Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
I have a dog called Lola. I wanted her to be called MkIIIB, but Mrs Frankel intervened. Then again, before the dog came the daughter who was my original intended recipient of the name, but my beloved scotched that too. I pleaded that it had everything to do with a song about a London-based transvestite rather than a racing car but oddly enough she remained unpersuaded. So the dog it is, a sweet, slow and even by the hardly ambitious standards of the breed, supremely thick Labrador.
Over time I have probably spent entire weeks of my life wondering what on earth it is about the Lola T70 in general, and the MkIIIB in particular, that sowed the seed of what I’ll leave others to describe as my obsession with the car.
It’s not even the right T70. If any were to account for so much of my time, it should be original Spyder (below), the car that in 1966 carried John Surtees to the CanAm championship, destroying the challenge of McLaren by winning all but one race that season. Not long ago I drove Andrew Smith’s car, the same machine that in 2010 lapped Goodwood in 1min 18.9sec – well over a second under Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart’s lap record – and I was blown away not just the pace of the thing but how easy it was to drive. You might think a 500bhp Chevy motor in an early mid-engined installation trying to put its power to the floor via the medium of very skinny Dunlop racing rubber would make you want to hide behind the sofa. But once you got used to the sheer thrust of the thing it was fine, far more together and better balanced than the rival McLaren M1B I drove on the same day.
But wonderful though it was, I have only had eyes for the later, far less successful MkIIIB. Unlike the Spyder, it won just one genuinely important race, the 1969 Daytona 24 hours, and then only because for once reliability deserted the red hot favourite Porsches. Then the powers that be relaxed their rule that at least 50 examples of any given car needed to be built before it could take part in top flight sports car racing, reducing the number to 25 and inadvertently ushering in the era of the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512S. Good though the T70 was, it wasn’t that good…
Not that any of this matters to me today. I think the basis of my adoration of this car is that for me at least there was never a better blend of both beauty and brawn in the history of racing. There are cars that are even prettier– its near contemporary the Ferrari P4 to name one of the more obvious examples – and others capable of exuding more sheer purpose, like the aforementioned 917, but standing astride these two totems stands the MkIIIB.
There’s something else too. I’ve driven a 917 hard and fast and while I felt comfortable doing it, I was very aware that actually racing one on a trackful of other lunatics would stretch my sadly limited talent and reserves of bravery further than either would care to go. Amid such company in such a fragile, flimsy monster, I’d just get scared or, worse, drive so slowly as to be an embarrassment. But I think I’d be OK in a T70. The only time I drove a MKIIIB I wasn’t scared at all. It felt like the Spyder but with a fully sorted chassis and grip equal to the power thanks to tyres probably more than twice as wide. It was challenging but most of all it was fun. And with a monocoque around me, rather than the thin tubular spaceframe of the 917, I felt a damn sight safer in it too.
To me it’s sad that the MkIIIB only really hit the big time once and is probably now most famous for the indignity of being forced to dress up like a 917 and 512S and be smashed to pieces for Steve McQueen’s cameras during the making of Le Mans. But the truth is by then its fundamental design was old, and an off-the-peg, production based sports car powered by a pushrod Chevy V8 was never going to see which way brand new 12-cylinder Ferrari and Porsche prototypes went.
Indeed it is only today, decades later, that the T70 MkIIIB is finally an unstoppable force, now in historic racing where its speed and, compared to a Ferrari or Porsche, very affordable purchase and running costs means that when grids of late ’60s sports cars gather together, they are almost always the car to beat.
I hope that one day I might drive another, but in the meantime I must console myself with the fact that I still have Lola the dog, not to mention her son Dino. He was going to be called 206SP, but Mrs F put a stop to that too.