Bruce McLaren: In the beginning
To mark the anniversary of the death of our founder, the remarkable and irreplaceable Bruce McLaren, who sadly lost his life in an accident at Goodwood 45 years ago on 2nd June 1970, we will republish poignant extracts from his 1964 autobiography, From The Cockpit.
In honour of his life and achievements, we will provide a glimpse of his unique character, charm and tenacity, with three excerpts that span an important chapter in his life from the moment he arrived in the UK from New Zealand in 1958, featuring revealing, inspiring, and, at times, humorous memories of his racing career, right up to the inception of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd in 1963. Although his life was cut tragically short, his legacy lives on in McLaren and, written in his own words: “Life is measured in achievement, not in years alone...”
Everything was vastly different to the pictures I had conjured up, with so many people going everywhere so quickly. Long rows of houses followed each other down narrow streets in the suburbs. Sports cars were everywhere. If someone had an MG TC in Auckland, I usually knew him by name. The owner was an enthusiast and the car usually had a competition history. It was obviously very different in England.
Jack (Brabham) drove me to his Dorking home, where I met his wife, Betty, and his parents, who were over from Australia. Early next morning Jack and I drove to Surbiton, through the town and down Ewell Road to the Cooper works. The factory was a modern brick building with an unusual curved frontage, large windows and the name COOPER in large letters across the top. John Cooper, his jet-black hair sleeked down, pipe clamped firmly between his teeth and wearing a brown overall, was introduced. “Please to meet you, boy,” he said from behind the pipe. “Come in and have a look around.”
All around the workshop were Coopers in various stages of assembly and I asked where my car was. “Your car, boy?” said the pipe. “In the tube race, I reckon.” I couldn’t see any car in the pile of chassis tubes, but it slowly dawned on me. I felt very small.
I cheered up when John pointed out a freshly-painted chassis as mine. He took me round to meet the rest of the boys. His mechanic Bill James and Mike “Noddy” Grohman were preparing the works car for Monaco. Dougie Johnson became a close friend in the early days and was a big help when Colin (Beanland) and I were assembling the Cooper. On discovering I was a New Zealander he announced to the shop, “Here’s another one – lock up your tools, or you’ll lose ‘em.” I soon learnt that to be called “another bloody colonial” wasn’t half as bad as it sounded.
Bruce McLaren: True grit
My tools were still on the water, so I had to badger some spanners from Dougie to fit my special pedals. The drive at Aintree was uppermost in my mind and I was worried about it. It had been arranged with John Cooper that I should drive the Cooper with which Jack had won a Goodwood race the week before, but Charles Cooper, John’s father, was not in favour of providing anyone who walked into the shop with a works racing car, and seemed about to scuttle my plans. John suggested I find some overalls and start cleaning the Cooper, while he went upstairs to attend to the domestic difficulties.
The prototype coil-spring F1 Cooper had not been touched since Jack’s Goodwood win. I was only too glad to get my hands dirty – at least it wasn’t something strange and new.
Fortunately things went smoothly in the top office, Cooper Senior’s only stipulation being that I should insure the car, which I did for £50. As the starting money had been fixed at £60, I was making a profit before the race even started. Things were not so bad after all.
From the outside, a drearier place than Aintree couldn’t be imagined. High, dirty brick walls didn’t improve the picture, but we were soon in the paddock and I was marvelling at the grand transporters fielded by even the smallest équipes – I later learnt from the tedious experience that the transporters were handy shelters from the rain.
Racing cars require the same treatment the world over and I occupied myself topping up the Cooper with water, fuel and oil, checking the tyres and warming it up. I felt like a fish out of water coming from circuits where I knew everyone to Aintree where I didn’t know a soul. Every second male sported a handlebar moustache and everyone seemed to have an Oxford accent. If you wanted to find anyone, the best bet was the bar. This shook me. Surely there was a race on and work to be done?
I didn’t drink but was intrigued by the licensed bars in the paddock, where liquor is forbidden in New Zealand. Sly boozing there is usually done from bottles behind car boots in the car park.
I liked the circuit, apart from Waterways, the long fast right-hander with a solid brick wall all the way round the outside. Airfield racing in New Zealand had spoiled me and I was used to wide-open spaces, with plenty of room for painless correction of mistakes. During the race the carburation played up – the 1500 Climax had 42mm Webers fitted and wouldn’t accelerate cleanly. With every lap I reminded myself that after a lot of dreaming I was actually racing in England. The race results made me think I had been dreaming too much in the race itself, as I had finished ninth in the F2 section. I knew about Tony Brooks and Stuart Lewis Evans and didn’t mind being beaten by them, but I went looking for Jack to find who the other names were – Russell, Burgess, Marsh, etc.
At eight o’clock on the Monday morning after the race, I was waiting at the factory gate, eager to start building “my” Cooper. Dougie Johnson and I set to work bending water pipes, fitting brackets and assembling the suspension.
That morning a letter from the BRDC (the British Racing Driver’s Club) made me feel much happier. My entry had been accepted for the International Daily Express Trophy meeting at Silverstone on May 3rd, providing I performed to the satisfaction of the observers in practice.
Seeing the engine vibrating and bellowing on the brake scared me. When the big needle flickered up to 5,000 revs, I thought I had better leave before our little group was felled with flying con rods.
With our new motor proudly installed, the Cooper was one of the quickest assembly jobs to come out of the works. By the end of the first week Cooper Senior had softened towards us, when he saw that we meant business and I think he probably had a hand in the early delivery of the engine.
We finished the Cooper at nine o’clock on Thursday night and the following morning were at Silverstone getting ready for practice. I ran the car up and down the club straight, to loosen things up, fearing that I would be branded as one of those obnoxious people who keep trying to break the lap record around the paddock.
Bruce McLaren: The birth of McLaren Racing
After a good start in the race I had a terrific dice with Jim Russell, Ivor Bueb and Ian Burgess. I had no idea I was third until the race finished. This Cooper was a great improvement on the car I had driven at Aintree and I was very pleased. The circuit was impressively fast and called for concentration, but I was proud of my best lap of 99.4 mph, not far short of the “ton”.
The next week-end I was at Silverstone again and won a club race, to the disgust of the other drivers, who objected to “factory” participation at their meeting. I should have referred them to the oil company competition manager.
Colin and I had been working on the Cooper from dawn to dark every day, so a letter from home asking if we had visited Buckingham Palace or the Strand received a dusty answer. While the works F1 team were on the Continent, Colin and I had moved into their shed and now had the use of welding equipment and other F1 facilities.