|Vehicle:||1965 McLaren-Elva M1A|
|Original List Price:||$12,000|
|Chassis Number Location:||Brass plate on firewall|
|Engine Number Location:||Varies|
|Club Info:||Historic Can Am Association|
|Alternatives:||1966 McLaren M1B, 1965 Lola T70, 1965 Lotus 40|
This 1965 McLaren-Elva M1A “Cro-Sal Special” sold for $249,000 at the Bonhams & Butterfields sale in Greenwich, Connecticut, on June 8, 2008.
Any vintage racer who hasn’t had a chance to drive a mid-engined V8-powered sports racer-particularly one that fits into the Can-Am category-owes it to himself to do at least a few laps, if only to understand the visceral rush. The power delivery is so instant and brutal that it feels like you’re strapped inside some kind of projectile. I remember a few years ago when we dropped Mauricio Gugelmin into a big-block M8. Though a very successful Champ and Indy Car racer, he had never experienced Can-Am horsepower. When he came in after the first set of laps, his eyes were like saucers, but he had a grin on his face. My, did he have a grin.
1964 was a year of radical change
Though the idea of mid-engined V8 sports racers had developed a number of years earlier, the true beginnings of what was to become the Can-Am racers arrived with the McLaren M1A and the Lola T70, both of which debuted at the London Racing Car Show in January 1965. Earlier cars like the Cooper/Shelby King Cobra and the Lotus 19/Buick had been designed for 2.5-liter engines and the tall, skinny tires of the early ’60s. By 1964, they were past their time. The year 1964 was a time of radical change in car racing; it was also the beginning of a period of intense evolution because both Goodyear and Firestone had figured out how to build wide, low-profile racing tires.
The racing car world would never be the same. In 1964, the biggest Dunlop racing tire went on a nine-inch-wide rim and had eight inches of tread. The M1A was delivered with eight-inch front and ten-inch rear wheels. By late 1965, twelve-inch-wide wheels took tires with twelve inches of tread, and by the end of the decade, 20-inch-wide tires were in use. The impact this had on chassis design, the ability to get power to the ground, and thus the importance of cubic inches, was phenomenal.
The McLaren M1A and the Lola T70 were the first commercially available sports racers that had been designed to utilize V8 engines and the new tire technology, but they took different paths. While Lola used a relatively heavy monocoque chassis intended to carry iron-block Chevy or Ford engines and heavy transaxles, McLaren went to a smaller, lighter, tube-frame approach designed to use the Oldsmobile with a lighter Hewland transaxle.
From 1961 through 1963, GM had produced an aluminum-block V8 generally called the BOP 215. Though originally a 3.5-liter, it could be stretched to 4.5 liters and had the advantage of being almost 100 lb lighter than a small-block Chevy. Oldsmobile’s variant on the engine used a six-bolt head stud arrangement (vs. Buick and Pontiac’s five-stud), which allowed the tuners to get more horsepower. If you’ve ever wondered why so many early V8 racers were Oldsmobile powered, that’s the reason. It was the aluminum V8, not your father’s Oldsmobile.
Bigger tires showed the M1A’s shortcomings
In the beginning, McLaren’s light and nimble approach worked very well; if you don’t have enough tire to get horsepower to the ground, you’re better off not carrying the weight of a big motor. It was not to last, however. Starting in 1965, fatter, stickier tires were being developed almost by the month, and the increasing chassis loads were showing the shortcomings of the M1A. By mid-season the McLaren team had nicknamed the M1A the “FlexiPower” and was working hard on a much stiffer, stronger chassis adapted to the changing realities-the M1B. It arrived in September.
There were other visual changes going on as well. The M1A had been designed to meet the then-prevailing FIA Appendix C regulations, which had been written years earlier to maintain the illusion that the racers were in fact road-going sports cars. The distinctive bulbous windscreen on the M1A is in fact to provide a place to mount the required spare tire. By mid-1965, the new Group 7 unlimited sports racing car rules had been agreed to, so road niceties were abandoned and the distinctive Can-Am shape began to appear in the M1B-wide and muscular rather than small and curvy.
By 1966, most M1As had gotten fender flares for wider wheels, bigger engines, and stronger transaxles, and they had sprouted various aerodynamic appendages in an attempt to stay competitive, but their time was past. The M1B managed to stay around in a spear-carrier role for a few more years, but the Can-Am front runners quickly evolved into fire-breathing monocoque chassis with fuel-injected big blocks and huge, wide tires.
Both cursed and blessed by its timing
From a vintage racing standpoint, the M1A is both cursed and blessed by the timing of its moments of glory, and it’s the reverse of what you might expect. The M1A was designed specifically for the American market, but there’s almost no place for it in American vintage racing. This is because in the U.S., we tend to grid cars by type, and as a wide-tired V8, the M1A will almost inevitably be sent out with later Can-Am cars that are wildly faster than it is.
There are seldom enough early cars for their own grid, so you’re stuck being a rolling chicane in the Can-Am circus, which is not fun at all. In Europe, it’s different. The FIA system is strictly by construction date, and the break happens to be 1965. This means that the M1A, M1B, and a few early Lola T70s get to run in pre-1965 grids against Lotus 23s and the like. In those grids, the McLarens are king of the hill and thus highly desirable. As a result, the European market is what drives the 1965 McLarens, and $250,000 to $280,000 seems to be what they go for these days, with the B at the top of the range and the A at the bottom. Tellingly, the M1C (an evolution of the B) came along in 1966 and is thus worth roughly half of the 1965 cars’ value, due to its lack of eligibility.
The McLaren-Elva M1A “Cro-Sal Special” looks to me like it was restored as a display or museum car rather than a serious racer (though historically correct, those exhaust stacks cost probably 60 horsepower over headers), and it may well have sold into a domestic collection instead of the international market, but the Europeans still set the value. I’d say correctly priced.