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History of M8A-2: The Trust's McLaren M8A

With the restoration of the Trust's M8A completed, it is time for us to look back and recall the fascinating story and saga of this unique and very special Can-Am car. In reflection it behoves us to say, that had it not been for all the unusual events in the course of its history, then we would not be in the position of owning this car today.

To start the story we go back twenty six years to 1967. This was the year of the M6A, the first of the orange elephants as they were affectionately known and of course, the first year that Bruce and the team won the highly coveted Can-Am Championship. The monocoque chassis M6A was hugely successful and at the season’s end, the McLaren works took Denny’s M6A, which had run a small block Chevrolet engine, cut the back off the tub and mounted a big block 427 cubic inch Chevrolet motor to create the first M8A. The engine also became a semi-stressed member.

And the power increased from around 516bhp to 640bhp. This coupled with wider tyres and changes made to body aerodynamics meant that the new M8A was going to lap about 3% faster.

The First Year

M8A-2, Denny Hulme’s car, was constructed at the McLaren Colnbrook factory in England in early 1968 by the team, which included New Zealanders Colin Beanland, Cary Taylor, George Begg and Chris Charles. The two M8As were only just ready in time for the opening round of the 1968 Can-Am series in North America and at Elkhart Lake the McLaren Team worked several all nighters to make the cars raceworthy.

The race itself was wet and Hulme, then the current World F1 Champion and seasoned in the rains of Europe, drove away to an early lead. Part way through the race Denny lost a valve rocker in his 7 litre engine. This wasn’t enough to stop the Chevy but on the last lap the now seven cylinder engine lost all oil pressure. He still had a forty second lead over his teammate, so he motored around the last four miles in top gear to collect the chequered flag.

At the next round at Bridgehampton, New York, the M8As had serious reliability problems, with Hulme dropping out when the engine started blowing white smoke. Mark Donahue went on to win in his McLaren M6B. The next round was at Edmonton in Canada and McLarens hoped they had solved their engine problems by reverting to Chevrolet off the shelf piston rings. Hulme and McLaren again pulled away from the pack but at the halfway mark Denny’s engine began smoking and the oil pressure began dropping. Dumping his reserve oil supply brought the pressure back up and by nursing the car home he won by 10 seconds from his teammate Bruce.

At Laguna Seca, California the race was run in terrible conditions with torrential rain, but Denny managed to salvage second place behind John Cannon in an old M1B. Then at Riverside, California when the team had confidence in their engines, Denny had the misfortune to veer off course and damage the front bodywork.. He managed to finish fifth and was still leading the series. The last round was at Las Vegas and Denny dominated this race and his win clinched him the Can-Am Championship for 1968 in the M8A-2.

The Second Year

For 1969 the M8 was developed with the high wing, other refinements and nearly 700bhp and became the M8B. Denny’s M8A-2 was upgraded and modified to the “B” specs and assigned as the team’s spare car for 1969.

At Michigan Speedway, Jack Brabham tried out the M8A-2 in practice and qualified the car, but Dan Gurney took over the car for the race, wearing race # 1. Dan passed twelve cars on the first lap and finished third to give the team an historic one, two, three win.

At the next meeting at Laguna Seca, Chris Amon had oiling problems with the Can-Am Ferrari 612P, so he went to see his old kiwi friend about a drive in the spare car. This time M8A-2 wore the #3. Starting from the back of the grid, Chris passed thirteen cars in the first two laps and was racing through the pack when the differential broke.

At the next round at Riverside, Bruce had a bad smash when a rear wishbone broke, heavily damaging his car. He took over the spare car for the final round two weeks later at the Texas International Speedway. This time M8A-2 wore Bruce’s own #4. The Texas track was a banked tri oval circuit and for the first time the Can-Am cars were able to really stretch their legs to over 200 mph. Bruce went on to win this race when Denny’s engine died with eleven laps to go. Bruce had also won the 1969 Can-Am Championship and was clocked at 210mph on the banked circuit.

As was quite the normal practice for the team, at the end of the season some of the works team cars were “tidied up” and sold to the Americans. When offered for sale, M8A/B –2 was very quickly purchased by Lothar Motschenbacher.

The Third Year

Lothar’s first race of the season was at Mosport on June 14th 1970, just twelve days after Bruce had died at Goodwood whilst testing the M8D. Motschenbacher tangled with Jackie Oliver and crashed heavily. In ten days Lothar and his team rebuilt the car for the St Jovite, Quebec round, replacing “nearly everything but the instrument panel”. His team’s work paid off, for after Denny retired with overheating, Lothar came in second to Dan Gurney in the works McLaren M8D.

Motschenbacher retired at Watkins Glen with a broken half shaft, but came back with an excellent third place at Edmonton two weeks later behind Hulme and Peter Gethin. The Mid Ohio race at Lexington was another excellent showing for a privateer, with Lothar number two on the grid and finishing third behind Hulme and Peter Revson. However, at Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin, his luck changed. Lothar went off through the trees, hitting an embankment and effectively writing off the now red M8B. Investigations showed that a left rear wheel spindle had snapped. Two weeks later, Lothar was back in a new McLaren M12 Can-Am car and the two year old, badly damaged M8A/B was parked at the back of the workshop.

This then was the end of M8A-2s highly successful racing career.

The Show Car Years

With McLaren dominating the Can-Am Series, Goodyear, as one of the major sponsors, decided in the early 70s that for advertising purposes they needed a ‘show car’. Denny Hulme was approached for advice and it was suggested that they approach Lothar Motschenbacher.

By this time Lothar had accumulated various McLarens, including Denny’s M8D-1.

It was agreed that Lothar would “put together” an M8D show car, based on the old damaged M8A-2 tub and so the next part of the story begins. The damaged tub and bulkheads were “dollied up”, a “grenaded block” formed the basis of the dummy engine and an empty Hewland gearbox was attached at the rear. With a fine set of induction stacks, a collection of all sorts of genuine McLaren parts, new wheels and tyres and a genuine M8D body, also from Denny’s car, old M8A-2 rolled out in all her new found glory and became the Goodyear Show Car.

However, show cars also pass their “use by date” and eventually after it had finished its promotional tours, Goodyear gave the car back to Denny Hulme.

A Museum Home

In conjunction with Denny, Goodyear and MOTAT (the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland, NZ ) it was agreed that the M8 should come to the home of its drivers and builders and arrangements were made for its trip downunder to New Zealand. In March 1978, Denny again sat in the M8A and the car was officially presented to MOTAT by the Goodyear Tyre & Rubber Co.

The McLaren created much interest and formed the basis of many special displays. In time and in line with MOTAT policy it was decided that some work should be done on the M8 and an effort made to work on the engine and get the car going. The car was sent out to have some work done on and as so often happens in the world of voluntary museum work, it disappeared.

It apparently passed from hand to hand as each engineer or mechanic looked at the complexities under the bodywork and understandably realised that it was a mammoth task to repair.

The Rescue

Things McLaren move in mysterious ways and in the early 1980s, a farm was purchased in South Auckland and the new owner decided to clean up all the old machinery and cars lying under the big Macrocarpa trees. He duly brought in the bulldozer and dug the hole to bury everything. A last minute thought saw him make a phone call to a car club member to see if they were interested in the old sports car before he buried it. The car club members realised immediately what the car was and the rescue was made. The McLaren was duly trailered to the Northern Sports Car Club premises, cleaned up and put on display. After that near disaster, Northern Sports wouldn’t let the car out of its sight and didn’t trust anyone to look after it any more. And the rein started the seventeen year battle of ownership. Without entering into all the details of the ownership claims, it is enough to say that they all had some validity.

M8A - The Body Beautiful

Whilst we inherited the M8A as a “complete” looking car with bodywork, the actual old body work on the car was from an M8D - a very different model that had seen two years of development, alteration, widening, wings, etc, etc. And no way could any of this bodywork be used for our M8A!

So it was back to the drawing board and hours and hours of research and a challenge that had plagued us from the very beginning - where in the world would we find any parts of the original body to at least give us a starting point?

We are delighted to tell all our members and readers that the body is finished after many months painstaking work and it is composed of about 18 different sections. The reason for so many sections will be explained later. What a great sight it has been to actually see a full body take shape on top of the tub!! It looks magnificent and it is so exciting to know it is all finished.
Duncan Fox, our McLaren expert, takes up the story from here:

We had a 1968 chassis with 1970s bodywork, made out to look like a 1971. I studied all the existing bodywork so that I could basically reverse engineer a modified piece of 1970 customer body work back to an M8A. From moulds of the old Trojan customer cars that Group 7 have bought and own in England, I started with an M8C front and an M8E rear and we made a panel out of each of them and then started modification.

Looking at the front of the new buck - the front upper section is M8C, the next section piece is off an M8D and then the other section is from the M8F. It was just a matter of identifying the componentry and using it with unmolested pieces of various bodies and putting them all together.

Finding pieces of the body work became a saga in itself. It would have been unexpected that we would find any M8A panels in America because both the A cars went back to England. If we were ever going to find A bodywork it should have been in England and not in America because there are no cars there that it would fit. But on one of my trips to America, someone told me that that a piece of M8A had been sold in America. He said “Oh, when I worked for Motschenbacher back in 1973, before his workshop fire, I loaded an M8A body panel onto a truck for a guy.” “You don’t know who it was?”

I asked. “Oh no, I can’t remember who it was, but he lived up in the San Francisco bay area.”

And he said “I think it went on a tube frame car” and then it was just a case of heading for the bay and finding old timers who ran a car that looked like a McLaren, maybe a bit messed around with. I tracked down a car and followed its movements, and then came to a dead end, only to find one piece of body work but not recognizing it.

Because it niggled me for a year, on my second trip back, I followed it up again and sure enough it was the same piece of bodywork sold in 1973. The McLaren team had left the bodywork with Motschenbacher because he was the agent and they figured he may be able to sell it in California, rather than having to take it back to the other side of the world.

The rear wings are another fascinating story - the rear wings on an M8A were unlike anything else used on any other car, either a works or a customer car. It was one of the things where we knew what it looked like from the pictures but we didn’t know how to make them.
It turned out that the wings were one of the first pieces of bodywork that we actually acquired.

We managed to track down a guy in Los Angeles who had, believe it or not, dug the fire blackened and burnt wings out of the dumpster when they were cleaning up the Motschenbacher workshop after the fire. These two pieces of wings and sides are quite charred in some places but if you study them hard enough you can almost see the plywood - and that’s how they were made, on a plywood buck. After a bit of “archeology” I decided that these particular two pieces of wing probably came off another body panel. We know it didn’t come off the body panel we have as the holes don’t match. However, we do believe that they came from Bruce’s car rather than Denny’s because they are in two pieces, as carried from the UK as hand luggage on the plane.

So back to the body and how we started putting it all together (I hope you don’t get your alphabet confused.) Now the M8C front, the upper portion was the same as the A but the radiator duct opening was different because the C body went on an M6 chassis and not an M8, so that portion had to be altered as the M8A radiator was narrower. The C dash has a large hump in it, so we had to get rid of that and this all took hours of studying pictures, reading books and just looking at the body and absorbing it all.

I knew that an M8E front was made from an M8B so it was a natural progression but because it was an understeering car, they quickly modified it before they sold the customer cars. One bit of information I got was that the front of the dash was always going to be constant, B, A or E, so I knew that by cutting the front off the dash, I had the front of the dash for our A. The D dash was different but originally I thought all I had to do would be copy the D dash but it was totally different, much higher. Then I had to find in the piece of E body panel, the section where it changed, where they had filled in the old panel. So then I grafted the E piece into the new body and then hand made the radiator opening.

On the C the windshield is up much higher, there’s a lip, a ledge at the bottom so all that had to be dropped, because the top of the dash followed right through to the screen This was hand made and taken off an F body. The front alone tells a huge story but once we got it to this point, then we could identify the line that they made the original bucks off. We then made moulds of the B body and then cut all that stuff off, put the D mounted pieces in, then made the A fenders by basically cutting, fiddling around, and adding pieces on. All you have to do, is say, why did they do that and then reverse engineer it all.


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