May 23, 2024

Motorsport history: the first racing car with the McLaren badge

Motorsport history: the first racing car with the McLaren badge

The Jolly Green Giant is one of the most unusual cars in racing history. Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile’s career began in 1961 as an F1 racer and ended with numerous conversions later as a skeletal mummy in a mysterious South American garage. The time that Bruce McLaren has makes him special. Now it has been sold by Bonhams for £911,000 at Goodwood.

It could have been a scene from the Indiana Jones movie. After an unbearably long search, Howden Ganley, the last surviving member of the original McLaren racing team, and his allies open a large wooden chest from South America.

It contains neither the Ark of the Covenant nor the Holy Grail. But for the gentlemen, who have grayed their dignity, the flat box contains nothing short of the most spectacular artifacts in the history of racing. On its decades-long journey to Great Britain, the Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile has experienced many adventures that even Dr. Jones was raising his hat.

Its history began in the Cooper race car, which put out a 1.5 liter F1 car for the 1961 US Grand Prix. The F1/16/61 chassis was built with a Coventry Climax engine for millionaire Briggs Cunningham, who was crazy about sports (cars) and had the services of Walt Hansen. However, as is often the case with the talented driver from New Jersey, bad luck was – and with it his car. The story could have ended after 14 laps of the race.


Howden Ganley (center), the last surviving member of the original McLaren racing team, welcomed the Cooper-Zerex Oldsmobile upon its return to the UK.

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Roger Pinsek “The Great Transformers”

However, with Roger Pinske, a rookie racing fan managed to beat the rubble, which was valued at $1,250. Now legendary team owner and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner revamped the frame and added the exterior leather—the Zerex Special sports car was born.

At the wheel of the car, named after the manufacturer of antifreeze, Penske successfully competed in Formula Libre races. In 1962, he won the Riverside Grand Prix (200 miles) in the deep red prototype, ahead of Jim Hall in the Chaparral 1 Chevrolet, Puerto Rican Grand Prix.

After further modifications, Roger Pinske, who shortly afterwards hung his helmet for the benefit of his team, decided to sell the Zerex Special. After a short and equally successful stint with Texas team John Mecum Jr. – Winner of the Indy 500 in 1966 – The car finally ended up with Bruce McLaren in 1964. At the newly established New Zealand racing team, the car would finally go down in motorsport history.

Cooper Xerx Oldsmobile - Roger Pinske - Bruce McLaren

motorsports pictures

Roger Pinsky, now known as the owner of a team marred by success, is still collecting wins for himself in the Zerex Special.

Own logo, green color

McLaren, who at the time was still competing in Formula 1 for the Cooper Car Company, had always followed the development of the Zerex Special with great interest and was considered a huge fan of Roger Penske’s ideas. Inspired by the innovative spirit of Americans, he continued to work on the Frankenstein between his Grand Prix appearances and wins at the sports car races in Great Britain.

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However, he and his team soon agreed on the need for the next major image change. To do this, they planted a 3.5-liter Oldsmobile V8 engine in the originally thin chassis and designed their own McLaren logo for the Cooper Zerex Oldsmobile.

According to legend, the dark green color was not planned in such detail: since the modernization was in the works until the last moment, only one color pot could be found from the “Garden Gate Green” category. He took the scene with humor and named the car “Jolly Green Giant” – the happy green giant.

Cooper Xerx Oldsmobile - Roger Pinske - Bruce McLaren

motorsports pictures

With the “Jolly Green Giant,” Bruce McLaren dared to take on the first major design work under his name.

Reunion after 58 years

The green rider then celebrated more successes in North America and Great Britain. In the fall of 1964, the successor followed the M1 as McLaren’s first true development. The Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile went through three more sales before finally gathering dust in South America. The son of another buyer, now over 80, has made it possible to return to the UK after more than 50 years.

The hull was almost mummified thanks to the warm weather, and the metal skeleton traveled to the island for six weeks, where it was eagerly received by Houdin Ganley. Der McLaren-Mann der ersten Stunde erzählt: “Ich fühle mich bis heute privilegiert, der dritte Angestellte in der Werkstatt von Bruce McLaren zu sein. Es ist ein unglaublicher Gedanke, vor 58 Jahren Alexander zusamt zusammen mit Willerite Automobile to have.” After examining it, he had no doubts about its authenticity.

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Cooper Xerx Oldsmobile - Roger Pinske - Bruce McLaren

motorsports pictures

A special “Rediscovered” from Zerex has recently appeared in historical events. However, the owner is not a charlatan.

Is it really original?

Although experts from Bonhams Auctions, who accompanied the return and sold the car on Saturday (17.9.) in Goodwood for £911,000, attest to this, there is still a small question mark. In 2019, enthusiast Greg Heacock announced that he was reviving the Zerex Special. He even participated in the members meeting at Goodwood with his red model and made valid arguments with him.

He has good reason to believe that the chassis section of the original Cooper F1, which McLaren removed, was found and rebuilt in the Zerex Special. When members of Penske’s team who were still working on the prototype were asked, they also thought the discovery was plausible. If all goes well – as expected – the long-lost “Jolly Green Giant” has reappeared in double form. And that really sounds like Indiana Jones.

In the gallery we have some photos from the exciting history of the Cooper Zerex Oldsmobile and its arrival in the UK.