“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
~Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar~
The sunshine blazed down on a myriad of shimmering machines, their polished paintwork and chrome reflecting the palm trees lining pit lane. The skyline of Melbourne was visible across the water in the distance. The smell of salt water wafted in on the breeze off Corio Bay. The verdant grass of the hill above the track was dotted with families, prams and dogs. Amid the surrounding calm a screaming engine broke the silence as an antiquated racing vehicle was driven at (relative) speed down the quarter mile stretch of black tarmac mere meters in front of where we were positioned.
Lined up in pit lane were American muscle cars and Australian V8’s which were sitting beside Formula Ford’s from the 70’s and 80’s. Michael Andretti’s 1982 Formula Ford Lola looked spectacular in its gleaming black livery. In a position of honour was a 1926 Talbot Grand Prix car stunningly restored with its lustrous sky blue chassis and immaculate straight 8 supercharged engine. It was then I saw the car that stopped me in my tracks. It was unimaginably small, sitting mere inches off the ground, and was painted dark green with two bright silver stripes. Inscribed on its chassis were two names – each enough on their own to take my breath away. On one side was: “Bruce McLaren 1964 Tasman Champion” while on the other was: “Phil Hill 1965”.
I was in Melbourne for the weekend to celebrate my birthday and it was fortuitous that the Geelong Revival just happened to be the same weekend. We had been to see Les Misérables where revenge and hatred, devotion and forgiveness, had been played out on stage. Now I was standing before a car that had first raced the year I was born and had been driven by two of my Formula One heroes. 50 years ago Bruce McLaren won the Tasman championship driving this car. Les Misérables was fiction…this was real.
The Cooper T70 was the first car designed and built by Bruce McLaren. He was driving for Cooper but was becoming frustrated as his car was struggling to be competitive against Lotus and the new boys on the block, Brabham. For the Tasman championship he needed something lighter, as the engine capacity was limited to 2.5 litres. In the 1963 season McLaren had finished 6th in the championship, sandwiched between the two Brabham drivers of Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham. He would need a faster car if he was going to have any hope of success in the 1964 Tasman Series.
McLaren’s race engineer, Wally Willmott remembered that “as the duration of the races were all short Bruce reasoned that we could design a car with a small fuel tank instead of the large panier style that were the norm for F1. A tank fitted around the driver in the form of a seat would be very slim indeed. John Cooper decided that it was not worth doing for a one off car. Bruce McLaren then suggested to John that if he would permit, Bruce would employ me and between us we could build a car using the F1 workshop – as there was nothing happening there at that time of year. John Cooper agreed and we (Bruce and I) started the build.”
With the assistance of engineer Tyler Alexander they built two cars. McLaren’s teammate for the series, Timmy Mayer, shook out the car at Goodwood in November and it was then shipped to New Zealand for the competition. Bruce McLaren drove it to three wins in four races in New Zealand, including a win at Pukekohe, his home Grand Prix, for his first ever win there. He struggled in Australia to beat Jack Brabham and failed to win any races while Brabham won the first three. Tragedy then struck the team at the last race at Longford when his rookie teammate Timmy Mayer was killed during practice. McLaren did not participate in any further practice or qualifying and started the race on Sunday from the last place on the grid. He proceeded to pass everyone else on the track apart from the eventual winner Graham Hill to finish in 2nd place which gave him the title of 1964 Tasman Champion, six points ahead of Jack Brabham who had only competed in two of the four New Zealand races.
Bruce McLaren’s personal secretary, Eoin Young said, “The die was cast. He had proved to himself that he knew enough about racing now to build his own cars and run his own racing team.”