It is difficult to know at what moment a person becomes a legend and the name becomes a brand, or in that most revered state, a definition. Something to which others (and objects) will inevitably be compared and will attempt to emulate. We are all familiar with the man from Italy who gave us the cars of the prancing horse; now it’s time to consider one Bruce Leslie McLaren. The man simply could not be categorized or labeled so easily. While his sudden passing during a test session at Goodwood in 1970 would have meant the end of some teams, the work ethic, the preparation and the engineering brilliance that Bruce brought forth was matched by the dedicated crew at the McLaren workshop in Feltham. That spirit of continuity has been at the center of McLaren through the decades of changing ownership, personnel and motorsport business partners. A personal pinnacle of excellence and professionalism is expected when one walks through the doors at the Woking facilities of the McLaren Group just as it had been decades earlier at Feltham. The strength of any successful enterprise is in the people, the old and the new, junior and senior, and the commitment they bring. How else can a business go from a small 3,000 square-foot building to a major mover with more than 1,300 personnel?
History shows that most racing drivers are not good businessmen, let alone innovators. History also shows that there have been notable exceptions. Bruce McLaren obviously falls into the latter category. Sunday afternoon on a podium collecting a trophy to Monday meetings followed up by mid-week testing. McLaren knew the direction he wanted to go for himself and his company. Simply driving another brand would never suffice; McLaren was aiming at the formula successfully used by Cooper and Lotus by eventually constructing sports racers and open-wheel warriors, solid race cars with a platform for the constant upgrading and evolution needed to get to the top step of the podium. How well McLaren succeeded is defined by a look at a few past noteworthy examples. And on the eve of the market debut of the company’s new road car, the MP4-12C, there’s another to add to the list.
1964 McLaren M1A
The first real McLaren to see production, and the basis of the long-standing arrangement with Elva and Trojan to produce replica variants for private teams and customers. The M1A and Mk 1 models showed efficient use of the hardware-store model of using proven components with an original chassis. The Traco-built Oldsmobile V8 was the mainstay, but most were updated to Chevrolet power. The most important victory for the M1A was a no-holds battle in 1965 at Silverstone between Bruce and the Lola T70 of John Surtees. McLaren as a manufacturer had arrived and in a pop culture moment when the M1A shared the big screen with Mr. Elvis Presley himself in Spinout. Thank you Bruce, thank you very much.
1965 McLaren M2A
This one-off single-seater was used for testing but never raced officially by McLaren. Its inclusion is noteworthy as it was designed by Robin Herd and used Mallite (alloy panels with balsa wood) in its construction, a sign of things to come.
1966 McLaren M1B Mk II
For many, this is the prototypical Can-Am car. Many of us still remember the cover of Road & Track that featured Charlie Haye’s example. Tidy and compact, the 28 examples constructed remained competitive for years. The simple but clever nature of the car made it popular for many teams and as the cliché goes, it was “priced right.” Since the majority were sold as complete rollers, a team could choose its own powerplant.
1967 McLaren M4A and M4A/B
Formula Two cars have a tendency to be overlooked simply because the number “two” seems to designate a lower class of driver and car. Scanning the list of hot shoes that drove in that so-called lower class shows the opposite. The Trojan-built M4A/B was the first truly commercial success for McLaren in the open-wheel category and showed it could compete with the F2 cars of Ferrari and Lotus.
1967 McLaren M6A
A whole bushel of firsts for McLaren. The company’s first monocoque Can-Am car, it debuted the McLaren orange that would identify the team cars for the next few years and the first one-two finish as Can-Am Champions for Bruce and Denny Hulme.
1968 McLaren M7A
Everyone remembers their first time. The Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, Bruce finally gets his first win. The Ford Cosworth worked out pretty well too.
1969 McLaren M6GT
McLaren’s attempt at a roadgoing production car that could be homologated for use in GT. A late rules change out of Paris with a requirement of 50 cars as mandated by the FIA ended that idea. Bruce used the prototype to announce his arrival (it was that loud) and an additional three were constructed by Trojan.
1969 McLaren M8B
Pure Can-Am domination resulting in a perfect season, the Gordon Coppuck-penned M8B simply was the best. Saying it was in the details is to give that phrase a whole ’nother meaning.