At the end of the day, Formula 5000 is still the ultimate bang for the buck
in vintage racing

One of the most attractive categories within historic motor racing is Formula 5000, catering to single-seater (near-Formula One) cars powered by production-based engines of up to 5 liters capacity. Formula 5000 racing was introduced in 1968 in American SCCA as Formula A. In the U.K. and Europe, Formula 5000 matching American Formula A was adopted in 1969 and manufacturers such as McLaren-Trojan and Lola Cars were quick to support it.

When Formula 5000 was adopted in Britain for 1969, Lola Cars was already selling T140 Formula A chassis to America. Based on T70 sports car running gear, the original T140 had been a simple and capacious multi-tubular space frame design, which proved competitive. For 1969, the basic T140 specification was updated to create the T142 model as offered here. The car sold in considerable numbers to America, South Africa, Canada, and the U.K., with more than 40 combined 140/142 chassis being completed at Huntingdon. One compelling reason for the model's contemporary popularity was its selling price of £5,500 ($13,750), complete with a Traco-modified Chevrolet V8 engine.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1969 Lola-Chevrolet T142 Formula 5000
Number Produced:45 (T140-17, T142-28)
Original List Price:$13,000
Chassis Number Location:Tag on front bulkhead
Engine Number Location:Right side in front of cylinder head
Club Info:Formula 5000 Registry, Seb Coppola, F5000 Registry Administrator, 1359 Springwood Lane, Rochester Hills, MI 48309
Alternatives:1969 McLaren M10, 1969 Eagle Mk 5, 1974 Lola T332
Investment Grade:C

This 1969 Lola-Chevrolet T142 Formula 5000 sold for $63,112 at the Bonhams Stoneleigh Park auction on March 24, 2007.

Both Formula 5000 itself and the Lola T140/142 were the fortuitous result of organizations trying to make lemonade out of difficult situations. In 1965, the SCCA had set up a new set of classes for formula car racing, with Formula A to match the European Formula One rule, Formula B to be roughly equivalent to European Formula 2 (1,600 cc), and Formula C to be 1,100-cc cars. Formula B immediately took off, but Formula A was a complete failure. Nothing ran in 1965, in 1966 the national champion beat a tiny field, and in 1967 the Nationals winner was the only entry in the category, finishing three laps behind the Formula B winner.

In 1967, there was a lucrative professional series, but only Formula B cars were running. It was obvious that European Formula One rules weren’t going to work in the U.S., mostly because of the complexity and expense of the engines, so for 1968, the SCCA changed the rules to allow 5-liter stock-block engines. That was what it took, and Formula A quickly became the flagship series of both professional and amateur road racing in the U.S. England and Europe adopted the formula in 1969.

T140 solved a Lola problem

Similarly, Lola had found itself in a bit of a bind during the winter of 1967-’68. Anticipating substantial sales of its new T70 coupe for endurance racing, Lola had ordered lots of suspension bits, uprights, brakes, and the like. The CSI governing body then set a minimum production requirement of 50 cars to qualify, which Lola couldn’t meet. Sales immediately dried up, and Lola had a problem (it eventually was solved by including open T70s in the chassis count). That winter, though, Lola was stuck with a mess of components it couldn’t use. Always inventive, the company decided to build a V8-powered formula chassis that used T70 components, and the T140 was born. Since the original idea was to use up excess parts in something they could sell easily and cheaply, they decided to keep the concept simple and built a tubular space frame rather than a monocoque structure.

The result was anything but “state of the art,” more of a hyper-thyroid Formula Ford than a Formula One, but it proved to be the right product for the market at the time. A combination of robust components, easy repair, and affordable cost, the Lola-Chevrolet Formula 5000 was an immediate success, particularly in the U.S. market. For 1969, Lola made minor modifications and renamed the model T142, but the cars were almost identical and are generally thought of as a common series, thus T140/142. Together, they are easily the most successful production F 5000 cars in history. In 1969, fully 42% of the entries in U.S. F 5000 racing were Lola 140/142s.

Most of the wins and all of the championships went to the more-sophisticated and expensive (monocoque) Eagles and McLaren M10s, but it was Lola that established the series and filled the grids. The Formula 5000 concept became extremely popular both in the U.S. and abroad, eventually morphing into “Center Seat CanAm” and lasting until 1986, a 17-year run. Interestingly, for such a successful series, the formula never carried much prestige or cachet. Maybe it was the relatively mundane mechanical package, but it was always more of a blue-collar series than others like Formula Atlantic.

“Weapons-grade” characteristics

Regular readers of my column will recall that I occasionally hold forth about the relative importance of “collector” and “weapons-grade” characteristics in determining the value a market assigns to a vintage racing car. The basic idea is that the value given a car is the result of the combination of collector utilities that are non-operational (beauty, rarity, historic importance) and “weapons-grade” values that address the pure racing experience (how competitive, how much fun to drive, ease of keeping it running). This is in turn multiplied by a “what can I do with it?” element. Let’s call it a “play value” factor. Two-seat racing cars with fenders are worth multiples of their equivalent formula cars because of the tours and events in which they can be used; cars with active or important racing series (Gentleman Driver’s, Monaco) are worth far more than ones with few places to run.

Over the past three to five years, collector values and play values have skyrocketed, but the weapons-grade values have remained constant. This explains the otherwise curious fact that though aluminum-bodied English and Italian sports racers (for example) have set new value records at virtually every auction, certain other cars haven’t changed value in years. Unfortunately for anyone fool enough to speculate in such things, Formula 5000 (along with Formula Ford) has been the poster child for the latter category. Bruce Trenery, owner of Fantasy Junction, discussed a McLaren M10 in this magazine’s September ’03 issue (“Race Profile,” p. 50), and stated that tube-frame Formula 5000s were worth about $50,000, which is pretty much what they were worth in the 1990s. Not much has changed.

Depending on your point of view, of course, this can be the good news, in that they haven’t gone down. If your purpose is to just go out and drive a really fast old racing car, the idea that you can do it without putting up much cash and that the basic value will still be there when you’re done is attractive. At the end of the day, Formula 5000 is pretty much the ultimate bang for the buck in vintage racing. The cars are inexpensive to buy, Formula One fast, cheap to keep going (it’s a small block Chevy, after all), and relatively easy to drive (though, emphatically, not a car for beginners). They are widely considered a bit déclassé in some of the sniffier clubs, however-sort of a sleeveless T-shirt in a world of button-down polos.

The point is that these are pure weapons-grade race cars, and as such are not investment vehicles. You’ll never make money on a car like this T142 Formula 5000 unless you’re the mechanic, but short of burning it up, you won’t lose much, either. If whoever bought this car saw it as a place to park some capital while he went vintage racing, it was very rationally purchased.

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