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My Life & Cars – Lawrence Tomlinson, Chairman, Ginetta Cars

The Ginetta boss tells the stories behind his enviable car collection, his class win at Le Mans and how he bought a car company

Come of us collect scale models of the cars that we’ve owned, though If we had the means, quite a few of us would love to collect them for real. In part that’s what I’m looking at right now: an eclectic group of a 3-litre Capri S, Audi Quattro and Escort RS1600, all from Lawrence Tomlinson’s formative years. The upper floor of this garage space houses clusters of cars that reflect Tomlinson’s later passions. Tucked away at the back are four Le Mans race cars – three TVRs and a Panoz – while at the front are some tiny and rare Ginettas that represent the early history of the sports car company he bought in 2005. 

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‘I wouldn’t say I’m massively passionate about cars, just cars,’ says Tomlinson, ‘I like mechanical things, I like fixing things.’ Tomlinson was Born in Batley, West Yorkshire, in the mid-1960s. His mother packed biscuits at Fox’s and his dad was a wagon driver. ‘He was sort of a mechanic by necessity. He had a small haulage company, the trucks were always breaking down, so you kind of learn that you’ve got to keep things going. I’ve been quite good at just keeping things going, really.’

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> Ginetta G56 GTA review – a fabulous portal into the world of motorsport

Alongside the Capri, Escort and Quattro is a pristine ‘flares and chairs’ De Tomaso Pantera GT5. ‘My poster car as a lad,’ explains Tomlinson. One car missing from this curated collection is a ’60s Ford Consul Classic, the first car he drove. It had been his grandad’s and for years had languished in a garage falling apart around it. Young Tomlinson played in it before having the idea of trying to get it going. ‘It had been sitting so long the fuel tank was full of rust, so I got a one-gallon container and just screwed it to the roof.’ The 1500, pre-crossflow engine eventually fired up and Tomlinson drove the gravity-fed Classic around the fields, adapting to the lack of rear brakes. 

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‘Eventually, it died. We left it there. By that time I was riding trials bikes and had a KT 250 Kawasaki. Kick Start was on the telly and they used to do things like riding over cars, so I put a couple of pallets either side of the Classic and then just fired the bike up, over and back. So that was good fun. I was still only about 14 or 15.’ 

More motorbikes followed until he was at college. ‘My parents said if I didn’t get a motorbike they’d buy me my first car. It was this Jago Jeep, a kit-car Jeep, which was a bit of a fixer-upper. No doors, no roof, but it was great. Ironically, it had the 1500 Ford engine in it and I think we ended up using some of the bits off the Classic.’ 

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Tomlinson did business studies for one year then mechanical engineering. A Mk1 Escort 1100 replaced the Jago and then he bought a Ford Zodiac. ‘It was a tank of a thing. Like having an American car. Somebody had replaced the thirsty V6 with a Perkins diesel. It was just horrific, wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding. In the end I just left it somewhere.’ 

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Sponsored through college by Wellman Bibby, a manufacturer of power transmission couplings, Tomlinson did well enough for them to back him through university too. ‘I worked for them during the holidays so I was earning. So I bought 3-litre Capri S, ’79 on a T… in beige. You can’t have it all. It did have those Recaro fishnet headrests, though, so it was the dog’s.’ But the car that blew him away dynamically was the Mk1 Escort RS1600. ‘It was one of the first cars I drove that I thought was amazing. It was a revelation, even though the twin-cam had blown up so the owner had fitted a Duratec or whatever was available. Might even have been a 1500,’ he laughs. 

There was then a long hiatus as far as interesting cars were concerned as Tomlinson applied his business rather than his mechanical training, developing a substantial, innovative care home operation. His comeback car was a Quattro, first a 90, then the real deal, an Ur-Quattro. ‘I was lucky; I’d made a few quid. It was blue, a good-looking car, but it had been clocked and had turbo issues. I got it fixed and swapped it for a diesel Range Rover and had a TVR Griffith 430 as a second car – a perfect combination. Then I had a Tuscan. I got it from Nigel Kemp at Harrogate Horseless Carriages, who used to organise trackdays for his customers. I’d never been around a racetrack. My instructor was a Tuscan Challenge racer called Bob Sands. Uncle Bob. Magic Bob. I had no idea what I was doing. I was driving sideways more than I was forwards but I had decent car control. It was Bob who got me into racing.’ 

Not only did Sands set Tomlinson on a path to Le Mans, he also introduced him to Ginetta. ‘On my 38th birthday, Bob had arranged for me to take part in a Ginetta race. So I played golf in the morning, flew myself up to Croft and met Martin Phaff, who owned Ginetta at the time. Lovely bloke, so enthusiastic: “Happy Days Racing”. He sees this guy arrive in a helicopter, rubs his hands together and opens up the Ginetta corporate hospitality, which is your bags in the back of a seven-and-a-half-ton Ford Cargo. 

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‘There were some quite good teams with Ginetta at the time so he could have spent a pound or two and let them run me, but he’d prepped the car himself… and forgotten the bonnet pins. Second lap round, at about 100mph the bonnet lifted and ripped off. I just saw this white flash and thought: bloody hell, is this racing? Is this what happens? I look in my mirror and I can see this thing like a box kite, still going up.’ 

Undeterred, Tomlinson did a season in Ginettas, some Radicals, met Nigel Greensall who would become his mentor and teammate, and did British GT and a couple of Tuscan races. ‘Then, 23 months later, I was on the starting grid at Le Mans.’ 

The year was 2004, the car was the TVR T400R. ‘It was a great car, but with a 4-litre straight-six it just wouldn’t develop the power that was needed for GT2. We won at Spa in 2005, which was TVR’s first ever international win, but we won because it was foggy and chucking it down and we had a great chassis. We developed the engine and got more power but we made it unreliable. So for 2006 we looked at the Panoz, which had a huge and totally reliable donkey. At Le Mans, we knew we could get an extra lap out of the car on fuel if we ran slightly slower, and that’s how we won the GT2 class. In those days, it wasn’t pro and am, so you pitted yourself against factory Porsches with drivers like Marc Lieb.’ 

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Tomlinson had tried to buy TVR from Peter Wheeler. ‘In GTs you have to start with the base car, so I thought if I buy the manufacturer, I can make what I like and I’ll have a base model that I don’t have to modify as much. I’m massively into vertical integration and control of the process. I’d more or less agreed a deal with Peter before [Nicolai] Smolensky arrived and paid much more than I was able to pay. Which was great for Peter and the family. 

‘Phaffi sold me Ginetta in 2005 after the TVR deal fell through. In some ways it was a blessing because I was starting with pretty much a blank sheet of paper; in effect I bought a race series plus the history, the back catalogue and a great badge. I’ve tried to be true to the marque and we do still build lightweight British sports cars.

‘I think a lot of people think we’re two men up north in a shed with a whippet,’ he says. Nothing could be further from the truth. Damon Hill opened Ginetta’s spacious factory in Garforth, near Leeds, in 2007, and in 2017 Ginetta bought Blyton Park circuit in Lincolnshire for testing and customer demos. Tomlinson’s other businesses support Ginetta, meaning that it is unencumbered with the burden of breaking even or turning a profit. ‘About 100 people work here full time building about 100 cars per year. We used to build more but now we do higher-value cars. One thing Peter [Wheeler] said to me was: “Don’t look back, don’t design in the past; design for the future. Be innovative and do the things you want to do. Put your mark on it.”’

He’s certainly done that. In some ways, Ginetta under his direction is like it was in its early years, majoring on competition cars, and Tomlinson has enjoyed being instrumental in creating those cars. Ginetta Juniors, ‘a piece of Phaff brilliance’, now has grids of rigorously identical, 100bhp coupes piloted by drivers as young as 14 delivering nail-bitingly close racing. ‘One of the things people have forgotten about motorsport is that it’s about the show. It’s about getting crowds to circuits and enjoying it.’ 

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Le Mans has featured again too. In 2009, Tomlinson went with an LMP1 car, the petrol-powered Ginetta-Zytek 09S. ‘None of the petrol cars could touch the diesels,’ he says. It was the last time he competed at Le Mans and he still has the car. He finally hung up his gloves in 2016 after winning the Britcar prototype championship. More recently, Ginetta built and developed an LMP1 for the 2018/19 season and, in conjunction with the ACO, an LMP3 car. ‘We did the LMP1 knowing it’s an absolute money pit. There’s no commercial reason to do LMP1 other than if you’re going to get the LMP2 franchise, which allows you to do LMDh. We were promised that if we did LMP1 and the LMP3, we’d have an LMP2… but that didn’t happen. The main reasons people do things are either if they make money for you or if they make you happy, and this did not so we stopped LMP1. But it’s an amazing car.’ 

Tomlinson’s road car is a Tesla. He reckons that eventually most people will be driving EVs but he thinks ICE cars will survive in much smaller numbers, in much the same way horses did after the motor car took over. He reckons the hardcore that remain will be used for sport and gathering for shows and the like. Ginetta is already future-proofing, designing and developing parts that are becoming harder to get, like gearboxes, hydraulic power-steering racks and even its own all-alloy V8. ‘I think the engine is the heart of the car and having your own V8 is a really nice thing to have.’ This billet-blocked engine will probably find its way into Tomlinson’s road-going supercar, the Akula, a front-engined, rear-drive all-carbon design that concentrates all the major masses between the axles. 

Heritage gets a look-in too. In 2019 Tomlinson announced that Ginetta would build a number of ‘remastered’ G10s, a car that saw off the formidable E-type on its debut at Brands Hatch in 1965. It weighed 900kg and had a 4.7-litre Ford V8 but homologation difficulties meant that only around three were made in period. The G10 ‘RM’ will be analogue and original in look but otherwise modern, with a 500bhp V8. 

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Original Ginettas in Tomlinson’s collection include the G4 that Graham Hill drove for Practical Motorist magazine in the issue that came out on the day he was born. ‘It’s got the twin-cam in it, independent rear suspension and weighs under 500 kilos, so it’s properly nippy.’ Behind it is the G12. When the G4 couldn’t handle any more power, Ginetta created the G12, one of the first mid-engined sports cars. It cleaned up until the opposition caught on and caught up. There’s also a G15 coupe, the popular Imp-engined road car launched in ’67. It’s incredible how far the Walklett brothers who formed Ginetta came in such a short time; downstairs Tomlinson has the unrestored remains of the company’s first ‘production’ car, a G2, a Lotus 6-like kit car introduced in 1958. 

Is there an ambition to collect all the G numbers? ‘No,’ says Tomlinson, ‘because like all car manufacturers of nearly 65 years there’s some real stinkers.’ He’s right. The Walkletts made some beautiful cars but also designed and built the Ford Zodiac motorhome, thankfully a one-off. ‘That’s the killer,’ says Tomlinson. ‘I thought I might buy it.’ If it turns out its V6 has been swapped for a Perkins diesel, it may prove irresistible.

This story was first featured in evo issue 307.

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