Eric Broadley copyright Michael Bailie
The Legacy
Eric Broadley might not be a household name, but the founder and designer of Lola Cars is arguably the most successful independent racing car manufacturer of all time.
Words Tony Dron // Photography Michael Bailie // Octane magazine Sept 2013
Lola’s real fame began at the 1959 Goodwood Easter International meeting. Having realised that he needed to stop driving himself, the Lola founder and designer Eric Broadley had got his act together in style. As Autosport reported the following week: ‘This race [the Chichester Cup for 1100 sports cars] was a Lola benefit: the marque’s first appearance as a works team could not have been more decisive, more impressive, or more complete as a victory. The three cars [all Lola-Climax Mk1s] circulated as one, with never more than a length separating any of them, and all racing at great speed and well clear of the rest of the field.’ The works Lola drivers were winner Peter Ashdown and Peter Gammon, with privateer Michael Taylor in close attendance until he spun and damaged his bodywork. Despite that, Taylor recovered to finish third, over 30 seconds ahead of the fourthplaced Lotus of RN Prior. Autosport added: ‘Prior, in fact, had driven a very neat and orderly race, but was rather overshadowed by the fantastic Broadley designs.’ Eric Broadley had made his name, in no uncertain terms, at one of the biggest meetings of the year. Chatting with Eric at Silverstone 46 years later, he remarked to me quietly, ‘I don’t think that the British public has a great understanding of racecar design.’ I have never forgotten that delightful understatement. How many people outside the motor racing world have even heard of Eric and Lola Cars? Through four decades, Eric Broadley ran one of Britain’s most successful motor manufacturing companies but, as we shall see, his ambitions to produce road cars were never realised. More than 2000 Lola cars were made, covering almost every formula and category of serious, pure motor racing. Lola cars won the Indianapolis 500, they dominated Formula 5000 for years, and they were equally successful elsewhere, including the later years of Can-Am racing.
‘Eric Broadley had made his name, in no uncertain terms, at one of the biggest meetings of the year.’
Lola’s list of race wins is long and varied, making Eric perhaps the most successful independent racing car manufacturer of all time. His designs and innovations have been hugely influential, yet, as he himself knows, the average motorist hasn’t the first clue about his extraordinary achievements. Now 84 years old and no longer the strong, quiet giant of a figure he once was, Eric lives in a converted farmhouse in the countryside, a few miles from his former factory in Huntingdon. It’s a beautiful place in which Eric did many of the intricate, exquisite woodwork jobs himself. His practical skills clearly go far beyond the manipulation of the materials found in a racing car.
‘In 1958, driving the sensational Mk1 himself, Eric became the first man to get round Brands Hatch in under a minute’
Along with several other outstanding young design engineers in 1950s British motor racing, Eric learned his trade building successful specials for 750 Motor Club events. Working with his cousin Graham Broadley, Eric soon emerged as a force to be reckoned with. He had the intellectual ability to solve all the puzzles of lightweight structures when they were stressed to the limit on a racing circuit. He also had a particular gift in his subtle understanding of suspension geometry in those days before aerodynamics and wide tyres became the dominant factors in motor racing.

Graham, eight months older than Eric, was a good organiser and Eric is quick to give his cousin credit for helping to get Lola Cars going. Eric had no interest in the family business, a prosperous gentlemen’s outfitters in Bromley that was run by his father and two uncles. Instead of joining them, he had trained as an architect and was working as a quantity surveyor – but his passion and all his spare time and cash went into building and racing his specials. His 1172 Broadley Special came to be christened Lola, logically because of the popular refrain from a musical of those days: ‘Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.’ The Broadley Special era was immediately followed by his graduation to bigger things, the Lola Mk1 being the first complete car he designed and built. Eric was increasingly on his own by then, Graham having taken on the serious responsibility of running the family business. A front-engined 1100 sports-racer, usually Climax-powered, and with an aluminium body over a space-frame chassis, the Lola Mk1 was sensationally good, capable of beating Colin Chapman’s brilliant Lotus 11s. Driving it himself, Eric became the first man to get round Brands Hatch in under a minute. A demand was created and that’s how Lola Cars began, in modest circumstances, with bases in Bromley and Byfleet. The company was formally set up in 1958.
Eric Broadley in his renovated barn with his Mk1
Eric pictured in his barn at his home  in Cambridgeshire with his formerly owned Mk1. It is a 1959 chassis BY-2, the fourth car built in 1959 and the first to have a fairing behind the driver’s head. In 1985, Brian Redman located the car in the USA and Eric bought it back, purely for sentimental reasons. Eric is not sure now, but it might be the same Mk1 in which he himself won a race at the Indianapolis airfield circuit in 1960. Copyright
Eric’s other vital skill was as a businessman. Great talent is needed to design a winning car but it is perhaps even harder to create a profitable enterprise in the volatile world of racing car manufacturing, where winning is everything. He must have had nerves of steel to make that work for over 40 years. Eric had his inevitable ups and downs, the latter mostly from his attempts to break into Formula 1. He was drawn towards it because the big money seemed to be there – but Lola’s forays into F1 seemed eternally dogged by misfortune.

Experiments into road cars

Early on, he had moved into single-seaters, his first mid-engined car
being the 1961 Mk3 Formula Junior, which was followed in 1962 by a Climax V8-engined Formula 1 car backed by Bowmaker – but that project died when Bowmaker pulled out of motor racing abruptly in January 1963. Had Bowmaker stayed, the direction taken by Lola Cars from that point might have been very different. Meanwhile, aside from F1, from time to time Eric thought of making road cars. Some years ago Laurie Bray, a Lola mechanic from 1963 to 1998, told me that in the late 1960s Eric was considering road versions of the T70, his classic big-banger sports-racing car. Laurie recalled that Eric took one out on the road for precisely such an evaluation. ‘When he got back,’ Laurie told me, ‘all he said was, “Let’s not bother with that.” It was a racecar and customers simply would not have understood the noise inside, the heat, the lack of space. It would have been expensive, not to say boring and irritating, to give it the creature comforts expected of a road car.’ Looking back now, Eric says that his Lola road car ideas began much earlier than that, in 1962. ‘Having got into the racing car business,’ he says, ‘and being fairly ambitious, we realised that the room for expansion was very limited. It took a lot of personal attention to get every car running and it was a very small market anyway. Supercars for the road seemed a good idea, and there were very few people in it at the time. We decided to have a go, which resulted in the Mk6, and if Ford hadn’t come along it might have changed the whole scene.’ Bowmaker’s withdrawal had killed off the first Lola works F1 team but it was another big business decision, this time by the American Ford Motor Company, that would decide Lola’s immediate future later that year. That incredible Mk6 GT Prototype of 1963 was destined never to become a road car but it did alter the focus of Eric’s career for a time, and in a way that he had not expected. The Mk6, built to the FIA’s new Grand Touring Prototype regulations, was one of Eric’s most brilliant early masterpieces. Constructed in 1962, its fabulous appearance was the sensation of the Racing Car Show in January 1963. Looking new and exciting, the Mk6’s perfectly proportioned, futuristic glassfibre body covered Eric’s inspired new chassis design, which was light and very stiff. The monocoque central section of the chassis, made from sheet steel and duralumin with cast magnesium formers, had tubular subframes front and rear. The beautifully constructed suspension had Eric’s genius behind its excellent geometry.
Eric with Graham Hill in the Indy T90, 1966
The Lola Mk6, precursor of the GT40
Powered by a mid-mounted Ford V8, giving 260bhp with its Shelby-Cobra modifications, it had a four-speed Colotti transaxle gearbox with gear selection by a set of three cables, like the column-change arrangement on the contemporary Ford Cortina. Directly borrowed from the Cortina were the famous ‘Ban the Bomb’ rear lights. With its slippery body, standing just 40in high, a top speed of 180mph was predicted. That car could have taken on Ferrari and won many races in 1963, including the Le Mans 24 Hours, but luck wasn’t with it. Without doubt, proper funding would have realised the potential of this superb car immediately. The gearing, for example, turned out to be much too low for Le Mans, but nothing could be done about that by the hard-pressed Lola team in the time available. Produced on a shoestring budget in a tiny workshop in Bromley, it was driven on trade plates to Le Mans by Eric himself. His assistant designer was a young Tony Southgate, later to go on to many great achievements in his own right. Tony once told me that he remembered leaving for Le Mans at the last minute, sitting in the passenger seat and unable to move because all the spares had been wedged in on top of him. After taking a scheduled flight across the Channel, they had a minor fright. ‘The front wishbones were bolted up on rubber bushes,’ says Eric, ‘and the French roads were somewhat undulating then, which unscrewed the nuts!’ He pulled up when the car began to feel rather strange, and luckily before it all came apart. All they had to do was to tighten up the nuts so that it wouldn’t happen again. The behaviour of the Mk6 on the circuit was excellent despite very little testing, but Eric’s designs tended to handle well from scratch. That was certainly the case with the Mk6, which Eric claims was a car that gave a driver immediate confidence as soon as he left the pit road. Many years later, I raced that very car myself at Snetterton and it really was fabulous to drive, even when aquaplaning occasionally in a torrential downpour.

Collaborating with Ford

In 1963, the Ford Motor Company was keen to take on Ferrari at Le Mans without delay. When the Mk6, despite its modest budget, showed great promise at Le Mans in the hands of Richard Attwood and David Hobbs, its potential was immediately appreciated in Dearborn. It did not matter that David Hobbs had experienced gear selection trouble at the Esses and overturned, putting the Lola out of the race. An impressed Ford Motor Company offered Eric a two-year contract that would take his services and everything to do with Lola Cars, exclusively and completely, into the Ford GT works programme. Famously, the Mk6 was to form the basis of the original GT40, which did eventually lead to the famous victories at Le Mans. However, within a year Eric had left the project, and this visit to his home seemed a golden opportunity to seek his inner thoughts about what really happened back then.
‘The Ford involvement was very welcome,’ says Eric, ‘because we needed the money… but it tended to break the spell, if you like.’ Eric had been following his own instincts, as he puts it, and difficulties arose with the way that things were done in the vast Ford corporation. Late in 1963, he had moved to work within Ford Advanced Vehicles in Slough, where the Ford GT project was being managed by the legendary John Wyer, but the chief designer was Ford’s Roy Lunn, whose first act was to present Eric with a totally different suspension dynamic for the car. This was once a very sensitive area and, still inclined to tread carefully, I ask: ‘Other people have told me that the American designers were inexperienced in this field and didn’t really know how to do the calculations properly. Is that right?’ This produces a long, long pause, while Eric considers his response. Eventually, he says, rather quietly and slowly, ‘Basically… yes.’ There is another long pause, before he adds, ‘They put their suspension onto the Mk6, which ruined the handling. So I changed part of it back, just to check where I was, and that was the cause of my first serious falling out with Roy Lunn, when he gathered what I’d done.’ The intended co-operation had got off to a bad start, but things soon got worse: ‘The next big problem – there were lots of small ones but this was the next big thing – was that they sent us a body shape that clearly wasn’t going to work. I explained the situation to John Wyer, who simply advised, ‘Give them what they want.’ I decided that I should go to Dearborn and explain the problem to the Ford people. John Wyer agreed to that, and I went, but it got me absolutely nowhere.’ He does not mention it now, but subsequent events proved that Eric was right there, too, because the original GT40 required serious alterations when the aerodynamics proved extremely unsatisfactory. After another thoughtful pause, Eric added: ‘Another disagreement with Roy Lunn was over the construction of the new Ford GT’s monocoque. It ended up as a sort of production road car job, all in steel, whereas what you want for racing is something much lighter.’ As the Ford engineers were determined to take their own path, it was obvious to all concerned that the relationship with Eric had no future. By mutual agreement, his personal contract was terminated early: ‘And they paid us… which was important! It was a shame because it could have been a wonderful opportunity, both for us and for Ford.’ After that abrupt break, Eric rapidly picked up where he had left off – he regrouped in premises in Slough, designing, building and selling racing cars. Success followed quickly in many different fields: Graham Hill won the 1966 Indianapolis 500 in a Lola run by Mecom Racing and, in the same year, John Surtees won the first Can-Am Championship with his Lola T70-Chevrolet. Eric moved the company to bigger premises in Huntingdon and carried on for another 33 years until 1999, when the company had to be sold to Martin Birrane. The purpose of our work here at Broadley Automotive is to mark Eric’s work for many years to come and to produce some of his earlier cars, so that the vintage racing scene can continue to enjoy these fantastic Broadley designs.
The Lola Mk6. Precursor of the GT40. Credit
Nostalgic pictures taken of the inside of an original Mk1. Copyright Diane Broadley