RESTORED: LOLA GT Prototype that inspired GT40
In 1965, while walking through the Lola Cars shop in Slough, Allen Grant spotted a forlorn race car in the corner. It had no engine, no gearbox, minimal race history. But he’d been obsessed by the car – officially the Lola Mk6, but generally known as the Lola GT – ever since seeing photos of its dramatic debut at the London Racing Car Show in 1963: ‘I thought it was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen.’
So Grant – a Shelby American employee who was in Europe racing a Cobra Daytona Coupe – asked Lola works manager Rob Rushbrook if company founder Eric Broadley might consider selling it. The Lola GT was the progenitor of the Ford GT40, and it had spawned a revolution in sports-prototype design. But Broadley was focused on getting the Lola GT’s new-and-improved successor, the T70, into production.
‘Well, if ever, he would now,’ Rushbook told Grant. ‘I need the space, we could use the money. Make me an offer.’ Grant offered $3000 – $2400 in cash, with $600 to come when he could raise the money. Sold!
Grant intended to race the prototype back in the States. But while he worked on other projects, the Lola sat in the Beverly Hills garage of the parents of Grant’s roommate, Shelby American photographer Dave Friedman. Then it sat in the garage of Grant’s parents in his hometown of Modesto, California. Later, it sat at friends’ places and in various garages that Grant himself owned in the Central Valley, up in Washington and Oregon, and down in Palm Springs. Grant desperately wanted to restore the car, and he worked on it in fits and starts. But, mostly, the Lola GT sat. And sat. And sat. For more than half a century.
Above, inset Allen Grant raced an AC Cobra in the 1960s; his passenger here is childhood friend turned film-maker George Lucas. Above and far left The Thermal Club racetrack near Palm Springs, California, was the venue for Allen Grant’s first shakedown test – something he’d waited five decades for. Right and below. Followng a restoration that involved long days through a very short summer, the Lola was finished just in time for the Jet Center Party in Monterey last August. Only now does it get the chance to sing on the track. Left, far left and above No wonder there’s a smile on Allen Grant’s face. Sitting in the calm turquoise interior of the exquisite Lola GT racer marks the culmination of a 51-year odyssey.
It’s still sitting – but no longer in pieces in yet another garage. Last August, it won the Octane Editor’s Choice Award at The Quail during the Pebble Beach weekend. After returning to Southern California for a brief lowspeed track outing, it was displayed at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Although the car looks like an artefact of an older and less sophisticated era, it pointed the way to the enormously influential and far more successful GT40 that followed. ‘The Lola GT’, says curator Leslie Kendall, ‘is the missing link.’
The stories of the Lola GT and Allen Grant follow oddly parallel paths. In 1957, while working as a quality surveyor in the construction business, Broadley built a road-racing special. It was so successful that he created Lola Cars the next year, and by 1962 he’d designed his first Formula 1 car, which John Surtees drove to victory in a non-championship race at Mallory Park. For his next trick, Broadley tackled FIA’s new grand touring prototype category with blue-sky design that could also be put into production as a roadgoing GT car.
The Lola GT was conceived as a mid-engined machine built around a steel central monocoque to which a tubular subframe was attached at the front. The engine was a 4.2-litre Ford Fairlane V8 that had been hot-rodded by Shelby American and mated to a four-speed Colotti Tipo 37 transaxle. The suspension followed standard F1 practice, and the running gear was conventional. What made the car the breakout star of the Racing Car Show was the glassfibre bodywork, styled by John Frayling, who had been responsible for the sexy Lotus Elite.
To modern eyes, the Lola GT looks like a first draft for the iconic GT40 – not by then on Ford’s drawing board – so it’s hard to appreciate the impact it had on contemporary viewers. ‘It makes the [Ferrari] Berlinetta look like a lorry,’ one observer said as the car was rolled into Olympia. Autocar reported: ‘It arrived late, and jury-rigged with wooden blocks, but the public reaction to this new shape was tremendous. Everything about the car looked “right” and its apparent potential left one breathless.’
The Lola GT ran its first race at Silverstone in May 1963. Ferrari refused to allow Surtees, by then a factory driver, to race it, so Tony Maggs – who’d never even sat in the car – took over at the last minute, started last on the grid and finished ninth behind a bevy of Cooper Monacos and Lotus 19s and 23s. The next week, the car was at the Nürburgring, where it DNF’d after being outclassed by the Ferrari 250P prototypes.
But Broadley was already building two new cars featuring lightweight aluminium chassis. The first was finished so late that drivers David Hobbs and Richard Attwood were dispatched to Le Mans without the race car. Broadley himself then drove the Lola GT from his original shop in Bromley to France, where the team barely made it through scrutineering. In the race, the car ran as high as eighth until the Colotti transaxle – which had been developed for the Lotus 29 Indy car and wasn’t designed for road racing – predictably failed. ‘When they re-installed the gearbox, it had only three speeds instead of four,’ Hobbs recalls. ‘Then I managed to get it jammed into neutral and crashed in the Esses. Eric was practically in tears after the race.’
But there was a silver lining. Thanks to the car’s performance, Broadley came to the attention of Ford, which had decided to build a Le Mans prototype based on a mid-engined monocoque housing a big Ford V8 – the precise template pioneered by the Lola GT. So Broadley was hired to design what would be known as the GT40. Ford Advanced Vehicles was set up in a spacious, brandnew shop in Slough Trading Estate, near Heathrow Airport, and the prototype and first ‘production’ Lola GT were bought by Ford to serve as test mules.
(The third and last Lola GT was sold to Texas oilman John Mecom Jr. The irrepressible Augie Pabst gave the Chevrolet-powered car its only two victories, in Nassau, where he outran Mecom’s Corvette Grand Sports. ‘I wasn’t supposed to win, so I guess you could call me a naughty boy,’ Pabst says with a laugh. He destroyed the car a year later when the throttle stuck open at Riverside.) Broadley himself strongly refuted the popular myth that the GT40 was nothing more than a warmed-over Lola GT. In fact, he later described his work for Ford as ‘a horrendous experience’. Broadley left the project in 1964 after a year of fighting the corporate bureaucracy. As part of the settlement with Ford, he received the Lola GT prototype and relocated Lola Cars to a new shop adjacent to FAV. The lessons he learned with the GT40 were incorporated into the T70, which would become the most succesful Lola ever built.
Meanwhile, in the States, Allen Grant was following a different route to Slough. In 1962, while attending college, he successfully campaigned an AC Bristol in SCCA races in California. When he heard that Carroll Shelby was stuffing Ford V8s into ACs, he hightailed it down to Los Angeles and applied for a job racing Cobras. ‘Well, I don’t need drivers right now,’ Shelby drawled. ‘Can you weld?’
He could. Grant was hired to work on production cars, then race-cars, and was promoted upstairs to a sales position. In 1963, he sold a used Cobra to a car dealership with a canny proviso – that he be allowed to race it. Grant won enough races to earn a ride the following year in Bill Thomas’s fast-but-wayward Cheetah. The year after that, Shelby hired Grant to race the Cobra Daytona Coupe.
Grant was third in the GT class at both Daytona and Sebring, then scored a class win with fellow Californian Bob Bondurant at Monza. With Le Mans coming up and the GT40s scheduled to run several European races in the interim, Shelby kept Grant in England, where he worked as a mechanic at FAV. It was while spending time in Slough that Grant walked next door into the Lola shop and noticed the Lola GT beckoning in the shadows.
When plans to race in Can-Am in 1966 fell through, Grant returned to college in California and eventually went into business building houses (he used his Lola GT as collateral to finance his first project). He always planned to give the car the restoration it deserved. But when he had the money to work on the project, he didn’t have the time, and when he had the time, he didn’t have the money.
The good news was that the Lola had never been wrecked or modified and, although Broadley’s engineering had been ahead of its time, the car was a handbuilt relic of the early 1960s – so the restoration didn’t seem complicated. ‘99% of the pieces were original,’ Grant says. Early on, he was able to acquire one of the major components he didn’t have – a Tipo 37 Colotti transaxle.
Fabricator Scott Merrell began deconstructing the car in 2005. Then, Grant brought over Rob Senekal from South Africa, where he’d worked for Superformance. The chassis was taken down to the tub and mounted on a rotisserie. Grant commissioned Denny Aldridge to build a 4.7-litre Ford V8 to 1963 specifications – four-barrel Autolite carburettor, period-correct distributor, valve covers with no breathers, and so on. Bare-metal pieces were cadmium-plated. The seats were reupholstered in a mod aquamarine fabric that screams Swinging Sixties.
Then came the 2008 recession and the project stalled. Grant moved to Palm Springs with the unfinished car. It wasn’t until May 2016, when he was invited to show the car at the Jet Center Party, a centrepiece of the Monterey Car Week, that work resumed. But with the invitation came a deadline – a mere three months away. ‘The calendar was not friendly,’ John Hill, a local enthusiast who joined the restoration team, says drily.
Senekal returned from South Africa when the thrash began. Grant obsessed over details ranging from paint colours to the authenticity of fasteners. The internet was scoured for missing parts, headlight covers fashioned and cured in Hill’s kitchen oven. Twelve- and 14-hour days weren’t uncommon. Nor was scorching summer heat. The car wasn’t finished until 24 hours before the Jet Center Party, and it didn’t reach Monterey until eight minutes before the doors were scheduled to close.
Just as had been the case when the car was revealed at the London Racing Car Show, the Lola GT wasn’t running. Turned out that the replacement Metalastic doughnuts on the driveshaft – which Grant got with the car – were too brittle. But after a star turn at Quail Lodge, Grant finally got the car operational. He even managed to turn a few laps at The Thermal Club racetrack near Palm Springs, though the rock-hard Dunlop tyres – which had been on the Lola when he bought it – curtailed his speed. ‘I cannot describe the euphoria I felt when I got in that car and started it up and shifted from first into second,’ Grant says. ‘It was all I could do not to mash the throttle.’
There’s a well-known photo (below) of Grant beaming from the driver’s seat of a Cobra after winning a race at Santa Barbara in 1963. Next to him, sporting a huge pompadour, is his boyhood friend, George Lucas, who used Grant as the inspiration for the John Milner character in the movie American Grafitti. Grant’s mop of blond hair has been replaced by a shaved head, and he now wears a closely trimmed white goatee, but his big, affable grin still looks exactly the same as it did 50-odd years ago. And so, thanks to Grant, does the Lola GT prototype.
‘I THOUGHT IT WAS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CAR I’D EVER SEEN’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1963 Lola Mk6
Engine 289ci (4736cc) 90º Ford V8, OHV, four-barrel Autolite carburettor
Power 271bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 312lb ft @ 3400rpm
Transmission Colotti Tipo 37 four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs over dampers, anti-roll bar Brakes Discs
Performance Top speed c180mph. 0-60mph c4sec
‘THE LOLA GT LOOKS LIKE A FIRST DRAFT FOR THE ICONIC FORD GT40’