"A life measured in achievement"

A tour of homage to pivotal locations in the Bruce McLaren story... at the wheel of a modern road car bearing his name
Writer Michael Stahl, Photographer Thomas Wielecki

The source is covered in just a handful of miles, like a humble grove at the headwater of a great river. From these quiet clapboard houses and backyard lemon groves of suburban New Zealand, Bruce McLaren left to test his intuitive engineering and driving skills against the best in Europe and the United States.

When his globe-trotting – and world-beating – adventure found its tragic and premature end just 12 years later, they would bring him home to the same place. Those left behind in England, not knowing what else to do, simply carried on. And on.

It still comes as news to some modern fans that the Formula 1, GT and supercar colossus of McLaren originated not in a spaceship in Surrey, nor even a brick two-storey workshop in Colnbrook, but in McLaren’s Service Station in Remuera, a middle-class suburb of Auckland.

At the time of its founder’s death in 1970, the then seven-year-old team of expat Kiwis and budding British talent produced cars that were winning in Formula 1 and F2, upsetting the Indianapolis establishment and dominating the unbridled tech-fest of Can-Am.

In New Zealand, everyone knows where McLaren came from. Drawn by the digital supercars of their gaming consoles, even the local kids smudge the windows of the McLaren Auckland showroom in Grey Lynn.

Like the 65-odd other McLaren dealerships around the world, McLaren Auckland is clinically clean and space-age efficient. On display was an MP4/4 on loan from the McLaren Heritage collection. Behind it sat the pearlescent-white 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged 650S we had come to collect for our tour.

No less than the MP4/4, the new supercars are carbon fibre-cored symbols of the ambition that propelled McLaren from an ailing garagiste in the late-1970s to the technology powerhouse of today. They are symbolic of Ron Dennis, custodian of McLaren since the Marlboro-manipulated merger with his Project 4 in 1980.

But in New Zealand, they are all, indisputably McLarens – no less than the 1973 M23/1 that belonged for almost 20 years to Denny Hulme and is now owned by NZ McLaren agent and car tsar Sir Colin Giltrap. In 2014, NZ became the first market in which McLaren outsold Ferrari (16 cars versus 15).

The showroom is only five miles from Remuera where, in 1936, Leslie ‘Pop’ McLaren bought the lease on a small hilltop service station and workshop. He moved his wife Ruth and their seven-year-old daughter Patricia into the flat above. A year later, on August 30, they welcomed a son, Bruce Leslie. There would be a 10-year gap to their third child, daughter Jan.

Pop McLaren and his three brothers had been well-known motorcycle racers before the war, often at Muriwai Beach, 25 miles west of Auckland, where the McLarens owned a modest holiday house.

At home in Remuera, Bruce grew up overlooking the forecourt of the service station, and a steady stream of dull British saloons and amateur racing machines of the Auckland Car Club, in which Pop was involved.

In his 1964 autobiography From the Cockpit, Bruce wrote: “My younger years were spent learning to broadside around shop corners on two wheels of my tricycle, becoming a pest, borrowing mechanics’ spanners etc just when they needed them, to repair my ‘racing machine’.”

High-speed ambitions were comprehensively stalled in 1946 when Bruce developed Perthes Disease, which causes the hip joint to become malformed. He was dispatched to the Wilson Home in Takapuna, a ferry ride across Auckland Harbour. There he spent almost three years strapped to a bicycle-wheeled wicker gurney, called a Bradford Frame.

The Wilson Home, on 13 acres of glorious gardens looking across the South Pacific, was gifted in 1937 by newspaper heir William R Wilson for the treatment of children with crippling diseases. Today it is just as beautiful in its appearance and purpose. Parked outside, the white McLaren 650S drew an immediate crowd among the kids who come from across NZ and the Pacific islands for treatment and rehabilitation. Russell Ness, director of the Wilson Home Trust, knew all about the supercar and its namesake. As a child, Ness had watched Bruce McLaren in the Lady Wigram Trophy, a Tasman series race he twice won in Cooper T70 Climaxes. “I learned after I came that Bruce McLaren had been here,” Ness said. “That was fantastic to me.

“When Bruce was here, one of the great stories was that matron would come out in the morning and wonder why all the wheels were buckled on the gurneys. Bruce and his mates would go racing after lights-out. They could wheel those things along and go pretty fast …”

Ness had no difficulty drawing a straight line between today’s McLaren and the brilliant boy who left on crutches at the end of 1949, his left leg an inch and a half shorter than the right, to commence engineering study a year later at Seddon Memorial Technical College.

“He started something that I think has been amazing,” Ness said. “It’s a dynasty. Sure, the cars are quite different, but the name has survived. For motor racing fans here in New Zealand, it’s so important.”

By 1950 the McLaren family had relocated to 8 Upland Road, less than 200 yards from the service station. Pop McLaren one day arrived at the garage towing a tired 1927 Austin Ulster, intending to fix it for racing. He would quickly despise it and passed it down to his 13-year-old boy, who tinkered and tested it endlessly among the lemon trees in the back yard, until he gained his driving licence at 15.

McLaren’s motor racing debut was on a new hillclimb course at Muriwai. It must have been spooky for the 15-year-old Bruce, who slithered the Ulster through the shale-surfaced 45-degree bends to finish in 70 seconds. He took first in class from fellow Austin driver Phil Kerr, who became a lifelong friend and joint managing director of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing.

Bruce never forgot Muriwai. On top of the world in the mid-1960s, with wife Patty and their only child, daughter Amanda (born 1965), they bought a comfortable estate in Walton-on-Thames and named it Muriwai.

In 1954 Pop McLaren bought an Austin Healey 100/4, which he raced in several events including the 1955 NZ GP at Ardmore. Bruce inevitably cajoled his way into the seat and, by 1957, Pop’s stopwatch was dictating a surrender.

He struck a deal that summer with the visiting Jack Brabham to purchase the Australian’s 1.5-litre Cooper Bobtail. From then on, Brabham began using the Remuera garage as his NZ base and became mentor to the clearly talented Bruce, 11 years his junior.

By the summer of 1957-58, the 20-year-old was a recognised local star. When Brabham arrived for the 1958 NZ GP on January 11, he had with him a second car from Cooper, a 1750cc Climax-engined T43 for his young protégé.

McLaren’s weekend was frustrated with gearbox problems, but he was the obvious choice for the NZ International Grand Prix Association’s inaugural Driver to Europe prize. It might have helped that Brabham was on the committee. And so, in March 1958, Bruce McLaren sailed for England, and an introduction to Cooper. He left behind his family home in Upland Road and McLaren’s Service Station… where we parked the 650S, to be greeted by Jan McLaren.

With an energy that scoffs at her 70 years, Jan presides over the Bruce McLaren Trust, co-founded in 1997 by herself and the late Ross Jensen – a former top-line racer and, along with Brabham, a member of that 1958 NZIGP committee. That the Trust is headquartered in the McLaren family flat above the garage brought more than a sprinkle of magic.

Jan walked around the sparkling white supercar that bore her brother’s name – her name. “It does give me great pride,” she said.

In 1969, Bruce built three Can-Am-based M6 GT road cars, keeping one for personal use. Supposedly 50 bodies were commissioned from Trojan, with a view to Group 4 and road homologation. How serious was his ambition, years before Ron Dennis, to build road cars?

“Well, he had the rest of the set!” Jan said. “He had the Can-Am cars, he had the Indy cars, he had the F1 cars … No other team had done all of that. I don’t know if it was quite that simple, but he wanted to have a road car in production to earn more money.

“But they were racing in those three spheres, and they were only a team of 50. They just didn’t have the money, time or manpower. But oh, absolutely, they wanted to build them.”

We walked up the narrow stairs to the flat. The skinny hallways and small bedrooms are sclerotic with helmet-laden shelves, framed pictures, filing cabinets, bits of bodywork and mismatched display cabinets groaning with trophies, model cars, sashes, caps and keepsakes. It is jumbled, but not dusty. It is an office, a museum and a living, loving shrine to Bruce and those who worked and raced with him.

Jan had memories of her big brother’s driving. “I can recall him taking me down to school in the Austin Ulster,” she said. “Absolutely everyone got rides in the Ulster. He scared the shit out of a lot of us.”

She explained his favourite racing number, 47: the Bobtail had come with that number and Bruce, slightly superstitious, decided to keep it. And McLaren orange, first seen on the M6A Can-Am car? “He wanted visibility because they knew they were going to be overtaking the tail-enders,” Jan said. Visibility was not a strong suit of New Zealand’s sporting colour, black.

Jan remembered well the day in 1958 when her brother left for England with mechanic and friend Colin Beanland. “It was a bit traumatic for us, because in those days, someone leaving to go overseas was a big thing. He was due for his second year at university and he promised Mum: ‘It’s only for a year, and I will come back and continue my studies’...”

In his maiden European season, Bruce nearly pipped his mentor and team-mate to the Autocar F2 Championship. The following year, aged just 22, he nabbed his first Grand Prix victory at Sebring, Brabham pushing his expired Cooper across the line to clinch the title.

Bruce returned to a hero’s welcome for the 1959-60 Tasman Series (also paying a visit, with his Cooper T45, to the Wilson Home). He made almost annual Christmas visits. Indeed, it was Cooper’s refusal to support his NZ summer racing that prompted the founding of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing in September, 1963.

“From the first year he was away,” Jan said, “he started sending back reel-to-reel tapes. We’ve got 14 hours of recorded stories in the Trust. Full reports on races, funny stories about their travels through Europe… There’s singing, funny jokes, pretending they’re Goons.

“We have something like 500 pages of his hand-written letters. He also sent beautiful slides. I’d give my morning talks at school on what Bruce was doing in Europe!”

When did she realise that her big brother was a star? “You always think your big brother is special anyway,” she said, “but the reality was there because all the international drivers would come to our house…”

Despite a tally of four Grand Prix victories and 27 podiums from 101 starts, victory at Le Mans in 1966 (with compatriot Chris Amon, Ford GT40), two Can-Am championships and numerous saloon car triumphs, Bruce wasn’t regarded as a front-line driver.

“I think designer-engineer-driver were all equal,” Jan said. “He probably was more conservative than a lot of drivers. There are stories of Teddy Mayer saying, ‘Slim that piece down…’ Bruce would go, ‘No, I want to leave it at that weight and thickness. I’m driving it’.”

One moment in the museum encapsulated it. Jan produced a pair of her brother’s Hinchman Nomex overalls, apparently from the late 1960s and bearing patches from Goodyear, Bosch and Reynolds Aluminium. From a string dangled a square of chamois leather, for wiping goggles.

Tellingly, there were spatters of oil on the sleeves, smudges of carbon on the hips, dirt on the seat of the pants where they had been sat on a garage floor to fix a problem, or snoozed in among stacks of tyres. The designer-engineer-driver’s wardrobe-in-one.

Like Jim Clark before him, if perhaps for different reasons, McLaren wasn’t meant to die in a racing car. “He hadn’t had any really significant accidents,” Jan said. “He was so much in tune with the machinery. He learned that from our father, and the workshop foreman downstairs: do the job you’re working on, finish it to the best standard you can and move on to the next task. I think 450 races with 43 per cent podium success speaks for itself.”

Pop and Ruth McLaren were treated to four months with their son in Europe in 1969, returning to NZ in September. “That was really special, because he didn’t come home that Christmas,” Jan said. “And of course, that was the last time they saw him.”

Bruce died at Goodwood on June 2, 1970, at 12:22pm. He had been given special permission to do one more test run beyond the circuit’s midday cut-off. At perhaps 170mph on the Lavant Straight, the rear bodywork separated from his M8D Can-Am car, sending it slewing into a concrete-backed earth bank.

It was Phil Kerr who called New Zealand to tell Pop McLaren that his son was dead.

“They know today that it was to do with a pip pin in the rear bodywork,” Jan said, “but whether that wasn’t put in properly, or it was faulty or just fell out…

“Whatever happened was an accident. The family and the team closed ranks. Bruce would have as well. There was never anything formal done, it really was, ‘accidents happen’. I think that’s a lovely way for it to be.”

Bruce McLaren’s funeral service was held in St Mary’s Cathedral in Auckland on June 10. His helmet, goggles and gloves were laid atop his coffin, borne by drivers who had come from across the world. Two weeks later a memorial service was held for him at St Paul’s, London. Come that day, the F1 world was already reeling from another loss, that of Piers Courage three days earlier.

Waikumete Cemetery is in leafy Glen Eden, on Great North Road; the same road as McLaren Auckland, six miles away. Bruce’s grave lies on a gentle hill, with rolling views to the south toward Green Bay. Alongside are the graves of his parents, and of his older sister Pat, who died in 2009.

Bruce’s widow Patty remarried in 1981 and lives in the UK. Their only child, daughter Amanda, has spent most of her life in New Zealand, leaving only last year for the UK, where she is now brand ambassador for the company her remarkable father founded.

Bruce McLaren had more than lived up to the words he had written in 1964 for his Tasman team-mate Timmy Mayer, killed at Longford, Tasmania: “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”