Bruce McLaren: The Man Behind The Marque

Bruce McLaren was a fine driver but, as Mark Hughes reports, it was his talents outside the cockpit that made his team great and laid the foundations for the McLaren empire of today.

Bruce McLaren in his McLaren Ford in 1968

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Ambition is a funny thing. For some it burns so bright it sears a lasting scar on their personalities. Others look as if they don’t have a scrap of it in their souls, their serene progress looking to the casual observer like luck, even when it is nothing of the sort. Bruce McLaren, more than most, was one of the latter.

He was the youngest driver ever to win a Grand Prix [at the time] and the youngest to lead the Formula 1 World Championship. But his real place in history is not as a driver. It is as the founder of the colossus of a race team that now vies with Ferrari as the most successful of all time, even though Bruce himself didn’t live to see such levels of achievement. As a driver he was good but not great; it was as someone with an innate ability to attract the right people, as an engineer and as a truly inspirational leader, that would prove him to be so very special.

Driving was just the starting point for an ambition which burned fiercely, despite his mellow disposition. Tyler Alexander, whose destiny was interlocked with Bruce’s from the early ’60s until McLaren’s death in 1970, says, “In one way he was laid back but in another he wasn’t at all. He wasn’t shy either, just quiet. And even that’s not 100 per cent right because he was kinda none of those things but all of them at the same time. But he was very determined that he was going to do something with himself.”

Team McLaren’s first designer, Robin Herd, concurs: “He had a likeable exterior but the ego was hidden in there. He could take an intense dislike to people who were outside the team he felt were not up to it, though they would never have known it. Oh yes, the fires most definitely burned within him.”

Bruce McLaren on his grand prix debut at the Nurburgring in 1958

Grand Prix debut at Nürburgring in F2 Cooper at ’58 German Grand Prix

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For all the ambition though, fortune did smile on him. He was in the right place at the right time for Jack Brabham to take him under his wing and install him at Cooper which turned out to be the perfect team to give him the necessary grounding for setting up on his own. Furthermore he arrived in racing just as it was demanding the sort of technical feedback from drivers that very few of them were able to give, but which Bruce could. All this kick-started Team McLaren into healthy life. But his outstanding qualities not only allowed him to make maximum use of good fortune, in some indefinable way they probably created much of it. “He had a charisma that just magically drew extraordinary people around him,” says Herd today.

The founder of Team McLaren was the quiet son of a garage proprietor from Auckland, New Zealand, and a successful local bike racer. Young Bruce was captivated. But the thing that really stirred him wasn’t Dad’s wheel-to-wheel battles on the tracks, but rather the workings of the machines themselves. He was a natural-born engineer. The mechanics soon became used to their spanners going missing to the little boy fettling his tricycle – it was telling even then that he spent more time doing this than actually riding the thing.

He was a studious, serious kid. ‘Pop’ McLaren indulged his only son’s enthusiasms, which so mirrored his own, but it never made Bruce cocky. “I think part of that,” says his close friend and associate Eoin Young, “came from his spell in hospital as a boy.” At the age of nine, Bruce was found to be suffering from Perthes Disease – a serious hip condition for which the only treatment was total bed rest. He spent the next three years in a children’s hospital flat on his back or in a wheelchair. The legacy was a permanent limp, powerful shoulders and perhaps a deepened intensity. His studying during that period laid the foundations for a subsequent Auckland college course in engineering.

Don’t get the idea he was dull, though; he had the sense of fun and adventure, for example, that saw him organise illicit bathchair races around the hospital. “Even though he wasn’t in the least bit flamboyant,” says Alexander, “he did enjoy a good time.”

Certainly he figured in his share of off-track high-jinks, maybe not kicking them off but not shy about getting involved, as attested to by Howden Ganley, now a British Racing Drivers Club luminary, then a McLaren mechanic: “his sense of humour was dry and sharp and was an important part of the team’s atmosphere.”

But you’d need to know him well to discover all this. “The whole McLaren team atmosphere,” says his former mechanic Paul Vincent, “was self-effacing and introverted. It could be fun inside, but it didn’t project itself to the outside at all. That trait, which you can still see in McLaren today, came very much from Bruce.”

“At the final race of ’59 he became the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix”

The quantum leap from college kid to founder of one of the great Grand Prix teams was a fairly short one. It consisted of Pop McLaren giving his son an Austin Seven Ulster to kick off his racing career, and Brabham visiting for the off-season series of races and taking him under his wing. “Brabham looked on the McLaren family as a willing chequebook at the beginning,” says Young. “He’d go out there with the Cooper he’d been racing for a year in Europe and at the end of the series he would sell it to the McLarens. Bruce in turn was enormously fortunate that Jack was a bit of a loner and saw Bruce as a good understudy, the ideal number two who wasn’t ever going to beat him in a straight fight.”

“Yes, we used to allow Jack, and later Bruce, to sell our cars down under at the end of the season,” confirms John Cooper. “That was our way of looking after them because we couldn’t actually pay them very much.”

Bruce McLaren takes his first victory in the 1959 US Grand Prix at Sebring

Sebring 1959, Bruce becomes youngest driver to win a GP when Brabham ran out of fuel

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Brabham’s idea of bringing the young McLaren to Europe and installing him at Coopers gained critical momentum when the New Zealand Auto Club named Bruce as the recipient of its ‘Driver to Europe’ prize in 1958. After a few Formula Two events for Cooper, he was entered in the F2 class of that year’s German Grand Prix and created a minor sensation by winning the section on his first visit to the Nürburgring. He was just pipped to the F2 championship by Brabham; for the following season would be promoted to Formula 1.

“He was quiet, but never shy”

Before that, though, he returned home as the local hero, to take part in the forerunner of the Tasman series. This was when he met Young, then just an enthusiastic race fan who worked in a bank. “It was at Teretonga,” remembers Eoin. “He was due to be racing in a hillclimb in my town of Timaru the following week and I just went up to him, cap-in-hand, introduced myself and asked if he wanted me to show him the road, because I knew it. I was so chuffed to have met him but what I didn’t realise was that he didn’t know anyone there anyway and thought it would be neat to have someone who would show him around.”

The following Saturday night, Young introduced McLaren to a pretty blonde girl called Patricia, known as Patty to her friends. For him, it was love at first sight. “Apparently he decided right there and then that I was the one for him,” she recalls. “But he went back to England shortly afterwards and we had a courtship by post. He came back again the following year, and the year after that we got engaged and I went with him to England.

McLaren’s phlegmatic personality made him a good match for the more fiery Patty. “It took a lot to make him cross — he had a wonderful nature,” she says. But her fierce loyalty could create moments of friction. “At Portugal in 1960,” remembers Cooper, “Bruce was leading the race and Jack was second, but in terms of the championship we needed them to be the other way around. We never had to apply team orders with those two, they looked after that between them. But Dean Delamont walked past the pit and said ‘Aren’t you going to do something about that?’ and I replied ‘No, it’s all under control.’ But Patty heard this and so did Betty Brabham. Pat said, ‘You’re not slowing my old man down,’ and then Betty got in on it and they started arguing between them. I couldn’t stand it and went up to the BRM pits for the rest of the race.”

McLaren in a McLaren

McLaren in a McLaren: Bruce on his way to a first world championship GP victory in a car bearing his name – Spa, 1968

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At the final race of ’59, McLaren, at 22 years old, had become the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix when team-mate Brabham ran out of fuel ahead of him. It’s a record that still stands. Another win in the opening race of 1960 ensured McLaren was also the youngest ever to lead the championship. It was a brilliant F1 apprenticeship, not only learning by watching over Brabham’s shoulder but being in a team where the pair of them were left to engineer the cars themselves, spending more time in the drawing office and machine shop than in the cockpit.

Mike Barney, McLaren’s mechanic at Cooper, recalls: “They were both very involved, but Jack was definitely the senior one. He had the ear of people at Cooper, Climax and Dunlop, had his finger on the pulse. Bruce knew what it was about but was just a young lad. He only came out of the shadow a bit when Jack left and began pushing his own ideas rather than those of Jack.”

Brabham’s departure at the end of 1961 to set up his own team set a precedent for Bruce. Though he was to stay at Cooper for another four years winning at Monaco in ’62 the team was in decline and wasn’t as receptive to his ideas as he would have liked. “Charles Cooper was really pissed off when Jack left,” says Young, “even though John realised it was inevitable. The Old Man was convinced they’d taught Jack all he knew and now he was using that knowledge to fire back at them. That made things difficult for Bruce almost to the point where Charles Cooper wouldn’t let him into the drawing office.”

From the archive

He got his first real taste of running his own show when he modified two F1 Coopers and ran them in the Tasman series for himself and Timmy Mayer at the end of ’64. This was when he first came into contact with Timmy’s elder brother Teddy as well as their mechanic Tyler Alexander. Eoin Young had already been enlisted as Bruce’s secretary: “He said he wanted me to come to England and be his secretary and I said ‘what does a secretary do?’ and he replied ‘I don’t really know, but Graham Hill and everybody’s got one so you could be mine.” And so the nucleus of Team McLaren was formed.

When Bruce bought an ex-Roger Penske Cooper converted to sportscar spec – the Zerex Special – and installed an Oldsmobile V8, it was in reality the first McLaren car, even though Bruce insisted on calling it a Cooper-Oldsmobile to calm the political waters. But for all his years in Europe and the fact that he’d now set up his own racing offshoot, in many respects Bruce was still just a wide-eyed country boy. This much was evident in his comments to Young after meeting the high-flying Penske. “He said ‘I watched him polishing his shoes. You know, he even cleans the backs of ‘ern!”

The Cooper-Oldsmobile gave Bruce a lot of success in both Britain and America, in the forerunner of the CanAm series. It also brought a critical connection with Firestone, the American tyre company which was on the verge of vastly expanding its race programme, including a partnership with Ford in its attack on Le Mans. McLaren’s skills as a test driver reaped big dividends in an era where such an ability was a rarity and he knew it. “He’d come back from testing the GT40,” says Young, “and I’d ask how it had gone. He’d say ‘well I go pounding round and round, come in and suggest they could do this, could do that, this needs doing, and then Roy Salvadori comes in and says ‘it’s doing something funny at the front.”

The rewards were immediate. Bruce not only got a Le Mans Ford drive which allowed him to win the event with Chris Amon in 1966, but more importantly got a contract for all of Firestone’s F1 and CanAm development work. It was this which largely funded the new team., which was made official when he finally split from Cooper at the end of ’65.

Robin Herd was duly recruited from the aircraft industry to design the first F1 McLaren, the M2B. Constructed from Mallite – a sandwich of honeycomb aluminium and balsa wood – it was probably the most advanced car on the ’66 grid. It was let down, however, by a hopelessly inadequate destroked Ford Indy engine. But Herd was enraptured with his new place of work nonetheless. “It was by a substantial margin the most talented group of individuals I have ever encountered in motor racing, and there was such a vibrant atmosphere,” he says.

“The whole thing shone from Bruce; he was the inspiration. That was partly because he was such an able and likeable guy but also because he would be there doing it, he’d be the last to leave. His partnership with Teddy Mayer was perfect because he was a pretty special guy himself and they had this good cop/bad cop thing. Bruce used to say it was just like the Kennedy brothers wherein JFK was the smiling benign frontman and behind the scenes there was this other brother who was the hatchet man. Where you couldn’t see Bruce’s edge, Teddy was a walking edge.”

“The thing I learned from Bruce,” says Howden Ganley, “is to do whatever needs doing, no excuses. If you get into a problem, the easy thing to do is say ‘oh we can fix that tomorrow.’ That isn’t the way to do it – let’s fix it now. Tonight. Even if it means pulling the guttering off the side of the building or cutting up the secretary’s desk, you do it. Bruce had that in spades when the chips were down. He was a fantastic leader. If he’d come into the workshop one morning and said ‘right chaps, what we’re going to do today is march across the Sahara’, most of us would have said ‘yeah, alright Bruce, if that’s what you think we should do, that’s what we’ll do.”

After visiting the factory during this initial period, journalist Charles Fox described the scene he witnessed like this: “There was that splendid sense of boys disguised as men employed in a pastime disguised as work.” Today Tyler Alexander admits, “I suppose it might have looked like that.”

The rewards came on the track too Bruce won the McLaren marque’s first Grand Prix at Spa in 1968, the year team-mate Denny Hulme was in real contention for the world title, and in CanAm McLaren were literally unbeatable, so much so the series became swiftly nicknamed the ‘Bruce and Denny Show’. McLaren’s current supremo Ron Dennis was then working as a mechanic for Brabham and saw Bruce only from a distance. “It was more a distant respect than any sort of relationship. But he was clearly very dedicated to pushing his team forward and it was apparent even then that McLaren were setting new standards in racing car construction.”

Bruce McLaren crosses the line to win the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix

Spa ’68. Bruce’s last GP victory was also McLaren’s first

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Bruce McLaren celebrates winning the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix in the first win for a McLaren car

Bruce celebrates victory at Spa

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Then the happy days were shattered on June 2nd 1970. Bruce was testing at Goodwood when the bodywork of his M8D CanAm car came loose, hurling the car off the track and into a marshal’s post. He was killed instantly. Not yet 33 years old, he left behind Patty, their four year old daughter, Amanda, and an utterly devastated racing team.

“I guess we walked around in circles for a time,” recalls Alexander, “thinking, ‘shit, what ever are we going to do?’ before realising that what we would do is what we had been doing yesterday.” Mayer, Phil Kerr, Alexander and the crew, heavy hearts notwithstanding, did what Bruce would have done, and carried on. That they did it so well was testament to the calibre of those Bruce had attracted.

Bruce McLaren in the McLaren M8B in the 1969 Can-Am Los Angeles

McLaren was killed testing one of his Can-Am cars

There’s no irony at all in the fact that he had planned to retire from driving at the end of the season, because he was still going to continue the sort of testing work in which he met his end. The road car project he’d planned over 20 years before the McLaren F1 died with him after only one prototype had been built. Projects such as this and a possible tie-up with GM for a McLaren Corvette meant his world had been expanding and he had needed to devote more time to it. “He would have built an empire,” believes Ganley. “Ron’s ended up being the one who did it, but without taking anything away him, Bruce would have done that. He was well connected in Detroit, he was working with the big companies well before the other teams; he was the one with the vision.”

A vision that has been realised in his absence, but not without his signature. The last words and, with them, the proof belong to Ron Dennis. “It was his can-do philosophy and commitment to excellence which are the two values of his which are still very present in the McLaren of today.”