Being Bruce McLaren: driving the McLaren M6A

Fifty years on from McLaren’s first Can-Am Challenge title, Motor Sport was privileged to test the very car that carried the team’s founder to that landmark success: M6A-1

McLaren M6A rear
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So here it sits. McLaren M6A-1. Not McLaren’s first effort at building a sports car, nor even its first Can-Am car – that particular honour fell to the M1B – but the M6A, this M6A, is where one of motor sport’s greatest success stories began. If you’re a fan of the orange cars, and Bruce McLaren in particular, this is the Holy Grail.

We’re gathered in garage 36 at Donington Park, sheltering from some decidedly grotty ‘summer’ weather. Regular attendees at Donington’s mid-week test days will know this box (closest to pit exit) is the unofficial annexe of race preparer Hall & Hall. They’ve invariably got something wonderful to test or shake down, but today is extra special. For today we drive McLaren’s first Can-Am championship winner. Fifty years, one month and one day after it first turned a wheel.

It’s impossible to over-stress the significance of M6A-1. Designed in just 11 weeks during the early part of 1967 by McLaren’s creative cadre of Robin Herd, Don Beresford and Tyler Alexander (plus Bruce himself), the M6A was McLaren’s first monocoque sports car. Prior to this the team had been racing tube-framed machines of increasing potency in the North American national sports car championship. When this series became the Canadian-American Challenge Cup in 1966, McLaren’s M1B struggled against the Lola T70 Mk2s and Chaparral 2Es, so the team stepped things up a gear for 1967.

The M6A came in the same energised phase that spawned McLaren’s early Grand Prix cars. While Bruce’s first F1 single-seaters were hamstrung by lack of competitive engines during their debut season in 1966, then delayed due to the late supply of BRM V12 engines in 1967, McLaren’s Can-Am cars suffered no such setbacks. In fact the hampered F1 programme meant the team’s focus was firmly on development of the M6A.

When it’s your name above the door you’re going to get first dibs, so M6A-1 was built for Bruce. Indeed it was tailor-made, like a suit. At approximately 5ft 5in tall McLaren was a small man. His team-mate Denny Hulme was not, and when his turn came to try the car he found it was several sizes too small. That’s why the subsequent two cars built (Denny’s race car and a spare) were made with approximately five inches added to the wheelbase – a fact lost in the mists of time until the owner of M6A-1 went to have a new door fitted only to find it was way too long for the aperture!

It’s hard to express the range of emotions you feel when standing in the presence of this car. Awe, certainly. Respect. Reverence. Lust too, for it really is an obscenely curvy machine. When the rear bodywork is removed and the engine revealed you can add a swell of intimidation to the mix. Few cars dedicate quite so much of themselves to their powerplant. Add the fact each sill contains a 25-gallon fuel tank and the driver really is strapped into the belly of the beast.

This of course has always been the wonder and joy of Can-Am. Cars designed to be the wildest, fiercest and fastest of creatures, with few constraints from the FIA’s Group 7 regulations and a Balance of Performance governed only the creative limits of the car’s maker and the reserves of talent and courage possessed by its driver. Bruce knew he had those bases covered.

Though nobody knew it at the time, the 1967 Can-Am season would also be season one of the ‘Bruce and Denny Show’. With six races compressed into little more than two months between early September and early November, teams had to hit the ground running. Having completed the M6A in good time and conducted some 2000 miles of testing at Goodwood prior to the start of the campaign, McLaren did just that.

From the moment the teams arrived at Elkhart Lake and took to the majestic five-mile Road America circuit it was clear the new McLaren was going to be mighty. Resplendent in the team’s new colour of Papaya Orange, the M6As of McLaren and Hulme were flying. In qualifying just one tenth of a second separated the pair, with Bruce’s 2min 12.6sec stealing pole. Dan Gurney’s Lola T70 was third-fastest, but a full second and a half behind the orange cars. Come the race an oil leak put paid to M6A-1’s engine after just six laps, but Hulme continued in M6A-2 to secure a debut win for the new car.

Round two was in Bridgehampton. Once again Bruce and Denny locked out the front row, though this time is was Hulme who took pole by 0.3sec. He went on to win, setting fastest race lap along the way, with Bruce in second – the only driver not lapped.

The following weekend the teams headed to Mosport in Canada. Once again Hulme did the triple, taking pole (with a time 1.6sec faster than Jim Clark managed a month earlier in his F1 Lotus at the Canadian Grand Prix), plus fastest lap and the win. Bruce followed him home in second position.

After a three-week break the Can-Am cars came to Laguna Seca. It’s hard to imagine what those monsters must have been like to unleash around this compact, challenging circuit. With a lap devoured in a little over a minute, there could have been no respite for the men or their machines. Records show the weekend featured a two-hour free practice session on the Friday, followed by three qualifying sessions totalling a further four-and-a-half-hours of running on Saturday. And all prior to Sunday’s 200-mile race.

Against the recent run of form, it was Bruce who reigned supreme at Laguna, possibly thanks to M6A-1’s shorter wheelbase suiting the circuit’s twists and turns. Whatever the reason, after securing pole by 0.4sec from that man Gurney (who was just a tenth ahead of Hulme), Bruce took a dominant win in what the results sheet reveals a brutal race of attrition, with just nine classified finishers from a starting grid of 31 cars. Among the retirements was Hulme, victim of a blown engine some 80 laps into the 106 lap race.

The penultimate race was held at Riverside, near Los Angeles. Dan Gurney’s Lola T70 came good in qualifying, pipping McLaren to pole by three tenths. Hulme was a distant third, precisely 1sec behind his team-mate. The race was tight and controversial, with Hulme black-flagged for loose bodywork after a collision in the opening lap. Gurney retired a few laps later with a blown engine, leaving Bruce to slug it out with Can-Am’s other engineer-racer, Chaparral founder Jim Hall. After an hour and three quarters of racing, M6A-1 took the chequered flag less than 4sec ahead of Hall’s Chaparral 2G.

The final race of the 1967 season would prove unusually anti-climactic, at least so far as Bruce and Denny were concerned. Qualifying was business as usual for Bruce, lapping Las Vegas’ Stardust Raceway quickest to secure pole ahead of Hall, Gurney and Parnelli Jones. Denny lined up in unfamiliar territory, on the third row of the grid.

Fortunes would be reversed in the race, with Bruce’s engine lasting just seven laps. With Jones retiring a few laps earlier and both Gurney and Hall gone by lap 15 things were looking good for Hulme to take his fourth win of the season and with it the Can Am title. But then his engine blew on lap 50, handing the Vegas race win to Can-Am’s inaugural champion, John Surtees, and the 1967 title to Bruce and M6A-1.

BACK AT DONINGTON PARK, one half of that victorious partnership is doing its best to demolish garage 36 from the inside. Its Chevy small-block might have been nicknamed the ‘Mouse Motor‘ (the big-block being the ‘Rat Motor’, natch), but it’s you that squeaks and runs for cover when the M6A fires up. With throttles open it is loud and pungent enough to make you faint, thanks to the befuddling blast of decibels and fumes that pumps from its unsilenced tailpipes. Left to idle it settles into a heavy, slow-motion tickover, eight war drums throbbing to the cadence of an athlete’s resting heart rate.

Mercifully the morning rain abated so that by lunchtime the track is almost dry. That’s very good news as the car isn’t insured for running in the rain. The bad news? The weather delay means that instead of an exclusive run during the lunch break I’ll now be driving in the general test, among everything from historic DFV-powered F1 cars to present day BTCC and Formula 4 cars.

Getting into a Can-Am car is harder than it might appear. The open cockpit should make it a cinch, but the sills are so wide that even with the door flipped forwards you have to lift your left leg up, over and then down into the tub, taking care not to kick the big plexiglass screen in the process. Stepping on the seat – Bruce’s seat! – seems terribly disrespectful, but it’s the only way to do it. Leaning back on the roll hoop for support you can then bring in your right leg. It’s then a case of lowering yourself down, first propping yourself on hands and forearms before carefully posting your outstretched legs through the letterbox-shaped aperture between the upper and lower sections of the tub. It’s a confined and slightly disconcerting sensation, but once your feet find the pedals and your buttocks settle into the seat there’s room enough to spread your knees and open your elbows. It’s a comfortable and unexpectedly cosseting cockpit, until you remember you’ve basically snuggled yourself between 50 gallons of racing fuel. Cosy.

As Hall & Hall’s mechanics busy themselves doing final checks it strikes me that I’m sitting little more than knee-high to those around me. The top of the windscreen is just 31 inches above the floor, the slightly distorted view framed by towering arcs of orange bodywork enclosing the front wheels. Flanked by the high sides of the monocoque and essentially wearing the 5.9-litre V8 like a rucksack, once strapped in tight you really are swallowed by the machine.

Each racing car has its own starting ritual, but there’s something deeply significant about flicking the toggles and hearing the soft rattle of M6A-1‘s fuel pumps. It’s a procedure Bruce would have been very familiar with, and I can’t help wondering whether his mouth was a dry as mine in the final seconds before pushing the starter.

There’s something absurd about the feeling of power you get when sitting in a Can-Am car. I’ve done it a few times now, in a 917/30 and Shadow Mk1, but whether it’s a twin-turbo flat-12 or a ruddy great American V8, nothing makes your heart pound like one of these.

The clutch pedal is heavy, the throttle firm but not stiff, with a reassuringly long and smooth travel. I say reassuring because first impressions suggest even clenching your toes elicits a bark and a flash of revs from the fuel-injected engine.

With stone-cold slicks and rampant torque the M6A has the potential to spit itself off the track with every throttle opening. Consequently my first few laps are tentative to say the least. It feels flighty and impatient, a sensation doubtless exacerbated by the uniquely short wheelbase of Bruce’s car and the 60:40 rearward weight bias.

It really doesn’t like hesitant use of the throttle, especially once the steering wheel is turned in a corner. Back-off and the nose tightens its line abruptly enough to steal the breath from my lungs. This makes me feel even more intimidated, but I know I’ve got to start getting heat into the tyres if this McLaren is to find its feet.

Cautiously working all four tyres against the track surface, it’s a case of smoothly steering left and right when the mirrors are clear, then holding a constant lock and steady throttle through the corners. Straights offer a chance to work the rear rubber a bit harder under acceleration, then the fronts under braking. After two of the edgiest laps I can remember the M6A begins to feel like its underneath me.

The Hewland LG gearbox feels lighter than I’m expecting. You can’t snap the stubby right-hand-mounted lever through the gate with complete abandon, but you can be quick and positive. The brakes are progressive enough, the pedals placed sweetly for heel-and-toe downshifts. At just 12 inches in diameter front and rear the brakes must have needed nursing through a race distance, but there’s plenty of stopping power when you need it.

Maths is not my thing, but even I can work out when a car is propelled by a 5.9-litre racing V8 and tips the scales at 590kg (without fuel) its power-to-weight ratio must be approaching 1:1. That’s to say one bhp for every kilo. This gives the 1967 M6A the explosive get-up-and-go of a 2017 hypercar without any of the steadying electronics or aerodynamics.

With this in mind third feels like a safe gear in which to first stretch my right foot into the latter half of its travel. Still nothing prepares me for the savage way in which the engine gets on top of the ratio. There’s no build-up, no sense of the motor gathering strength. It simply devours the gear. I’m not sure why, but this makes me laugh uncontrollably. Then again, when chimpanzees appear to be smiling they’re actually bearing their teeth in what’s described as a ‘fear grimace’. This explains my facial expressions over the next 10 laps.

Hand on heart I’ve never sat in anything quite so absurdly accelerative. It’s ridiculous and wonderful and terrifying and mind-altering all at the same time. The throttle pedal might as well be a syringe filled with a Class A drug, such are its addictive qualities. I’m hooked.

From the exit of Coppice to the chicane braking area you feel like a rodeo bull rider: too stupid to back off and too scared to let go. All you can do is hang on, keep throwing gears at it and hope things calm down. They don’t of course. I’m certain it would pull at least seven gears, Possibly eight. But that’s the lunacy of it.

Strangely even though your head is poking into the slipstream and just inches from the M6A’s bellowing V8, the noise and fury are somehow distanced. Senses focusing on the high-fidelity stream of information coming through the low-cut windscreen. Here, in the driver’s seat of this Papaya Orange rocket sled you’re firmly in the eye of the storm.

The only other car I’ve driven that comes close to the M6A is a Lola T70 Mk3B. The recipe is similar, but the balance of ingredients less extreme. You still get a small-block V8, but just the five litres, and the car itself weighs about 800kg. Even allowing for recent engine development the power-to-weight is significantly less. It’s still a madly potent car, but a firecracker compared to Bruce and Denny’s stick of TNT.

Beyond its sheer performance, what blows my mind is that these guys raced for 200 miles, on rough-and-ready circuits, in machines that were sometimes faster and always more brutal to drive than F1 cars of the era. Blokes like Hulme, Mario Andretti and George Follmer were strong, stocky men, but McLaren was small and slight, in the mould of Stewart or Clark. That he had the strength and stamina to fight these cars around bumpy circuits for hours on end is something quite extraordinary.

Donington Park is a long way (and a lifetime) from Road America, Riverside or Laguna Seca, but for a few blissful laps I’m there, bombarded by the same sensory barrage of sound and fury, walking the same tightrope.

Hell, I’m even holding the very same steering wheel.

Now when I look at archive images from that epic season it’s a little bit eerie to see the number four McLaren with Bruce’s distinctive silver open-face helmet cocked to one side. Yes he’s leaning into the lateral g, but now I know he’s also trying to sight his line between those mountainous front wheel arches. It feels like a shared secret, an intimate detail few can know. It’s as close to being Bruce as I’ll ever get, but I’ll willingly take it.

So much history, made so long ago. Bruce and Denny are gone: the former well before his time, killed while testing one of the M6A’s descendants at Goodwood; the latter decades later after succumbing to a heart attack while racing at Bathurst. We’ll never see their like again, much like the Can-Am monsters they created and tamed. Yet so long as cars like M6A-1 continue to turn a wheel in anger their inspiring legacy lives on.

Loud. Proud. Never to be forgotten.

 

CHASING THE DREAM

The owner Richard Griot explains his McLaren love affair

Richard Griot with his McLaren M6A

“Sorry about the noise!” The speaker is Richard Griot, owner of ‘our’ McLaren M6A, and we’re conversing by fractured phone line with booming back soundtrack – Richard is heading for the Monterey classic gathering in his McLaren 675LT, with his MP12 4C running behind. You might call him a marque devotee; his blood probably runs orange, although the 675LT is painted in Marlboro red and white. “First time in 20 years I won’t be driving,” he says, “but the Can-Ams aren’t racing this time. So we’ll just enjoy ourselves.”

Enjoying himself in McLarens is what Griot does, when he can grab a moment from running his nationwide car accessories firm.

“I worked at Jim Russell racing school as a mechanic,” he explains, “so I got bit fairly early and dreamed of driving Formula 1 and Can-Am cars. At the Long Beach Grand Prix I saw an M23 fly by in bright orange and I thought ‘that’s so cool’. Eventually I got hold of a McLaren M4A F2 car. Well, it was a revelation. Nothing could touch it in a straight line. I still have it – I just think everything Bruce McLaren touched was superior. The cars are gorgeous. I just love looking at them.”

While building up his company Richard managed some racing and began collecting cars. “I bought a Lola T160; that was a handful. I got airborne in it at Laguna Seca – we had to spend a lot of time on aerodynamics after that. When I hopped in the M6A I thought ‘This is unbelievable, so much better to drive.’ The effort that Bruce and Robin Herd put in, the miles of development – it was rare for the day but it shows in the cars. I love everything about the history, the cars, the man himself.”

Getting hold of the M6A was a story in itself. Richard by now had an M23 Formula 1 car, but he really wanted Bruce’s own Can-Am car – but it was the prize item in another marque enthusiast’s collection.

“I would ring him every so often, but that was the one car he was never going to sell. I happened to call again just when the market crashed and he said ‘Come and see me.’ He’d already talked prices so I went over there with the cheque all written out except the amount. He said a price, I wrote it in and shook his hand.”

The car was in good shape, having been restored by Bill Riley in the 1980s and shaken down by Denny Hulme himself, while Richard has had it set up by Louis Shefchik of J&L Fabricating. “He does everything, soup to nuts. The set-up notes came with the car so we started with those,” he says. “And I tracked down the original engine they tested with at Laguna Seca – complete with a letter from Bruce confirming that. But I haven’t installed it; it’s too precious.”

He has also bought an M6B, which he’s restoring in his own workshop. “It’ll be interesting to feel the difference between Bruce’s short-wheelbase chassis and the longer customer car,” he says.

Business pressures mean Griot doesn’t get to drive his cars often, though he has raced at Monaco in his Gurney Eagle and M23, and at Montréal in an ex-Villeneuve Ferrari T4. That car was part of the Pebble Beach Ferrari tribute, while the M6A came to this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. “I loved it,” he says. “You Brits are crazy for anything mechanical! I can’t wait to do the Revival.”
Gordon Cruickshank

 

DATA TRACE 

THE BRUCE AND DENNY SHOW

McLaren in Can-Am

The factory McLarens were the dominant Can-Am force for much of the first seven years of the powerful, lucrative sports-racing series. Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme shared four successive titles from 1967 and Peter Revson added a fifth in 1971. Without a victory during the inaugural 1966 Can-Am season, factory and privately run McLaren-Chevrolets then won 39 of the next 43 races. That included absolute domination of the 1969 season when McLaren and Hulme’s orange M8Bs won every race.

The team persevered for three seasons after its founder was killed at Goodwood when testing a McLaren M8D-Chevrolet before the 1970 campaign. Five years of sustained success came to end with the arrival of the Roger Penske-run works Porsches in 1972. Hulme won two of the first   three races that season but could not prevent George Follmer from easing to the title. Unable to match Porsche’s resources, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing withdrew from Can-Am at the end of the 1972 season, although there was once last victory for the marque – Scooter Patrick’s ex-works car winning the final race of the era in 1974. McLaren then concentrated on F1 and Indianapolis – with immediate success.

‘Data Trace’ was born from Motor Sport’s online Database, which includes results from around the world, from the mainstream to the obscure. There are full results for the main championships, while the history of others is detailed with race winners and champions, a feature that is expanding all the timemotorsportmagazine.com/database