When you hear the name McLaren today, you think of Formula One, but in the late ’60s and early ’70s everyone thought “Can-Am”. New Zealander Bruce McLaren formed Team McLaren in the mid-1960s. His goal was to win the F1 World Driving Championship in a car of his own design. But Bruce was also racing in US sports car events, so when the Can- Am came along in 1966, with its huge (for the time) purses, Team McLaren went after it, too.
For the inaugural Can-Am season, Team McLaren built and raced the McLaren M1B, an
Oldsmobile powered, tube frame chassis sports car, which was an evolution of the M1A they had run in sports car races the year before. Two team cars were entered for Bruce and fellow countryman Chris Amon. While Bruce and Chris set several fastest laps and led several races, the team’s best finishes were three second places. Several privateers raced customer M1As and M1Bs.
In 1967, McLaren switched to 6-liter iron-block Chevy V8s and aluminum monocoque chassis construction for the team’s M6A racers. Amon was replaced by another New Zealander, Denny Hulme, as Bruce’s driving partner. As the 1967 season got underway, they embarked on a domination of the Can- Am that would last five years. Five of the season’s six races were won by Team McLaren. Three races were won by Hulme and two races plus the championship by McLaren himself. Various private entrants raced McLaren M1As, M1Bs (the team always sold their old cars after the season was over), and M1Cs (new customer car), but none came close to what the factory team achieved.
While the M1 and M6 racers had rounded bodywork, which was the norm at the time, McLaren’s 1968 car, the M8A, was more of a wedge shape. Power came from 427 cubic inch aluminum block ZL-1 Chevy V8s. The new aluminum motors produced 620-640 bhp at 7000 rpm — 100+ bhp more than the previous year’s motor.
McLaren cars won all six races in 1968 — Team McLaren won four (three for Hulme, one for McLaren), John Cannon one in an M1B, and Mark Donohue one in an M6B. Denny Hulme won the championship. Upwards of half the field at each race were McLarens. Between the winning of the team and the selling of customer cars, McLaren was a success.
One customer was Dan Gurney and his All American Racers (AAR) team. Their heavily modified M6B was known as a McLeagle — a contraction of McLaren and Eagle (which was the name given to the cars designed and built by AAR).
During the final race of the season at Las Vegas, Denny Hulme became the first person to turn a lap in a Can-Am car at a speed over 120 mph. This speed was a BIG deal in 1968.
By 1969, Team McLaren and the Can-Am were known as the “Bruce and Denny Show” because of their domination. The Can-Am series expanded to eleven races in 1969 and Team McLaren won EVERY race, with Denny winning five and Bruce winning six and the championship. Their weapon in 1968 was the M8B, an evolution of the M8A. The major visual difference was the replacement of the M8As rear deck spoiler with a high Chaparralesque rear wing. But it was more than driving skill or advanced technology that won them every race in 1969.
What was McLaren’s secret? They rarely introduced “great” innovations. What they did better than anyone else was test, test, test. Many teams would show up for the first Can-Am of the year with a brand new car that had absolutely no miles on it. McLaren would work out the bugs in the off-season, so that they could concentrate on racing when the season started. What is truly amazing, is how long it took other teams to catch on to what McLaren was doing.
The final race of 1969 was held at Texas World Speedway in College Station. The course used part of the track’s banked oval and an auxiliary road course. For the first time ever, Can-Am cars could run at 200 mph (on the banking). McLaren’s McLaren hit 210 mph.
The car that McLaren sold to customers in 1969, the M12, was an M6B chassis with an M8A body. One of those customers was Jim Hall’s Chaparral team. Their own 2H racer wasn’t quite ready for the season so they bought an M12 to use in the interim. Chaparral heavily modified the rear bodywork (altered rear spoiler and moved air intakes on sides) and added their usual high rear wing. The best finishes by non-team McLarens were a second by George Eaton (M12) and thirds by Eaton, John Surtees (Chaparral M12), and Mario Andretti (M6B).
Tragedy struck Team McLaren before the start of the 1970 season. On June 2, Bruce McLaren was killed while testing one of the team’s new M8D Can-Am racers at Goodwood, England.
Team McLaren continued, with Denny Hulme as team leader and Dan Gurney as second driver. For 1970 they raced the M8D, an evolution of the M8B, but with a lower wing (as now dictated by the rules) mounted between two fins at the rear of the bodywork. The fins earned it the nickname “Batmobile”. Power now came from a Chevy 427 V8 made from a Reynolds high-silicone aluminum alloy. The alloy was hard-wearing and had no need for iron cylinder liners.
After winning at Mosport and St Jovite and finishing ninth at Watkins Glen, Dan Gurney had to leave Team McLaren because of sponsor conflicts. (Team McLaren was sponsored by Gulf Oil and Gurney had Castrol Oil as a personal sponsor.) His replacement, Peter Gethin, won one race. Hulme won six races and the championship. Nine victories in 10 races for Team McLaren. That one loss occurred at the seventh race of the season at Road Atlanta. The loss ended the team’s Can-Am race win streak at an amazing 19 races and the marque’s at 23, over three seasons.
McLaren’s 1970 customer car was the M8C, an evolution of the M12. The best finish for an independent McLaren driver was a second by Lothar Motschenbacher, in an ex-Team McLaren M8B. Motschenbacher also finished second in the Can-Am point standings for 1970.
Hulme returned to Team McLaren in 1971 but Gethin was replaced by Peter Revson. This year’s racer was the M8F, which looked like an M8D but with smoother lines. The fins holding the rear wing now had extensions, or fences, that extended the length of the car at both side edges of the body. The fences were to help direct air over the body and the wing (instead of it spilling over the body sides). The aluminum Chevy V8s they used were now up to 495 cubic inches in displacement. Horsepower was 740 at 6400 rpm with 655 lb-ft of torque at 5600 rpm. Later, McLaren would use 480 and 510 cubic inch engines.
In 10 races, Hulme won three and Revson five and the championship — Team McLaren’s fifth consecutive Can-Am championship. Motschenbacher (M8D) was again the best independent McLaren driver, finishing fifth in the championship.
The 1971 customer M8E was an improved M8C. Several teams that bought M8Es also bought M8D “Batmobile” bodywork for them, creating M8E/Ds.
The McLaren M20 was a completely new design for 1972. While retaining the “Batmobile” look, the single radiator in the nose was replaced by two radiators – – one on each side of the body. Between the front wheel wells (the old radiator position) a wing was mounted. Customers could buy M8FPs (production M8F).
McLaren was in the fight of their life in 1972 against Porsche. Hulme won only two races and Revson none as Team McLaren failed to win a sixth consecutive championship. Francois Cevert won one race in an independent M8F.
Not only did Team McLaren’s reign in the Can- Am come to an end in 1972, so did their involvement. The costs of running the Can-Am had become too high. The team also wanted to pay more attention to their Formula One program. In 1973 and 1974, the only McLarens in the Can-Am were older, existing cars run by privateers. The best 1973 finish was a second by David Hobbs in an M20. The final race of 1974, which was the last race of the original Can-Am series, was won by Scooter Patrick in an M20, with John Cordts second in an M8F. It is only fitting that the final race of the Can- Am series was won by a McLaren.