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Bruce’s Unfinished Business – McLaren M6-GT

2014 Pinehurst Concours
2014 Pinehurst Concours

History’s top racing car manufacturers have always taken rather different approaches to their road-going products. Enzo Ferrari never cared for them all that much, as fantastic as many of them were, seeing them as a way to fund the next race car. Ferdinand Porsche, on the other hand, placed great importance on his company’s street cars and there was often a strong link between Porsches for the road and Porsches for the track. In between Porsche and Ferrari there were dozens of smaller specialist car makers, and Great Britain in particular was a hotbed of racing activity in those formative decades after the Second World War.

A definite standout of this era would of course be McLaren, first incorporated as Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Limited in 1963. Young Grand Prix hotshoe Bruce McLaren had followed in his mentor Jack Brabham’s footsteps to start racing cars bearing his own name, and though the group had rather humble beginnings, in just a few years cars bearing Bruce’s name would steamroll the Can-Am series, win at Indy and establish McLaren as one of the Formula One superpowers.The all-conquering 240 mph McLaren F1 road car was unleashed upon the world in 1992, bringing the brilliance of McLaren engineering to the road for the first time in a series production car, and after partnering with Mercedes a few years later for the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, the company has since returned to making independent road cars. With the world renowned MP4-12C and P1, as well as the recently announced 650S, McLaren now finally has a full range of road cars after half a century of almost exclusively limiting their customer offerings to the track. It is important to remember, however, that although Bruce McLaren died in 1970, it is with him that the concept of a mid-engined McLaren road car really started. Only a precious few were built before Bruce’s death and a change of priorities relegated it to not much more than a footnote of McLaren history, but the M6B-GT (or simply M6-GT) was the genesis of the company’s road-going machines. Today’s P1’s represent the achievement of one of Bruce McLaren’s dreams, but it was a dream that started with the M6-GT.

Born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1937, Bruce McLaren started racing at thirteen years old in a beat up Austin Seven, eventually moving to his father’s Austin Healey 100-4 and then a Cooper Bobtail. McLaren had a meteoric rise in his career as a driver, and by 1959 he had reached the very top, Formula One, serving alongside Brabham at Cooper. At the United States Grand Prix at Sebring that year, 22-year-old Bruce became the youngest Formula One driver up to that point to win a Grand Prix. McLaren had also studied engineering, and like Carroll Shelby had that special gift of being able to scout out and surround himself with supremely talented people. When he decided to have a go of it as a manufacturer, therefore, it didn’t take long for McLaren to find a footing in the top levels of motorsport. Grand Prix success was not spectacular at first, but from 1967 to 1972 the orange McLarens were virtually unbeatable in Can-Am. With reliability, clever engineering, tuned Chevrolet V-8’s and the driving talents of both Bruce and fellow New Zealander Denny Hulme, McLaren was off to a flying start.

It was from these truly epic and devastatingly effective Can-Am sports cars that Bruce finally saw the opportunity to fulfill another personal goal. Through his M6 Can-Am car, he hoped to produce the fastest and best handling mid-engine production sports car in the world. Racing would still be a by-product of the project, so the aim was to subtly disguise an M6 chassis as an uncompromising but appealing road car. The M6A had done spectacularly in FIA’s Group 7 (Can-Am), and the new production car, fitted with coupe bodywork more suitable to endurance racing, would be aimed squarely at Group 4 for 1969. The problem was a rule that 50 examples had to be built for Group 4 homologation, and McLaren just didn’t have that kind of production capacity in those days. Partly out of ambition and partly in an attempt to deceive the FIA into homologating M6-GT, 50 coupe bodies were built by Trojan, the firm contracted to build McLaren’s customer cars. The FIA wasn’t convinced, however, and the McLaren M6-GT never became a Group 4 car. Bruce then turned his attention to making the car suitable for the street, wishing to one day be able to build up to 250 examples per year. The M6-GT road car has been called his favorite project, although it was never a priority in a company increasingly occupied with racing endeavors.

Since McLaren used a Can-Am car as the starting point for the M6-GT, performance was obviously going to be potent. With a Bartz-tuned small block V-8 in Bruce’s personal car, top speed was about 165 miles per hour and 0-100 miles per hour took about eight seconds, all in an age when many dedicated sports cars would struggle to get to 60 in that time. But starting with a Can-Am car also meant that refinement and usability were going to be issues that needed to be addressed. The car was dangerously low, notoriously hard to get in or out of and of course extremely loud, while inside there wasn’t room for so much as a spare wheel. Bruce’s own car, M6/GT-01, was the prototype M6-GT that Bruce used to drive to work and race meetings, and only a precious two additional examples were completed over at Trojan. Bruce’s death while testing and M8D at Goodwood in 1970 predictably shook things up for the small company and the M6 GT, always an on-again off-again project, was never pursued further. Only the three were built in the end, and while all three saw time on the street as McLaren’s very first road cars, only one example had the distinction of running competitively on track as well.

That brings us to this car, M6B GT 50-17. One of the Trojan-built cars, it was on the stage at the London Auto Show in early 1969. Shortly after, and realizing that Group 4 racing was not in the cards for the M6, McLaren sold it directly to privateer racer David Prophet. A fairly well-known British driver who even had two F1 drives to his credit (driving Brabhams at the South African Grand Prix), Prophet had been looking for an M6 Roadster (an open M6 with the same chassis number of 17 was delivered to another privateer) but intrigued enough by the GT to give it a go. Prophet first raced the closed car with race #3 at Magny Cours in May, then again at the UK Crystal Palace Motoring News Championship in June of 1969, where he retired with head gasket problems. Prophet then sold it to Bill Bradley Racing for the 1970 season, but for the Interserie that year, he would still drive the McLaren in almost every race the team entered. Under Bill Bradley’s ownership, M6B GT 50-17 was modified to M12 specifications, which included revised front suspension and, most noticeably, a roadster body. After that brief run in the Interserie, in 1972 Bradley put the car up for sale with a Bartz-Chevrolet racing engine, Hewland LG600 gearbox and original coupe bodywork for $15,950, about $90,000 in 2014.

The conventional ways of racing would have seen the car go to a more cash-strapped team or less competitive series to do another season or two, probably get bent in the process, and then put away in the back of someone’s shop. What happened to car 50-17 is much more interesting. The seasoned race car didn’t go to another European team but to a GM dealer in Quebec, Canada. It seems that the dealer, Msr. André Fournier, had excellent taste in cars because he knew he wanted a Lola T70 or a much rare M6 GT. When the opportunity to acquire Bradley’s/Prophet’s car came up, Fournier had the car rebodied in its original coupe form and shipped to Quebec, where it made for an exotic piece of eye candy in his showroom. It wasn’t just a static display piece, however, as Fournier not only had the car refitted with its original bodywork, he also had a passenger’s seat put in as well as turn signals for road use. In a move that instantly made him one of the coolest dads in North America, he even used the McLaren to take his kids to school. After spinning out in the barely legal supercar on one such morning, though, it wasn’t so cute and the Fournier kids were destined to start arriving at school in something much more boring. At one point a few years later, things went downhill for André Fournier and the car wound up in the hands of the Canadian Government, who sold it auction to another gentleman in Quebec, a Dr. Gilles St. Pierre. St. Pierre would keep the M6 in his private collection until 2006, when he sold it through RM Auctions at their Arizona sale for $423,500.

Jim Edwards is the current owner of 50-17, and happens to be a die-hard Porsche collector, as well. His collection consists of several very important 911s of the racing variety, from early ‘70s RSRs to a fire-breathing ’84 Bob Akin 935, so he’s more than familiar with some of the steroid infused competition hardware of this era. Jim’s involvement with the M6-GT has gone from vague awareness of its existence to careful, admirable stewardship of one of the most original McLarens that still exists today.

“I used to race a Chevron B16,” Edwards says, “and years later when I had the opportunity to get another car, I wanted a ‘70s coupe like that again, like the Porsches or Lolas of the same period. Then this McLaren that fit that criteria came up through RM.” Intrigued by the car and taken by the McLaren name and the sheer cool factor of the car, Edwards was high bidder and proud new owner of a piece of McLaren history. But, he says, “I just didn’t fully understand the rarity or the Prophet connection when I bought it at Scottsdale.”

Edwards had certainly acquired the type of car he was after in the low, sleek McLaren, but the car was still outfitted for street use and the Can-Am reunion at Road America later in the year was somewhere he wanted to be as well as somewhere the car needed to be. Still with coupe bodywork, 50-17 made it to Road America, where folks from the Bruce McLaren Trust, including Bruce’s daughter Amanda, were in attendance along with plenty of the movers and shakers from Can-Am’s glory days. Among them was a man named Alec Greaves. Greaves was handling tech inspections at Road America, but forty years earlier had worked on the cars when they were new. He thought little of Edwards’ car at first, assuming it was one of the dozens of replicas and mock-ups that have cropped up over the years. But at the insistence of another old Can-Am mechanic named Ike Smith that he might want to have a closer look, Greaves was shocked to see that this car was the real deal.

“He took one look at me and said ‘for God’s sake, don’t wreck it’,” laughs Edwards, who was starting to realize the immense significance of his new machine, a car that is thought to be one of only two or three original McLarens in existence. To this day, the car has the original tub and it has never been wrecked.

Adding to 50-17’s significance, of course, was Bruce McLaren’s personal interest and involvement in the tiny batch of M6 GTs. Asked at Road America which car she might like to ride in for a parade lap, Amanda McLaren picked none other than Edwards’ GT. Jim and his crew scrambled to fit a passenger’s seat and got Amanda in the car, only to hear that a scheduling conflict didn’t allow for parade laps. When Edwards got out and walked around to help Amanda out of the car, she asked to just stay in the car for a while. “I feel so close to Dad here”, she said. “You don’t know how much he loved this car.”

Edwards has only raced the car a few times since, including at Monterey, keeping in mind that “trying to bend that thing around a race course isn’t the smartest thing to do. At this point I just want to preserve the car.” He also notes that they didn’t do any real development work on the car during its brief career, so it’s not perfect on track. “It could use downforce on the front because it gets loose at speed, but it never had that in period so I don’t want to do that.”

The M6-GT represents a pivotal step in the company’s history and has a deep personal connection to its legendary late founder. It was the realization of Bruce McLaren’s efforts to see cars for both road and track bearing his name, and though it never became much more than a half-hatched plan, the phenomenal McLaren sports cars of recent years owe something to the little M6 because, well, it came first. Like most any McLaren of the day, this example has led a storied and entertaining life. It was the London Auto Show car, the only example to be raced in period, and was used on the school run. What’s more, it is one of the most original classic McLarens in existence and, under Jim Edwards’ careful stewardship, will thankfully remain that way.

We’d like to thank car owner Jim Edwards, McLaren Automotive Limited, McLaren Family, Ike Smith and period McLaren crew members Alec Greaves and Colin “Beanie” Beanland for their technical assistance.