Undercover operation

Bruce McLaren was adamant that no one should know about his new GP team, as Ray Rowe tells Rob Widdows

Undercover operation
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Ray Rowe joined Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd at its lock-up garage in Chessington in April 1965. And he’s still working for Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. A quite remarkable life.

Ray’s motor racing career began, like so many others, at Cooper. And it was there that he met a young New Zealander called Bruce McLaren. They became firm friends, sharing a love of racing cars and, more importantly, engineering.

“I started [at Cooper] in 1961 and as soon as I met Bruce we got along well,” remembers Ray. “We both had the same attitude – get the job done – and he was an interesting bloke, always very thoughtful. He was a good driver, too. I was his mechanic when he won for Cooper at Reims in 1962 – that was a fantastic race, he beat Graham Hill and Jack Brabham that day. But Cooper was starting to experience lean times by then, things weren’t going that well, and the old firm was changing.”

So in the spring of 1965, Rowe accepted an invitation to join a new team. “It was all a big secret,” says Ray. “Bruce asked me to go along with him in his new venture – there were very few of us – working at a lock-up in Chessington before we got a proper workshop in Feltham. It was always Bruce’s plan to build a Formula 1 car but we were sworn to secrecy – it was cloak-and-dagger stuff. We called it the ‘Firestone test car’ because Bruce had done some kind of deal with them and there were Firestone stickers on the car. Bruce’s attitude was ‘whatever it takes, we’ll do it’, and we did.”

At the end of 1965, with Bruce already working on the early Can-Am cars, this small group of dedicated people were ready to give their new Grand Prix car its first run.

“We went down to Goodwood for a day to shake it down,” says Ray. “It was very quiet down there in the winter and nobody paid much attention. We were the only people there and nothing ever got out about what we were doing. Bruce did all the driving, and the car seemed to do all the right things.”

McLaren then hatched a plot to take the car to Zandvoort, with he and his little team determined to take their first steps away from the prying eyes of the media.

“We put the car on a trailer, covered it with a tarpaulin and hitched it up to a Transit van. There were no posh transporters in those days.” Ray laughs at the memory of F1 nearly 50 years ago: “We put the van on the night ferry and took it to Holland. We had the Zandvoort track to ourselves and the car went well from the beginning. We’d taken some Plan B set-ups with us but the original design was good and we made few changes. Bruce was a very good test driver, very thoughtful, and he drove it as an engineer – not by the seat of his pants or by the scruff of its neck. He was always thinking about what to do to make it quicker – coming in, making an improvement, going back out. He didn’t get involved in the spanner work by this time – he had too much else on his mind with growing his business – but he had a lot of input with the car. We worked quickly in those days, probably faster than we do now with all the computers and technology.”

The mantra, even then, was good, solid engineering and a will to win.

“Bruce wasn’t one for outrageous ideas, Colin Chapman was the one for that sort of thing,” says Ray. “We were in it to win races, to get the job done and build up the team in Formula 1 and Can-Am. Bruce was always keen on the Can-Am cars and, of course, Robin Herd did a great job on those.”

The team won its first Grand Prix at Spa in 1968 and the rest, as they say, is history. But it’s still history in the making. Ray Rowe is now working in the gearbox shop at Woking and has no plans to retire.

“Bruce would be proud that the team is still at the top,” he says, “and it’s good the company still has the McLaren name. Sometimes I walk along the ‘boulevard’ at the McLaren Technology Centre and give the old cars a little tap, for old times sake.”

As we said, a remarkable life in racing.

 

Ray Rowe, known to his mates as Tex, started as a mechanic at Cooper in Surbiton in 1961. In ’65 he became one of the very first employees of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing. And there he stayed, all through the early days with Bruce, the Marlboro days with Teddy Mayer and on into the era of McLaren International with Ron Dennis. Ray still works part-time in the gearbox shop at the McLaren Technology Centre.