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The ultimate barn find — part one

22 December 2014

Actually, it’s not really a barn find; it’s a macrocarpa-hedge find. But that’s just as good. If it’s a genuine race-winning, big block, Chevy-powered, McLaren Can-Am car, it doesn’t matter too much whether you find it in a barn or under a hedge; I’d be just fine with either option.

This isn’t going to be the story of the car and what it did during its racing career — that would fill this magazine on its own, and you probably know the basics of all that anyway. As a quick summary, the 427ci Chevrolet-engined McLaren M8A (good for over 200mph back then), known as ‘M8A-2’, which has recently been restored by the Bruce McLaren Trust, was built in 1968 by the Bruce McLaren Racing Team for the Canadian and American (Can-Am) road-racing championship. Over the next two years, the car was driven by Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Jack Brabham, Chris Amon, and Dan Gurney, winning races and championships for the Bruce McLaren Racing Team along the way. 

This is a historic racing car, with serious provenance. When the team had finished with M8A-2 in 1970, the car was purchased and raced by Lothar Motschenbacher until he wrote it off in a huge crash, effectively ending its racing career for good. A year or two later, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (which was heavily involved in Can-Am racing) was looking for a ‘show car’ for its advertising programme. M8A-2 was roughly repaired and put back together by Motschenbacher (in McLaren M8D form) and sold to Goodyear.

This is where I think the story of M8A-2 gets really interesting and where I pick it up here. By 1977, Goodyear had finished its promotional work with the car, and it was just taking up space and collecting dust. Essentially, Goodyear gave the car back to Denny Hulme, but because Denny had little use for it, he and Goodyear collectively decided to return the old car to the country of its builders and drivers. They gifted it to Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology — better known as MOTAT — for it to be housed safely and viewed by New Zealanders forever more. The car was shipped to New Zealand, and, in March 1978, there was a ceremony at MOTAT where, with Denny present, Goodyear handed over the famous old warhorse.

For a couple of years, the Can-Am car did its job of being viewed and admired by many, until MOTAT management decided it was time to have some work done on it. It didn’t run, and it was looking a little unloved. The car was transported to someone’s workshop for the repairs and tidy-up work to commence, but it was quickly discovered that it wasn’t going to be any kind of picnic repairing this thing. 

To meet Goodyear’s original objective of having a rolling promotional car, Motschenbacher had used up all the junk McLaren parts he’d had lying around, including a grenaded block, torched cylinder heads, and an empty Hewland gearbox. To add to the complexity, a lot of important incidentals were missing from the car. The McLaren therefore sat in the workshop and gathered dust for over a year. Then it was moved to another workshop, where, against all hopes, its progress fared no better. After more months ticked by with nothing happening, the car was transported to yet another home garage, this time on a farm somewhere in the Clevedon area in South Auckland. Here, it was hoped, work would get under way, but again nothing happened. Time passed, and the layer of dust thickened. Worse still, at some point in this sad chapter of the car’s life, the person who owned (or perhaps rented) the property must have decided that he needed the shed space for something more important, so the famous old M8A was pushed outside and left to the elements, protected only by a macrocarpa hedge. 

It’s likely that the turnover of MOTAT staff during these years (a period when, according to rumours, a few things went missing from MOTAT) meant that interest in the old car waned, and clearly it had slipped completely under the radar of MOTAT’s staff. To be fair to everyone concerned, we should bear in mind that, 30 years ago, historic race cars as we now know them weren’t yet historic, nor, of course, were they particularly valuable. Nevertheless, Bruce and Denny’s old car still had a great deal of historical significance for the New Zealand motor-racing community, and for this wonderful old car to be all but forgotten by its guardians was indeed a sorry state of affairs.

During 1982 or 1983, the farm upon which the unloved and almost forgotten M8A sat was sold, and new owners arrived and started the process of cleaning the place up. Dotted around the outbuildings, and under a very large and untidy macrocarpa hedge, the new owner found a lot of car wrecks and bodies, old farm machinery, and … a rather-curious-looking old sports car in very rough condition. At this point, the historical details are a little sketchy, but it’s understood that the farmer began Operation Clean-Up by digging a huge rubbish pit in a nearby paddock, into which he began to bulldoze all the old car and truck bodies and general farm rubbish. Mercifully, at the last minute, he made a chance phone call to someone he knew who was interested in old cars, just in case he might want to take away the old sports car before it was shovelled into the rubbish pit. As good fortune would have it, the enthusiast, who was a member of the Northern Sports Car Club (NSCC), turned up, quickly recognized the M8A as the old Denny Hulme car from MOTAT, and immediately rescued it. NSCC members cleaned the car up and put it on display in a corner of their spacious South Auckland clubrooms. 

At some point after this incredibly lucky save, MOTAT — having caught up with the events that had taken place — arrived back on the scene, and came knocking on NSCC’s door wanting its M8A back. The NSCC members were understandably shocked at the fate that had almost befallen the famous old McLaren Can-Am car, and had no confidence that MOTAT would do a better job of looking after it a second time around, so they made the decision not to let it out of their sight again and held fast to that position. Therein began a 17-year ownership battle, with MOTAT claiming the M8A insofar as it had a document from the previous owner (Goodyear) that transferred ownership to MOTAT back in 1978. NSCC took the not-unreasonable position that MOTAT had abandoned the car and, had it not been for NSCC’s intervention, the car would almost surely have been sentenced to a rubbish pit and gone forever. The McLaren remained in NSCC’s clubrooms throughout the rest of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, with MOTAT insisting all the while that it should be returned to the museum. Fortunately for everyone, no one made the fateful step of bringing in the lawyers and complicating the matter further.

By 1997, the Bruce McLaren Trust had been established. Well aware of the unresolved dispute surrounding the M8A, it put a solution on the table: each party would divest itself of any declared right to the car, passing ownership over to the Bruce McLaren Trust. At the forefront of the negotiations was Bruce McLaren’s younger sister, Jan. On behalf of the trust, she made a commitment that the M8A would be kept safe and that a thorough and detailed restoration would be undertaken under the guidance of the trust as time and funds allowed. It was a fantastic idea, and it was a great tribute to common sense that all parties agreed to the proposal. Denny Hulme had died at Bathurst in 1992, at the wheel of a BMW touring car, but his wife (albeit separated from him at the time of his death), Greeta, was also involved in the negotiations, and gave the trust’s solution her support and blessing.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Bruce McLaren Trust took over guardianship of M8A-2 and, during a process too lengthy and complex to cover here, a beautiful restoration was carrie
d out, largely at the hands of the amazingly talented Duncan Fox. The work was finally completed during 2013. It was a long, hard road for the trust, which raised half a million dollars to fund the restoration. The fundraising was greatly helped by the trust’s innovative sponsorship packages, whereby individuals and organizations from all over New Zealand became involved in the dream of restoring the M8A back to its original splendour.

And now the interesting story of M8A-2 is to begin its next chapter. Like the car’s journey thus far, the next chapter isn’t without some difficulty and controversy. Tune in on December 25 for part two …