If Bruce McLaren had lived, he would be heading towards his 80th birthday.
McLaren wouldn’t be short of a bob himself. “In fact, he would probably be a trillionaire by now,” muses director Roger Donaldson about the subject of McLaren, his documentary about a mechanic’s kid from Remuera who went from racing jalopies on Muriwai Beach to becoming the youngest winner of a grand prix at just 22, then a driver who created his own team and his own innovative cars.
“His life is a little bit like characters like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Buddy Holly – people who were cut down in the prime of their life and everybody goes, ‘I wonder what would have happened if they had lived?’” says Donaldson. “But they were stars in their time and their stars burnt so bright, people still remember them.”
Australian-born Donaldson, who came to New Zealand in the mid-1960s, has teenage memories of seeing McLaren as a rising star, racing in Australia against the likes of Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss.
McLaren died in 1970 at the age of 32. He was driving the Goodwood Circuit in Sussex, testing the aerofoil settings on his M8D, the latest model his workshop had built for the North American Can-Am series. It was a sports car championship he and teammate Denny Hulme had dominated in 1969, the prize money being funnelled into the team’s Formula One ambitions in Europe.
The rear of McLaren’s car lifted when doing an estimated 290km/h and hit a trackside marshal’s post. The crew, mostly New Zealanders McLaren had gathered around him, heard the monstrous engine fall silent. They found the broken car. “It was obvious to me he was dead,” says then team mechanic and later team manager Alastair Caldwell in the documentary, “He was like a rag doll. So, I held him.”
“We were lucky we weren’t there,” Jan McLaren tells the Listener while sitting in what was her brother’s childhood bedroom above the family’s former Remuera Rd service station.
The apartment is in its final days as a museum and home to the Bruce McLaren Trust, which she heads, before shifting to a new base at Hampton Downs motorsport park. “We never saw Bruce afterwards, because he came home in a sealed coffin. We did have the right to open it. But my sister and I said, ‘No. Let Mum and Dad remember him as he was.’ Nothing was going to be gained.”
If Donaldson’s documentary heads inevitably towards the events of June 2, 1970 – and gets its emotional power from his teammates reflecting on the loss, some for the first time – it starts off by showing McLaren the 1960s jetset superstar.
In his grey suit and swish hair, he is filmed sitting being interviewed in one of his yellow Can-Am cars at a British car show. He looks like he could be James Bond. But as a car designer and engineer, he’s just as much the ingenious Q.
The interviewer asks if his team had as much money as its rivals, would they be doing better? “No,” McLaren says, smiling. “We’d probably get in a terrible mess.”
Inevitably, the doco invokes the phrases “No 8 fencing wire” and “Kiwi ingenuity” in explaining how McLaren and his New Zealand mechanic mates excelled. The Kiwi blokes McLaren persuaded to join his team in Britain were adaptable – they were used to making their own parts because New Zealand’s import restrictions made it prohibitive to buy them from overseas.
It’s also a story of how McLaren’s childhood, growing up in a motorsport-mad family with his mechanic father, Les, a keen motorcycle and car-club racer, gave young Bruce a dream. “Mother was courted in a sidecar. Dad rode a motorbike through hoops of flame at the opening of Western Springs and the picture appeared in the Monday morning paper. My sister was born the following day. Mother took one look at this picture and went into labour,” Jan says, laughing.
When he was nine, Bruce began a two-year stay at Takapuna’s Wilson Home for Crippled Children after contracting Perthes disease. He was strapped to a stretcher for two years to treat his damaged hip joint. It still affected him as an adult – his accelerator leg was longer than his clutch one.
Former deputy prime minister Jim Anderton, a classmate at Seddon Memorial Technical College, remembers McLaren being nicknamed “the cripple kid”.
The late Chris Amon, interviewed before his death last year, recalls McLaren limping quickly across the track for the traditional sprint-to the-car start of the Le Mans 24-hour race, which the two New Zealand drivers won in 1966.
After making his mark as a teenager on local motorsport, McLaren left for Europe under a driver scholarship scheme at the age of 20. In 1960, he married Patty, a former Miss Caroline Bay of Timaru, who set up home in England, with daughter Amanda, who now works for McLaren Automotive in Surrey, England, arriving in 1965.
Patty died early last year. She is one of four interviewed in the doco who passed away before it was finished. An ailing Amon visited Donaldson on set during the filming of a recreation of McLaren’s final drive, complete with replica M8D, with Taupo’s Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park doubling for Goodwood.
There are plenty of living legends interviewed, too. Mario Andretti, who teamed with McLaren to win the 12-hour Sebring race in Florida in 1967, remembers teasing him about the clutch pedal height in their shared car due to McLaren’s uneven legs.
But he found driving with him educational. “I wanted to learn as much as I could because Bruce was an artist. I loved the way he would rotate the car. There was a finesse to the way he could extract every ounce of what his machine was capable of – a machine that could hurt you.”
Sir Jackie Stewart describes McLaren as a superstar. Donaldson visited the Formula One champion on his English estate, where the garden benches have plaques marking the many drivers of Stewart’s generation who died on the track.
Donaldson says he sat on the McLaren seat and reflected on the guy whose life he was trying to shape into a movie from the interviews and some 100 hours or archival footage. A few years later and with the film in the can, Donaldson laughs down the line from the US when it’s suggested his new film completes a sort of garage trilogy. After Smash Palace and The World’s Fastest Indian, his doco McLaren is his third New Zealand feature about Kiwi blokes tinkering with engines and driving fast.
Donaldson’s father had been a mechanic and car salesman. It’s not his first doco – that was Offerings to the Gods of Speed in 1971 about Burt Munro, whose life he dramatised 34 years later in Indian.
He sees a parallel between Munro and McLaren. “I am sort of fascinated by the pointlessness of it all, in a strange way. Why do it? But when you find your passion, the passion is in the doing and the subtlety of it rather than the foolhardiness of it.
“Most things that people try to do well, they don’t risk their lives doing it. But people who go stupidly fast in machinery are risking their lives … but the philosophy of what they are doing drives them, rather than just the rush of adrenaline and excitement.”
McLaren’s complicated life, he thinks, wouldn’t make for a drama feature, though Jan McLaren says she is involved with plans for one. Still, if the doco remains the definitive McLaren movie, it will educate many about the achievements of the designer, engineer and driver, whose name also adorns schools, streets and retirement homes in New Zealand.
Jan McLaren has met many a fan of her big brother over the years. Working with the trust since it was established in the late 1990s, she’s dedicated a good chunk of her own life to keeping his legacy alive. But the McLaren legend has outgrown his own shrine. The museum, cluttered with trophies, photos, paraphernalia, records of every early McLaren car built and the like, has never had the space for showing cars, something that Hampton Downs will offer.
The heritage-listed Remuera Rd building has been bought for development and there’s a lot of packing to do before the collection heads south to the motorsport park near Meremere. “People come here for the nostalgia. Some people come here and go, ‘Wow. I am in Bruce’s bedroom.’ It’s a pilgrimage. So, it’s a wrench from that point of view.”
This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.