Lola Heritage

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In September 1999 I was driving the Bodyshop Magazine Lola T492 in a race at the legendary Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium when, exiting from the flat out Blanchimont curve, the car’s engine grenaded. This caused the rear wheels to lock, sending me into the Armco barrier on the left hand side of the circuit. I eventually came to rest 200 yards down the circuit. Amazed to find myself alive, I extracted myself from the car and was helped by a nearby marshal who described the accident as the biggest he’d ever seen.

Amazingly, my injuries were confined to heavy bruising from my safety harness and a chipped bone in my left foot. The car, however, was a sorry state.

On its return to England the car was taken to One-Off Engineering whose proprietor, Mike Lee, has been involved in the manufacture and maintenance of racing cars since the early 1960s. Mike, having rebuilt and run a Lola T492 for ex-GP driver and World Sports Car Champion Mike Wilds’ son, Anthony, agreed to take on the rebuild.

My car had originally been built in 1979 by Lola Cars Ltd and was designed to compete in the then successful Sports 2000 Series. This was a sort of sports car alternative to Formula Ford with all vehicles in the class fitted with the ubiquitous two litre OHC Ford Pinto engine.

Lola was established in the 1950s by engineer turned club racer Eric Broadley and grew to become the most successful and prolific manufacturer of racing cars in the world. In the 1970s, it dominated the Formula 5000 Series for five litre single seaters whose drivers included Peter Gethin, Frank Gardner and bike legend Mike Hailwood.

The Lola T290, with its two litre Ford BDA engine, was highly successful in the hands of amateur drivers such as Steve O’Rourke and Nick Mason (the Pink Floyd drummer) in long distance sports car racing. Lola also had several quite successful forays into Formula 1, firstly with ex-bike racer John Surtees in 1962. In 1967, Lola produced a Grand Prix chassis for Honda, again at the instigation of John Surtees, the resulting ‘Hondola’ winning that year’s Italian Grand Prix, John Surtees overtaking Jack Brabham on the last corner of the last lap.

More recently, Lola became a major player in the Indy Car Series, carrying 1992 World F1 Champion Nigel Mansell to a back-to-back championship victory in the 1993 Indy Car Series.

Lola had also produced a chassis for ex-World Champion Graham Hill when he set up his own Grand Prix team in the 1970s. In the late 1990s, however, an ill-fated venture back into Formula 1 plunged the company into bankruptcy. Lola was saved from extinction when it was bought by ex-racer, property developer and circuit owner Martin Birrane, and resumed its place as one of the world’s leading race car manufacturers.
Meanwhile, back at Mike Lee’s workshop in Howley, near Chard, Somerset, the remains of the Bodyshop Lola were being dismantled. Like most racing cars, the T492 had been designed for a maximum active life of two or three seasons at the most. As a result, by the mid 1990s when I bought the car as a box of bits, it was pretty battle worn and carried the scars of assorted accidents.

The car was designed with a central monocoque tub to which a rear sub-frame carrying the engine, gearbox and rear suspension was attached. At some point a sheet of plywood had been added to the underside of the tub which, according to Mike, saved my life in the Spa accident by preventing the tub from disintegrating around me.

The tub was, we decided, a throw away job and Mike set about fabricating a new monocoque from scratch, using Lola’s original designs but upgrading material specs to improve stiffness and durability. At the front, the T492’s brake and clutch assemblies had to be replaced as the originals had been destroyed. Lolas of the period were renowned for their relative lack of protection for the feet, ‘Lola limp’ being an occupational hazard for drivers. In view of this, Mike incorporated additional foot protection whilst remaining true to the original design concept. The rear sub-frame, too, had taken a considerable battering and this was refabricated, as was the rollcage.

The car’s Hewland Mk9 gearbox had survived undamaged although the engine – the initial cause of the accident – had been totally destroyed. A replacement engine was sourced, newly rebuilt by Phil Williams Racing Services.

As well as the main rebuild work, there was a host of other minor jobs to be carried out. The suspension parts were checked, replaced where necessary and nickel plated. The mandatory fire extinguisher system was plumbed in, complete with sensors. The driver’s seat (comprising a contoured glass fibre moulding) had been damaged at Spa and this, too, had to be made good by Mike prior to being upholstered. KN Wheels Ltd of Telford in Shropshire, the manufacturers of the original Revolution wheels fitted to the car, came to the rescue with a new set of wheels whilst Yokohama, official tyre suppliers of today’s Sports 2000 Series, provided tyres. Mike Wilds supplied a set of body panels and the bodywork went to R-M Automotive Refinish, who had sponsored the car since my original purchase, for refurbishment and repainting.

The car’s first outing was, appropriately enough, at Silverstone for an R-M customer track day. A nightmare time trying to fit up the rear body section meant that the car was not completed until midnight of the day before. A further problem was then encountered at Silverstone when the new wheels were discovered to foul the front brake calipers. Fortunately, an engineering company operating in the Silverstone Industrial Park was able to machine away the offending metal – literally as we waited – and the newly rebuilt car proceeded to run like clockwork, looking resplendent in its new red and yellow livery, completing 65 trouble free laps of the Silverstone Historic Grand Prix Circuit.

Pressure of work – and family commitments – meant that it was another two years before the Bodyshop Lola was to turn a wheel again, this time at the VSCC’s flagship ‘British Empire Trophy’ meeting at Donington Park in June 2002.

One of the meeting’s feature races was a ‘Lola only’ race for Lola sports cars built between 1963 and 1979, designed to launch Lola Heritage – a newly formed club set up by Lola to celebrate its near 50 year history as a race car manufacturer. The race was primarily designed to attract the ‘big banger’ Lola coupes and Can-am cars of the 1960s and 1970s, and indeed more than half the field was made up of these intimidating machines. Other entries included Lola owner Martin Birrane’s own T212 and the Bodyshop Lola T492, driven by Anthony Wilds, this being the sole Sports 2000 entry. The bad news was that, in view of the lack of entries for the Lola race, it was to be combined with the half hour ‘headline’ race for ‘Group C’ Le Mans type endurance racers of the 1980s and 90s – cars such as the Le Mans winning XJR Type Jaguars.

Anthony appeared relaxed and set off for the half-hour practise session, only to disappear round Donington’s Redgate corner, eventually reappearing on the end of a tow rope after the end of the session.

‘The car just died,’ said Anthony. Much head scratching ensued. Eventually, ace mechanic Craig Chapman discovered a minor fuel problem, which was soon fixed, and Anthony went out in a later session to complete the necessary laps to start the race, albeit at the back of the rolling-start grid. Half an hour before the start, the heavens opened so ‘wets’ were fitted. The track conditions were atrocious and when the green light came on for the start, the noise and spray thrown up by the 30 odd sports cars on the track was truly spectacular.

At the end of the first lap, Anthony had made up three or four places and by lap two he was alongside Martin Birrane in his quick but ill handling Lola 212 – the latter subsequently retiring.

Out front, Nathan Kinch (Jaguar XJR16), Justin Law (Jaguar XJR10) and Gary Pearson (Jaguar XJR11) battled for the lead, Kinch eventually winning. Anthony, meantime, was tooling along in the Bodyshop Lola, the conditions making the car’s lack of power much less of a disadvantage. One by one he picked off the other cars and ended up surprise winner of the Lola Heritage Race. Lola founder Eric Broadley presented the winner’s trophy.

It was a bit like a Minardi winning a wet Grand Prix and credit must go to Anthony for a superb drive. Credit also to Mike Lee for the rebuild.

I am sure it was the first time a Sports 2000 has competed in a ‘Group C’ Endurance Sportscar Race and certainly the first time that a Sports 2000 has trounced a field of ‘big banger’ and Group six Lola sports cars.

My thanks to all who made it possible: Mike Lee of One-Off Engineering, Paul Buckingham of R-M Automotive Refinish, Warren McKiernan of KN Wheels, Tom Whittaker of Yokohama Tyres, Craig Chapman and, of course, Anthony Wilds.

Christopher Mann

This article originally appeared in Bodyshop Magazine, October 2002.

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