The Car That Started Bruce McLaren’s Career
- 6 June 2017
The 1953 Austin Healey 100/4 is the first model from the happy partnership between British manufacturers Austin and Healey. It caused a huge sensation at the London Motor Show. Its beauty and competitive price was a hit, as was the announcement that it would be produced in large numbers (when production stopped in 1967 nearly 74,000 cars had been produced). They were a great accessible race car.
1950s Austin Healey advertising
First owned by Seabrook Fowlds
This straight 4 cylinder engine Austin Healey 100 was built in Longbridge, UK on the 9th of October 1953 before being shipped directly to New Zealand. It was first owned by Seabrook Fowlds, a service garage and distributor in Auckland. Austin Healey sent three 100s to New Zealand where they were raced as part of an advertising campaign.
Ross Jensen, one of New Zealand’s most successful drivers, raced in the 1954 NZ Grand Prix on behalf of Seabrook Fowlds. He was placed 7th, the most successful result of the three Austin Healeys.
Ross Jensen racing the Austin Healey in the NZ Grand Prix at Ardmore, 1954. Image courtesy of Barry Clearwater and the Bruce McLaren Trust.
Owned by the McLarens
It was then bought by Les McLaren, Bruce McLaren’s father. He completely stripped it down and souped it up. He raced it in the 1955 NZ Grand Prix until the second gear teeth stripped – bad luck! And the bad luck didn’t stop there. He was all set to race it in the 1956 NZ Grand Prix but two months before the race his health deteriorated. Bruce saw his chance.
The McLaren’s racing cars, the Austin Healey is in the middle. Image courtesy of Barry Clearwater and the Bruce McLaren Trust.
In his autobiography, Bruce described the scene: ‘Pop wracked his brains for a suitable substitute and I don’t think my name was very high on his list. But everyone who counted themselves as racing drivers of any calibre was fixed up at that late stage and although Pop was apprehensive about putting me into an important race with people like Brabham and Moss, he finally relented. Even then he didn’t say I was in, not in so many words. He told me I could reckon on a good chance of starting and after that I put up such a good public relations barrage and worked so hard on the Healey, that I don’t suppose he had the heart to stop me.’
His hard work paid off. It was Bruce’s first New Zealand Grand Prix and he didn’t do too badly. He was racing around the track and had moved to third place on handicap. It was looking good until the steering seemed to go during a full-blown drift! Bruce pulled into the pits, argued with his father over what was actually wrong, went out for a few more laps and finally had to agree its wasn’t working properly. Turns out a gasket had blown and water was leaking out. That was the end of the first race in this Austin Healey for Bruce.
Young Bruce McLaren in the Austin Healey. Image courtesy of Barry Clearwater and the Bruce McLaren Trust.
But it was a good enough result that his father entered him in a hill-climb with the Austin Healey, where he finished with the second fastest time. Les’s health began improving, so he put his son to the test. He entered them both in a qualifying competition at Ohakea, where the fastest would drive the Austin Healey in the NZ Grand Prix. This was Bruce’s chance and he knew it. He wrote ‘I tried really hard in practice and collected the staggering time of 1 minute and 40 seconds.’ At the age of 18, Bruce bet his experienced father by seven whole seconds. It was the beginning of a prestigious racing career.
The 1953 Austin Healey with Bruce McLaren’s racing trophies in front of it. Image courtesy of Barry Clearwater and the Bruce McLaren Trust.
The Austin Healey would go on to be raced by Bruce until 1957, when it died with a splatter of oil. While trying to figure out what was causing the engine to misfire, a connecting rod poked through the side of the block and splattered oil on Les McLaren! Bruce found it hilarious. That was the end of the Healey’s racing career.
After the McLarens
The Austin Healey then went through several owners until it was bought by Barry Clearwater of Gore. The restoration was completed in 2004 to an impeccable standard. The car still holds the legacy of Bruce McLaren today.
Bruce McLaren in 1970. Image courtesy of the Michael Cooper Archive.
Bruce would hire many kiwis in his lifetime, a special one being George Begg, a fellow race car designer. We also display George’s 1974 Begg 018. Look out for a post on him soon!
The Austin Healey in Transport World.