It is hard to pinpoint precisely when Eric Broadley went from being a special builder to becoming a constructor, but in 1958 he appeared with his Lola-Climax Mk1 and at the beginning of the 1959 season there were four of them and he was on his way.
At the time 1100cc sports-car racing in Britain mast serious business, the equivalent of Formula Three today, and Lotus dominated by running works teams which included future Formula One drivers Graham Hill, Innes Ireland, Cliff Allison and Alan Stacey. To take on Colin Chapman and that array of talent was an audacious move, but since Lola Cars is not only thriving thirty years later but has built more than 2000 cars, it was a move which paid off.
Along the way Lola has had its hard times but it has also made some fabulous cars, brought on designers of the calibre of Tony Southgate, John Barnard and Patrick Head, and is currently riding the crest of a wave. Its 1987 Indycar gave Bobby Rahal the CART title and it was the favourite customer car for 1988. After a false start in Formula 3000, it has been a front-runner for the past three seasons. It is now in Formula One, for the first time in its history with an official works team, representing Chrysler with the Lamborghini V12 engine, and there is, too, the Group C car built in conjunction with Nissan, and a small line in Sports 2000 cars. Broadley started racing by sharing the 750 Special of his cousin Graham, who is still a director of Lola Cars. He then built a 1172cc Ford Special called “Lola”, which he and Graham shared in 1957, and if only one of them had been driving he would have certainly won the 1172 Championship for, ironically, the Colin Chapman Trophy.
After three decades as a constructor of chassis for an impressive variety of racing formulae, Lola Cars of Huntingdon is still expanding, still diversifying. In the first of a two-part interview, Lola’s founder Eric Broadley discusses his first steps in motorsport, the tentative early appearances of his marque in Formula One, and its return as a works team in the Eighties. ironically, the Colin Chapman Trophy. Eric was working as a civil engineer in the construction business when he decided to make the move into serious racing, where he was not only up against Lotus but other well-established constructors such as Cooper, Tojeiro and Elva. It still seems an audacious thing to have done, but Eric takes a more sanguine attitude.
“I was doing very well in club racing and it seemed the logical step, at least the one I could afford. You could buy a Coventry Climax engine ready to race for about £280. I wasn’t interested in buying a car, I was interested in building one and driving it, so it was a combined situation, but when I came up against people like Graham Hill and Alan Stacey I was pretty lost and the position rapidly changed to building and designing, and not driving.” Legend has it that the name “Lola” came about when Eric’s wife complained that she was taking a back seat to his there was a popular song at the time, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets”. Eric says, “The name was nothing to do with me actually. My cousin Graham, who helped me a lot in the initial stages, came up with it. Where he found it I don’t know, and at the time I was busy so I said okay. I tried to change it at one time but I couldn’t get rid of it.”
After a shakedown race to make sure everything worked, Eric arrived at the fairly important Brands Hatch August meeting. Even before it had turned a wheel his cat won admirers, for it was original and superbly made. “Making things properly has always been important to us. We haven’t always kept to it, but it is a very important point. By the standards of the time it was good, because the standards of the time weren’t that good. Colin Chapman was a brilliant guy hut his cars were a bit cheap and cheerful, the frames broke all the time, and I looked at that pretty carefully. I thought there was no point doing that because scar can’t be consistent unless it’s built reasonably, and I think was one of Chapman’s major problems.
During practice Eric raised eyebrows when his special became the first sport: car regardless of size, to lap Brands Hatch it, under a minute. He won his heat by a country mile and then, in the final, was rammed from behind on the grid and was subsequently black-flagged for erratic driving. Undeterred, he entered his car in the 1500cc race, started from the back of the grid, set fastest lap and finished fourth. The Press called it a “sensational debut”.
“Nick Syrett, the organiser of the meeting, came up and said, ‘That car looks quick. Why don’t you put somebody in it?’ That wasn’t the point of the exercise, I had built it to drive myself, but he was absolutely right because my inexperience showed very very quickly. At Brands I put up fastest lap in qualifying and the Press was around like bees round a honey pot, and I was totally hyped up by the time of the race and messed it up totally. Although I could drive it I had virtually no race experience. In club racing I’d drive off and leave the others. I’d no experience of racing with a lot of cars around me.” Naturally others quickly showed interest in the new car, and Eric committed himself to building three as a part-time operation over the winter of 1958-59. Before long he had the use of the garage premises of Rob Rushbrook, who became Lola’s works director until his recent retirement. During that winter he was testing at Brands Hatch and invited Peter Ashdown, a Lotus works driver, to try his car. Ashdown’s times opened Eric’s eyes: he wasn’t going to be World Champion after all.
“I wasn’t particularly young, I was already 28 when I started, and I don’t think I am very brave either. I like driving as much as anything but I wasn’t able really to run the business, and design, and drive as well. I couldn’t cope with all that. It got to the point quite quickly where we needed success so we needed the quickest drivers. I was crashing a lot and I couldn’t afford that.” The prototype car, the one which Eric now owns again, was sold to Alan Ross in the States. Apart from Ashdown’s works car, two others were made for Mike Taylor and Peter Gammon, two of the best Lotus drivers outside the works team.
The first big meeting of 1959 was the Easter Monday event at Goodwood which then was second in prestige only to the Grand Prix. The three Lolas occupied the first three places on the grid and then had a private race at an ever-increasing distance from the rest of the field.
That set the pattern for the season, and the cars were virtually unbeatable in Britain. Ashdown also won the International Two’ Hour 1500cc race at Rouen, Lola took the team prize in the Tourist Trophy (then a WSC event) and in the Nurburgring 1000 km Ashdown qualified a sensational eighth overall and had taken over a minute off the class lap record when his co-driver (Broadley, E) put the car into the ditch. In all, 36 Mk1s were built and they were, pound for pound, perhaps the finest front-engined sports-racing cars ever made.
There were soon so many people wanting to buy Loins that Eric decided to devote himself full-time to the company. Next up was the Mk2 Formula Junior car, and at the 1959 Boxing Day Brands Hatch Meeting, in the first full British Formula Junior race, Ashdown brought the prototype home second to Peter Arundell’s Elva-DKW. Everyone agreed that the Lola looked the most stable car in the field and the orders poured in. Most were not impressed by the performance of the new Lotus 18, as Alan Stacey struggled with an underpowered engine and the wrong spring settings, and no report even noticed the single-seater debut of a young driver at the wheel of a Gemini, a driver whose name was Jim Clark. Lola made 27 Mk2s, but they managed only a single win while Lotus not only dominated Formula Junior but wiped out virtually all the other constructors, but by then Lotus had Jim Clark and Cosworth works engines. Still, the Lola was perhaps the best of all the front-engined FJ cars, not far short of Lotus, but its engines were never as good and while Ashdown was a superb driver he was not Jim Clark.
Eric has never formed a relationship with a driver such as Chapman did with Clark, and it has been a surprise to see him recently tagged as a “race engineer” when he has turned up in the Lola F1 pit. “It’s not serious race engineering, I dabble around, keep in touch, that sort of thing. I have never done race engineering, I don’t know why but that’s how it is. I’m just interested in running the company, and designing. That’s where I come from, I guess.”
Broadley’s next design, also for FJ, woos rear-engined car which bristled with innovations. The driver was far forward, the fuel tank was mounted in the centre, just like contemporary practice, and the rear of the spaceframe was designed to unbolt so the rear wheels, engine and gearbox could be wheeled away in one unit. Unfortunately it did not work. “It was not a particularly good move. Write that one off to experience.” The experience also involved seeing his sales drop away to almost nothing, and he came close to folding.
“How close? I’m a survivor, I found from quite early on that my success came in waves. I have quite big ups and quite big downs and I have come to terms with that and organise around it. I’m not a very good businessman. That’s why the company works much better now, because we have a good management team, but in the past we have survived some hair-raising moments. Don’t get we wrong, the business is still my main interest, almost my only interest, and I get a terrific buzz when we pull off a deal, but you have to remember that I’m now of mature years and the whole thing has got to have a solid foundation. “Some of our experiences over the years have taught me that it’s very dangerous to rely entirely on one mind and! try not to do that now, particularly in modern conditions. It’s very important that there are two or three inputs, and two or three guys working well together will produce a more consistent result than one, although there are exceptions to all cases. I still do quite a bit of designing, but basically I have got other guys heading all the projects and we bounce ideas off each other. I find that works very well.
There was one unexpected spin-off from the Mk3, unsuccessful as it was, and that was that Eric looked around for a new gearbox, found none that suited him, and persuaded Mike Hewland to build him one. That set Hewland on his way.
Lola’s fortunes revived when Reg Parnell commissioned a Formula One design for 1962 for John Surtees and Roy Salvadori. While Salvadori’s career was in decline, Sorters was consistently one of the three or four fastest men in F1, and with the Lola set pole at Zandvoort, won a minor race at Mallory Park (which still attracted a topclass field) and finished second in the British and German Grands Prix, with other top three places denied him through engine problems.
Unfortunately towards the end of the season the money ran out and Sorters began to slip down the grid. At the end of the year Parnell lost his backing and the project came to an end.
That experience was responsible for Lola’s ambivalent attitude to F1 over the years. There were cars for Honda in 1967-68 and Graham Hill’s team in 1974, but until very recently Lola would consider only commissioned projects.
Five years ago we were told that Grand Prix racing simply did not enter anyone’s mind at Lola; the name of the game was building customer cars and it would stretch the company too far. But a year later Lola became involved with Carl Haas’ Beatrice/ Force team, and when that folded there was established an official Lola F1 team, run by Gerard Larrousse, for the first time in the company’s history. “Apart from consultancy work on the design of the cars, we didn’t have a lot to do with Force, which was set up separately 100 miles away. I think we could have become a good team, but we still had our own projects running, we were isolated from each other, and when Force’s sponsorship situation changed it wasn’t possible to retrieve it. Had we been integrated we could have probably sorted the sponsorship and kept the team going as one normally does, be you expect sponsorship to change from time to time.”