most successful cars from the first year of the maddest race series ever. Both are fabulous, wondrous, hairy-chested devices, even louder and faster than they look. If I could have one, I guess it would be the Lola, but only because it’s a little easier to drive. To have driven both is more luck than I deserve.

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