Bruce Leslie McLaren was born in Auckland, New Zealand. He was a racing car designer, driver, engineer and inventor.
His name lives on in Team McLaren which has been one of the most successful in Formula One championship history, with McLaren cars and drivers winning a total of 19 world championships. McLaren cars totally dominated CanAm sports car racing with 56 wins between 1967 and 1972 (and five constructors’ championships), and have won three Indianapolis 500 races, as well as 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring.
As a nine year old, McLaren contracted a disease in his hip which left his left leg shorter than the right. He spent two years in traction, but later often had a slight limp.
Les and Ruth McLaren, his parents, owned a service station and workshop in Remuera, Auckland. Bruce spent all of his free hours hanging around the workshop.
Les McLaren restored an aging Austin 7 Ulster which 14-year-old Bruce used in 1952 when he entered his first competition, a hillclimb. Two years later he took part in his first real race and showed promise. He moved up from the Austin to a Ford 10 special and a Austin-Healey, then a F2 Cooper-Climax sports. He immediately began to modify and improve it—and master it—so much so that he was runner-up in the 1957–8 New Zealand championship series.
His performance in the New Zealand Grand Prix in 1958 was noted by great Australian driver Jack Brabham (who would later invite McLaren to drive for him). Because of his obvious potential the New Zealand International Grand Prix organisation selected him for its ‘Driver in Europe’ scheme designed to give a promising Kiwi driver year-round experience with the best in the world. McLaren was the first recipient and Denis Hulme was another later.
McLaren went to Cooper and stayed seven years. He raced in F2 and was entered in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in which F2 and F1 cars competed together. He astounded the motor racing fraternity by being first F2, and fifth overall, in a field of the best drivers in the world.
McLaren joined the Cooper factory F1 team alongside Jack Brabham in 1959 and won the 1959 United States Grand Prix at age 22, becoming the youngest ever GP winner up to that time. He followed that with a win in the Argentina Grand Prix, the first race of the 1960 Fomula One season. (Forty three years later, another Kiwi racer, Scott Dixon, would become the youngest ever winner in any major open-wheel racing formula anywhere in the world when he won the Indy Racing League Lehigh Valley GP in the US when 20 years, 9 months and 14 days old.)
McLaren won the Monaco Grand Prix in 1962. The next year he founded Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd, which remains in the Formula One championship simply as Team McLaren. McLaren continued to race and win in Coopers (including the New Zealand GP in 1964).
McLaren left Cooper at the end of 1965, and announced his own GP racing team, with co-driver and fellow Kiwi Chris Amon. Amon left in 1967 to drive for Ferrari. In 1968, McLaren was joined by fellow Kiwi Denis Hulme, who had become world champion in 1967. McLaren won his first GP in his own McLaren car at Spa in 1968 and Hulme won twice in the McLaren-Ford. In tribute to his homeland, McLaren's cars featured the "speedy Kiwi" logo.
It was in powerful sports car racing where McLaren's design flair and ingenuity were graphically demonstrated. Just as the CanAm Series began to become very popular with fans in Canada and the U.S., the new McLaren cars finished second twice, and third twice, in six races.
In 1967 they won five of six races and in 1968, four of six. The following year McLaren’s proved unbeatable, winning 11 of 11 races. In one race, they finished 1-2-3. (McLaren, Hulme and Dan Gurney).
In 1966 he and co-driver Chris Amon won the prestigious 24 Hour race at Le Mans in a GT40.
Though there were hints of impending retirement, Bruce carried on racing into 1970, with plans afoot to tackle Indianapolis after the success of the Can-Am cars. In due course a McLaren would win the Indy 500, but sadly the team's founder and inspiration was not around to see the success.
Bruce McLaren died when his own Can Am car crashed on a sunny June afternoon at the Goodwood Circuit when a piece of bodywork flew from the car, sending it out of control. He was testing his new M8D when it left the track at high speed and hit a flag station killing him instantly.
Mention the name McLaren in the 1990s and most people will immediately think of the wonderful red and white cars which have established so many records. But Ron Dennis can surely testify that all those lucky enough to have either met the remarkable New Zealander or seen him in action will also never forget the man with the silver helmet in the tangerine car who began it all 30 years ago.