The Timaru connection to New Zealand motor racing legend Bruce McLaren is strong. Features editor Claire Allison looks at the links as McLaren Racing celebrates its 50th anniversary.
When the young Bruce McLaren decided to set up his own racing company 50 years ago, he found himself surrounded by Timaru people.
The original McLaren "family" included Bruce's wife, former Timaru woman Pat - or Patty - Broad, publicist Eoin Young, and mechanic Wally Willmott.
The early 1960s were, as Willmott recalls, the glory days; the glamour of motor racing drew pop stars and royalty; everyone knew everyone else, they partied together when the racing was over for the day.
Young on McLaren:
"Bruce McLaren had it tougher than most but his ever-present smile always hid the problems which started early where Bruce was concerned. He spent his 10th and 11th birthdays on a hospital stretcher having been told his crippling Perthes Disease meant he'd probably never walk again. McLaren's determination meant that he did. One leg was a tad shorter than the other which meant he would always walk with a limp in racing boots but the limp never showed with a built-up heel on his shoes. Part of the secret of McLaren success in those days was that everyone thought they worked "with" Bruce. They didn't work "for" him. They were mates.
At tech school he was told knuckle down to his studies or clear off and waste time on his car racing. He chose the racing where his mechanical talent gave him a glittering career far beyond the ambitions of any Auckland technical student.
It was Jack Brabham who shepherded him through the ranks of the Cooper Grand Prix team to win the last GP of the season at Sebring in 1959. He was just 22."
Young tells the story of how he met McLaren:
"My connection with Bruce started in 1958 in New Zealand on a gravel hillclimb at Clellands, halfway between the tiny pub-and-a-store village of Cave where I grew up on our farm, and Pleasant Point where I went to school.
Bruce had already raced his 1700cc works F2 Cooper at the international race series in New Zealand and at Teretonga I plucked up courage and introduced myself. We talked about the Clellands hillclimb and he said he was staying with his sister in Timaru.
I asked Bruce if he wanted to join us lads at the dance hall on Caroline Bay and he came away at midnight infatuated with this gorgeous local blonde, Pat Broad. The next day he called me, asking for Pat's phone number and it all started from there. In four years they would be married and later baby Amanda arrived.
I had gone to the UK on my "big OE" in 1961 with half a dozen of the local racing lads and at the Cooper workshops, I met up with Denny Hulme who was about to leave on his second European season with a Cooper Formula Junior on a trailer behind a Mk 1 Ford Zodiac. I joined him for the summer. At the end of the year I flew from Luton to Tasmania with Gavin Youl delivering Jack Brabham's single-engined Cessna 180 for sale in the colonies.
I had a contract to cover the pre-Tasman international racing series in New Zealand and Australia in 1962 for various magazines and newspapers and when we had arrived at the final race in Sandown Park, Bruce said he would like to talk to me when I got back to Britain. I said I had no plans to return and suggested we talk now. He said he would like me to be his secretary. I asked what a secretary did and he said he had no idea, but the other drivers had one, so I could be his. He told me he wouldn't have enough work for a full week, so he suggested a 20-hour week for the first year and he would pay me £600. This would allow time for freelance writing and I would also be ghost-writing his columns which ran in several New Zealand newspapers and later in Autosport.
I also went to most of the races with Bruce and he paid 75 per cent of my hotel and travel. But he wasn't going totally overboard with the largesse. I was in Australia and the job was in England. Bruce advanced me a cheque for £300 for an air ticket, which would come out of my salary, so I was embarking on the best job in the world for probably the smallest salary - £6 a week plus percentages! It was the best deal I ever did . . .
So in 1962 I was Bruce McLaren's first employee and travelling to all his races. Monaco amazed me. It was everything I'd read about, and now made even more magic when Bruce won! The next weekend he won again in the non-title Grand Prix at Rheims. It couldn't get better. In fact it would take a while before it got as good again.
It wasn't until some years later that I realised the huge advantage I enjoyed being mates with Bruce and Denny and being introduced, not as a nosy little journalist, but as a friend of the Kiwi drivers and therefore trusted and a good guy. In those days journalists were either stuffy older chaps from the Fleet Street papers, or young shavers working their way up through the ranks on the car papers.
The Tasman Series was Bruce's favourite way to dodge the British winter and for 1964 he teamed with young American driver Timmy Mayer to build a pair of slimline Coopers for the 100-mile races.
It was time to get serious about his racing and in September 1963 - half a century ago! - he formed Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Limited. I was a founder director.
Soon there was a staff of four when Wally Willmott and Tyler Alexander joined as mechanics.
Bruce bought the Cooper-based Zerex Special, spark for the McLaren CanAm domination, and I had to find a team base.
The first one was cheap because we were short on funds, a high-roofed dusty, dirty shed in New Malden that we shared with a road grader! Next up was a factory shed in a trading estate in Feltham. And that's where the McLaren empire started out . . ." Mechanic Wally Willmott also refers to the McLaren "family", rather than the team.
He was just finishing up his apprenticeship with Young Brothers when Bruce and Patty McLaren made a visit back to South Canterbury, and Willmott's connection with McLaren began.
Willmott: I left Timaru at the beginning of 1962 and travelled to England to start my career in motor racing as a second mechanic for a small team that Bruce drove for when he wasn't driving Formula 1 races for The Cooper Car Company. At the beginning of 1963 I joined the Cooper Car Co as Bruce's mechanic during the Formula 1 series, before leaving them for the role in McLaren Racing.
"In 1963-64, it wasn't a team, it was a family. Bruce was the big brother that I never had. He taught me which knife and fork to pick up. I was a green New Zealander going overseas for the first time."
There were horror crashes; Stirling Moss campaigned against seatbelts because he had a horror of being trapped in a burning car; Willmott recalls the Waimate 50 event McLaren competed in one year - "if there was a lamp post, the straw bales weren't there to protect the driver, but to protect the lamp post".
But, it was a glamorous industry to be involved in too.
"People wanted to be seen at the motor racing; George Harrison, pop stars, they all wanted to be seen there. And Monaco was the jewel in the crown . . . yes, royalty, there are photos of myself, standing next to Princess Margaret.
"In those days, everybody knew everybody and we'd all party together, all have a good time together.
"It was like living in the circus. You live in a small community, all the other teams, plus the tyre companies, fuel companies. You travel from country to country for the motor racing. You get home, you step off the bus and do your laundry, and then you step back on the bus and say gidday to people. You're totally involved in this life, there's nothing outside.
"Nowadays it's so professional, and what changed it forever was television, and money; advertising. When I went over there, British cars were all green, Italian cars were red and French cars were blue, and that was it. There was a rule, any advertising could be no larger than a certain size, and that would be for BP or the tyre company. And then you got Marlboro, Peter Stuyvesant, they poured millions in, only because of television. Denny Hulme, the world champion in 1964-65, always complained that it did nothing for him financially, because he'd won it too early."
Willmott remained with McLaren until 1968 when he married, and moved with his new wife to Australia. Just a couple of years later, McLaren was dead, killed during a test drive.
"He'd actually retired from racing, he was a engineer first and foremost. Sometimes in the middle of a race, instead of concentrating on the race itself, he'd be thinking about what he could do to the car. He got his jollies from designing and building as much as driving."
- © Fairfax NZ News