This week marks the death of the founder of one of the automotive industry’s iconic high-performance brands. He was also a race car designer, engineer and driver. His life was built around speed and his life ended all too fast. He’s Bruce McLaren.
In his birth country of New Zealand, Bruce started racing at 14 after he convinced his father not to restore and sell the family’s 1929 Austin Ulster. They converted the Ulster into a hill climb racer. By the age of 15, Bruce was a hill climb course record holder. Much like the hills he mastered, Bruce quickly climbed through the racing series ranks.
In 1958, just before his 21st birthday, Bruce entered the German Grand Prix. It was his first Formula One race – albeit behind the wheel of a Formula Two Cooper-Climax. He was the top finisher in a Formula Two car and 5th overall, ahead of icons such as Phil Hill and Stirling Moss. His first win arrived at Sebring for the 1959 United States Grand Prix. At 22 years and 104 days old, Bruce became the youngest driver to win a Formula One race. [The record was first broken by Fernando Alonso in 2003 and later by the current record holder, Sebastian Vettel in 2008.]
In 1963, Bruce put his name on the starting line with Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. Its the company we know today as McLaren. Driving ‘the company car’, Bruce won the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, joining Jack Brabham as the only drivers to win a Grand Prix race in a car bearing their own name. The McLaren name has been attached to winners of Formula One races, Can-Am races, the Indy 500, 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Bruce McLaren sped through life, attaining a rare level of success behind the wheel and behind the scenes. On June 2, 1970 - at the age of 32 - his spirited run came to an end on a test day at Goodwood. At 170 mph, the tail section of his M8D Can-Am car disengaged, sending the car into a spin and into an embankment. During the accident, Bruce lost his life.
On any given Saturday morning in Hunt Valley, we may see a McLaren MP4-12C, 650S and maybe even the latest McLaren - the P1. A few will be McLaren Orange, just like Bruce’s winning ride at Spa in ’68. Today, McLaren’s road cars and race cars retain much of the racing spirit that Bruce brought to the world. Bruce, thank you for lighting the way for the McLaren we know and love today.