Story: McLaren, Bruce Leslie

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McLaren, Bruce Leslie

1937–1970

Racing driver, racing car designer, constructor and team owner

This biography, written by David Green, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.

Bruce McLaren was the first New Zealander to win a Formula One motor race, and the first to found his own racing team. After enjoying great success in Can-Am sports car racing in North America in the late 1960s, McLaren was destined for a stellar career as a car constructor when he died at the age of 32 while test-driving a sports car. His legacy was McLaren Racing, one of the two most successful Formula One teams of the late twentieth century. Blessed with an infectious grin, he was loved for his sunny personality as much as he was admired for his work ethic and ferocious attention to detail.

Early life

Bruce Leslie McLaren was born in Auckland on 30 August 1937. His parents were Ruth Leigh Caundle and her husband, Remuera garage proprietor Leslie (Les) McLaren. They had a seven-year-old daughter, Patricia; another daughter, Janice, would be born in 1947. As well as fixing vehicles, Les carried on a family tradition by racing motorcycles and later sports cars. Bruce grew up in an apartment above the family’s Remuera Road garage.

McLaren attended Meadowbank Primary School, captaining a rugby team. At the age of nine he contracted Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease, a childhood hip disorder. After a month in hospital, he spent nearly three years in the Wilson Home for children with physical disabilities at Takapuna. He was in traction for months, with his legs in plaster casts. After nearly two years in a wheelchair he learned to walk again on crutches, but walked with a limp for the rest of his life. With contact sport now out of the question, he took up rowing.

McLaren excelled in engineering at Seddon Memorial Technical College, where he was a prefect. He taught himself to drive in the family’s back yard, and began racing Les’s Austin Seven sports car competitively soon after turning 15 and gaining his driver’s licence. In 1956 he began studying engineering at Auckland University College’s campus at Ardmore – near the aerodrome on which the New Zealand Grand Prix was raced from 1954.

During the 1950s, oil companies that were supporting the development of motor racing in Europe extended their activities to Australia and New Zealand. As a result, several world championship drivers regularly drove ‘works’ cars in Australasian races, including the New Zealand Grand Prix, during the northern hemisphere winter. Local drivers usually followed in their slipstreams. McLaren finished fifth in his first New Zealand Grand Prix in 1957, and despite a disastrous race the following year, he was awarded the first ‘Driver to Europe’ scholarship. This was funded by businessmen who were passionate about motorsport and administered by the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association. The scholarship covered fares and expenses during the racing season, and came with introductions to racing teams. McLaren persuaded fellow driver Colin Beanland to accompany him as an (initially unpaid) mechanic.

Formula One driver

Europe was the centre of open-wheel single-seater motor-racing in the late 1950s, with eight of the 11 races in the elite Formula One series raced on road circuits in the contintent or in Britain. North America, by contrast, had a tradition of racing on enclosed ovals epitomised by the annual Indianapolis 500 race. Rising Australian star Jack Brabham persuaded the Cooper Car Company he raced for in Formula One to offer McLaren, his protégé, drives in the second-tier Formula Two series in Britain and on the Continent. Beanland and McLaren assembled a car themselves, and McLaren soon impressed observers with his calmness and intelligence behind the wheel. He made a name for himself by finishing fifth (behind only Formula One cars) in the 1958 German Grand Prix raced at the fearsome 23-kilometre Nurburgring circuit. He also did well racing sports cars. Pipped by Brabham for the 1958 Formula Two championship, he was the New Zealand Gold Star Race champion for 1958/59, the last season he would be classified as a local driver. As his career progressed he continued to spend British winters racing and holidaying in Australasia, keeping fit and honing his reflexes by doing as much water skiing as he could. He was also careful about his diet.

In 1959 McLaren was promoted to Coopers’ Formula One works team. He placed third in the British Grand Prix and became the youngest driver to that date to win a traditional Formula One race when he won the United States Grand Prix at Sebring, Florida, after Brabham ran out of petrol on the last lap. He finished sixth in the championship in his debut season. In 1960 he won the Argentine Grand Prix, came second at Monaco and finished as runner-up to Brabham in the Formula One championship.

On 8 December 1961, the 24-year-old motor engineer married Christchurch beautician Patricia Yvonne (Patty) Broad, who he had met after a hill-climb near Timaru in 1958. Their daughter Amanda was born in 1965. The family later settled near Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, in a house McLaren named ‘Muriwai’ after the Auckland beach where he had some of his formative racing experiences.

Team owner and racing car developer

In 1962 McLaren, now Coopers’ number one driver, won the Monaco Grand Prix, came second in South Africa, and finished third in the drivers’ championship.  In 1963 he followed Brabham’s lead and began building and racing his own cars, founding Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd with Patty and Eoin Young. Initially based in a machinery shed with a dirt floor at New Malden in south-west London, the company moved in mid-1964 to a 2000-square-foot building at Feltham, where the prototype M1 McLaren sports car was designed. From December 1965 they occupied larger premises at Colnbrook, near Heathrow airport – a convenient location, given the team’s involvement in motor racing on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of the growing and highly talented team were McLaren’s own age – mid-twenties – or younger. A contract to test Firestone tyres was a financial boon to the fledgling company, as racing cars were becoming more complex and expensive to develop and build.

McLaren’s only victory in the New Zealand Grand Prix came at Pukekohe in 1964, the first year it was included in the new Tasman Series. Comprising eight races in New Zealand and Australia, the series ran on a ‘Tasman formula’, with cars limited to 2.5-litre un-supercharged engines. McLaren won the Tasman series, proving – not least to himself – that he had the ability to build his own cars and manage a racing team. In 1965 he won the Australian Grand Prix at Longford, Tasmania, repeating his 1962 victory in this race at Caversham airfield, Perth. 1965 was also his last year driving for the Cooper team in Formula One.

McLaren’s ability to design and build cars, and manage a racing team, as well as drive at the highest level, was a rare combination of skills. Thanks to his engineering background, he knew that saving weight, maximising road-holding qualities and perfecting braking and lubricating systems was at least as important as raw power and speed in a straight line. His innate ability to motivate and inspire colleagues was an invaluable asset in an era when wages and salaries in motorsport were comparatively low.

Success with sports cars

In the 1960s, Formula One drivers also raced in the main sports car (two-seaters with closed wheels) events. McLaren and fellow New Zealander Chris Amon won the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966, sharing the driving of a 7-litre Ford GT sports car McLaren had helped develop. In all he raced 13 times for the Ford factory team over four seasons, also winning (with Mario Andretti) at Sebring in 1967. This was a largely unsuccessful period for  McLaren Racing in Formula One, in which engine capacities had been halved to 1.5 litres. However, it proved to be the turning point for the company’s fortunes. The team now had enough accumulated data and expertise to innovate rather than simply improve on the ideas of others. The result was the M6A sports car in a monocoque structure with the chassis integrated with the body.

Driving new M6A sports cars and sponsored by Gulf Oil, McLaren and fellow New Zealander Denny Hulme dominated the lucrative North American Can-Am series in 1967, finishing first and second respectively. Hulme and McLaren between them were to win four consecutive Can-Am series; the McLaren team won five in a row.

In Formula One, McLaren switched to the Cosworth DFV (double four valve) engines that were to dominate Formula One for more than a decade. He achieved his team’s first (and his own fourth and last) Formula One race victory in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa after Jackie Stewart had to pit to refuel before the last lap. Hulme was now driving in Formula One for McLaren, which finished second to Lotus in the constructors’ championship. Hulme came third in the drivers’ championship.

McLaren finished third in the 1969 Formula One drivers’ championship, with his best placing a second in the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona. McLarens won all 11 Can-Am races in 1969, with McLaren himself winning six and the drivers’ title.

Death and legacy

In 1970, McLaren Racing decided to also compete in the Indianapolis 500 race, and in the Can-Am and Grand Prix series – it would be the only team to contest all three formulas. McLaren intended to stop driving in Formula One and concentrate on car development while continuing to drive in the Can-Am series. On 2 June 1970 he was killed when the tail of the Can-Am sports car he was testing abruptly lifted, slamming the vehicle into a reinforced abutment beside the Goodwood track at nearly 275 kilometres per hour. He was just 32. His body was returned to New Zealand for burial at Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland.

Britain’s Royal Automobile Club posthumously awarded him the Segrave Trophy ‘for the design, development and driving of cars that won every round of the 1969 Can-Am Championship’.1 In 1968 he had won the coveted Ferodo Trophy for his ‘tenacity of purpose in making and developing [racing] cars’.2 He had started in 100 Grand Prix races over 13 seasons, but left his greatest legacy as a constructor.

An inaugural member of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, McLaren was also an early inductee to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, in which Brabham and Hulme are the only other Australasians. Bruce McLaren Intermediate School opened in 1971 on Bruce McLaren Rd in the west Auckland suburb of McLaren Park. Its crest features three stylised open-wheel racing cars above a fitting motto: ‘Dream Believe Achieve’. In 2015, the racing circuit at Taupō was renamed Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park.

McLaren’s widow Patricia, who died in 2016, remained involved with the team after her husband’s death. McLaren’s colleague and fellow shareholder Teddy Mayer succeeded him as head of McLaren Racing. The team won its first constructors’ championship in 1974, with Emerson Fittipaldi also winning the drivers’ championship. James Hunt repeated the latter feat in 1976, but the company’s most successful era – the 1980s and 1990s – followed a merger with Ron Dennis’ Project Four Racing that was followed by a buyout of the original McLaren shareholders. McLaren Racing continues to compete in Formula One. Of the current teams, only Ferrari has a longer history.

Footnotes:
  1. George Begg. Bruce McLaren: racing car constructor. Auckland, 2004, p.236. Back
  2. Karl Ludvigsen. Bruce McLaren: life and legacy of excellence. Sparkford, 2001, p.186. Back
How to cite this page:

David Green. 'McLaren, Bruce Leslie', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6m4/mclaren-bruce-leslie (accessed 18 November 2019)