David Newhardt, courtesy of Mecum Auctions
David Newhardt, courtesy of Mecum Auctions
After several years dominating the Can-Am series with a series of school-bus-yellow racers, McLaren Cars stood up to the developing Porsche challenge with the brand-new 1972 M20. Designers Gordon Coppuck and Tyler Alexander departed from standard McLaren practice in the M20 by removing the radiator from the front of the car and replacing it with two side-mounted units. This allowed improved cooling, relief from cockpit heat for drivers Denis Hulme and Peter Revson, and improved front-end aerodynamics. The latter was achieved by opening the space between the front fenders and installing an adjustable wing for improved downforce. Peter Revson raced the car for the entire season. Hulme won at Mosport and Watkins Glen, while Revson took 3rd at Mosport and 2nd place at Watkins Glen. Revson finished 2nd again in the last round at Riverside, after which McLaren Racing withdrew from the Can-Am and left the field to Porsche. M20-1 is the only one of the three M20 McLarens still retaining its original tub and bodywork. Remarkably, it also has a period-correct Reynolds Aluminum engine, one of the few still running without steel cylinder liners. It has an unbroken record of ownership history and the same owner from 1987 to the present.  

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1972 McLaren M20 Can-Am racer
Years Produced:1972
Number Produced:Three
Original List Price:N/A
SCM Valuation:$750,000 to $1 million
Chassis Number Location:N/A
Engine Number Location:Tag in cockpit
Club Info:Historic Can-Am Association
Alternatives:1972 Porsche 91710, 1970 Shadow Mk 1, 1971 McLaren M8F
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot S170, sold for $2,160,000, including buyer’s premium, at Mecum’s Monterey Auction on August 16, 2014.

I have long argued that with the exception of Ferrari and Porsche (which were bespoke factory team racers from highly collectible marques), all Can-Am racers are weapons-grade vehicles. They are instruments of battle with fiberglass bodies and disposable engines, drivetrains and suspensions. They’re a ton of testosterone and adrenaline if you’re into that kind of thing, but certainly not collectible.

Our subject McLaren M20 is the car that proves me wrong. It may also serve to make my point, but we’ll get into that soon enough. First, let’s discuss the background.

Wide-tire ground-pounders

From its inception through the early 1960s, road racing in the United States had been an obsessively amateur sport, but as it gained in spectator popularity, various promoters became interested in replicating the professional racing spectacle of Indianapolis 500 and oval-track events with sports racing cars.

In response, the SCCA initiated the United States Road Racing Championship. This was a catch-all series of endurance-style races, open to virtually any SCCA two-seater that wanted to enter. It ran for six years starting in 1963, and it spurred the development of what we now call the “ground-pounder” V8 sports racers.

The parallel technological change that allowed the ground-pounders to develop was the development of tire technology. Until about 1963, tire design was stuck with the sidewall having to be about 70% as tall as the tire was wide, but as Firestone and Goodyear fought over Indianapolis dominance, they figured out how to make “Wide Oval” tire profiles. In January 1965, Dunlop followed by introducing its new, wide Grand Prix tire (a 60% design) and the floodgates were soon open. By the end of the decade, a 15-inches-wide tread was not unusual. The wider tires were better at transferring horsepower to the pavement — and thus triggered a horsepower war on the racetrack.

Unlimited power

European racing had struggled with several horrific racing accidents (Le Mans in 1955, the Mille Miglia in 1957, among others), with the result that pure racing cars in Europe were limited to no more than 3 liters displacement, but the United States was subject to no such constraints. When the SCCA decided to follow up its success in the USRRC with a serious international professional series, the idea of attracting the world’s best drivers to what was essentially an unlimited sports car championship caught everybody’s imagination.

The idea behind the Can-Am series was simple: a short series of races in the U.S. and Canada clustered closely together late in the year after the European GP series was over — so the European drivers could participate.

The best drivers, absolutely minimal rules to encourage creativity and speed, and the richest purses in all of road racing were combined. The result: maximum competition, maximum speed, and maximum excitement for the spectators. The cars promised to be (and were) faster than anything ever driven on a road course — including Formula One. Can-Am opened in the fall of 1966 and was a spectacular success from the beginning, attracting a variety of constructors, many of the world’s best drivers, and the largest crowds ever attracted by sports cars.

As often happens in the first year of a series, the 1966 season featured a variety of cars figuring out what was the best way to win: Lola had its T-70 well developed, the Chaparral team fielded very innovative and fast cars, McLaren introduced its M1B model, and a host of smaller teams brought their ideas to the track. It was an excellent season, with 1st and 2nd going to Lola. Bruce McLaren took 3rd without winning a single race, but he noted that he had won more money in six races than he had in three entire GP seasons. He would definitely be back.

McLaren innovation and domination

The 1967 season dawned with the various competitors expecting a rerun of 1966 — except McLaren. Frustrated in Formula One, the McLaren team had spent the entire off-season developing an all-new car for the Can-Am — the M6.

Although it was still a tube-framed car and designed around the small-block Chevrolet engine, the M6 was designed to incorporate all the lessons learned the previous year, and it proved to be almost unbeatable. Can-Am became the “Bruce and Denny Show” (for Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme) and stayed McLaren’s domain for years. The M8 series, which incorporated monocoque construction and the big-block Chevrolet engines, debuted in 1968 and in various iterations dominated the series until Porsche decided to enter in 1972.

Horsepower wars

Success in Can-Am racing depended on a lot more than just horsepower, but in an unlimited series it was hugely important, and Porsche was rumored to be bringing a turbocharged 917 with well over 1,000 horsepower to the battle.

Well before the 1972 season began, McLaren knew that they were in trouble, so they developed the M20. It was an M8 evolution designed around a turbocharged big block, but the engine wasn’t ready in time, so they stayed with the aluminum 494 that had carried them to that point. If you forgot the steel liners and bored it out as far as you could, the engine could displace 510 cubic inches and make about 750 horsepower, so that’s what they went with. Without steel liners, the engines were good for maybe two races before you threw them away, but that was the cost of being competitive.

And the McLaren M20 was competitive. Having spent seven years in the trenches while it was Porsche’s first outing gave McLaren a real advantage — the M20s were more slippery and handled better — but there is only so much to do when you are down over 300 horsepower. The M20s could qualify well but were asking so much of the engines that they broke frequently, and it became Porsche’s year and series. At the end of 1972, McLaren formally abandoned Can-Am to concentrate on Formula One.

The last and best

The McLaren M20 is the last and greatest of the iconic orange McLarens that dominated Can-Am for five of its first six years and was serious competition to the very end. In fact, this very car won the last race of the Can-Am series in 1974.

Add in that there were only three built — and that our example is the only one with its original tub and suspension — and you have without question the most collectible McLaren Can-Am car in the world. It’s not something you will ever drive in anger, though: The “original” tub is worn out, and a non-sleeved aluminum big block has the operating life of an ice cream cone. This car is a running museum piece, not a weapon or toy to be used.

I opened this profile with the observation that virtually all Can-Am racers are weapons-grade cars, not collectible. They are generally worth $300,000–$500,000, these days, and the more important ones bring a bit above that. This car brought four times that, so the buyer was not purchasing a racing experience — he was collecting an icon. Even so, unless you think it’s a Porsche, it’s hard to justify the price with comps, so I suggest the buyer was brave. I’d say well sold. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)


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