Words: Allan Dick | Photos: Terry Marshall
Allan Dick pays tribute to the tortured genius of Graham McRae.
Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Graham Peter McRae was the man. He was a hero, our great hope as the next Kiwi into Formula One. New Zealanders had been spoiled. We had already had a World Champion, Denis Hulme; Bruce McLaren was the leading racing car constructor in the world; and Chris Amon was the number one driver for Scuderia Ferrari. Then there was Howden Ganley. New Zealand was surely the world’s breeding ground for top-flight racing drivers, and the prowess of our mechanics was legendary.
Who was next? Graham McRae was most likely. At around 30 years of age he was no teenaged talent, and by today’s standards he was getting on a bit in years to achieve stardom, but he was a complete bundle of super talent. And he had done the hard work.
He had proven himself unbelievably quick in the car simply called the McRae Twin-Cam that he built and raced over the 1969/1970 season. It was a National Formula, 1.5-litre car in which he took the battle to better-known drivers in factory-built cars with some stunning results.
Wellingtonians already knew McRae’s abilities as both an engineer and a racing car driver, and his self-built Maserarri sports car (with a variety of engines) had been both fast and a thing of great beauty. That was followed by a Malloch U2, a beautifully detailed sports car that is still being raced today.
But his fame had not spread far outside the capital.
Better Than Just ‘Good’
In late 1967, McRae bought a tired old twin-cam-engined Brabham BT2 – a car that had originally been raced in the UK by Great Train Robber Roy (the Weasel) James, and which had had several drivers in New Zealand. However, it was then just a second-rate old car, painted a bilious shade of light green.
I drove from Wellington to Auckland in my MkI Cortina GT for the 1968 Grand Prix at Pukekohe with fellow journo David McKinney as a passenger. McKinney knew everything that was happening on the motor racing scene in Wellington, and somewhere mid-island we were passed, in heavy rain, by a metallic green, fastback Mustang towing a pale green Brabham on a trailer.
“That’s Graham McRae,” said McKinney. “Local Wellington driver and better than just ‘good’ – he’s brilliant.”
I took notice and McRae certainly was a lot faster in that old car than he should have been – and my coverage of that season in autoNEWS reflected that.
Back in those days there was no internet, so you relied a lot on knowing people to get news of what was happening around the country between race meetings and between seasons. I learned that McRae was building his own car but using some of the key parts from the old Brabham. To be frank, I wondered about the wisdom of that but, as the season showed, what did I know?
The car was smaller than the Brabham and had the narrow, high scuttle look of the Ferrari Chris Amon had campaigned in the previous Tasman Series.
A home-built car against factory machinery? And one built using old components taken from an old car?
McRae made that car talk, and by the end of the season the combination of McRae in the McRae was the fastest National Formula (twin-cam) combination in New Zealand.
By now I had developed a bit of a relationship with McRae even though he could be overbearing and prickly. However, greater things were on the horizon – his genius had been recognised.
Man of the Moment
The ‘powers that be’ had persuaded Sir Tom Clark, retired racing driver, yachtsman and industrialist, that McRae was the goods and he had bought McRae one of the first McLaren M10As to contest the upcoming Tasman Series – the first for F5000 cars.
McRae was going to be busy – not only did he have the McLaren M10A for races in both the UK and the Tasman Series, but he was building a new and even smaller McRae Twin-Cam – and he was signed on to drive the new Begg FM2 F5000 car when the McLaren wasn’t available.
On top of all this, he was writing a column for autoNEWS.
McRae was certainly the man of the moment.
I had called into his small workshop at Miramar (through the cutting) a couple of times to see the new McRae Twin-Cam being built in a small, dark, suburban garage.
It was a mixed season. He was fast and won when the McLaren finished, but that wasn’t often enough. However he was unbeatable in the little Twin-Cam and I don’t think I have ever seen a car and driver come together as a single unit as did McRae in that car at Levin. He was sensational.
He was a big man, it was a small car and he had to wriggle his way into it, like a surgeon pulling on rubber gloves.
At the end of the season he gave George Begg his first ever Gold Star win at Levels. McRae had some mechanical sympathy and as the last laps of that Gold Star race ticked away, the water temperature in the Chevrolet V8 soared while the oil pressure plunged. McRae had enough nous and mechanical feel to coax the car across the line, switch off and coast to a halt, leaving the engine to sizzle, before walking back to the pits. Begg, overcome with elation, ran to meet him and the smiles of joy and contentment on both their faces as they trudged back is something I still remember vividly.
The F5000 McLaren was sold, as was the Twin-Cam, and McRae went back to the UK to race a new McLaren M10B with typical McRae modifications.
He won the next Tasman series (1971) in the McLaren and, as a celebration, Shell (one of his backers) flew me to Wellington for a one-on-one lunch with McRae.
There were three of us – McRae, Jim Dickson of Shell and me. The Tasman champ, in black trousers and an immaculate, lace-fronted white shirt, was refused entry at one of Wellington’s poshest eateries because he didn’t have a tie.
So, we went to a pub.
By now, McRae’s career was on fire and a Formula One drive was a definite possibility.
He went back to the UK for another good season in F5000 racing, but he had run out of McLarens to race. After the M10A and M10B, McLaren went off the F5000 boil with cars that were no longer competitive, and so McRae opted to do his own thing.
The McRae GM1
The exact machinations of what went on between Graham McRae and racing car designer Len Terry are lost in the dusty pages of history, but what resulted was a ‘coke bottle’ shaped car that was flown out to New Zealand in time for the start of the 1972 Tasman Series and which was commonly referred to as a GM1, or a McRae GM1.
I was aware of a Terry/Leda connection, but talking to McRae and his team – as I did constantly – there was never any attempt from the UK to impose ‘Leda’, or ‘Terry-designed’ on the car, and the understanding at the time was that the car had been designed by McRae, Len Terry had done the drawings, while the actual construction and development had been handled by McRae at the Leda factory.
Later, when the car became so successful that customers were lining up to buy them, the name Leda was applied, but during that 1972 season the car was, to everyone, either a McRae GM1 or just GM1. This was car 001.
That was the start of a wonderful eighteen months for McRae – he won the 1972 and the 1973 Tasman Series in a GM1, won the North American L&M F5000 series, and did blindingly well in the UK F5000 series.
He also took part (briefly) in the 1973 British GP, and finished 16th and was Rookie of the Year at Indy.
But from that point on his career stalled and then nose-dived. Why has never really been entirely clear, but it was probably because he was too abrasive and often preferred to do his own thing than work in with people.
The end came almost as swiftly as the rise.
The wedgy looking GM2 didn’t work and McRae started to run short on money – something that had not always been a plentiful commodity anyway.
Eventually, his name dimmed and faded away altogether.
Ever since I had known him, Graham had long been a person who sucked a great deal of energy out of those around him. In many ways he was a loner and a bit of a ‘Doc Martin’ in saying inappropriate things and not really knowing how to relate to people.
His verbal swaggering needled arch-rival Frank Matich enough for him to call McRae ‘Cassius’ – and that was a name that stuck for several years. Graham didn’t seem to mind, and it was used by his small team on the pit boards.
His friends and team personnel changed constantly and the only person who seemed a constant in his life was his mother – he was vocal in his criticism of his father.
He seemed to have very little social life, but his skills as an engineer and in racing car design were beyond question, as was his ability to drive a car with immense skill, feeling and courage.
Graham McRae vanished from my life probably in the mid to late 1970s, about the same time he also vanished from the world of motor racing.
I moved into radio, which took me from Dunedin to Christchurch to Auckland, where I had so much time on my hands I got back into writing about cars and motorsport as a parallel career.
One day, in the early 1990s, someone from a Porsche Club told me Graham McRae had been back in New Zealand for some time, building a number of Porsche 356 replicas – or were they Speedsters?
He was living and working from an empty shop in Milford on Auckland’s North Shore.
Despite a road through life littered with the wreckage of relationships and friendships that had crashed and burned, I had never had a moment of trouble with Graham and, one morning, after I finished the breakfast show on Radio Pacific, I headed over to Milford to see this man, this legend.
I found the nondescript shop easily enough and entered, without trepidation, but with a strong feeling of curiosity and a desire to meet him again.
He recognised me immediately and that recognition was warm. I stayed for hours, talking, yarning, re-establishing the connection. And I visited many times after that.
He had no money and was eking out a living making replica Porsches, as well as the occasional Ferrari 308 lookalike based on a Pontiac Fiero. He drove an invisible little Japanese hatchback of vague parentage.
He was lonely and his social outings consisted of going to the Mon Desir in Takapuna one night a week for a drink and something to eat. I was sad for him.
We talked of me writing a book. He wanted me to do it: “You know it all. You were there at the start.”
He lived in a small back room, where his worldly possessions were gathered in a huge wooden ‘steamer trunk’, or something similar.
The trunk contained the trophies from his racing career that he had held onto, as well as memorabilia that included boxes of ballpoint pens branded with ‘Skoal’, a chewing tobacco that had been one of his sponsors.
Two curiosities I distinctly remember – a centre spread from a Penthouse magazine and the rear wing off a racing car. It was a large steamer trunk!
The girl in the centre spread had been his girlfriend, until she had her heart captured by another racing driver.
The rear wing, he said, was the actual one of his original GM1. At which point, it is worthwhile looking back at the end of the 1972 L&M season in the USA, when McRae sold the original GM1 to Dexter Dunlop and the car was flown back to New Zealand. Dunlop started his season in the car in fine form, winning first time out, but it ended disastrously when the car caught fire in its trailer while being transported by road and ended up a molten mass. Apparently, only the rear wing survived.
Graham told me that his intention was to one day recreate the first GM1 using the wing as a starting point.
At the time I remember thinking that a replica using a minor, but genuine, part but built by the hands of the original creator was close enough to the real thing for me. The car would have provenance.
However, Graham McRae never restored or rebuilt the car; in fact, his already sad life got sadder.
His relationship with the Porsche replica project ended and he moved his workshop from Milford to the basement of Kings Plant Barn in Mount Roskill, where I caught up with him again.
I called once a month to say hello and we talked of many things, including the book, and he remained enthusiastic.
In his new workshop there was only Graham – and his large old cat, which he was very fond of.
One day, when I was about due to make another visit, I had a call from a detective. Did I know Graham Peter McRae? I did.
He was in police custody after an argument with his landlord, during which Graham had presented a crossbow.
A search of his lodgings found a list of names of people he no longer trusted – and my name was second. He thought I was ingratiating myself with him, to write a book that would destroy his career and tell lies about him.
This saddened me much more than it scared me. I was a person full of admiration for him, what he’d achieved and what he almost achieved.
Graham spent some time in a secure mental facility, and after his release he was taken ‘under the wing’ of a series of motor racing people who wanted to help him get his life back on the rails, but those relationships all ended in heartache.
These people made it clear that Graham’s dislike of me was still very active, despite my attempts to make him understand that his concerns about me wanting to discredit him were without basis. I was in a tent near him at a classic race meeting at Pukekohe once where it was uncomfortable to say the least. Again, I felt sad.
Graham was at his peak in the period 1967 to 1975, and what he achieved was incredible. He built up an army of admirers and fans and while the ranks are thinning these days, they are still out there.
I have been asked several times to consider writing a book on G P McRae. It would be a good book, and it is a story that deserves – or deserved – to be told. He had a colourful career.
There has been some funding available, and I am told Graham’s attitude to me has softened in recent times and he would work with me.
However, the funding I am aware of doesn’t reach to actually publishing the book itself, and established book publishers are wary of financing a book relating to something that happened so long ago. “There just won’t be the readers any more – no matter how passionate the believers are,” I am told.
Graham is still with us, in care in Auckland, and still difficult to establish a long-term relationship with.
It is a sad story and one filled with what ifs. Graham’s illness is no secret. It’s well documented and I am breaking no confidences here.
I have written this – a pretty uncomfortable story in many ways, I guess – for a variety of reasons. The first to explain why there has never been a book on Graham McRae. But I also want to pay homage to a man who I have admired for a long time.
Over the past motor racing season, talented Christchurch driver Michael Collins has been ‘doing a McRae’ in setting incredibly high driving standards in a car that is claimed to be the original GM1. Michael is clearly a remarkable talent and is the fastest in today’s F5000 fields in classic racing by the proverbial country mile. He’s taken over this season where he left off last season – also driving another GM1.
I have no idea about the provenance of the GM1 that Michael is driving this season. I do not know where and what from the rebuild began. I doubt if it is built around the rear wing I saw in Graham McRae’s steamer trunk almost 30 years ago – that was a flat wing – the one that is on the car Michael Collins drives today is a later one with centre ribs.
The other thing that has inspired me to write this story is that everyone involved with the car and the current F5000 series is calling the car a Leda GM1.
Let’s give credit where it is due. If there is to be no book on Graham Peter McRae, let us at least pay homage to him by remembering what the car was popularly called back in 1972 when it first appeared – the GM1 or McRae GM1. We owe that at least to this tortured, flawed genius.
To those of us that were there that season, the car was unforgettable. Slightly bulky and curvaceous, a Rubenesque car painted in the day-glo pink of major sponsor STP, with the black airbox above the Morand-Chevrolet engine carrying ‘Crown Lynn’ signage.
And the number 22.
In that car, that season, McRae was in brilliant form. His driving was fast and forceful, but also with a delicate touch. We all hoped that, even at his age, he was on his way to Formula One. He had the driving skill and he had engineering ability. In many ways, he was Bruce McLaren taken to a new level. He was a faster, stronger, more aggressive driver than Bruce, and his design and engineering skills had to be on the same level – at least.
The original car, 001, is (or was) the single most important of the GM1s ever built – and there were something like 14 or 15 built in total.
It had its glory days in the hands of Graham McRae, who called it a McRae GM1. In historic F5000 racing, the GM1 has become the F5000 car to have for many people.
Graham McRae is the single most important person in F5000 history – as a designer and builder, as well as the most successful driver in period. His history, both racing and personal, hasn’t been treated well by history for a number of reasons – primarily his illness. If we can’t pay homage to him and his cars in a book, can we at least get the name of his car correct?
It was not popularly called a Leda in 1972. Let’s not call it one in 2021. It’s the McRae GM1. As a mark of respect, let’s call it that.