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Gordon Coppuck is rarely mentioned when motor racing’s most influential designers are discussed, but his low profile masks a catalogue of great achievements
Writer Rob Widdows

“Ah, yes, of course, a proper bloke, very capable, first man I thought of when I knew I needed some help. So I phoned him and offered him the job.”

McLaren’s first chief designer Robin Herd is talking about Gordon Coppuck.

Fifty years ago a young draughtsman at the National Gas Turbine Establishment was sitting happily at his drawing board on weekdays and riding his trial bikes at weekends. Then, in the autumn of 1965, he took the telephone call that would change his life forever. Gordon Coppuck and Herd had worked together at the NGTE, Gordon as a draughtsman and Robin as a scientific officer. Their paths would cross many times in the decades that followed, as we shall discover.

In this 50th anniversary year of his time at McLaren, where do we begin, what do we leave out? This is a dilemma made more difficult by the modesty of the only man to design the winner of the Indy 500 and the Formula 1 world championship in the same year twice, in 1974 and 1976. Here we delve into the decades, beginning half a century ago.

Early days at McLaren

“It was August 1965. Robin came in one day and said he was leaving, to become the first chief designer at McLaren. I expressed some surprise, and some envy, and wished him luck,” Coppuck says. “A couple of months later he rang and asked if I’d be interested in joining him at Feltham. So I took a fortnight’s holiday and stayed at McLaren for 15 years – I think I was the 13th employee. I’d been used to drawing things and waiting a year to see the results – now I was drawing parts for the cars and seeing them made within days. That thrilled me. I wasn’t some kind of God up in the drawing office, I was down in the workshop, talking things through with the mechanics, and I felt instantly at home.

“At Feltham we had what was pretty much a lock-up garage, then we moved to Colnbrook and the Can-Am cars were the big project. Robin and Bruce conceived the designs, I did the drawings and the mechanics built the cars. It was an absolute thrill for me. Bruce was so involved in everything, came in every day to see what we were doing. He designed the car that Phil Hill drove for the filming of John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix in 1966, drawing his ideas on a scrap pad. It was a great little team, fewer than 20 of us then.”

Nobody had predicted what would happen next. At Christmas 1967, Herd suddenly announced that he was leaving and going to Cosworth. For Coppuck, things were about to change.

Becoming chief designer

“It was devastating,” he says. “I was a draughtsman, a design draughtsman if I flatter myself, and it was down to me to fill the gap. Bruce wanted to do a four-wheel-drive car, but I didn’t have the experience for that, so we recruited Jo Marquart who’d done the Lotus Indycar. Meanwhile I worked on the F2 cars, the M4A and the M4B, which we ran at Monaco in ’67 with a 2.1-litre BRM engine and extra fuel tanks. Bruce gave us our first Grand Prix victory in Belgium in 1968, in the M7A – Robin’s last car before he left to join Cosworth. Bruce and I finished the suspension geometry details. Bruce was devastated when Robin left, but we survived on income from the Can-Am successes and some money from Teddy Mayer, who’d paid for the Indy Ford engine to be converted to three litres. That was a disaster and he was loathe to put his hand in his pocket after that.”

On June 2, 1970 Bruce McLaren was killed while testing his Can-Am car at Goodwood. The little team was shattered, but somehow regrouped, knowing that the founder would have expected nothing less.

“We’d been to the Indy 500, we got back late on Monday and on the Tuesday Bruce went down to Goodwood,” Coppuck says. “When we heard the dreadful news Phil Kerr rushed off to tell Bruce’s wife Pat before the media got hold of it. I went down to the workshop and sent everyone home. We needed time to think. Our sponsors, Goodyear and Gulf, had the confidence to stay with us and almost all the lads came back to work. The first Can-Am race was 10 days away and Tyler Alexander arranged for Dan Gurney to drive Bruce’s car at Mosport – Dan had said he’d do whatever he could to help. He was such a great guy and helped us to settle down even though he already had his own team with the Eagles. At the same time Denny [Hulme] had burnt his hands in a methanol fire at Indy, so it was a very difficult period. The catastrophes all came at once.”

Life after Bruce

The tiny McLaren team had relied on its astonishing success in Can-Am, winning five consecutive championships from 1967 to 1971. Now it had its sights set on winning the Indy 500 and Coppuck began work on the M16.

“We knew the score at Indy by now, and Jo Marquart had left, so I started on the M16. F1 didn’t break even, so we needed the income from Indy and Bruce had always been passionately determined to win the 500. The first victory came in 1972 when Mark Donohue won with an M16 run by Roger Penske, then we won again with Johnny Rutherford in 1974 and ’76.

“The F1 team, however, had been in the doldrums so in the autumn of ’72 I started work on the M23, configuring it along the lines of the Indycar but with very different detailing. I knew that chassis stiffness was the most important thing, so the sidepods and side radiators were integral with the chassis and the car was much lighter than anything we’d done before. Aerodynamically it was good, we put a lot of effort into getting airflow over the rear wing, and the results from the wind tunnel at Lockheed in Georgia were very encouraging. So we knew we had a good car with the M23 and I was so thrilled when Denny put it on pole for its first race at Kyalami in ’73.”

Coppuck’s McLaren M23 went on to win two world championships, first with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974 and then with James Hunt in ’76, when the venerable car was in its final evolution and fourth season of racing.

The first F1 title

“Emerson saw us win three races with the M23 in 1973 and that gave him the confidence to leave Lotus and Colin Chapman, and come to McLaren,” Coppuck says with a big smile. “And he brought with him sponsorship from Texaco and Marlboro, that’s how much credibility we had gained. Now we knew we must not screw up, we had to deliver for Emerson and we had a lot of confidence in the car. Emerson loved testing, he was so responsive, helped us make progress from one race to the next. For me, it was like a second apprenticeship. I’d learnt what engineering was all about at NGTE and now I was learning how to apply that experience to motor racing.

“Since joining in ’65 I’d learnt a lot from the people around me, Bruce until the day he died and all the very practical people in the team. So yes, to win just eight years after going to work with Robin was a big thrill.

“When we got to that last race at Watkins Glen in ’74, we knew we had to beat [Clay] Regazzoni and Ferrari. Regga was very forceful off the grid, pushed Emerson onto the grass, and Emerson was extremely brave to keep his foot on the throttle, get in front, make sure he didn’t make any mistakes and cruise home to take the title when Regga dropped from contention. He was runner-up to Niki Lauda in 1975 and then he frightened the living daylights out of us by leaving to join his brother’s Copersucar team. It was a big shock; we’d anticipated a great battle between him and Lauda in 1976 and Teddy was furious with him. So we sat down, talked about who was available and there wasn’t anybody, it was so late in the year. Then we heard from John Hogan at Marlboro that James Hunt was finished with Hesketh.”

Life with James Hunt

“James didn’t really want to come to us, and we weren’t too sure about him, but negotiations began,” says Gordon with a broad grin. “All I hoped was that he didn’t keep crashing the car in the first few laps. We knew he’d be quick, but we needed him to be quick for the whole race, not just a few laps. In fact there was a lot more to James than we’d realised. He could read a race very well, and we were very pleased by the way he settled down.

“His lack of dedication to the sport was, shall we say, interesting – but his speed was always there. Only James could have come back from the British Grand Prix disqualification to win in Canada – we finally learnt that we’d irrecoverably lost our Brands Hatch win on the Saturday of the race at Mosport, nearly three months later. James had a very late night on that Saturday, then drove a demon race on the Sunday to win and keep us in the championship fight. He was just so competitive.

“We always felt that Ferrari had bullied not only us but also the FIA, thrown its weight around, used its political strength unfairly, but I got on well with Mauro Forghieri. We were at war, but he and I had a good relationship and many years later he invited me to one of those long lunches Ferrari used to have at the races.”

Leaving McLaren

“I left at the end of 1980 because I felt that, as a team, we were just too small-minded. We weren’t seeing the way the sport was going and Teddy had refused to ask Marlboro for as much money as John Hogan was offering us – he said he was frightened of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. He didn’t have the vision to see that we needed our own wind tunnel, for example, to learn more about what was happening underneath the car. Carbon fibre was coming, it was going to be a different sport, budgets would have to be in the hundreds of millions, we’d need many more people.

“Ron Dennis had the vision to see this and make it happen. I knew I was incompatible with Ron, so I left at the end of 1980, but I’d like to say how much I respect him for what he has achieved. Ron had the ability to sustain McLaren as a winning Formula 1 team.”

Moving on…

Coppuck transferred to March, where he designed its Nissan-powered car for Le Mans and its Indycar before moving to the Formula 2 team, engineering Corrado Fabi.

“It was a lot less intense than F1,” he says, “and I loved the atmosphere, the camaraderie of F2. At the end of the season we’d built a car to take a Honda engine and that led to a relationship with Honda that in turn led to forming the Spirit team with John Wickham, who’d been the F2 team manager at March. We had no plans to build production cars for F2, or anything else, we simply wanted to produce the best possible car without the extra cost of carbon fibre – although we knew that was going to be the future. So in ’82 we focused on our F2 team with the Honda V6 and Stefan Johansson and Thierry Boutsen as drivers.

“Then in ’83 we knew that Honda wanted to progress into F1, so we put a turbocharged engine into our F2 chassis to get the basics sorted out. We ran this hybrid car as a test bed for the engine, away from the other F1 teams at Willow Springs in the US, and did a deal with Honda to put the car into the British GP with Johansson in July ’83. There were lots of technical problems, a huge amount of turbo lag, and I think Honda became frustrated as the season went on and they started talking to Williams.

“Frank was pretty aggressive and our deal went away, the engine going to Williams for 1984. Maybe we didn’t communicate with the Japanese as well as we could have done. Us Brits were used to calling it like it is, and they weren’t used to criticism. We continued with the Hart engine, but finances became difficult and I sold out of Spirit and went back to March.”

CART with Porsche… back to F1

“The Porsche CART programme was a good period for me, reminded me of F1 in the mid-1970s,” Coppuck says. “I liked the atmosphere, the camaraderie in American racing, and we had some success with Teo Fabi winning at Mid Ohio in ’89. Porsche withdrew at the end of 1990, however. Working alongside Adrian Newey at March was interesting – he’s very capable of lateral thinking, very strong academically and he has huge ingenuity, knows how to perceive that killer advantage. There was always a buzz about him, he just had a different way of thinking. The last F1 car he designed for March, the 891, when it had become Leyton House, was probably the best-handling car out there. It was no surprise to me when he started winning for Williams, McLaren and Red Bull.”

Reborn in the USA

In 1995 Coppuck joined the Arciero Wells Indycar team, where he stayed as technical director until his retirement in 2000. Here he helped to develop the Reynards powered by Toyota’s recalcitrant engine, a challenge that also perplexed Dan Gurney’s experienced All American Racers team. Eventually they made it work, Cristiano da Matta giving them victory at Chicago Motor Speedway just months before Cal Wells forsook Indycar and took his team to NASCAR. But there was a happy ending.

“At the end of that final season,” Coppuck says, “Cal Wells put my wife Gill and I up at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Laguna Niguel in California for a month, a wonderful gesture at the end of my career. Later on I met a colleague from the NGTE who’d spent 40 years working there and he came away with his final pay cheque, no goodbyes, no thank you, nothing. I never regretted leaving to join McLaren…”

These days Gordon and Gill live quietly by the sea in Sussex, where photos of the grandchildren outnumber images of old racing cars. A nicer, more modest man you could not hope to meet. The twinkle in the eye is still there, the smile and the laughter never far from the surface. His extraordinary career is a chapter in motor racing history, yet his achievements are rarely given the recognition they deserve. Coppuck remains one of the unsung heroes of our sport.

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