Broken Lance - 1969 McLaren M12 GT Chevrolet
In 1962, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile laid the ground work for the evolution of the modern Le Mans Prototype. That year, the FIA changed renamed its premier endurance racing championship from the World Sports Car Championship to the International Championship for GT Manufacturers. With the name change also came a fresh set of regulations.
Previously, manufacturers wanting to compete in the series were required to produce at least 100 examples of any given model satisfy homologation requirements. The new-for-1962 rules retained this demand for GT class cars, but added an Experimental Grand Touring category for purebred racing prototypes, with no homologation requirement whatsoever.
The change didn't take very long to gain traction. Motorsport as a whole was in the process of experiencing a mid-engine revolution, after the Cooper T43 reintroduced the layout in Formula One during the 1957 season. Ferrari was the first to bring it to Le Mans with the V12 250P, quickly followed by the Lola Mk6 GT the following season.
Eventually, the unassuming Lola would give birth to the Ford GT40, a weapon forged for to exact the wrath of Henry Ford II on Enzo Ferrari for pulling out of a merger. An all-out war erupted between Ford and Ferrari as a result. One of Ford's conscripts in those days was Bruce McLaren, an F1 prodigy from New Zealand. McLaren had won two Grands Prix for Cooper, and finally managed to drag in a Le Mans victory for Ford in 1966, together with fellow Kiwi Chris Amon.
His experiences with the Ford GT40 inspired him while expanding his own racing and engineering business. As early as 1963, he had set up McLaren Automotive, and started designing single seaters for both Formula One and Formula Two.
This helped him set up Bruce McLaren Motor Racing, his very own F1 team. At around the same time, he built the M1A, a Chevrolet V8-powered open sportscar. This car would later be updated to the M1B for the new FIA Group 7 category, and would compete in the inaugural season of the Canadian American Challenge Cup, or Can Am.
The M1B was the opening salvo ushering in a total domination of Can Am in the seasons to come. As the Can Am racers proved to be worth their weight in gold, Bruce McLaren started thinking back to his days as a works Ford driver.
Considering the immense speed of the M6B model he had prepared for the 1968 season, he made plans to return to Le Mans using a car of his own construction. In order to make the design viable for the long, unbroken straights of Circuit de La Sarthe, he envisioned adding a streamlined coupe body to an M6B chassis, and taking full advantage of the 525 horsepower 5.8L V8.
While principal design work for what would become the M6 GT was underway, the FIA introduced a 5.0L displacement cap for Group 4 sportscars. This would require McLaren to switch to an entirely different engine, not only robbing the car of a lot of potential horsepower, but also putting more strain on McLaren's tiny firm.
This lack of manpower became the biggest handicap in the development of the car. Since 1966, Group 4 machines were subject to a 50 unit homologation requirement, and were to be fitted with all the equipment necessary to make them suitable for use on public roads. Even though McLaren had fabricators Trojan on contract to build the customer versions of his cars, they were busy producing Can Am machinery.
With customer interest failing to materialize as well, Bruce decided to cancel the Le Mans plans, and instead continue the project to realize a life long dream. Using the newer M12 chassis, he produced the first M6 GT, adorned in a vibrant red paint finish.
Rather than prepare the car for racing, he intended it to become the single fastest machine available on the street. Wishing to properly identify the problems with trying to run a Can Am car in everyday traffic, McLaren made it his personal vehicle, driving it around his base of operations in Woking, Surrey, England.
Two more cars were finished that year, with one being used by Trojan as a show car. Sadly, the project came to an abrupt end when Bruce McLaren lost his life while testing the latest M20 Can Am racer at Goodwood Circuit on June 2, 1970. He was just 32 years old.
Under the leadership of Bruce's business partner, the American Teddy Mayer, McLaren Automotive managed to survive the passing of its figurehead. While it never reached its full potential with only three examples made, the M6 GT had left a lasting impression on racers and exotic car collectors the world over, in no small part due to Trojan's promotion of the car at major auto shows and in magazines.
As a result, Trojan received a number of orders for GT body shells for the conversion of existing M12 chassis. One of those was chassis 60-05. Originally an open Can Am racer, 60-05 was built in 1969, and supplied to a very unusual customer.
At the time, luminary designer Jim Hall, founder of Chaparral and the inventor of the concept of downforce, had worked himself into a bit of a pickle. Hall had managed to secure the services of 1964 Formula One World Champion John Surtees to drive his latest Can Am car, the radical low-drag 2H.
However, the car turned out to be a complete dog to drive, helped in no part by resting on two solid De Dion axles. "Grande" John absolutely hated it as a result, forcing Hall to withdraw the car in order to work out the massive issues.
To pacify Surtees, he bought chassis 60-05 for him to use in the 2H's absence. Despite some reliability issues with the huge 7.0L 427 Chevrolet V8, Surtees much preferred the McLaren, going on to score a podium at Mosport. Naturally, Jim Hall added one of his trademark movable, high-mounted rear wings to the car after its first race.
Once the crazy ground effect 2J was ready for 1970, the McLaren had outlived its usefulness, and was consequently sold on to Canadian Team TG Racing Tire. The car was fitted with an even bigger 7.6L Chevrolet 465 and a remodeled body in response to the banishment of high-mounted rear wings.
In this guise,the car made one more appearance at Mont Tremblant in the hands of Jerry Titus (USA) and Peter Revson (USA). Seventh place was the result, some seven laps behind the winning works McLaren M8D of Dan Gurney (USA).
After this final showing, the car was sold on again. The new owner then commissioned a conversion to GT spec from Trojan, before selling it on to American racer Paul Canary in 1981.
Ostensibly trying to replicate Bruce McLaren's original intentions for the GT design, Canary modified the M12 GT to comply with contemporary sports car regulations, eventually reaching a spec conforming to IMSA's GTX category.
Canary made little effort to adapt the M12 GT to bridge the 12 year gap between it had to the rest of the 1981 field. Because of this, the car was for all intents and purposes a 1969 design. The gigantic 465 V8 had long since disappeared, necessitating a switch to a 6.0L version of the venerable Chevy smallblock.
Though much smaller, it was still capable of delivering in excess of 500 horsepower, fed through a Hewland five speed manual transmission. Owing to incredibly low weight of about 800 kg (1764 lbs), the car was expected to perform very well indeed, albeit in a straight line.
With the car finished, Paul Canary took to the small former military airfield known as Sebring International Raceway. Notorious for its diverse array of variously bumpy, car breaking surfaces, the track was the ultimate test of the McLaren's durability. There, the car was entered in the second round of the 1981 World Sportscar Championship, the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Canary was slated to drive himself, partnered by experienced endurance racer John Gunn (USA). Sadly though, the car never even left the paddock. Apparent issues with the new engine prevented the car to take part in any session during the weekend, resulting in a DNS.
Three months after the fiasco at Sebring, Paul Canary brought an international squad to the biggest event on the calendar: the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. The McLaren was accepted as an IMSA GTP entry for the event, sparing Canary the trouble of going through hours of scrutineering performed by the ACO's pickiest, most Frenchest of stewards.
However, the new IMSA GTP category was analogous to the coming Group C formula to be used in Europe, meaning the car had actually been upscaled to the top level prototype class. However, 1981 was a transitional year for the European teams, who were still competing under Group 6 regulations.
Since 1966, this category had maintained an engine limit set at 3.0L. But as Group C would largely do away with engine restrictions in favor of fuel limits, for 1981 teams were free to fit engines of any displacement.
Very few teams took advantage of this opportunity however, with only a 3.3L Cosworth DFL V8-powered Lola T600, the 2.6L turbocharged flat six Porsche 936/81 (x1.4 displacement factor for turbo engines), the ethereal 3.5L BMW straight six-powered Ardex S80, and the revived Kremer-Porsche 917K-81 with its 4.9L flat-twelve stepping up to the plate.
The 917 offered a peculiar parallel to the revived McLaren, as it too had made its debut way back in 1969. However, the Kremer brothers had given the car a thorough redesign, improving its aerodynamics and adapting it suspension geometry to the tires of the time.
By contrast, the M12 GT was in essence exactly as it had left the factory. The biggest change from Sebring was the switch to a smaller 5.7L V8, which replaced the troublesome 6.0L seen at in the paddock on the old airfield track.
Entered under the obscure Z+W Enterprises Incorporated banner, Paul Canary's team consisted of Le Mans veterans Herve Regout (BEL), Michel Elkoubi and Bernard de Dryver (BEL). Also along for the ride was American racing royalty Sam Posey.
Unfortunately, only Regout and Elkoubi were able to get some seat time in the car. A crash popped out both headlights, badly bent the car's nose and one of the driver's egos. At the end of qualifying, a time of 5:13.060 was all the team had. This was a devastating 2 minutes and 16.380 seconds behind the pole-sitting Porsche 936/81 of Jacky Ickx (BEL) and Derek Bell (GB).
Unsurprisingly, the dramatic lap time sent the car right to the back of the field. At 62nd place, the M12 was seven places removed from a starting position. The last car to qualify was the Eminence Racing Porsche 924 GTR driven by French brothers Jacques and Jean-Marie Almeras, one minute and 6.85 seconds ahead of the McLaren.
And with that, Paul Canary's ill-advised adventure was over. With the introduction of proper IMSA GTP and Group C designs for 1982, the M12 GT had absolutely no hope of ever becoming competitive again. No one knows how quick the car even could have been with a proper setup and more accident-free running, but its ancient design didn't promise much.
Though the revival initially brought hope Bruce McLaren's dream of a McLaren Le Mans racer would finally be realized, Canary's projected turned out to be a deception. It would take another fourteen years before a McLaren would actually take part in the great race. Funnily enough, that debut was instantly converted into a victory.