The McLaren Monaro

Australian Muscle Car - - Muscle Maniac -

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.

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