That time we drove Brian Johnson's Lola T70

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Story by James H. Heine

Most of us know Brian Johnson by his day job–or perhaps more correctly, by his night job–as lead singer for the massively popular and successful rock band AC/DC. However, many of us also know that Johnson has another passion besides music: automobiles. 

He is a dedicated gearhead, car freak, collector, petrolhead evangelist, motorsports authority for the BBC, and vintage racer. That last avocation is one he and his wife, Brenda, have pursued now for nearly two decades.

For Johnson, his passion for motorsports began as a youngster growing up in Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom. It’s stayed with him through all of his teenage and adult years. Most recently, his obsession has hit the public in the form of “Cars That Rock” on the U.K. TV channel Quest, part of the Discovery Channel’s worldwide media family.

Johnson’s stable of race cars now includes a 1964 Mini (based in the U.K. and which Johnson races in Europe), a 1972 Royale RP4, and a 2005 Pilbeam (an open-cockpit prototype racer).

Then there’s his 1965 Lola T70 Can-Am racer, a minimal chassis packing a ton of power. Like AC/DC, it’s loud and larger than life. 

The car is the last Mk1 made,” Johnson explains. “It’s chassis No. 15, and it has quite an interesting history.”

It’s a Long Way to the Top

In the summer of 1965, this particular Lola, chassis SL70/15, was delivered to Haskell Wexler’s Haskell Automotive in California. Finished in blue and white, equipped with a Ford 289 V8, and sponsored by slot car maker Russkit, the T70 was slated for a debut at the 1965 Monterey Grand Prix. Ronnie Bucknum was inked to drive the car. 

Sadly, those plans didn’t materialize. The Lola wasn’t ready for the weekend. 

A similar fate befell the car for the 1965 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside. This time the car arrived at the track and took practice laps, but it didn’t start the race. 

Things finally came together at the then-new Stardust Raceway in Las Vegas, where Bucknum qualified, started and finished the race. He earned a respectable fourth-place finish. 


Brian’s Lola made its debut with the USRRC, carrying the colors of slot car maker Russkit. Photography Courtesy Brian Johnson

Sadly, in a nutshell, the car’s 1966 season was a reprise of 1965: a fourth at the Laguna Seca USRRC event with Davey Jordan in the driver’s seat, plus a series of DNFs at the Stardust, Riverside, and Kent USRRC contests. At the Mont-Tremblant Can-Am season opener–and the first Can-Am contest ever–Bucknum qualified 18th in a field of 33, but retired on lap 22. 

Fortunately, the car’s most famous exploits were yet to come. “It became the camera car for the movie ‘Winning,’” explains Johnson. “Bob Bondurant taught Robert Wagner and Paul Newman how to race in this car. Afterwards, the production company took the body off the car and mounted cameras on it so that it became the camera car for the movie. And it still has the camera mounts in the monocoque. It’s quite fascinating.”

After the production of “Winning” wrapped, Johnson adds, SL70/15 became one of Bondurant’s early school cars. Along the way, it played a role in a second film, a U.K. movie called “Day of the Champion.”

“So it’s quite a movie star,” he says.

Who Made Who?

After its time in the spotlight, the car appeared in numerous SCCA club events before finally retiring from the track. It passed through several hands before the car found a home with Connecticut Lola fan Chuck “Skip” Shattuck, and there it stayed until Johnson acquired it.

“It was wonderful to get it,” Johnson recalls. “I was looking for one, and we couldn’t find one, and this chassis, No. 15, had sort of disappeared off the face of the earth.”

Johnson found the car with the help of Historic Sportscar Racing and Heritage Motorsports President David Hinton as well as T70 expert John Starkey. While SL70/15 wasn’t technically a barn find, Hinton says it can certainly qualify as a barn buy.

“[Shattuck] decided that this was too much of a project, and after all these years he was finally going to let it go. John Starkey knew that Brian was looking for a car, and he told me about it.”

Hinton contacted Shattuck, and after making the necessary arrangements Hinton drove to Connecticut and picked up the car in December 2010. The Lola, in pieces, was stored in Shattuck’s barn.


Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

“Some of the car was in the bottom of the barn, and the rest of it was up in the loft,” Hinton recalls. “The chassis was downstairs, and most of the body and wheels and other stuff was upstairs. We had no way of getting it down. So we hooked up a rope and tackle on the outside of the barn and opened up the big hayloft doors. We lowered the body panels down one by one.”

Except for some damage to the left-front corner, the chassis was in good condition–and it was original, including the belly tanks. “All the original suspension, steering, gauges–I mean everything,” Hinton remembers. “I’d say the car was 99-percent complete, including the original wheels.”

Even though it was in pieces, Johnson describes his SL70/15 at this stage of the restoration process with one word: immaculate. “Greased and boxed, and still with the original knockoff Schroder wheels,” he adds.

Hinton returned to Florida, laid out the car at his shop, and began what would become a six-month restoration. 

You Shook Me All Night Long

Wearing its original Russkit livery, SL70/15 made its vintage track debut at Road Atlanta’s 2011 Speedfest at the Classic Motorsports Mitty with Johnson behind the wheel.

And how does the T70 drive?

Well, it’s a “bloody handful,” Johnson says, laughing. Had he not learned the basics and ethics of racing in smaller cars, he adds, the T70 would indeed be an impossible brute.

“Boy, oh, boy. These cars are a handful,” Johnson repeats. “You really had to know what the heck you were doing in these cars.”

His favorite description of a T70 powered by a formidable Detroit V8 comes from a former racer, Johnson explains: “This old Southern guy came out once and said, ‘I remember trying to drive one of these once. It was like makin’ love to an alligator with a headache.’”


Power–all 600 or so horses—come from a small-block Ford fed by four down-draft carburetors. Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

Headache-afflicted alligators and “bloody handful” challenges aside, Johnson says the T70 is, yes, really a blast to drive. His biggest problem with the car: his schedule. He can’t find the time to get behind the wheel.

“I really have had a lot of fun in the car, [but] I’ve been so busy lately I can’t even get the chance to drive it,” he explains.

His next opportunity may be at The Hawk with Brian Redman, but even that possibility is up in the air.

“Now I have to go and do the Grammys [with AC/DC], and then I come back for about a week, and then I have to do another big festival, Coachella, and then I go straight back to Europe, where we’ll spend about three months. If I can get a break and there’s a race on, I’ll be in it, you know. “I really miss me bloody racin’.”

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Comments
nderwater
nderwater PowerDork
8/6/15 3:49 p.m.

Everything about this is fantastic. A+

Spitsix
Spitsix HalfDork
8/6/15 8:08 p.m.

I know of a guy that builds them new.

gjz30075
gjz30075 Reader
8/7/15 6:16 a.m.

Thanks for that, Tim. Written for the 'everyman' who will most likely never experience this type of car.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
8/7/15 7:27 a.m.

I try real hard to put you guys behind the wheel. Driving for my enjoyment does you no good, but hopefully my stories like the Lola one do.

Man the sacrifice I make for you guys. I will most likely be sainted after my death.

I am looking for more drives like this in street or race cars for 2016

racerdave600
racerdave600 SuperDork
8/7/15 10:54 a.m.

T70's are also one of the best looking race cars ever built too, in my opinion. Good to know the drive lives up to its looks!

tuna55
tuna55 MegaDork
8/7/15 11:27 a.m.

Wow, nice writing. I want to try that now. The writing style reminds me of a story about driving a nitro altered (that I can't find now). Wish I could do it (either one).

Tom1200
Tom1200 Reader
8/7/15 9:33 p.m.

Tim I read that article with great interest as it conveyed what I try to tell people; once you get past a certain level, and the Lola is well past that level, these cars are not "fun". What they are is biggest adrenaline rush on wheels you could ever experience and something you better treat very serious. You also did a great job conveying the closing speeds / how quickly scenery arrived.

Tom

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
8/8/15 12:15 a.m.

Tom, thanks. It is nice to get feedback, as we try so hard to figure out what readers want.

erohslc
erohslc Dork
8/9/15 3:35 p.m.

Way back in the day (1971?), a T70 was campaigned at Miami-Hollywood Speedway, a tight little 1.5 mile track consisting of a dragstrip, return road with a couple of esses, and two connecting turns. The T70 was obsolete even then, but it was still heady and exciting to be in the same pit and on the same track during events.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
8/12/15 12:34 a.m.

erohslc

Cool story. It is funny how many cars were run long after they were competitive.

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