Robin Herd’s McLarens dominated when the spectacular Can-Am series was at its height, but he’ll happily admit that the always-innovative Jim Hall beat him to the first punch with this stunner
A car I admired was the Chaparral 2E, the first Can-Am car, with the high wing. It was a special car, clearly well ahead of the opposition, and it meant a lot to me because I was McLaren’s designer at the time and the 2E was our target There was an alleged GM involvement in it, and I’m sure that was true — though when a big company gets their hands on such a project there’s usually a monumental cockup. So to this day I don’t know how much input they had — perhaps they just managed to isolate a couple of good lads.
It was a beautiful, elegant car and worked very well, the class of the field back when Can-Am was a highly successful series. The first McLaren, the Ml, was essentially a Cooper Monaco, a crude multitubular affair which we dubbed ‘the Flexi-power’. We bolted a chassis down in the workshop and twisted it, and it had very little rigidity. So we set to work with a welding kit and a few tubes and after four or five hours we’d improved the rigidity by a factor of 10. Bruce was delighted and took the modified car and an original to Brands Hatch. The difference between them on the track was almost imperceptible. I still haven’t worked that one out.
The Chaparral had several tricks: a bonded, not riveted, honeycomb chassis, the big wing acting directly on the wheels —Jim Hall beat Chapman to that — which was adjustable to give low drag on the straight and high downforce on the corners — and it looked beautiful. The Mls of Bruce and Chris [Amon] were being comprehensively beaten by it, so we came back home and thought, ‘What the hell are we going to do?’ Although we were building a honeycomb Mallite chassis for the M2 grand prix car, we didn’t have faith in our ability to do a bonded one from scratch for the sportscar. So we thought we’d go for utter simplicity in a small lightweight car, which should compensate as we were using the same Chevrolet engine. Bruce’s pride showed itself when he said: “I’m not having a wing on this car. We’ll take them on, but we won’t be seen to be copying them.”
So we went the simple route, which is more difficult to design; anyone can design something complicated. The question was how to match the Chaparral’s downforce; then it dawned on me that the crucial part was to create downforce on the front, because then it was easier to match it at the rear to balance the car. I was banned from using a wing, but we used what was essentially a very large Gurney flap and contoured the tail so that this spoiler would have maximum effect. Then we made the top of the nose concave to give downforce and made the underside almost match it, like an aerofoil, to produce negative pressure. Of course this was invisible from outside and no one else knew.
I well remember on the first test, at Goodwood on 19 June 1967; we had an anemometer reading pressure underneath the car and we set off, me in the passenger space, with no bodywork on the car, hoping to see some negative pressure. On the first corner, Madgwick in third at some speed, the needle swung decisively over to negative pressure — and Bruce took both hands off the wheel and grabbed my arm in joy. We nearly went over the bank. The car was barely driveable until we put the body back on, but then we could balance it, and it worked very well.
That’s how we took Jim Hall on. Of course Bruce and Denny were better than his drivers, but our engines were comparable, so it was very satisfying. Where we had the advantage was in our extra front downforce, so we could run more rear downforce — a higher total. If he’d recontoured his nose he’d have matched us again. But we did it only because the Chaparral existed, and! must say that at one of the races Jim came up and said, “This is such a simple car but it’s beautifully executed.” He was always such a nice guy even though we were big rivals.
Some 10 years later I went to see him and he said, “Come and see the cars”. In his workshop, under dust sheets, were these Chaparrals, four of them ground-breakers — two spectacularly successful, two spectacularly unsuccessful: the 2F, the fan car, a staggering piece of lateral thinking which blew us off completely, the GT car which never really worked, and the ‘lay flat’ car he tried to get Surtees to drive —John was having none of it. It was a sort of shrine, but not in the ego sense.
Hall, I think, I had the and he used these concepts, other people to carry them out, but I suspect it was all rather unofficial. And the aerodynamics had all the hallmarks of applied aeronautical engineering. I think he must have got the bonded honeycomb technology through GM, perhaps via their links to the aero industry, because it was aircraft technology.
Hall almost couldn’t do anything conventional. I think fur him the idea of being innovative was as great an attraction as winning itself. He liked to win, but not in the same way that Bruce and Denny did. Jim was really a boffin who liked a beautiful, elegant design. Okay, the fan car wasn’t pretty, but it was an exciting new idea.
He was a very bright man and a competent driver, but had no design background; he was in the family oil business and just liked cars, liked driving, liked racing. He had the Rattlesnake Raceway just nearby, so he could test whenever he wanted. It was well named; I once went to walk across the grass and someone yelled, “Stand still!” He ran up with a stick with a noose on it and collared a rattlesnake near my feet And Patrick Tambay was once testing a Lola sportscar there and ran over a rattler; it flew up in the air and landed in the passenger seat Fortunately it was dead.
I’d love to have done the Chaparral first, because what we then did was what Patrick Head’s FW07 did to the Lotus 79 — improve on a clever idea. But it was what Chaparral did which guided us to making the M6 work.
That, of course, led to a whole series of McLarens which dominated the Can-Am series.Robin Herd was talking to Gordon Cruickshank