Bruce McLaren died in a crash in 1970 while testing the McLaren M8D Can-Am race car at the Goodwood circuit in the UK. Today the company that bears his name and continues his passion is very different to the motorsport-focused company he created, although racing remains a firm part of its DNA even if it might not look like it in Formula One.
We have driven a number of McLaren models over the years and I have visited the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking in the UK, but recently we paid a special return visit there.
Our host was Amanda McLaren, Bruce’s daughter. While not directly involved in running the company, she is a logical brand ambassador. And who better to tell the company’s story? Telling that story is as simple as walking through what must be one of the best office lobbies in the world.
Enter the technology centre and you are immediately met with a 1929 Austin Ulster. It might not be a McLaren, but it is the car that ignited Bruce’s passion. It was his father’s car, but at just 13 years old, he persuaded his dad to let him convert it to a race car.
Two years later he won a hill climb in his home country of New Zealand — and so the racing bug bit.
He moved to the UK where he created McLaren, a motor racing constructor. Strolling through the centre, we spotted not just some of the greatest McLarens, but some of the most famous motorsport icons of all time.
There was the M7C, with its bizarre high wings front and rear. Sadly, that car never made it to competition. It arrived in Monaco for the Formula One Grand Prix in 1969 but officials took one look at it and banned it. Ironically, the M7C sits right outside the display centre, with a rather prettier McLaren 570GT. It only has one, more discreet, rear wing.
Further along sat a group of famous red-and-white F1 cars. Despite cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris sponsoring the team for more than 23 years, the cars no longer feature the Marlboro name. That is not allowed in the UK, even if it would make the cars historically correct.
But it is not about the branding, or, to a certain extent, even the cars themselves, but about the names that adorn them. They are some of the most famous in motorsport; Lauda, Prost and Senna. In stark contrast to McLaren’s woes on the F1 circuit nowadays, many of the cars proudly feature: “Powered by Honda.”
Bruce McLaren had a go at road cars with the M6GT in 1969, but his death the next year put paid to his full production plans. It was in 1993 that the company again produced a road car and what a car it was. The McLaren F1 was designed by South African Gordon Murray with Peter Stevens and it became an instant icon. It was by far the fastest supercar yet made then, a record it held for quite some time after production ended in 1998.
It was also the basis for various motorsport entries, not least of all in 1995. On its debut at Le Mans that year, the F1 GTR won the famous 24-hour race. Modern McLarens are still involved in motor racing around the world but never has the success or indeed the drama of the F1 been repeated.
Perhaps as an inspiration to the Formula 1 team mechanics in the pristine workshop adjacent to the main lobby of the MTC, sit a number of championship-winning F1 cars. This includes the 1998 Mika Hakkinen car as well as the MP4-23 with which Lewis Hamilton secured the 2007 Drivers’ Championship in the final corner of the final round at Interlagos in Brazil.
Beside the F1 cars are a number of rather different McLarens. One is a bicycle — every carmaker has one these days and the other is a soapbox race car.
The latter was driven by McLaren’s chief test driver Chris Goodwin and Amanda told us that it was the scariest thing Goodwin has ever driven.
I have sat beside Goodwin driving a McLaren P1 at full tilt around Kyalami, so can only imagine what it must have been like to scare him.
A walk past the very long row of trophy cabinets and through a pristine tunnel that would not look out of place in a science fiction movie and you enter the modern nerve centre of McLaren, the production facility. As pristine as the tunnel, on the day we visited they were assembling a number of models, including the new 720S and the at the time unlaunched 570S Spider.
Since the days of its founder, McLaren has become a major sports car manufacturer, one that continues his vision in motorsport. Today it is less about the pure mechanicals and more about the technology, but no doubt Bruce would be as proud of the company’s achievements as his daughter Amanda is. – Mark Smyth