Our second test of stars of the COYS historic festival finds the Lola T70 Mk IIIB stepping into the spotlight. Andrew Frankel gets behind the wheel to find friendship amid the thunder
I’m not even going to attempt to explain what it is about the Lola T70 that has bought it its place among the greatest sportscars of all time. To be honest, I couldn’t explain it even if I wanted too and, the more I think about it, the more I’m baffled by the nature of the structure upon which such standing was built.
The Lola T70 MkIII B was not, as Chris Willow’s accompanying story makes clear, a racing superhero, marching around the globe, flattening all it encountered. Quite the reverse in fact: during its early history it frequently struggled against the Ford GT40s it, on paper, should so easily have vanquished. And by the time this car; chassis SL76/152 was delivered new to Jo Bonnier in the autumn of 1969, the writing was on the wall for all sportscars conceived before this time. The writing said “Porsche 917”. The Ferrari 512S, introduced for 1970, this T70’s only season of contemporary international motor racing, made sure that even the scraps falling from Porsche’s table would be denied.
It’s not the looks either. T70s are a beautiful breed and none more so than this final evolution but placed next to, say, a Ferrari P4, perhaps the most pulchritudinous racing car ever created, it looks slightly plain, lacking the curvature of the Italian, appearing, by comparison only, a little obvious.
And yet. Every time I have seen a T70 its glamorous paddock-mates have melted away to nothing. There is something I find compelling about these cars and, as I spoke to those who remember seeing them race, I realised I am not alone. For a car which failed entirely to meet the hopes and aspirations of its creators, the Lola T70 MkIIIB has a mighty and passionate following.
The fact that it was British, of course, helps its appeal massively. There’s nothing we, as a nation, like better than an heroic effort which ultimately adds up to rather less than we all hoped. And after the MkIIIB’s opening sortie into international competition at Daytona in 1969 saw the cars romp home after 24 hours in first and second places, hopes could hardly have been higher. It was conveniently forgotten that the Lolas’ triumph came directly as a result of freakish unreliability among the Porsche front-runners. They never won another race in the International Championship, the rest of the season bringing one second, a couple of fifths and a single sixth place to put Lola third in the championship with less than half the points of the 908 and 917equipped Porsche team.
Approaching the T70 MkIIIB now, on a sunny day at Silverstone, none of this seems to matter. The car has enjoyed rather more competition success as an historic racer than it ever did when it was new and sold by Bonnier to Frenchman Jacques Rey in November1969. Indeed the most noteworthy part of its history concerns something that hasn’t happened to it: there is no record of it ever being crashed, a rare feat indeed for such a frequently used racing car and one that lends considerable authority to its claim of being among. the most original T70s that exist today.
Sitting, silent, in the paddock, I realise it is its look of controlled aggression that makes the lines so captivating. A P4 is prettier, no doubt, but it lacks this car’s purpose. The way the nose juts, where the Ferrari’s curves, the crude strips of metal poking out of the back as a rear spoiler where the Ferrari’s is elegantly crafted into the bodywork; these things add, they do not detract, from the visceral appeal of this T70 MkIllB.
To me, however, the most appealing aspect of the T70 so far is that l fit. I’d approached it with a sense of dread having driven recently a GT40 in some thing very close to agony and a Ferrari P3/4 only thanks to its spyder configuration. Yet I could drive the T70 in reasonable comfort with the seat in and was positively rattling around with the seat removed. All you have to do is hook open the door, climb over the wide sill, hold your body aloft while you position your legs in the channels either side of the steering wheel and plop down into the seat.
The driving position is as brilliant as the visibility is appalling. The pedals are ideally placed and the relation between them, the driver, the steering wheel and gear-lever approaches perfection. There are three mirrors, each one of which will show you vast acres of T70 bodywork and scarcely a square inch of track behind the car.
Though you can go through the usual starting procedure with pumps and ignition, Geoff Harris who owns and races the T70 prefers simply to leave all the switches on and control the lot in one flick of the master switch. Then, all goes to plan, it’s one stab on the starter and the Lucas mechanical fuel injection will kick the 5-litre small block Chevrolet engine into immediate, raucous life.
It idles with a bellow which will dislodge loose slates on nearby buildings. The flat-12 racing Ferrari parked next to the Lola sounded almost meek by comparison. Waiting, interminably, for some heat to permeate the oil circulating the iron block and alloy heads of the push rod motor, I was advised to tread extremely carefully until the fat Avon slicks were warm and change gear at 7000rpm – 7500rpm is quite safe but gives no more power.
The clutch is predictably heavy but sufficiently kind to make up for the engine’s lack of torque at the start of its rev-range and permit a dignified exit from the paddock. The Hewland LG600 five-speed gearbox, once warm is straight forward enough too, asking for slow and deliberate changes on the way up and, ideally, doubledeclutched shifts on the way down.
Amid all the mayhem banging out oldie back of the still-cold Lola, I discovered a delightfully straight-forward racing car.
When the time came, I did not doubt the blast. Simple arithmetic said this 502bhp, 840kg Lola had a power to weight ratio of around 600bhp per tonne and I have driven enough to know that such a figure provides acceleration which breaks through exhilaration, rips excitement asunder and ploughs a fair furrow through intoxication before stopping just short of the truly manic. It did not disappoint.
But nor did it frighten. Slicks warm, it tracked its way down the Hangar Straight with unfailing precision until I ran out of gears and revs. At 7000rpm in fifth as we hurtled into the braking area for Stowe, I was pleased not to find a speedometer among the flickering instruments.
A short stab on the brakes revealed a pedal lacking entirely the abruptness of today’s carbon disc-equipped monsters. There’s a little reassuring travel in the pedal, less effort than expected and predictably mighty deceleration thereafter. What it lacks beyond ultimate stopping power over a modem is that feeling of being nailed to the tarmac that only mighty amounts of downforce brings. Oddly, the T70’s secret weapon over the likes of the Ford GT40 was that very thing, Eric Broadley reckoning it to develop as much as half its own weight in downforce at 180mph. Whatever the truth of it, under hard braking it tramlines a little and, without feeling disturbingly unsettled, certainly squirms enough to suggest trail braking it all the way into the apex is perhaps not such a great idea on such early acquaintance.
Once in the corner, however, the T70 is nothing like the brute its shape suggests. For a start, the steering seems absurdly light and implausibly delicate for a car of such massive presence; it’s easy to forget there are not much more than 300kgs sitting on the front wheels. There’s a tiny degree of lost motion about dead centre but, as you turn in, it takes up the slack and provides meaty kel and total accuracy. At first it felt a little restless but as tyre temperature and driver confidence increased, it became as stable as you’d expect from any of that age without proper wings. Best of all, through the long wide corners like Club you could howl it up past 7000rpm in third dosing the rear slicks with just enough torque to keep them right on the edge of adhesion. Only in the slower turns which link Abbey to Becketts on Silverstone’s South Circuit does the T70 feel large and a little cumbersome. This was not a car built for second gear chicanes and it will push its nose wide unless you’re prepared to enlist the Chevy’s assistance in bringing the tail around.
The T70 felt, above all, a friendly car, soft. and compliant and surprisingly easy to drive fast on the opening laps. Harris assures me this friendship comes on a short lead and that the T70 has a temper like all late ’60s racers worth writing about with the exception of the GT40. Push your luck too far and you’ll be looking back up the track up before you can say opposite lock.
It was a side of its character I was happy not to find. I was more than content to revel in its slingshot acceleration, hurtle through the turns with the wheel gently writhing in my hands and, above all, soak up the sights and sound of this magnetic racing car. The Lola T70 MIIIB might not have been the world’s greatest sportscar in 1969 but, from where I sat, it did just fine. Our sincere thanks to Silverstone Circuits Ltd (01327 8 57271) for the loan of the track, to Geoff Harris for trusting us with his racing car and the organisers of the Coys International Historic Festival