Monday, July 27, 2009

The Forgotten McLaren: The M6 GT

When car enthusiasts hear the name McLaren, only one car typically comes to mind: The McLaren F1. How couldn't this car come to mind? Gordon Murray's purpose built, function-dictating-form car that held the record of fastest production car for over a decade? With its specially built S70 V12 engine built by BMW M Division, no ABS, and a three-seat layout with the driver at the center of the car - it's hard not to find something to like/adore about the McLaren F1. Only in the last 3 to 5 years have we seen vehicles that can surpass the F1 in terms of speed and price. With a rate 106 cars made, you're lucky if you only pay about $2 million to pick one of them up.

However, people forget that the F1 was not the first road-going McLaren. In fact 26 years earlier, the man himself, Bruce McLaren, developed his own road car: The M6 GT.

The M6GT was a born like many other incredible road cars such as the BMW M3 or Ford RS200; through homologation requirements for racing. In 1968, Bruce began to put together a plan to develop a car to race in the Group 6 series - but to then take the Group 6 car and have it double as serious Le Mans contender. However, as part of the requirements to participate in Group 6, the engines had to have a displacement no larger than three liters. In Bruce's mind, they could not build a fast, competitive car with an engine displacement that low as the Chevrolet engines McLaren used only proved fast a higher displacements. As a result, Bruce then moved to the idea of producing a Group 4 car which allowed a 5 liter displacement. A caveat of the Group 4 regulations was that 50 road cars had to be produced for a car to eligible to race.

However, this proved to be a problem for the small, Kiwi-owned shop as it was already spread thin with the cars it was fielding in Formula One and Can Am for Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme in their terrific winning combination known as the "Bruce and Denny Show." To make it all work, McLaren commissioned Trojan, a manufacturing group, to build the production cars in-line with the original design provided my McLaren's group. The car-to-be, the M6GT, was built off of the M6 chassis that proved so successful during the "Bruce and Denny Show" of the previous Can Am season that housed a small-block Chevrolet V8 with the difference being the coupe body the wrapped around the car compared to the open top Can Am McLarens. Everything looked to be lining up perfectly for a competitive car for the 1969 season for Le Mans.

But it was not to be. By January 1969 and with the launch of the M6GT, the Group 5 regulations changed requiring only 25 cars to be built and Porsche was quickly working on the soon-to-be infamous Porsche 917. As a result, the M6GT would likely prove uncompetitive against uber-fast Porsches so, the idea of taking the M6GT to Le Mans was dropped. However, Bruce had the idea of continuing construction of the road cars and commissioned one of two or three cars from Trojan as his personal vehicle to begin the process of evaluating what a proper McLaren road car should be. A fast, no-expense-spared, sports car that had no rival.

It's said that Bruce actually drove his M6GT road car to the Goodwood track that fateful day June 2, 1970. Bruce had arrived that morning at the track to conduct testing on the new Can Am M8D. During the afternoon testing on a high-speed section of the track, one of the rear aerodynamic components failed, destabilizing Bruce's car and sending it off-track into a concrete pavilion, drawing closed the far-too-short life of a motorsport legend. With the death of Bruce and the McLaren team reeling in shock, the production car plans died with Bruce on the Goodwood circuit. However, Bruce's personal M6GT was purchased by long-time friend and partner-in-racing, Denny Hulme. Hulme then placed the car in a museum in Bruce's hometown of Auckland, New Zealand before the car was eventually sold into a private collection.

However, the M6GT was to be the first true McLaren road-going car, decades before F1. Bruce's car personified all of the things the F1 ultimately would to be. With it's 5.7L Chevy V8, 370HP and a double wishbone suspension and lithe, 1700 lbs body gave the car serious performance. The engine and light body coupled to the excellent suspension made the M6GT a car that 5 years after it was built, was getting excellent reviews by Road and Track as one of the fastest cars of the time. Little did everyone know that the M6GT was to be the forefather of what much of the car world regard as the best sports car ever built - a dream born and built by Bruce McLaren and ultimately carried out by Gordon Murray and Ron Dennis in the F1 while the M6GT fell between the cracks of history as a 3 car production run before the face of McLaren began to evolve into its current iteration. Well, we think that Bruce would be very proud of the cars that have come to bear his name, years after his inspirational but forgotten M6GT graced the back roads of Great Britian.

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