McLaren Cars Ltd. is a car company, not a racing team. It's not even a typical car company, really. It's more like something from the aerospace industry, and its recently completed headquarters in Woking, Surrey, just south of London, includes a wind tunnel, big autoclaves for forming carbon-fiber structures, and hundreds of people walking briskly among clean, futuristic architecture.
TAG McLaren Cars was established in March 1989 to develop and manufacture the finest cars in the world, and the Mercedes-Benz SLR is its latest effort. The company is just one component of McLaren Group (it dropped the TAB moniker this past year), an interlocking organization of seven companies, including the well-known Formula One racing team. The image of high technology is overlaid on everything the McLaren Group does, and chief executive Ron Dennis is famous for his convoluted orations on the subject. Yet the company still owes much of its business philosophy to Bruce McLaren, a cheerful and ever-practical racing driver from New Zealand who established the original outfit in 1964.
McLaren's father owned a thriving repair garage in an upscale suburb of Auckland, New Zealand. When Bruce McLaren was born in 1937, the island country was still a remote British colony, far from a ready supply of new parts and special tools, so self-reliance and inventiveness were the key attributes of a successful mechanic. As a result, Bruce had a keen appreciation for the ingenuity required to keep a car in running order, although he also had a university education in engineering. For example, he made a cylinder head for an Austin Seven Ulster (his first racing car) by cannibalizing a head from another Austin Seven engine, filling the combustion chambers with bronze and then sculpting them into a useful high-performance shape.
McLaren inherited his interest in motorsport from his father, a former motorcycle racer, and they both were excited when Formula One cars began to visit New Zealand for off-season racing in 1954. After racing the Ulster and then an Austin-Healey 100, McLaren and his father bought a bobtail Cooper sports car in 1957. To help sort the car, McLaren began to correspond with the Cooper's former owner, the son of a grocer from Sydney, Australia. This was Jack Brabham, who had begun racing in Europe with Cooper in 1956. After McLaren's season of success in 1957 with the bobtail, Brabham proposed to arrive in New Zealand for the 1958 season of down-under racing with a pair of Cooper Formula 2 cars, one of which McLaren could buy for his own use.
This moneymaking proposition by the ever-shrewd Brabham led to McLaren earning a scholarship from New Zealand motorsports enthusiasts to pay his way to England. McLaren spent the summer of 1958 towing a Cooper F2 car back and forth across Europe, quickly making a name for himself. As 1959 began, McLaren was Brabham's teammate in the Cooper Formula One team and became F1's youngest-ever winner (a record broken only recently by Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso) when he triumphed at the 1959 Grand Prix of the United States. McLaren spent 7 years with Cooper, which was probably longer than he should have, as the team's fortunes declined when its rough-and-ready engineering couldn't meet the standard of new cars from BRM and Lotus. Yet the collaborative design process at Cooper allowed McLaren to exercise his own engineering imagination, and he had much to do with the Cooper T60-Climax with which he won the 1962 Grand Prix of Monaco.
McLaren's technical background, driving skill and friendly personality led Ford to make him the primary test driver for its new GT40 sports car in 1964, and he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 at the wheel of a Ford Mk. II. More important, McLaren got an invaluable education from Ford and Firestone during the development of the GT40, as the two companies had created the most scientific testing program in motorsports history. Thanks to the newfound income from Ford, McLaren was able to set up his own racing team in 1964, much as Brabham had done 2 years before, and he quickly attracted an impressive circle of employees. Ex-driver Phil Kerr, lawyer Teddy Mayer, designer Robin Herd, chief mechanic Tyler Alexander and publicist Eoin Young all began their enormously influential careers in racing as a part of McLaren Cars.
As the '60s played out, McLaren machinery was involved in Can-Am sports cars, Formula One, Formula 5000 and Indy cars. The team's greatest success came in the Can-Am, then the source of the biggest purses in racing. Bruce McLaren won the driver's championship in 1967 and 1969, while teammate Denny Hulme dominated in 1968 and 1970. In general, McLaren cars represented the best available technology, but they usually perfected the good ideas of others. The 1969 M8B Can-Am car adapted the high-mounted rear wing introduced by the 1966 Chaparral 2E; the 1971 M16 Indy car adopted the hip-mounted radiators and integrated rear wing featured by the Lotus 72 F1 car. As the saying went, McLaren cars were "common cars made uncommonly well." Practical engineering, the spirit of mechanics from New Zealand, was the order of the day.
Bruce McLaren was killed in the spring of 1970 while testing the M8D Can-Am car at the Goodwood circuit when the rear bodywork came adrift in a 100-mph corner. Kerr and Mayer kept the team going successfully even while sponsorship budgets shrank in the poor economic climate of the early '70s, and drivers Denny Hulme and Peter Revson kept the team in the winner's circle both in the Can-Am and in Formula One. Mark Donohue won the Indy 500 in a Penske-prepared McLaren in 1972, and Johnny Rutherford won the Indy 500 for McLaren in 1974 and 1976. The practical M23 won F1 championships for Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974 and James Hunt in 1976.
As the '70s came to a close, however, science had become more important in motorsport than just good ideas, and McLaren seemed to lose its way. Marlboro, then McLaren's primary sponsor, helped broker the sale of a majority partnership in the team to Ron Dennis in 1980. A former Brabham mechanic, Dennis appreciated well- turned-out machinery, yet he was also eager to pursue an innovative design proposed by designer John Barnard-the first monocoque built from carbon fiber. Thanks to cooperation from Hercules, an American aerospace company, the McLaren MP4/1-Cosworth appeared on the grid in 1980. After Porsche agreed to build a turbocharged V6 engine for the team, McLaren won F1 championships with Niki Lauda in 1984 and Alain Prost in 1985 and 1986.
Techniques d'Avant Garde, a company owned by Mansour Ojjeh, an entrepreneur from Saudi Arabia, purchased 60% of McLaren International in 1985, providing the financial backing Ron Dennis wanted so he could pursue his dream of taking McLaren beyond motorsports into the world of high technology. (TAG had previously funded the design of the Porsche F1 engine, which was unveiled in 1982.) Designer Gordon Murray, Honda engines and Ayrton Senna arrived together in 1988, and they made McLaren the dominant team in F1 for the next 5 years, winning the driver's championship for Senna in 1988, 1990 and 1991. McLaren then began an association with Mercedes-Benz in 1995, and this led to F1 drivers' championships in 1998 and 1999 for Mika Hakkinen. At the end of 1999, DaimlerChrysler bought a 60% interest in the TAG McLaren Group, and now Ojjeh and Dennis each own 30% of the company.
Bruce McLaren himself had considered getting his company involved in the manufacture of high-performance street cars in the '60s. The M6GT, a coupe version of the M6A that had won the Can-Am sports car championship in 1967, was constructed in 1969, but it failed to generate much commercial interest, much like the road-going Ford GT40 Mk. III, which appeared at the same time. But some 20 years later, when Ferrari created a huge commercial success with the F40 in 1988 and sold more than 1,200 high-priced supercars, McLaren decided to try the street-car market once again. McLaren Cars Ltd. was established in 1989, and shortly thereafter the Gordon Murray-designed McLaren F1 was announced. Like the current Ferrari Enzo, the McLaren F1 was a racing car for the street, with a carbon-fiber monocoque, a 600-bhp BMW V12 engine and a top speed of 240 mph. The price was a cool $1 million.
Unfortunately, this exotic speedster was introduced just as the worldwide economic bubble collapsed, and the car landed with a resounding thud in the marketplace when production began in 1991, especially since journalists and professional drivers (even Ron Dennis!) seemed to crash the few test cars with astonishing frequency. Some 64 cars were built initially, then eight more cars were built in two different iterations in '93 and '94.
Finally McLaren built the F1-GTR in 1995 to suit new racing regulations in endurance racing, which suited privateers in quasi-street-legal machinery. An F1-GTR won the rain-swept 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1995 thanks to a stunning drive in the dark by J.J. Lehto, although the downbeat commercial temper of the times was signaled by the car's primary sponsor, a clinic in Tokyo that specialized in circumcision. Nevertheless, the street cars have maintained their value, and the first street-legal F1 to change hands at an auction did so just last summer at a price of $961,875.
The new McLaren Technology Centre is quite a place, with some 950 employees producing street cars, racing cars and electronics. It's easy to believe, as Ron Dennis so often reminds us, that it's all about technology. In reality, it's the ingenuity, practicality and timeliness of McLaren's racing culture that has attracted other technology companies. Bruce McLaren helped make New Zealand famous for racing mechanics who could build anything with a few tractor parts and some wire fencing from a sheep pen. The can-do attitude of Kiwi-bred racers has made them incredibly influential in worldwide motorsport ever since. Technology companies have been attracted to McLaren over the years, because it has been able to complete large projects in a short period of time, which is exactly what motorsports culture is all about.
So it appears that the story of McLaren Cars Ltd.'s involvement in the new Mercedes-Benz SLR might have more to do with Bruce McLaren than most people realize. Technology is easy; making technology into something you can drive is the hard part.