Plenty of Weird and Wonderful cars were spawned By Can-Am’s remarkably Thin rule book. Pete Lyons assesses six of the most intriguing, valiant but ultimately unsuccessful efforts .
Bob McKee was an Indy 500 mechanic in 1961 when he performed one of the first-ever swaps of an American V8 into a British chassis, making a Cooper-Buick for Rodger Ward. Five years later McKee was manufacturing cars of his own design near Chicago, offering the US privateer an alternative to imports. In fact, the famous Howmet turbine cars for Le Mans were built on McKee chassis.
McKee’s Mark 6 and 7 sports-racers were strong, pragmatic vehicles featuring steel spaceframes incorporating a magnesium front bulkhead, numerous off-the-shelf production car parts and, in company with other domestic marques of those early days, a transaxle devised in-house. Bob’s solution was hot-rodding ingenuity at its best: he used a Chevy Corvette 4-speed box, a Ford crownwheel-and-pinion, a Mercedes-Benz limited-slip from a junked 300SL, and a Halibrand quick-change gear set from the speedway world, all married to a differential case he cast himself. McKee transaxles were used in several early big mid-engined cars, including Carroll Shelby’s Cooper-Ford ‘King Cobras’.
At first McKee bodywork was literally an enlarged copy of the Lotus 19, but later models wore various unique shapes. One, a Mark 7 “racer’s wedge” driven to eighth place at Stlovite in 1969 by Joe Leonard, pioneered turbocharging in Can-Am. That had an iron-block twin-turbo Olds, and so did the all-new McKee Mark 14 that appeared a few weeks later at Road America.
This was a real technological stunner, with fourwheel-drive, automatic transmission and a flip-up air brake. (So-called ‘moving aerodynamic devices’ were still allowed in those glory years). Sadly, it was all too new to race that weekend, and McKee never found the funding to try again.
Stan Burnett was a machinist in Seattle — a builder, not a buyer. His first Can-Am race was Laguna Seca 1966, where he placed 16th with his Burnett Mark 2. Powered by small-block Chevrolet, it wore one of Joe Huffaker’s Genie bodies, but Stan himself fabricated everything else — spaceframe, suspension, even the transaxle. He built two, which he and friend Don Jenson raced irregularly for several years.
In 1968, Burnett turned his own car into a Mark 3, modifying the frame to take a big-block Chevy and crafting his own body along McLaren M6B lines.He finished 10th in the wet Laguna race that year.
He turned up at Donnybrooke in 1970 with an all-new Mark 4, a neatly-made monocoque car which featured a longitudinal ‘anti-pitch bar’ connecting front and rear suspensions. But the Mark 4 didn’t start that race, and in fact never made it to another Can-Am, foor Burnett lost his life in it during a 1971 testing accident.
Tyres were getting wider almost literally by the week, and keeping the treads square to the road was ever more on a designer’s mind. To Ray Caldwell, a former driver who formed a car-building firm called Autodynamics in the seaport town of Marblehead, Massachussetts, time had come to revive the old de Dion suspension layout.
Financed by a wealthy but fast young racer from Connecticut named Sam Posey, Caldwell boldly took the giant jump straight from his small FV and FF open-wheelers to a Chevy-powered Group 7. Named the D7A, Caldwell’s Autodynamics Can-Am had ‘axles’ fabricated of trusses of steel tubing both front and rear. On its debut at Elkhart Lake in 1967, it also had a hydraulically-operated flipper-wing mounted atop the driver’s rollbar, which the driver controlled with a hand valve. An ambitious and innovative design, but unsuccessful, the D7 seemed competitive at the USRRC level, but in Can-Ams Posey soon tired of its erratic handling and poor reliability, not to mention the suspension failure that caused a spectacular crash in testing. When a replacement proved no better in 1968, Posey moved on to a Lola T160, leaving the de Dion car to teammate Brett Lunge.r
Here was another attempt to prove that a sleek, small, lightweight car could be as fast as a big one — and another failure of proof. Actually started in 1965, when even Bruce McLaren was still an apostle of the aluminium Oldsmobile, the Mirage had that engine in a compact monocoque chassis designed by aerospace engineer Ted Depew. Its lovely bodywork was lofted by Peter Brock, who had done the Cobra Daytona Coupe.
Financed by wealthy sportsman Jack Nethercutt, much effort went into reducing frontal area by using 13-inch wheels (versus the normal 15s of the day), which required unusually small Aerheart brakes and some fabulously complex, riveted monocoque wheels. The Mirage didn’t make its first Can-Am race until the end of 1966, when Scooter Patrick spun out of the Las Vegas race.
For 1967, the car had an iron Chevy engine, 15 inch wheels and a graceless rear wing spoiling Brock’s lissome lines. But these measures didn’t do the trick either; of Patrick’s three attempts to race that year, his only ‘score’ was a single DNF.
Remember Australian Jack Brabham, who won the Formula One world championship in 1966 with an alloy-block American Oldsmobile V8 modified with Repco heads? Well, a year later fellow Aussie Frank Matich, a local sportscar champion, ventured to North America with a larger version of the Repco in his Matich SR3 (he also used a straight Olds in some events).
A tidy little car, and briskly driven, but four litres just wasn’t enough to play with the much larger Chevys and Fords of the day. In the four Can-Ams of the season’s six that Matich entered, his best grid place was 13th; he didn’t finish once. He spoke of returning with a bigger engine, but never did.
MAC’S-IT SPECIAL (1970)
Here’s one that shows how much fun the old Can-Am could be. Jack Hoare, a former Cobra crewman, had tired of struggling with an ageing McLarenFord, so tired that he too fell under the ‘less-is-more’ spell. But to get a small, light car he chose more engines — four of them!
Each was a twin-cylinder, two-stroke Rotax snowmobile unit displacing 800cc and making a claimed 110bhp. By means of centrifugal clutches, automatic variable-ratio belt pulleys (automatic transmission!) and a pair of modified VW transaxles, the combined power was supposed to drive all four wheels through a longitudinal driveshaft.
Unhappily, none of it worked. The raucous, smoky, thoroughly alarming (but most entertaining) Mac’s-it never made it to the grid on its only Can-Am appearance, Laguna Seca, 1970. But let’s ask ourselves: where else but the old, unrestricted Can-Am could such a concept be tried?
Pete Lyons covered the Can-Am series in its heyday for Autosport and is the author of two books, Can-Am and Can-Am Photo History, which together detail the whole story of the nine-year series.