mclaren rac­ing – my part in its start 50 years ago

Classic Driver - - FEATURES - By Eoin Young

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

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