McLaren, the small yet mighty UK boutique auto house that has given the planet some of its most brilliant Formula 1 and production cars, turned fifty this year. Here’s Gizmag’s look at the company’s journey from a back shed in New Zealand to a world-renowned name in the highest circles of automotive excellence.

Ayrton Senna in Imola in 1989

In Formula 1, the name McLaren has become synonymous with legendary drivers and championship race cars. The likes of James Hunt, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve, Lewis Hamilton and the Ayrton Senna have all raced under the McLaren name at some point in their careers. While these maybe household names, many people may not be familiar with the man who started it all – Bruce McLaren – whose company would rise from humble beginnings to develop world-first racing innovations and some of the industry’s coolest and most iconic road cars.

Despite the firm’s current UK residency,
Bruce McLaren’s racebred vision sprang forth on the other side of the planet in Auckland, New Zealand. In 1950 at the not quite legal to drive age of 13, Bruce convinced his father to convert an unlikely vehicle, a 1929 Austin Ulster, into a race car. From 1950 to 1952 Bruce spent most every waking minute assisting and rebuilding the Ulster. This experience proved vital in teaching him not only the ins and outs of a vehicle, but how particular aspects of a car could be altered or adjusted to get the most out of the car on the day. This real world practice paid off in 1953 when Bruce set the fastest time at the Muriwai Beach Hill Climb in his revised Austin Ulster – he was 15.

In 1958 Bruce traveled to jolly old England to partake in racing under the “Driver to Europe” program. This program provided Bruce access to the big leagues, where under the tutelage of the legendary Jack Brabham, he managed to take the checkered flag at the US Grand Prix in 1959 at the age of 22 – a feat which made him the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix at that time. Even more impressive was the fact that despite ongoing developments in technology and tires, his record held for another forty years, up until 1999.

Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Limited officially came into being on September 2, 1963. In 1964 Bruce and his small team set about to build their own race car, the M1A. Powered by a 4.5 liter Oldsmobile V8, the original M1A was immediately acquired by race teams across Europe and the US after proving itself a genuine threat on the track. Built by Elva Cars, 24 M1A’s were made, some running optional Ford powered V8s. The car’s tubular frame supported a wheelbase of 7.6 feet (2.3 m), where a four-section polyester resin body housed cooling and brake duct work with twin gas tanks placed on the sides. The M1A would eventually set the stage for McLaren to develop faster cars and gain access to bigger race programs like Formula 1.

In 1965 Bruce and team got serious about Formula 1 by building a successor to the M1A, the M2B. McLaren’s first F1 racer was tested out for the first time at the Monaco Grand Prix where the wee 3-liter monocoque racer fared poorly, as did a modified version of the car in Belgium. But what McLaren did gain from its first F1 experience was not only how to deal with a smaller displacement powerplant but more importantly, exposure to a new lightweight composite material known as Mallite. The aerospace derived material sandwiched balsa wood between two sheets of aluminum, creating an ultra-lightweight platform that McLaren used to construct the M2B’s inner and outer monocoque.

McLaren’s desire to incorporate lighter, stronger, unconventional materials in his cars is still evident today in both production and Formula 1 vehicles. From 1965 through to 1968 McLaren experimented with new F1 cars like the one-time M5A, but it wasn’t until 1968 that things really started to gel for the team. Running a 3.0 liter V8 Cosworth-powered racer with power routed through a 5-speed Hewland transaxle, McLaren’s M7A racer was designed in line with the cars of the day, with shortish proportions built around what was basically a narrowed out tube with a hole in the front. Compared to today’s F1 cars, racers in 1968 lacked wings and spoilers for downforce in most cases, meaning handling characteristics would have been much worse at speed.

Since the monocoque tub finished after the cockpit in the M7A, designer Robin Herd and team decided to incorporate the engine block into the car’s frame as a functional chassis member. Weighing in at only 540 kg (1,192 lb) with a power output of 420 hp, the Cosworth powered M7A finally gave McLaren an F1 win in 1968 at the Belgian Grand Prix. Denny Hulme, another Kiwi, went on to win two more races for McLaren in the M7A during the ’68 season, making Bruce’s new car one of the fastest of the year.

However even during the early F1 years, McLaren’s focus still lay with the Canadian-American series (Can-Am). Unlike F1 where the cars were open-wheeled, Can-Am cars were traditionally wedge-styled with closed in closed-in wheels. Designed again by Robin Herd, McLaren’s M6A, a 527 hp Chevy V8 Can-Am racer colored in papaya orange (McLaren orange) would prove to be more successful than its F1 counterparts. With Bruce and Hulme behind the wheel of the M6A, Team McLaren went on to win five out of six races during the 1967 Can-Am season. Of Bruce’s 28 races in Can-Am from 1966 to 1969 he would go on to win nine, but more important to the brand was the fact that when he and Hulme made it to the finish line, it was usually a one-two finish for team McLaren. In total, McLaren picked up 20 wins in Can-Am between 1967 and 1969, with 11 wins coming in 1969 alone.

Always looking to innovate and increase a car’s on-track potential Bruce would frequently test and push his own cars to their limits. The last car that Bruce drove would test would be an M8D Can-Am racer. Powered by a 7.1 liter Chevy V8 that developed 680 hp, the car was initially intended for Hulme to race, but Bruce wanted to test it on track prior to race day. Baesed on an aluminum chassis and weighing only 634 kg (1398 lb), the car had an incredible power-to-weight ratio.

It was in June 1970 that Bruce, who had run relatively injury free during his career, would be killed while testing Hulme’s M8D racer at Goodwood in England. Part way through the test lap a pin securing the rear wing in place failed. At 170 mph (273 km/h) the force of the wind ripped the wing and rear section off the car, removing all downforce to the rear wheels. The car slid out of control into a marshall’s station where Bruce was ejected from the car and killed on impact. He was 32. Despite the tragedy, members of Bruce’s team continued to work on improving the M8D. Two weeks later, team McLaren had two M8D racers prepped for the 1970 Can-Am season. In a tribute to the man who started it all, the team went on to win 9 out of 10 races that season, ironically in the same car that ultimately cost their founder his life.

Following Bruce’s death McLaren continued to compete in Can-Am, but it was ultimately Formula 1 that would bring the team legendary status. McLaren and F1 today go together like American politics and dysfunction, but before the team’s success in F1 came some learning time at the Indianapolis Speedway. Between 1970 and 1976 McLaren brought cars to the brickyard in an attempt to capture the same glory in Indy as it was experiencing in Can-Am.

McLaren’s first few years at Indianapolis were stricken with poor mechanical performances from the M15, however in 1971 the team did something radical by bringing an F1 styled car to the track. The M16 was not only one of the prettiest cars going around, but weighed only 1380 lb (625 kg) and featured an Offenhauser turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, capable of delivering between 700 and 780 hp. The M16 was expected to perform well, and it did, finishing second. In the following year McLaren did take the win in an M16B with Mark Donohue at the wheel. McLaren would reacquire the checkered flag using various forms of the M16 as – once in 1974 and then again in 1976. That was the last year McLaren participated at Indy, but the orders kept coming in for the M16 from other teams up until 1981.

Meanwhile over in Formula 1, McLaren was gaining more and more experience while acquiring such legendary drivers as James Hunt, Gilles Villeneuve, John Watson, Jacky Ickx and Emerson Fittipaldi. The latter won the F1 World Championship in a McLaren M23 in 1974. Considered one of the great F1 cars of the 70s, the M23 was not as technically advanced as other team’s racecars but it still managed to secure sixteen Grand Prix wins, two Driver’s Championships and one Constructors’ World Cup for McLaren.

From 1978 to 1983 McLaren would not climb onto the winner’s podium, but during this time it did develop the MP4/1. Introduced in 1981, the MP4/1 was designed by John Barnard and manufactured by Hercules Aerospace. It was the first Formula 1 car to incorporate carbon fiber composites into its build and the first to develop the carbon fiber monocoque. This composite driver cocoon proved not only stronger and lighter but also a significantly safer environment for drivers. Still used today, this engineering innovation is considered one of the greatest safety developments in racing. Further validating the effectiveness of the idea, McLaren driver John Watson involuntarily put his MP4/1 into a barrier at the Monza course doing 140 mph (225 km/h). As designed, the engine and gearbox broke away from the car behind the cockpit while the carbon fiber tub remained intact allowing Watson to walk away with nary a scratch.

Throughout the neon saturated, fashion disaster that was the 80s, McLaren’s MP4 continued to evolve and win championships. Again, McLaren attracted some of the games more famous, iconic drivers. Niki Lauda would race for McLaren from 1982 to 1985, winning the Driver’s Championship by half a point over Alain Prost in 1984. That would be Lauda’s third and last Formula 1 win, but not the last for McLaren. From 1985 to 1993 McLaren continued to use the MP4 in various construction builds and powerplants. However in 1988, McLaren negotiated the holy grail of engine supplier/ drivers relationships, securing engines by Honda, while Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost handled the driving. Honda’s new V6 turbocharged 1.5 liter engine was capable of delivering 900 bhp and worked beautifully in partnership with a lighter MP4 that featured a superior suspension arrangement and improved aerodynamic design.

One other McLaren innovation from the MP4/4 was the introduction of the “lay-down” driver position. Introduced as a safety measure by the FIA to keep driver’s heads below the roll bar, the lay-down position invented by McLaren can be found on all present day F1 cars. Driven by the legendary team of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, McLaren secured four championships from 1988 to 1991. The Senna/Prost/Honda symbiosis was so tight that McLaren not only won 15 of 16 races in 1988 but also finished first and second a record 10 times. According to McLaren the MP4/4 was the quintessential, dominating race car of the time … with some help from Senna and Prost.

When turbocharging was banned in Formula 1 in 1989 in favor of naturally aspirated engines, Honda came through with a 3.5 liter V10 that developed 675 hp at a screamy 13,000 rpm. Secured to a carbon fiber/Kevlar chassis, with a design by Gordon Murray and team, the MP4/5 would again win the F1 season, this time with Prost at the wheel. In 1995, after losing its relationship with Honda and an unsuccessful two year venture with Ford and Peugeot, McLaren joined forces with Mercedes. Since then the German automaker has provided the team with its Formula 1 motivational resources. In 1998 McLaren would acquire another championship, this time Mr. Mika Hakkinen at the wheel of the MP4/13. Power to the wheels of the 4.5 meter (14.76 ft) racer came courtesy of Mercedes 72-degree V10. Developing 780 horsepower to the 600 kg (1,332 lb) carbon fiber/aluminum chassis gave McLaren an edge on the straights with Ferrari gaining ground in the technical bits. During the 1998 season, Hakkinen’s co-driver David Coulthard was recorded clocking a speed of 219 mph (353 km/h) in the MP4/13.

Mika Hakkinen won again in 1999 and while the victories have dried up somewhat over the past decade, Lewis Hamilton took the Drivers’ Championship behind the wheel of a McLaren in 2008 and the team has also consistently finished in the top three thanks to drivers like Kimi Räikkönen, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Coulthard. In 2007, having lost its tobacco sponsor because of new FIA advertising rules, McLaren partnered with telecom giant Vodaphone, generating the current racing combination – the Vodaphone McLaren Mercedes.

In 2010 McLaren brought out a controversial aerodynamic aid to the track. An innocuous snorkel mounted ahead of the driver (known as the F-Duct) appears harmless enough, but is capable of significantly increasing speed on the straights. A small hole in the cockpit covered or uncovered by the driver’s left leg, the F-Duct is a manually managed system that allows air into the cockpit, which is then redirected through another duct towards the rear wing. In a bit of aerodynamic genius, this system, causes the rear wing to “stall” or lose drag. With the wing’s aerodynamic burden reduced or nullified the MP4-25 was capable of increasing straight line speeds by 6 mph (9.7 km/h) … and when every second and mph counts, this boost can add up to huge gains over the course of a race.

For the 2013 season, McLaren has used the MP4-28 as its F1 weapon of choice. With a rev limit of 18,000 rpm, Mercedes-Benz naturally aspirated 2.4l V8 provides roughly 750 hp to the rear wheels via a McLaren 7-speed seamless sequential transmission. As per F1 regulations the car weighs a minimum 642 kg (1,415 lb) with driver. Using a redesigned carbon fiber monocoque configuration, the MP4-28 also features front and side impact structures to provide additional structural safety to the driver.

In 2009 when FIA introduced Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) to the sport, only four teams participated in the incorporation of the new “hybrid” technology. The system which is almost like an electric short-term supercharger, provides a brief burst of power to the driveline via a specially designed flywheel. The flywheel arrangement, similar to a small generator, harnesses energy from the racecar’s kinetic braking. With a maximum boost of 60 kW (80 hp) this captured energy is then redirected to the wheels for roughly six seconds. In 2009 McLaren became the first team to win a Grand Prix using the KERS system. For the 2014 season the FIA will teams to double available KERS power output from 60 kW to 120 kW.

Since arriving on the Formula 1 circuit in 1966, McLaren has acquired more grand prix wins than any other team. From a statistics perspective, were Bruce alive today, he would be more than content at his team’s Formula 1 track record. During its 50 year history McLaren used 1579 race cars and 58 drivers to achieve eight Formula 1 Constructors’ World Championships, 182 victories, 484 podium placements, 158 pole positions and 153 fastest laps. Not bad for a kid who started out driving a modified 1929 Ulster.