Bruce McLaren: celebrating a true motor sport hero

Those who knew Bruce McLaren speak of him only in warm tones – and one of Motor Sport’s regular contributors understands why. He was lucky enough to work with him in period

March 1970: New Zealand motor-racing driver Bruce McLaren (1937 - 1970) sits on the wheel of his McLaren-Ford M14A before the start of the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in Kent. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

McLaren was accomplished on the track, even more successful off it – but his personable manner is what's remembered by many

Fox Photos/Getty Images

Back in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, Bruce McLaren became renowned as a world-class racing driver – and also for being one of the nicest guys in motor sport.

He was friendly, accessible, brimming with charm, yet ferociously competitive like all top sportsmen. He had a core of tempered steel, which his natural grace generally hid, and was not only a good, formally trained engineer but a young man with a committed work ethic.

Consider this from a fellow New Zealander: “He really was a man of exceptional talent. He’d been raised in racing the right way – by some of the very best people, like Jack Brabham – and like Jack he could be amazingly generous in helping people he rated. But you had to prove yourself to him first. He came to England as winner of the first New Zealand Grand Prix Association ‘Driver to Europe’ scholarship back in 1958 – and never forgot the leg-up that gave his career. As the later years rolled by and he was a works driver for Cooper, and then later started his own team – he would always encourage fellow Kiwis whether they were the truck driver, mechanics or drivers. He was a fabulous team leader.

“The top priority was that we would always have a car ready on the grid. It never mattered if we’d had an engine blow in practice or one of the cars had been shunted – we’d know that we were going to put it right overnight and be there somehow – even if it meant a 200-mile round trip in the dark to get some specialist welding done or a part made way out in the back of beyond, McLaren would do it because we were McLaren and this was Bruce’s team. And no matter how tired we might have been we all just knew – taking our example from the top – that we’d get the job done… He radiated that self-confidence – it was infectious”.

Bruce was the middle child in the McLaren family. His grandfather had started a truck and bus business in Remuera, Auckland, and father Les (‘Pop’) built a large and prosperous garage business there.

Bruce McLaren, John Cooper, Cooper-Climax T60, Grand Prix of Monaco, Monaco, 03 June 1962. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

After winning a scholarship to come to Europe, McLaren had F1 success – including Monaco in ’62

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

So what put the steel into young Bruce? As a kid he was already drawing racing cars. He was captain of his school rugby team and, by his own recollection, “The second-best boxer – the other chap was bigger than me.” But then as his friend and biographer Eoin Young once wrote “the pains began in his left hip”. He was diagnosed with Perthe’s Disease – loss of blood circulation to the head of the growing femur. Treatment today is relatively benign, but in the late 1940s Bruce was entrapped in Auckland’s Wilson Home for Crippled Children, strapped to a Bradshaw frame made mobile by bicycle wheels, legs in elastic plasters with weights dangling from the end. His mum Ruth told Eoin “There was no treatment. He just lay on that frame for two years and never came off. He was washed on it, educated on it, the whole lot…”

He emerged with his left leg shorter than the right. He would normally wear a built-up heel on his left shoe, which gave him a normal gait, but in his thin-soled racing boots he would walk with a pronounced limp. Sister Jan recalled: “He changed from being a happy little boy to a very deep, thoughtful person and that remained with him. It made him more aware of other people’s suffering, it brought out a depth of compassion.”

“I was told off for hanging the tail out – a case of the pot calling the kettle black…” Bruce McLaren

WHILE HE WAS in the home, ‘Pop’ gave Bruce a Jaguar XK120 catalogue featuring a cutaway drawing of the wondrous XK engine. The 11-year-old studied this intently and worked out how it went together, and why and how it all worked. By 1951 he was back on his feet, fit enough to return to school and enrolled in an engineering course. The plan was to qualify as a civil engineer, but he excelled at hands-on workshop practice and automobile engineering beckoned.

‘Pop’ began taking him to local hillclimbs and beach races. A second-hand Austin Seven Ulster was acquired and father and son rebuilt it between them. At college Bruce began to shine at practical engineering mathematics, but the sporting urge plainly gnawed. Having become too slow on his feet for ball games he would eventually take up swimming and rowing, and ‘Pop’ introduced him to driving the Austin. At 15 he got his licence – in a side-valve Morris Minor whose outermost cornering limits he explored. And ‘Pop’ encouraged him to compete in local events, beginning in 1952. He shone. ‘Pop’ supported his career and they ran an Austin-Healey, then a ‘Bobtail’ Cooper that had been brought to New Zealand by visitor Jack Brabham.

Jack and the McLarens became firm friends. All racing drivers are selfish – by definition – but the best among them stand out by helping others towards similarly high ambitions – and Bruce showed real promise.

From the archive

He had his first single-seat Cooper-Climax drive at Ardmore airfield, Auckland, in December 1957. Bruce: “Jack led me around for a few laps and I had a marvellous time following his lines and hanging the tail out when he did. Then I was waved on and Jack sat on my tail and followed me. When we pulled into the pits, I was told off for hanging the tail out too far – a case, I thought, of the pot calling the kettle black…”

Bruce then won the Driver to Europe scholarship, and upon arrival was collected by Jack and taken the next day to the Cooper factory at Surbiton. The story goes that he asked John Cooper if he could see his car. John took his pipe from between his teeth and pointed at the workshop tube rack – “It’s in there boy,” he beamed. Bruce: “It slowly dawned. I had to build it. I felt very small…”

So he built his F2 Cooper along with mechanic friend Colin Beanland. They lived in the Royal Oak pub next to the factory and began his racing programme (for £75 starting money) at Silverstone in May 1958.

“Always technically astute, Bruce became a sought-after development driver”

Those were the days when drivers arrived at races like the German Grand Prix in battered Ford Anglias and suchlike. Each car would be thrashed around the Nordschleife to learn the course – then Bruce won the F2 class in the GP.

He was promoted to the Cooper F1 team for 1959, established himself as a fine deputy to team leader Brabham and became shock winner of the title-deciding United States GP at Sebring, when Jack’s car ran out of fuel on the final lap. At 22 Bruce was the youngest winner of a championship GP – as he remained until 2003 when Fernando Alonso won in Hungary.

Bruce also had a great interest in endurance racing, and he became a fine all-rounder at the top level. Always technically adept and astute, he became a sought-after development driver.

When he and mechanic ‘Big Mike’ Barney took Peter Berry’s Cooper Monaco to the US West Coast Professional Series races through 1961-62, it sowed a seed that developed towards Can-Am as a constructor four years hence. When Jack left Cooper to set up his own racing car construction business and works racing team at the end of 1961, Bruce became Cooper’s number one driver… but the team struggled to maintain its double-world championship grip of 1959-60.

Bruce proved a fine and consistent front-runner, but seldom a winner as the Cooper designs slipped behind the likes of Lotus and Lola. As Coventry Climax’s engine focus drifted to Team Lotus, McLaren’s and Cooper’s options became less effective.

When Charlie Cooper vetoed the expense of building cars to contest the new Tasman Championship races in New Zealand and Australia at the beginning of 1964, Bruce founded his own team with American friend Teddy Mayer and ran modified Coopers. Teddy was the businessman brother of rising Formula Junior star Timmy Mayer, who was poised to become Bruce’s 1964 F1 team-mate only to lose his life at Longford, Tasmania, while running in the Tasman Series.

Bruce McLaren's McLaren-Ford, Spanish Grand Prix, Jarama, Madrid, 1968. McLaren retired with mechanical trouble after 77 laps of the race. New Zealander McLaren won 4 Grands Prix in a 13-season Formula 1 career, finishing second in the World Drivers' Championship in 1960. In 1966 he set up his own team bearing his name which went on to become one of the most successful constructors in the history of the sport. Unfortunately Bruce McLaren did not live to see the success of the organisation, as he was killed at Goodwood in 1970 while testing the McLaren M8D-Chevrolet Can-Am sports car. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Laying it down at Jarama in 1968

National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

AT THE TIME, Eoin Young penned a regular column for Bruce in Autosport magazine. He wrote: “Intelligent and charming, [Timmy] had made dozens of friends. As often occurs, to look at him you wouldn’t take him for a racing driver. You had to know him, to realise his desire to compete, to do things better than the next man, be it swimming, water skiing or racing… The news that he died instantly was a terrible shock to all of us. But who is to say that he had not seen more, done more and learned more in his 26 years than many people do in a lifetime?

“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; life is measured in terms of achievement, not in years alone…”

From the archive

In June 1970 – after Bruce’s own fatal accident while testing the Can-Am McLaren M8D at Goodwood – those words would apply equally well.

Bruce McLaren Motor Racing developed through the 1964 British and European season and, after a first foray into the large-capacity American production V8-powered sports car genre with the ‘Jolly Green Giant’ Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile, completed its first McLaren-Oldsmobile prototype sports car that summer. It was inevitable that Bruce would incline towards going completely independent in Jack Brabham’s wheel-tracks, and so he did at the end of 1965.

Through the following year he would score his first F1 world championship points in a car bearing his own name. McLaren single-seaters had been built since the first prototype spaceframe Firestone tyre test vehicle, which earned most of the team’s income in ’65, and a sports car production deal with Peter Agg’s Trojan group – under the McLaren-Elva name – would prove highly successful.

In the Colnbrook workshop Bruce was the energy driving the technical team forward. Long nights of hard work would be punctuated by practical jokes. McLaren’s blokes had fun – that light relief gave them the endurance and stamina their 24/7 job demanded. About the only guy who could bawl “McLaren – go home and get some sleep!” was long-time chief mechanic Tyler Alexander. And Bruce would meekly obey.

I think a measure of his personal triumph in diplomatic terms was the way in which he remained with the Ford GT programme through 1967, at a time when his own team was adopting Chevrolet GM V8 engines for its new generation of Can-Am cars. The McLaren-Chevrolet M6As of Bruce and Denny Hulme won five of the six 1967 Can-Am Championship rounds, with Denny taking the title.

Bruce McLaren, Los Angeles Times Grand Prix- Can-Am, Riverside, 29 October 1967. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Pensive in the Can-Am pits at Riverside ’67

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

From 1967 Bruce was “doing a Brabham” by fostering fellow Kiwi Hulme’s career – as he did those of Chris Amon and Howden Ganley – taking him onto the Can-Am team and then F1. Into 1970 Bruce’s business diversified into F5000 and Indy. Apart from F1 – where fortunes faltered slightly – everything chez McLaren seemed to be on an upward curve…

I vividly recall how, in the winter of 1969-70, I did a long interview with Bruce in his pokey corner office at Colnbrook. The sun was pitching through the window behind him full into my eyes and he realised I was being dazzled. While I was too diffident to say as much, he recognised my problem, jumped up and fixed the blinds. An F1 star and double Can-Am champion showing care for a scribbler? He really was an exception to the norm, as was his depth of experience and maturity when he died aged just 32.

I asked him about his team’s total Can-Am domination that year. Which race had most stuck in his mind? “Road America,” he said. “For some reason that weekend it just seemed so easy. I was out in the lead with Denny covering my back in second place, and the car was superbly balanced. It was like going out for a sunny evening’s cruise around the countryside in the Healey back home in New Zealand. That was very satisfying… I loved it.”

Talk to any of “his guys” today and you will get a true picture. With good reason, Bruce was admired, respected, liked – and loved. When we lost him – it left a gaping void.