By Bob Marston, Chief Engineer, Lola Cars 1969 to 1981.
The following is a collection of anecdotes relating to my time spent working for Lola Cars during one of their most productive and interesting periods. It is not a report of the various races that were won or lost - these can be found in the periodicals of the time - it is more a random series of incidents with which I was involved along the way.
Fire in Slough workshop
Not long after I joined Lola at their factory in Slough (it must have been around 1970), we had a very serious fire in the workshop that could have wrecked the whole business. In those days, we had our magnesium wheels cast at an outside foundry but machined in-house. On this particular occasion, a pile of swarf under the lathe was set alight by material already on fire adding to the pile. My guess is this was caused by machining with a blunt cutting tool.
When magnesium burns, it is with such intensity that conventional extinguishers do not work sufficiently well to put it out and such was the case here. When the Fire Brigade arrived (reasonably quickly) it also had no specific equipment to deal with this sort of fire. The only recourse was to continue with the method we had already started which was to fill buckets with earth from outside and form a human chain to pass the buckets along to the person at the front, to throw over the burning area.
This succeeded eventually in putting the fire out but was extremely hazardous for those closely involved due to the concrete under the lathe and surrounding area exploding from the intensity of the heat.
The massive wheel-machining lathe was twisted and buckled, a complete write-off.
Thereafter there were always buckets of dry sand readily available whenever and wherever magnesium was machined. Fortunately, the rest of the workshop was more or less undamaged but it was a very close thing.
I went to the Buenos Aires 6-hour endurance race with the Equipe Bonnier team in early ‘72. Our drivers were, if I remember correctly, Reine Wisell, Chris Craft, Gerrard Larousse and Jo Bonnier himself. We were running two of the new 3-Litre Lola T280’s against the works teams of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo etc. Since almost all of the cars originated in Europe, transport aircraft had been chartered to bring the cars to Argentina, which was okay - until there appeared to be some problem with the unloading and delivering of our cars to the circuit, ready for practice.
The promised delivery times came and went with no sign of our cars arriving. In the meantime, some of the other teams were able to start their practice. Considering this needed a bit of sorting out, I took Jo Bonnier’s secretary, Anne-Marie (who spoke good Spanish) to the Airport to see what could be done. She got into conversation with a customs official and persuaded him to allow us to go out of the back door (highly illegal) and get airside so that we could locate the relevant aircraft. We eventually managed this only to find that the unloading crew had disappeared for some unexplained reason without any indication of when they may return.
We waited until eventually they returned and after some persuading the unloading began, that is until we found there would not be room on the transporter for our cars on that trip. Clearly more time would be lost, as they would have to return after delivering their present load to the circuit. I elected to stay with our cars on the tarmac beside the aircraft, whilst Anne-Marie went back the way we had come in. By now, it was getting dark and here I was completely alone, unlawfully in a restricted area, no papers or passport, unable to speak the language - it suddenly occurred to me that this was not a very clever situation to be in. Especially in a South American country where the prisons are reputed not to be high on Thomas Cook’s list of must-see places.
Eventually the transporter did return, several hours later, but to get out of the airport through security I was hidden away in the locker under the bench seat in the cab that had three big Argentinians sat on it, and it was thus that I escaped from a very tricky situation. At least I feel I now have a degree of empathy with our own modern-day illegal immigrants!
We were not allowed to have hire cars in Buenos Aires as it was considered too dangerous. Instead, the organising club laid on courtesy cars with local drivers. The only problem was that knowing we were members of the racing fraternity, they went out of their way to show us how fast and daring a driver they were. Demonstrations of this through the crowded boulevards of Buenos Aires made us passengers just a tad nervous.
Getting to the circuit on race morning was equally exciting - there is a dual carriageway out of the city centre to the circuit - and such was the attraction of the race that both sides of the dual carriageway were packed with traffic but all going in the same direction - towards the circuit. If you wanted to go in the opposite direction - too bad because the traffic police were noticeable by their absence!
The race itself was a bit of an anti-climax, to the extent that neither car finished. There was however excitement of a sort - we were leading the race against the works Ferrari’s and Alfa’s when it was time to come in and refuel. Our method then was the tried and tested “milk-churn” approach that had been used for decades. This, if you remember, used containers exactly like milk churns where the fuel was just poured into the car’s tank via a funnel - a relatively slow process. The other major teams had their equivalent of the modern day quick-refueling rig that had a push-on/pull-off connector and a storage tank high in the air for maximum fuel flow rate. The trouble was the crowd opposite the pits, several thousand of them, wanted the underdogs, i.e. us, to win and they did not appreciate our very amateurish efforts at refueling and let us know this in no uncertain terms. It sounded as though they were about to riot and the whole atmosphere was very intimidating.
We survived however, so the first thing I did (after the race) was to hot-foot it back to the UK to design and make an up-to-date rig for the next 6-hour race at Daytona.
Bob will be regaling us with more tales from foreign parts in a couple of weeks.