mclaren racing – my part in its start 50 years ago
Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd was formed in September 1963, half a century ago, but my connection with Bruce began five years earlier at the Clellands gravel hillclimb, halfway between the tiny pub-and-a-store village of Cave where I grew up on our farm, and Pleasant Point where I went to school. It was 1958 and I already had a consuming interest in motor racing, following the track epics of my namesake David Young who was racing his XK120 Jaguar and would soon move up to a fullrace C-Type.
Bruce had already raced his 1700cc works F2 Cooper in the 1958 international race series in New Zealand and at Teretonga I plucked up courage and introduced myself. We talked about the hillclimb he was competing in the next weekend and he said he was staying with sister, Pat, in Timaru. I was ‘racing’ my mother’s Austin A30 in the hillclimb, fitted with twin carburettors (because I’d told her they improved fuel economy). I won my class because the only other car in it, an Anzani Special, failed to appear. Bruce didn’t score. “The shingle surface was very loose, so we locked the differential by filling it with plumber’s lead. This gave a better grip – good enough to break a half-shaft at the second start…”
I asked Bruce if he wanted to join us lads that night at the dance hall on Caroline Bay and he came away at midnight infatuated with this gorgeous local blonde, Patty Broad. The next day he called me, asking for Patty’s phone number and it all really started from there. Four years later they would be married and later baby Amanda arrived. Amanda is now working as a specialist nurse in New Zealand. After Bruce’s death in 1970, Patty re-married and lives with Douglas in Surrey.
I had gone to the UK on my ‘big O.E.’ in 1961 with half a dozen of the local racing lads and at the Cooper workshops, I met up with Denny Hulme who was about to leave on his second European season with a Cooper Formula Junior on a trailer behind a Mk 1 Ford Zodiac. I joined him for the summer.
Amazing to look at Wal Willmott’s photo of the Cooper factory in those days and think t hat racing cars from these modest premises won world championships and beat the might of teams like Ferrari.
Jack Brabham had left to build his own cars in 1962 and as the Coopers were becoming makeweights in Formula One, Bruce started paying attention to building his own cars for the Down Under series.
Jack and Bruce had become friends in New Zealand and when Bruce made his first trip to the UK, it was Jack who looked after him and introduced him to the Cooper team, eventually securing a works Formula Two drive that would lead to him joining Jack in the works Grand Prix team when he was winning world titles.
Charles Cooper always maintained that they had taught Jack Brabham all he knew and he had stolen this knowledge to build his own cars and raced against them. He did not want to help Bruce do the same thing and Bruce had to sail a careful diplomatic line with his own first Cooper-based cars like the Zerex sports car, carefully referring to them as Coopers to dodge flack back at Surbiton.
Bruce and Patty had been married at the end of the 1961 season and in 1963 she suffered severe injuries to her left ankle and heel when a water skiing boat flipped in Australia. Back in England, before the season started, John Cooper had somersaulted an experimental twin-engined Mini on the Kingston-ByPass. Ken Tyrrell stepped in to run the F1 team and then Bruce rounded off the trio of accidents when his Cooper went end over end at the Nurburgring and he spent the night in Adenau hospital. When he came to, he had two very sore legs, a black eye and absolutely no recollection about what had happened. I drove him back to England and he hobbled into the workshops and winced when he saw the twisted broken pile of junk that had been his racing car. Piecing together the bits, they came to the conclusion that the right rear wishbone had broken.
Cooper fortunes had taken a dive since Brabham left and Charles and John Cooper inevitably passed blame on to Bruce and refused to implement his ideas for improvement. There was to be a new formula for the 1964 races in New Zealand and Australia which limited engine capacity to 2.5-litres and race distances were to be pegged at 100 miles. Bruce wanted to build a pair of special Coopers and enter them as works cars in the new-style Tasman series, but Charles Cooper blocked each approach that Bruce made. Bruce’s idea was to build a pair of slim-line lightweight cars to take advantage of the regulations, but Charles argued that a regular F1 car fitted with a 2.5-litre engine could do the job. There was also a problem of entries for the talented American, Timmy Mayer as a works driver because he was unknown “Down Under”, and Charles Cooper said that if there was to be any doubt about the validity of the entries, he would cancel the whole operation.
Smarting at Cooper Senior’s threat to cancel Bruce’s own team project, Bruce decided to go it alone for the Grand Prix off-season and hoped he could keep tabs on his Cooper works drive in Formula One. Bruce had discussions with Teddy Mayer, Tim’s brother, and they agreed to share costs and run under Bruce’s own colours.
“With two cars this was obviously going to be a bigger project than ever before, with more organisation and more responsibilities, so it was definitely time to put things on a company basis,” Bruce wrote in his first book, From the Cockpit.
“Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Limited was formed with Patricia, Eoin and myself as directors. Nothing was changed really, but it seemed a bit more for us to get our teeth into. Eoin was in his element handling the public relations side and gave the new team a good buildup in New Zealand.”
The racing artist Michael Turner was commissioned to design a team badge with a Kiwi as a main motif. Michael Turner, now 79, recalls, “My brief was to incorporate the Union Jack, a Kiwi to represent New Zealand and a stylised racing car. I think the first proposal was the only one as this was accepted.”
Phillip Turner, Sports Editor of The Motor, described it as, “a Kiwi being run over by a Cooper!”
“As our Tasman Coopers progressed, we instituted several new features,” Bruce wrote in From the Cockpit. “The chassis was wrapped in the stiffening steel sheet which also doubled as the body sides. All the fuel was carried in a seat tank and a couple of smaller tanks on either side of the driver’s knees. We decided to replace the top rear wishbone with a top link and a long radius arm, and this, together with a few different fittings, meant we were able to crop the back of the chassis and fit a neat tail with a small fin. Both cars were painted British Racing Green with a couple of silver stripes and a central stripe on the tail – the New Zealand motor racing colours.
Bruce remembered that period: “I had doubled up on my orders for parts to build a special 2.5-litre engine. I had one 2.7-litre and two 2.5 litre engines left over from the previous season Down Under and Timmy was able to contribute two engines. My idea was to make a short-stroke 2.5-litre engine using the 2.7 bore with a new crankshaft. I approached Laystalls and Coventry Climax, who were both most cooperative and enthusiastic, and went ahead with orders for suitable pistons and some of the lightweight valve gear I had used the previous season.”
There appeared to be a problem when it came to recruiting mechanics for the tour. Wally Willmott, Harry Pearce and Timmy’s American mechanic, Tyler Alexander, were to have made the trip, but after the cars were shipped, it was discovered that Harry wasn’t able to go and there was a strong possibility that Tyler would miss out as well as the U.S. Army also wanted his services.
In a panic we cabled Lenny Gilbert, one-time stunt-flier, motor racer, entertainer, dance band drummer, restaurant owner and water skier, asking if he would join the team for the eight races, and he immediately agreed. As it turned out, Tyler wasn’t drafted and arrived in New Zealand, so the team had three full-time mechanics and Colin Beanland who had been with Bruce in Europe in 1958.
Let battle commence: Brabham had also built a pair of special cars for himself and Denny Hulme in the Series so it was a full-scale battle between McLaren and Brabham camps. Denny won Levin for Brabham, but Bruce won the New Zealand Grand Prix on the Pukekohe circuit outside Auckland with Timmy third behind Denny’s Brabham.
Bruce had been trying for eight years to win his hometown Grand Prix. At 22 he had become the youngest ever to win a world championship GP when he took the laurels with the works Cooper in the 1959 US GP at Sebring and the 1960 GP in Argentina – but winning his ‘home’ GP had very special significance. He followed this with wins at Wigram and Teretonga after torrid battles with the Brabhams.
Luck left the little McLaren team in Australia. Jack won at Warwick Farm with Bruce second and Timmy third. At Lakeside Timmy was starting to display the sort of prowess that had prompted Ken Tyrrell to sign him for Formula Junior and later a place in the Cooper Grand Prix team for the coming season. He led until his engine blew up and Bruce finished third behind Tasmanian John Youl’s Cooper and Denny’s Brabham.
In practice for the final race of the series at Longford in Tasmania, a fast 4½-mile track over public roads strongly reminiscent of Rheims, Timmy’s Cooper became airborne over a bump before the braking area and smashed into a trackside tree. Timmy was killed instantly. On race day, Bruce started sorrowfully at the back of the grid in no mood to go racing for the Tasman title, but finished second to Hill’s Brabham and won the Tasman championship.
The die was cast. He had proved to himself that he knew enough about racing to build his own cars and run his own racing team. Racing was beginning to get exciting again. The old challenge had returned. “The first essential for success in racing is enthusiasm. Not just mild, but burning enthusiasm. To achieve success in motor racing or in any sport, it must be the most important thing in your life…”
Everyone remembers Bruce with a cheerful, almost shy schoolboy smile and an infectious enthusiasm, for just about anything. He led from the ranks, worked shoulder to shoulder with his mechanics and taught by experience. He was one of them. They were all working together as a team of young guys in their twenties. It didn’t seem like work. By their reckoning they were working with Bruce rather than for him. It was a fine line but it was an important one for a handpicked team that operated almost as a family. It was Bruce’s team but he seldom made a point of it. If they won, it was a joint effort... almost like family.
It was this family link that surprised the major American sponsors like Gulf Oil and Reynolds Aluminum on the CanAm series. The executives were accepted almost as mates rather than high-powered commercial businessmen and the friendly mix worked perfectly.
The first garage facility was shared with a grubby, dusty road grader in New Malden where the Climax 4cyl engine in the Cooper-based Zerex Special, pensioned-off by Roger Penske, was swapped for an F85 aluminium-block 3.5-litre Oldsmobile V8. The conversion was performed in haste and the engine sported aggressive stack-pipe exhausts when it was rushed off to its first race...
It seemed like luxury to move to a 4,000 sq ft factory block in a rundown trading estate behind Feltham in Middlesex. Robin Herd and then Gordon Coppuck were hired from the aerospace industry as designers. My office door had a sign that read DON’T KNOCK – WE DON’T HAVE THAT SORT OF TIME. Well, it seemed very American and trendy at the time. Bruce had a sign on his desk that read WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING BUT IT BEATS THE HELL OUT OF BEING SECOND.
New Zealand racing car builder, George Begg, spent a year as a sort of senior citizen mechanic with McLaren in 1968 and was able to observe Bruce from a detached aspect. “Y’know there are all sorts of modern terms for these things. There are lateral thinkers and upward thinkers and there’s all this modern claptrap but at the end of the day, Bruce just used to sit down and nut it out. He wouldn’t have known what a lateral thinker was. Bruce built cars for the sake of creating something. He certainly didn’t do it for the money because there was practically no money in it then. He wanted to create something better that would go out and win. That was his driving force. Fame and fortune didn’t feature very highly in his list of human priorities…”
In a way it was Jack Brabham (now Sir Jack) who stepped away from his position as two-time champion and leader of the Cooper team, to build and win GPs and titles with his own cars and provide Bruce with a target for his identical ambitions. One of his top mechanics in the Brabham F1 days was Ron Dennis... who would eventually put together a sponsor package, take over the ailing McLaren team after Bruce’s death in a 1970 testing crash, and go on to turn McLaren Racing into the hugely successful empire it is today.
Compare Wal Willmott’s photo of the Cooper Car Company and compare it to the huge modern facilities McLaren Racing has become at Woking in Surrey.
Original Kiwis in McLaren team: Bruce McLaren, Wal Willmott, Bruce Harre, Howden Ganley and Eoin Young
The original Cooper Car Company headquarters on a side street in Surbiton, Surrey
Bruce McLaren and Eoin Young at Brands Hatch
Original McLaren letterhead. Directors – B.L. McLaren, E.E. Mayer (USA), P.Y. McLaren & E.S. Young
Eoin Young, Bruce McLaren and John Cooper at Spa for the Belgian GP
Bruce and Patty in the Zandvoort pit lane
Bruce was convinced they could convert a big Indianapolis Ford motor for formnula 1 in1966. It failed
Bruce with his own Cooper at Clellands Hillclimb near Timaru in 1958
Bruce winning theTasman Championship with his original Cooper in 1964