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Today McLaren’s home is in Woking, England, but the story started nearly 80 years ago on the other side of the world. We return to New Zealand in a 650S Spider to trace the early years of our company’s eponymous founder, Bruce McLaren.
Today the route of the Bruce first race, the Muriwai hill climb, is surfaced so we can retrace his path in the 650S Spider
In 1958, a humble New Zealander named Bruce McLaren left his tiny country (its population was around a quarter the size of London’s) and travelled to Europe to race cars. He won his first Formula 1™ race at the age of 22, and went on to succeed in all kinds of motorsport all over the world, winning races in cars he’d designed and built himself, then bequeathing his name to one of the most successful Formula 1™ teams of all time.
What has since grown to become McLaren Automotive (and the wider McLaren Technology Group) started life with the more antipodean name of Bruce McLaren Racing. And yet the flying Kiwi’s part in the McLaren story is perhaps not as widely known as it should be. Even in his home country, where the multi-talented Bruce first revealed his abilities behind the wheel and with a spanner, he doesn’t always receive the recognition his achievements cry out for.
We travelled to New Zealand to drive a 650S Spider on the trail of this remarkable man and his astonishing racing career, and to meet the people keeping the Bruce McLaren legend alive today.
Bruce McLaren crosses the finish line in first place at the 1962 Monaco Grand Prix.
The story of Bruce McLaren is centred around Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island.
The entry to the Bruce McLaren Trust is a tiny doorway with a tiddling sign over the lintel, tucked away in the forecourt of a bustling mechanic’s workshop in Auckland – and it seems appropriate that you can smell the oily metallic scents of car innards as you enter. Upstairs, what was a cramped two-bedroom flat is now a museum, crammed with trophies, medals and photos from around the world. All were collected by Bruce who, back in the early 1950s, spent his formative years at this above-the-shop address with his parents Les and Ruth and his elder sister.
Out of the back windows you can see the yard where, as a 14-year-old with a deep and abiding passion for cars and all their mysteries, he set up his own wild and wooded version of a racing circuit half a world away. His younger sister, Jan, remembers it well: ‘He made up this figure of eight in the back yard, a mini Brands Hatch around all the trees, with a hard-lock turn around the clothes line and a plum tree, then a hairpin around the lemon tree, and back up past the garage – it used to scare the hell out of his uncles, watching him do it,’ she laughs.
A 14-YEAR-OLD WITH A DEEP PASSION FOR CARS, BRUCE SET UP HIS OWN WILD AND WOODED VERSION OF A RACING CIRCUIT
McLaren’s Service Station in Auckland provided a business for Les, a home for the family, and a place for Bruce to fettle his Austin 7 Ulster.
Bruce McLaren always seemed to be in a hurry, on racetracks and in life, and perhaps that was because he was making up for lost time. Aged just 10, he contracted Perthes disease in his leg, which meant living in a medical facility – and in traction – for two years. It also left him with one leg noticeably shorter than the other.
‘From the age of 12 to 13 he had to learn to walk again,’ Jan explains. ‘He came out of Wilson Home for disabled children in Auckland and went straight into high school on crutches, but it didn’t slow him down at all. Once he recovered from it, he just got on with things. He was always just very focused on doing what he enjoyed, and that was always going to be following Dad into racing cars.
Parked on the forecourt of what used to be McLaren’s Service Station is the impossibly small and spindly Austin 7 workshop ‘hack’ that Bruce learnt to drive in. Climbing into it today, especially after a stint in the 650S Spider, it feels implausibly cramped and spartan. The tiny gear lever sits under your left leg – and if you can imagine trying to type with your toes while sitting in a camp chair, you’ll get an idea of what the pedals are like. Driving it at all would be a challenge; the thought of driving it fast is mind-boggling. ‘Oh yes, they were absolutely tiny those Austins – and you wouldn’t believe the speeds they got up to in them, with tyres no wider than your hand,’ Jan reminisces.
Left: The upper floor of what was once McLaren’s Service Station is now packed with trophies.
Right: Jan McLaren, Bruce’s younger sister, in the Austin 7 in which her brother learnt to drive. Bruce raced another Austin he built with his father.
The staff of the Bruce McLaren Trust speak about Bruce with the kind of awe that Elvis fans reserve for The King. Particular pride is taken in a poster showing all of the race cars that Bruce drove or designed – or both – during his unique career.
‘As a Kiwi, I take huge pride in the fact that Bruce McLaren went abroad, formed his own motor racing team and was incredibly competitive in so many different disciplines,’ raves David Rhodes, a motorsport fanatic who has worked at the museum for 13 years, all of them clearly joyful. ‘Initially it was hill climbs and sprints, later Formula 1, Can-Am, Formula 2 and endurance racing. He won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, and in 1967 he won the Sebring 12 Hours with Mario Andretti.
‘I’ve found 450 races for Bruce in all those different disciplines and he’s got a 43 percent podium success rate. His busiest year was 1964, when he had 44 races, covering both hemispheres. He’s been described as a designer, engineer and driver in one – he was able to think about the processes going on in the cars he was racing.’
'BRUCE WAS A DESIGNER, ENGINEER AND DRIVER – HE WAS ABLE TO THINK ABOUT THE PROCESSES GOING ON IN THE CARS HE WAS RACING.
The McLaren 650S Spider excels on the beautiful Scenic Drive, which runs through the hills west of Auckland.
On our way out of Auckland we travel along Bruce McLaren Road, which features a giant mural of Bruce at one end, behind a railway line, and a school named after him in the middle, just past an intersection with Silverstone Place.
Around here, nearly everyone knows about Bruce, who is referred to more commonly as ‘a bloody legend’ – though it’s surprising how many young New Zealanders we meet look blank at the mention of his name. It seems strange that a man who raced with Jack Brabham, and who took on both Stirling Moss and Graham Hill, is not as famous as those giants of motorsport are in their countries. Although most are familiar with McLaren the racing team and builder of supercars, many just are not aware of the Kiwi origins.
Just a few minutes from Bruce McLaren Road lies a soaring, spectacular stretch of black top known as Scenic Drive, which the McLaren 650S Spider makes short, sharp work of. It’s a drive that Bruce must have taken many times, and we reckon he would have loved this McLaren as much as we did today.
His sister, Jan, concurs: ‘He’d love the design of the car, because when you look at the road car Bruce designed – the 1969 M6GT – there is a clear evolutionary link between the two. Just like when McLaren built the F1 road car, the similarity between it and the M6GT, even with 40 years between, was remarkable. Bruce was always streets ahead with design and engineering, and he worked so hard. He had a small team of 50 people and they were racing and they were building a road car.’
Left: New Zealand’s North Island features spectacular scenery within a short drive of Auckland.
Right: A 15-year-old Bruce waits in his Austin 7 Ulster before racing to a famous class victory at the inaugural Muriwai hill climb; and today the McLaren 650S Spider visits the scene of that famous win.
Bruce, who spent his every spare moment as a child hanging around the workshop, got his licence the day he turned 15. He entered his first race, a hill climb at Muriwai Beach on the ruggedly beautiful west coast, four months later.
The locals, including Bruce’s father, had raced on the beach itself for many years, but one day Les discovered a winding track, and decided it would make a good hill climb. For the event, father and son shared the Austin 7 Ulster they’d built from scratch.
What was once a tree-lined track with stunning ocean views and striking drop-offs is now a winding road lined with armco barriers and beach houses, peopled by buses of tourists sucking up the vistas through their phones. Slicing up what is now Waitea Road in the 650S Spider, it’s easy to see how its steep, tightening turns would have been an enlivening challenge in the open Austin (which now resides at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, England).
‘It was a beautiful spot with magnificent views straight out to sea, but it was a scary, unsealed road – and that’s where Bruce learnt to handle cars moving around on him, in any conditions,’ Jan explains. ‘We’ve got footage of him going up that hill in the dust and you can see the lines and the speed he was going at compared with Dad, even at that point. He started setting faster times than Dad from very early on, and so Dad just stepped back from the racing and became his pit manager.’
Still a working airfield, Ardmore was also home to the New Zealand Grand Prix from 1954 to 1962. At the final race in ’62, Bruce finished third, behind Stirling Moss and John Surtees.
Our next stop is Ardmore Airport, where the first New Zealand Grands Prix were held, and where Bruce took part in his first ever international race some 60 years ago. Jan McLaren now lives nearby, and gets sentimental each time she drives past. ‘He was still very young, just 18,’ Jan says. ‘But from there he went on to win his first Formula 1 Grand Prix aged just 22 – the youngest winner ever at that time – and it all just happened so fast.
‘Him going overseas was a huge thing. It was the first time New Zealand had ever sent a driver to Europe. He was chosen by a board that included Jack Brabham to get a scholarship to go, while he was still at university. He said he’d take a year off and come back, which he did, but only to race, and for Christmases.’
The airfield offers a pretty basic set-up: two long straights (otherwise known as runways) joined by slip roads, but this was the home of the New Zealand GP from 1954 to 1962 (Stirling Moss won here three times), and Bruce’s performance here in 1958, at the age of just 21, was enough to catch the eye of Brabham, who helped launch his career.
BRUCE’S PERFORMANCE AT THE NEW ZEALAND GRAND PRIX IN 1958 CAUGHT JACK BRABHAM’S EYE AND LAUNCHED HIS CAREER.
The McLaren 650S Spider, kindly loaned by McLaren Auckland, tackles the fast Pukekohe circuit, where Bruce won the 1964 New Zealand Grand Prix.
Our final pit stop is at the Pukekohe circuit – the scene of one of Bruce’s many landmark achievements: it was here that he won the 1964 New Zealand Grand Prix, driving for his eponymous team. Today it’s still a hairy and scary racetrack, despite the chicanes that have been added to slow it down.
Six years after that victory, Bruce was killed while testing a new Can-Am car at Goodwood in England. He was just 32 – yet he’d already pondered on the subject of his own mortality in his 1964 autobiography: ‘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, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.’
It’s a quote that will no doubt feature prominently at the planned Bruce McLaren Heritage Centre, which it is hoped will be built in the near future. Duncan Fox, a member of the Board of Trustees at the Bruce McLaren Trust, tells us: ‘We’re raising funds to set up a world-class tourist destination, and we’ve approached Weta Workshop [the imagineering house famous for its work on the Lord Of The Rings movies] to give us some ideas. You’ll be able to follow Bruce’s trail, as you’re doing, and we’ll make it as interactive as we can. It’s going to be fantastic.’
If the Heritage Centre comes to fruition, then perhaps – finally – Bruce McLaren will get the recognition his efforts so richly deserve.
Bruce’s family, including his younger sister Jan, welcome him home after his second season on the European racing circuit.
With special thanks to: Jan McLaren, Duncan Fox, David Rhodes and the Bruce McLaren Trust; Geoff Tink, Luke Neuberger, Ryan Stamp and McLaren Auckland; Michael Clark; Ardmore Airport; and Pukekohe Park.