The McLaren Monaro
Did you hear the one about the Monaro GTS sedan raced by the famed McLaren team in the mid 1970s as the GM Dealer Team? Well, several key members of Team McLaren, at least.
This was a Phil Kerr-led assault on New Zealand’s biggest production car endurance race, the 1976 Benson & Hedges 1000 at Pukekohe. Kerr was an instrumental figure in the formative years of McLaren, leading the team through the difficult period immediately following Bruce McLaren’s fatal Can-Am testing crash in 1970. By ’76 he had left the squad and was back in his native New Zealand operating a mechanical workshop in Auckland with friend and former McLaren F1 driver Mike Hailwood.
The lure of racing soon had the pair hatching plans to race in the nine-hour B&H 1000.
“We ended up talking to General Motors, whose main New Zealand line were the Australian-built Holden saloons, and Robert Ewart at GM offered us a Holden Monaro GTS to run as a GM Dealer Team entry,” Kerr explained in his 2008 autography, seven years before he passed away.
“General Motors provided a deal under which we would purchase the car, race it, and then they would buy it back. They would also supply any parts we needed. Hailwood and Kerr were in business!
“We collected the brand new Monaro on August 14 with just 20km on the clock and spent a day running it in. At our workshop John Steenson blueprinted the engine and we prepared the car for a test session. We had three weeks to turn the Monaro into some sort of racecar, which was simply mission impossible.”
Pukekohe’s long, high speed straights led into either a hairpin or right angle corner, placing a premium on a vehicle’s braking capability. Not exactly the Monaro’s trump card. On the plus side was the 308 V8 under the bonnet and the fact the crew comprised ex-McLaren F1 and Can-Am mechanics, under the watchful eye of former world champ Denny Hulme.
“After just a few laps it became impossible to get the rear drum brakes to do very much at all. The fact that our pit crew was an all-star team of ex-McLaren mechanics who had returned
home over the last couple of years, was not enough to get the Monaro to perform. The rules prevented us from carrying out the modifications that would have fixed a number of the problems we encountered.” And encounter problems Kerr’s team did. “The Monaro’s braking problem was no secret. I did a demonstration run with a TVNZ reporter and cameraman onboard and, a couple of laps in, sailed helplessly down the escape road.
“The hefty Holden’s other issue was fuel consumption and fuel-tank capacity. The V8 would need three more stops than any other competitor including the six-cylinder 4.3-litre Chryslers – and fuel stops were slow affairs using large churns, taking the best part of three minutes. A brake pad change was going to need five minutes.
“At least the car started off the front row – thanks to a regulation which put the biggestengined car first.”
The V8 Monaro qualified up front but would soon be gobbled up by the best of the Chargers, which had dominated previous events.
“Mike drove the first stint and the Monaro was quick early on, but as the race continued, we started to drop down the field as our fuel stops and lack of brakes penalised us.” Then it started to rain... “I was driving the last two hours of the race when the rain set in,” Kerr continued. “I was doing about 124mph (200km/h) down the back straight when suddenly the wiper arm came off and jammed behind the trailing edge of the bonnet. I pressed on into the twilight, but decided visibility was getting so bad I would have to stop.”
The problem was soon rectified and the car struggled on in the dark to finish 19th and a long way down on the winning Charger of Jim Little and Graeme Richardt.
“Our celebrity pit manager was one Denny Hulme, who kept giving us a hard time about why we weren’t faster and why we were not doing this or that... but we both had a ball.”
Kerr died in 2015 and his 2008 book To Finish First stands as a fine record of his life and achievements in the sport.
Who said the four-door Monaro GTS lacks race pedigree!
A big thank you to Ross Cammick for the superb images of the mighty four-door Monaro GTS from the ’76 B&H 1000.