Howden Ganley followed in the footsteps of fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren when he tried to forge a racing career in Europe. He first had to pay his dues as a mechanic, becoming one of the original employees Bruce hired in early 1964. In the first part of a two-part story, he recalls the early days of the McLaren team.
I first saw Bruce race in January 1955 when my father took me to the Ardmore circuit, when I had just turned 14. I’d already heard his father’s name, because Les was racing, and he was one of the people behind the New Zealand GP. The big star of the day was Prince Bira, and there was a young chap called Jack Brabham.
Bruce had had an Austin Seven, and at that point he was just starting with his Ford 10 Special. My recollection, and I used to go to a lot of events with my father, is that then he got the Cooper ‘Bobtail’ sportscar from Jack, and then a Cooper single-seater. And that led to him winning the Driver to Europe, and going to England.
He used to come back and race every winter, and that’s when I really got to meet him, in 1961-’2, when I had my Lotus 11 at the same race meetings. Inevitably you get to meet the other drivers, although he was way above my level. I had already written about him, because I was working for a newspaper, and I remember him saying to me that I had spelled his name wrongly – I wrote M-A-C – and he gave me a little blast about that!
The more Kiwi the better
He was the great example to all of us. When I saw Prince Bira I’d decided that I wanted to be a Grand Prix driver, but I had no idea how I would do it. As things went on and Bruce succeeded, that was the example for all the Kiwis – you get yourself on a boat, and you get to England, and just start racing!
When I first came over in 1962 and started going to the races I would go and talk to him, at Aintree or Silverstone or Goodwood or wherever. I never really thought I would finish up working for him. It wasn’t until May 1964 that Eoin Young called me and said, ‘Bruce is here, he wants to talk to you.’
Bruce said, ‘What are you doing?,’ and I said, ‘Not a whole lot.’ I had managed to blag some rides in Formula Junior, but that had all came to an end when Esso took the money away from all the little teams. Meanwhile Bruce had done the Tasman Series with a pair of Coopers, and in the interim he’d bought the Zerex Special, and he was going to do a lot more.
He explained to me that he was going to get his team really going, wanted to employ Kiwis, and would I like to come and work for him? He said he had his own workshop now, because they’d worked out of Parnell’s originally, and that he was expanding. He needed some more Kiwis, and I was the next Kiwi that got the phone call.
He hired me as mechanic, and he asked me what I knew about it. I may have exaggerated slightly, because I knew bugger all! When I got there, on the shop floor it was just Wally Willmott, Tyler Alexander, and me. Wal said to me, ‘What’s your job?’ ‘Mechanic.’ ‘No, you’re the go-fer.’ And so I was the go-fer when I arrived.
We were in New Malden, in a corner of a factory with a load of earth-moving machines, with a sort of dirt floor, although there had been a bit of concrete there at one time. There was just enough room for the Zerex Special, or the Cooper-Oldsmobile as it was renamed, and the Tasman Cooper, the one that Bruce had driven. Regrettably up the back were the remains of Timmy Mayer’s car. There was a work bench, a drill press, a vice, and a set of welding bottles. That was it.
One day I was sent to Cooper’s in Surbiton to get some metal tubing, because they needed some chassis stands – they only had a big wooden crate that they balanced the car on, and obviously that wasn’t going to work. So I went to Cooper’s, and when I came back, all the McLaren guys had gone home. So I worked on my own and cut and shut and welded the tubes together. When they came in the next morning they said, ‘Who did you get to weld these?’ And I said, ‘I did it.’ I’d learned gas nickel bronze welding, so that promoted me from the go-fer to the fabricator right there and then!
Then Bruce said, ‘There’s a guy called Mike Hewland in a place called Maidenhead who makes gearboxes, can you go and find him and see what his gearboxes are like? And take my E-Type.’ Off I go, I find Maidenhead on the map, meet Mike Hewland, and look at the new HD5 gearbox they were building. I went back and told Bruce it was wonderful.
Next thing, he says, ‘I’ve ordered one of those, I want you to chop the back of that Cooper, and build a whole new back end on it.’ Which I did. I worked out the geometry, and I had it all welded in place. He looked at it and said, ‘I’m sorry about this, it’s a beautiful job, but you’ve got your sums wrong.’ I said, ‘I’m sure I’m right.’ But I had to cut it off, and do it again. We bolted everything on, and the chassis sat on the floor. Bruce said, ‘I’m sorry, you were absolutely right...’
And from then on, if he wanted something made, he just let me do it. And that inspires you.
The other thing was that he would come into the shop every morning always smiling, very cheerful. And then he would go round each employee, ‘How are you doing, what are you making today? Oh that’s nice,’ even if it wasn’t that nice! But he always encouraged you. He’d say, ‘What if you move that little bit there, and that little bit here.’ At that time there was no drawing office, you just make things.
He would sit at home at night with his yellow legal pad, and he’d come in with all these sketches and say, ‘I think we need to make this,’ a different wishbone or whatever. You were always encouraged to lift your game, constantly. He was a fantastic leader of men, and he built the team. Everybody would pull for him – there was never any grumping, or anything like that. Bruce was absolutely fantastic. He was a great leader.
There was project a minute, because everything was on an upward path. Originally it was just the three of us, then they hired another guy to be the go-fer, as I was the fabricator, so we were the whole of four people!
Wal and Tyler built a new Tasman car, and I rebuilt the older car for Phil Hill to drive. I thought I was going to the Tasman Series – fantastic, a trip home. But at the last minute Bruce said to me, ‘Sorry you’re not going. I want you to build the new M1A.’
We had moved to a new place in Feltham, and we built the first ‘McLaren McLaren’ there, although it used Cooper uprights and axles and wheels. That was the M1, and I was left behind to do the first production car, which was the M1A. Having built that, the Ford sportscar project came in the door, and Bruce told me to get on and build it – that became the X1. That must have been a great money-spinner for the company, although I’ve no idea how much. Presumably that also helped to fund the prototype Formula 1 car.
So from building the first M1 in September ‘64, by June ‘65 we were doing the X1 and the prototype F1 car, which had to be called the ‘tyre test car,’ because Charlie Cooper didn’t need to know that Bruce had an F1 project! That was the upward mobility of the whole organisation.
I used to go by Winkelmann Racing quite a bit, because my two mates Johnny Muller and Pete Kerr were there – we’d been in the same team together in New Zealand. So I also got to know Alan Rees, he said he’d got a friend called Robin Herd – I thought he said “Robin Hood” - who was on the Concorde project, and he’d love to be a race car designer.
And co-incidentally, and it can’t have been more than two or three days later, Bruce said to me, ‘What we really need is a designer.’ And I said, ‘Alan Rees has got this friend.’ So that’s how Robin came on board, and he designed the first F1 car.
Bruce had free engines from Ford, which must have looked attractive, and I think he hoped that Ford would step up and do something more. It was a massive engine, and I’ve always said if you added our engine, clutch and gearbox together, they probably weighed the same as Jack Brabham’s whole car! It was a brilliant chassis and the car made a wonderful noise, but it wasn’t quick.
John Muller and I were the two mechanics who went to Monaco in 1966, with Robin. The team didn’t have a transporter, but we had a big old Ford Fairlane estate car, the ‘White Whale,’ and a Don Parker trailer. We put the new F1 car on the trailer and towed it down to Monaco. We worked out of a little garage that previously Maserati and Rob Walker had worked out of, in an archway under the railway line, where the track turns down to the water front.
In the race Bruce was hanging in there really well, until unfortunately one of the oil lines came loose and the oil went on the pedals, and Bruce nearly had a shunt. And that was it. That was unfortunate, but up to that point we’d had a pretty trouble-free weekend, no major issues.
As a measure of what a good team leader Bruce was, on the Monday morning we were all assembled on the balcony of his hotel down at Mirabeau. He went round the table and asked everyone’s opinion. I was just a regular mechanic, but we were given our say. ‘What do you think?’. I wanted to go the Oldsmobile route [Jack Brabham’s Repco engines were Oldmobile-based].
Then we headed back to England. In those days there were no motorways, and it was a nightmare, a two-day journey on all those little French roads. We went across the channel on Silver City Airways.
We arrived at the factory early evening – we had moved to Colnbrook in early 1966 – and Teddy Mayer came out and said, ‘Don’t unload it, you’re going to Modena.’ They had done a deal to use a Serenissima engine.
I wasn’t best pleased. I said, ‘Teddy, we’ve just come from that direction. Somebody might be going to Modena, but I’m not one of them!’ And I handed in my resignation. I worked my notice until the end of the month, then I went to Eoin and asked, ‘Where is my money?’ And he said, ‘We thought you were joking...’
In Part Two Howden recalls how as his own racing career blossomed Bruce designated him as his protege, gave him a works F5000 drive for 1970, and promised him a graduation to F1. Everything was to change on June 2nd...