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“Looking for Lovely Lola”

Paul Wilson T70

Bridgehampton, September 1966: Can–Am Round Two. My friend Rick Presbrey had some convincing-looking press passes for us from his campus newspaper, so as the pack took the green flag, we stood behind a little log barrier beside the track at the end of the straight, anticipating a pleasurable thrill when the cars reached us. Instead we were nearly knocked down by the avalanche of noise, blast of air, and furious kinetic energy of the pack going by. It was like being trampled by a herd of buffalo. Without a word, we turned and jumped back to a safer position.

It was frightening to watch, even from there. Approaching at top speed, the cars braked lightly and plunged over a blind hillcrest down a steep hill, twitching and darting through two fast right–handers. The slope unweighted them and added to their speed, making any big misjudgment impossible to correct. Yet it seemed to us that the drivers threw themselves over this cliff with suicidal abandon. All the great names were there. Jim Hall and Phil Hill drove the high–wing Chaparral 2E in its debut; Dan Gurney won the race with a Ford–powered Lola T70. Lolas and McLarens and other big-engined beasts filled the field, driven by many of the world’s best drivers.

For us the most beautiful and exciting car was the red Lola T70 driven by Surtees. By then it had an aluminum chin spoiler, which scraped the pavement when he braked. He seemed to hurl it with contemptuous confidence over this precipice. What a car! It crouched so low that the voluptuous mounds over the front wheels were higher than the windshield, with sweeping curves rising past boomerang–shaped air scoops in the rear fenders to the high rear spoiler. A dramatic big opening in the hood blew air upwards, pressing the nose down to the road. Its elegantly ribbed six–spoke magnesium wheels carried the widest tires we’d ever seen. Huge exhaust pipes jutted out the back, like the cannons of an old–time warship. It was unforgettable, whether in motion or just sitting in the paddock.

Had I Decided to End It All?

Paul Wilson T70

Another problem for me was that–aside from looking at it, and drawing deep breaths–for a long time I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it. That memory of Surtees at Bridgehampton still made me shiver. Did I really think I’d drive the thing? After a lifetime’s yearning, I had started racing, but with cars that didn’t have much power or speed. A T70–well, a T70 was in another whole category. What did I really think I’d do with 500 horsepower strapped to my back, in a car built when nobody had much clue what happened when you tried this? Had I decided to End It All?

Anyone driving a big mid–engined car was considered suicidal when they first appeared, and as an impressionable teenager reading Road & Track in the late ’50s and early ’60s, I had the prejudice of the times: the midengine layout was for small cars. The F3 Coopers and under–two-liter Porsche RSs were successful in the ’50s, but Brabham’s Cooper that won the F1 title still had only 2.5 liters. Then Formula One went to 1500 ccs., and even midengined sports–racers stayed small. The Cooper Monaco and Lotus 19 were designed for the Climax FPF; Ferrari’s first midengined sports–racers had just 2.4 liters. Why not the 3–liter 250 engine, or even the 4–liter that won Le Mans in ’62? Why was it two more years before these engines were put behind the driver?

The reason was a widespread assumption that midengined cars were inherently dangerous and difficult to drive. Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, and a few other supernaturally gifted drivers had come to terms with the scary Auto Unions of the ’30s. But putting a big engine behind a driver of ordinary skills was sure to have fatal results, or so we thought. The safety record of ever–more–powerful midengined race cars did nothing to contradict this prejudice; it was a dangerous period in motorsports. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a widespread death–wish. By ’64 or ’65, in U.S. racing, the in–thing to do was to stuff an aluminum Buick V8 or even a big Chevy or Ford into a flimsy little Lotus or Cooper, giving the driver a thrill like the bomber captain had in Dr. Strangelove, riding a nuke to an explosion that would end the world.

But the world didn’t end. In fact, drivers often climbed out of their midengined monsters and declared that they were easier to drive than their front–engined predecessors. Not all of them, of course. There was a lot designers didn’t know in the ’60s, particularly concerning aerodynamics, and some lethal cars were built, such as the early Porsche 917s. But evil–handling cars don’t win many races, and as midengined cars became universal in serious racing, it was clear that the best of them handled very well. In addition to the dynamic advantage of having their weight concentrated in the middle, the new cars benefited from much better tires and grip than their front–engined predecessors. The T70, in particular, was often praised for stability and predictability that gave drivers confidence. Driving a T70, I concluded, might not be absolutely insane, even if much evidence seemed to point that way. There was only one way to find out: get one.

Searching for a T70

Paul Wilson T70

Finding and buying a T70 was the most baffling challenge I’ve had in thirty–five years of car collecting. Few genuine roadsters survive; prices vary wildly; fakes abound. But after a two–year search, I found the perfect car–for me. Anyone would love its great period history, and its long ownership record. All the essentials–tub, gearbox, instruments, wheels–were original, and it even had the rare sidedraft 58 mm.Webers it raced with when new. What specially suited me, though, as someone short on cash, long on skills and time, was its condition. I found a car that was well–maintained until it was crashed and damaged in front. The owner decided this was a good time to do a full restoration, so he totally disassembled the car, bought new suspension parts, had the gearbox rebuilt. Then, as restoration estimates came in and his motivation reached its lowest ebb, I found him, made an offer, and the deal was done. With my old friend Rick Presbrey, who had shared that indelible vision at Bridgehampton in 1966, I flew to the west coast and brought it back east in boxes that filled a medium–sized U–Haul truck.

The restoration is a long story, for another time. But it’s a happy one. The car’s former owner, who has lots of experience with Can–Am cars, has become a good friend and advisor. And I’m heartily glad I did a thorough renovation of the tub before going on the track. Unprotected bare sheet steel, in complex structures without proper drainage, rots from the inside. The untouched original right front corner needed as much repair as the accident damage on the left. Above all, I wanted the car to be strong and safe.

Starting with a basket case, I became familiar with every piece of the car as I put it together. I made a few changes as I went along. Not for performance: adding a couple of hundred horsepower (easily done) would only have led to snapped axles, cracked side plates on the Hewland, and other dangerous problems. Looking in the mirror, I saw a timid, cautious guy with gray hair, who’d nervously concluded that the mild engine it had, with just 491 horsepower at 6800 rpm, should be–adequate. The important modifications were for comfort. Even the previous owner, a lean, athletic guy of medium height, complained that the shifter made a bruise on his leg by the end of the weekend. As I rebuilt the tub, I realized that the cockpit’s central rib could easily be moved a bit to the side. Now the passenger seat is really cramped, but the driver is comfortable. Similar creative work was needed in the footwell, where the original setup made driving the car impossible for anyone with shoes bigger than size 9. What did big–or even normal sized–drivers do?

A Glorious History

Paul Wilson T70

The car I bought is the third T70 Mark II built, SL71/18. Driven by Buck Fulp of South Carolina, it would probably have won the 1966 USRRC Championship except for unusual bad luck. Fulp dropped out of the first race in the series when a stone broke his goggles and cut his eye, but he won the second, at Riverside. His eye then got infected, and he missed several races. When he returned, he came in third at Mid–Ohio, won at Watkins Glen, and was leading the last race–and the championship–when the shifter broke. It was his only mechanical problem all year.

A few years earlier, Fulp had celebrated his 21st birthday–and a sizable inheritance that came with it–by ordering a new Ferrari from Chinetti. This predictably led him into racing, and he became a regular driver for Chinetti’s NART team at Sebring and elsewhere. His money helped, of course, but he was a steady, error–free driver who could be counted on never to break or crash a car. Not that he wasn’t fast, too: he was on the front row for the Watkins Glen race he won with my car, in a field that included (in comparable equipment) Jerry Grant, Mark Donohue, John Cannon, Chuck Parsons, and other leading drivers.

My car was his second T70. The Mark II was a significant improvement on his Mark I, which also hadn’t endeared itself to him when its steering rack tore loose. When I talked with him about my car, he insisted he’d never put a scratch on it, firmly denying the rumor that it had been crashed. Charmingly modest about his speed as a driver, he made it clear he hadn’t been the type who made stupid mistakes. His disappointing DNF at Elkhart Lake accounted for the redesigned shifter base on my car, and he told me also to look for the line inscribed on the gearbox, from which his team had measured the chassis setup.

But one detail was a mystery: my car has a pair of huge pod–shaped air intakes, which its previous owner insisted were on it originally. But they weren’t when Fulp had it. They looked just like some pods on an earlier T70 sponsored by Pacesetter Homes, but that car was completely burned out after an accident during a joyride. Fulp couldn’t remember exactly what happened to my car after he sold it at the end of 1966, but he thought Roger McCluskey later drove it. That detail made the connection: McCluskey raced a T70 with pods for Pacesetter Homes in the 1967 Can–Am–my car, because by then (except for the pods) the earlier car no longer existed. I remember the pods, and the car, at Bridgehampton in ’67. It was then painted yellow, with blue number circles painted to suggest that they’re blowing away in the wind. By then a two–year–old design, it still scored a fifth place at Mosport.

So, what should I do with the pods? They’re neat–looking from the front, but bulky from the side, and ugly from the rear. They obscure the rear fender lines, which are some of the most beautiful shapes on the car. Functionally, they disturb the rear airflow and actually make the car slower. And they weren’t on it in 1966, its year of glory. They’re easy to put on, but for now, they’re stored in the attic.

The First Test

Paul Wilson T70

The first time I started it, I gave engine a rev, and the blast from the pipes blew my welding helmet off a bench five feet away. Its bellow is overwhelming and painful (I now use ear protection whenever I run it). The sound changes your whole understanding of the car. “Oh, that’s pretty,” admirers say when seeing it for the first time; someday, inevitably, it will be described as “cute.” After they hear it, though, there’s a shocked silence. Then someone breathes, “Oh . . . #*@*!!” Another looks at me and asks, “You’re going to drive it? I hope you’ll be OK.”

I was wondering the same thing, with increasing anxiety as I finished up the final details. Maybe it would be best if someone else gave it the initial test. How would I know if it felt the way it was supposed to? I’d never driven anything like it. Starkey’s T70 book mentions a 0–to–100 mph time of about five seconds, but a track test of a comparable McLaren in Road & Track was about a second more than this. The reason, though, was a slow launch off the line. Once the tires hooked up, the acceleration graph went nearly vertical. What was it like to go this fast?

I talked with a race–prep shop about doing the shakedown for me, but they were overwhelmed with work. So early one spring day I found myself at VIR, nervously unloading the car. All I had to do, I told myself, was just to drive around; I didn’t have to go any faster than I felt like. I’d triple–checked the wheels and suspension: nothing was going to fall off. So out I went.

I was in at the end of one lap. The shifter only engaged first and second, and the brake pedal was spongy. But I was less nervous. The car felt low, wide, and secure, and the huge tires gave good grip, even though I’d chosen period–correct, but less sticky, treaded tires instead of slicks. (With slicks I’d be racing with later cars in the much faster “Wings and Slicks” class, and would put more strain through the wheels and suspension than they were designed for.) Next time out I completed the full session. After more bleeding, the brakes were still mushy, and with a low brake pedal I couldn’t heel–and–toe for a clean downshift. There was heavy understeer, and the rear end didn’t track securely on the faster straights. But it had huge power, anytime, without any tricky wheelspin or instability. Coming out of the very slow Oak Tree hairpin in first, I could nail the gas and run right up through the gears–WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP!–almost as fast as I could grab the shifter. Barely halfway down the back straight it was wildly climbing past 6500 rpm in top, and I had to ease off (at what turned out to be 145 mph). Obviously it needed longer gearing, and more problems arose as the day went on–oil leaks, header bolts vibrating loose, bad visibility in the mirrors.

But the day was a success: I’d driven it, and on the whole, it was reassuringly stable. This was a car I was going to love driving, once I had the bugs worked out.

Driving a T70

Paul Wilson T70

I’ll never drive my T70 with the skill and aggression of Surtees or Gurney, but I was surprised by how confident it makes me feel on the track. Happily lunging past slower traffic–427 Cobras and the like–I quickly forget that the car is worth nearly as much as my house, and I’m going at dangerous speeds. The low seating position helps, giving a very enclosed feeling because of the high sides and the huge mounds over the front wheels, but there’s a good view straight ahead. I’d read that when developing the chassis, Surtees made it a priority for the car to feel safe and predictable, reasoning that a confident driver using that giant power would be hard to beat. Now that my car is properly set up, it has light, stable understeer until power is applied, and then a progressive transition to a neutral stance. The back end will only get loose–and then only gently, politely–if you lift in mid–corner, or get too eager at the exit. Good aerodynamics keep it steady on the straights (and some rear toe–in took care of the wander I’d noticed in its first outing). I now have gears installed that give 165 mph at 6800 rpm, which it reaches on most tracks. I’d never been nearly this fast before, and wasn’t prepared for the updraft, which would have popped off my helmet like a champagne cork if the chin strap hadn’t been done up tight.

It’s surprisingly docile and untemperamental. It starts and idles with no fuss, and always runs cool. The spongy brake pedal was firmed up by fitting larger–diameter master cylinders, and now the brakes are excellent. The Tilton racing clutch wouldn’t last long if slipped much, but it works smoothly. Maybe street driving wouldn’t be impossible after all–if it weren’t for the gearbox. Ordinary synchromesh, like any clutch, does best with gentle treatment. But when a Hewland is shifted, one spinning part locks into another with coarse square teeth (“dogs”). Being gentle just rounds off the square teeth. In a Formula Ford with new dogs, shifting hard gives a satisfying click, but the rotating masses in the Lola’s LG500 are so heavy that there’s always an ugly crunch, and a ruthless shove is needed to avoid missed shifts. “C’est brutale, mais ša marche,” shrugged Emile Levassor, inventor of the Hewland’s first crude ancestor that equipped his Panhard–Levassor in 1891: “it’s brutal, but it works.”

Brutal, but it works. This is a fair description of most of the early Can–Am cars, with their huge engines, tires, and brakes. But the T70 was a more elegant design. Its forgiving track behavior, thoughtfully executed engineering details, and advanced aerodynamics were all in perfect harmony with the same theme. And that body! Even Mark Donohue, a pragmatic, winning–oriented racer if ever one lived, was stopped in his tracks by the T70’s sensuous form: “When I first saw the new Lola in Roger’s [Penske’s] shop I was really impressed,” he wrote in The Unfair Advantage. “It just looked like a real race car ought to look. In fact, I still think it was one of the most beautiful race car shapes I’ve ever seen. . . it seemed like we all just sat and stared at it a lot.”

Many evenings I go out to my barn and do the same. What a beautiful car.

Paul Wilson