This Enigmatic Buick Race Car Was Way Ahead of Its Time

Yes, the 1962 Tojeiro-Buick Le Mans prototype was indeed a Buick (at least in the engine bay).

Conner GoldenWriter, PhotographerMichael ShafferPhotographer

If you're poking around the automotive side of the web, I'd be willing to bet you already know a fair bit about some of the most influential and historically important cars to shape this industry. You know of those indelible highs like the Ford Model T, BMW 2002, and Lexus LS400, and you're cognizant of particular lows like the Edsel, Pontiac Aztec, and Ford Pinto. None of these should be remotely news to you; they've been written about, discussed, and covered ad nauseum almost as soon as they left the factory floor.

It gets a little murkier when motorsports are involved. Sure, cars like the Porsche 917, Lancia Stratos HF, and McLaren MP4/4 are unforgettable behemoths, but there are a staggering amount of unsung heroes hiding in the dusty, faded white-and-black annals of history. Motorsports is, after all, carried exclusively by innovation. Some cars have to walk so others can run, and yet others run so even more can fly.

Walking through the charming paddock area of the Goodwood Revival, I stumbled upon a handsome pair of competition coupes I'd never seen before. The low, lean blue shapes turned out to be the 1961/1962 Tojeiro-Buick and the later 1963 Tojeiro-Ford, both very early examples of cars using the now-standard mid-engine hardtop coupe configuration. In fact, some consider the earlier Tojeiro-Buick to be the very first professionally constructed rear-mid-engine coupe, considering this project arrived roughly one year before the famous Lola Mk6 GT and subsequent Ford GT40.

It all started with an idea from Ecurie Ecosse team principal David Murray on how to return to the Le Mans winner's podium. The Scottish racing team won the race outright in both 1956 and 1957 by means of the dominant Jaguar D-Type but suffered a spate of mechanical disasters for the subsequent races. Murray turned to the expertise of race engineer and car designer John "Toj" Tojeiro to create an all-new racing prototype.

Toj, with help from Ecurie Ecosse (EE) mechanics and designers, modified two Tojeiro Formula Junior chassis for the marriage of an aluminum body that, unlike most top Le Mans machines at the time, had an enclosed cabin. Initially, a 2.5-liter Coventry-Climax FPF four-cylinder provided the power, managed by a Cooper Monaco transmission—of which the EE team had only one, so it would have to make the gearbox last the duration of the 24-hour race.

As the race date loomed, EE scrambled to ready the car, a task that involved fixing myriad design and technical complications. According to Hemmings, this included an initial body design with subpar clearance for the rear-wheels, problems with mounting both the outboard fuel tanks and radiator, and a rework of the front hood to accommodate the FIA-mandated spare tire.

This frenzied work continued right up until the eleventh hour, when the car was shoved aboard the famous Ecurie Ecosse transporter and driven to Le Mans—without a coat of paint. In the midst of the journey, the transporter got into a fender-bender, necessitating last-minute bodywork on the Tojeiro-Climax even before the first coat of EE's Flag Blue hue could be applied.

Despite all this, it made the starting grid. Jack Fairman raced the car for roughly eight hours before a fatal transmission failure pitted the Tojeiro-Climax for good. Fairman wheeled it for a second time at Brands Hatch, where rainstorms caused a spin that ended in a rollover. The car was summarily repaired and run at Monza where the team hoped to break the FIA one-hour and 100-km speed records. An oil leak blew any chance at the records and the EE team had to be content with setting Monza's high-speed record of 152 mph.

Fed up with the car's repeated failure, EE ripped out the Coventry-Climax four-banger for the all-new lightweight, aluminum 3.5-liter Buick V-8, and installed the new heart into the spare coupe originally created for Le Mans. According to Motor Sport, two engines arrived at the EE shops with a middling 140 horsepower, and EE engineers eked out more power with the help of "American tuner magazines" that inspired the use of go-fast hardware like hotter cams. After a conversion to dry-sump lubrication and an increase in compression ratio, the car was fitted with a Jaguar clutch and Chevrolet Corvair transaxle. The latter proved to be too delicate for the Buick V-8, and a dearth of funds and surplus of ingenuity resulted in the adaption of shafts originally used on the Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine's superchargers from World War II.

With newfound power and much-needed reliability, the Tojeiro-Buick competed in a few local races to moderate success. Rising star Jackie Stewart slid behind the wheel of one of the coupes in 1963, where he won a race at Snetterton. Both Buick-engined cars continued to race competitively into the late 1960s, and by then one of the coupes was reengineered to fit a 289 (4.7-liter) Ford Cobra V-8 - the second coupe you see pictured with the silver knock-off wheels.

So, there's good reason you may have never heard of this gorgeous and enigmatic racing prototype until now. Aside from a few podium finishes, it never really had the same success of the later Ford GT40, and it never publicly saw recognition for the revolutionary mid-engine, closed-roof design. We hope this helps it get its day in the sun.