When I go to a first-rate car show, collection or museum, I often vacillate between “but of course” and “what a surprise”. There are cars that you know that you’re going to see, cars that naturally belong in that environment, and then there are unexpected but undeniably special cars that turn out to be one of the highlights of the event for you. The Concours of America at St. John’s, formerly the Meadow Brook Concours, is not only at the pinnacle of Detroit area car events but it’s also a world-class event, in the rank of the Amelia Island and Pebble Beach shows. The 2012 CoA was held last Sunday and as expected there were plenty of “of course” moments, but also a few very pleasant surprises, including this McLaren M1B, what I consider the ultimate anti-trailer queen.
Racing McLaren’s are not so rare that I haven’t seen them before. As a matter of fact, in 2009, the same concours had three beautifully restored McLarens in their classic orange livery. This McLaren, though was not beautifully restored. At first glance the M1B appears to be a rather tatty midengine ’60s vintage race car, albeit with very attractive hand shaped aluminum bodywork. The chassis, wheels and engine (as well as the lettering on the tires) at some point in history were painted in aerosol can gold. The bodywork was bare aluminum with plenty of battle scars. Owned by Tom Antonelli, the M1B was being shown at the concours by his daughter Teressa and son-in-law Corey Becker.
The back story is that the senior Antonelli bought it 42 years ago from a Ford engineer in suburban Detroit. Antonelli’s father saw an ad for a chassis, hoping to buy it for a project, and the seller offhandedly mentioned that he had the body and the guy could have it for free because he was just going to scrap it otherwise. Research revealed that the the car was actually a McLaren M1B, most likely constructed not that far from the concour’s location in Plymouth. Though Bruce McLaren was famously from New Zealand (hence the McLaren company’s kiwi logo) he set up shop in suburban Detroit to build his race cars. As a matter of fact, McLaren Engines, though no longer affiliated with the parent company in Woking, England, is still located in Livonia.
McLaren’s choice of Detroit was no accident. He’d been using Detroit built V8s in his race cars, usually Traco built Oldsmobiles. After some success with his own first design, the M1, later called the M1A, for the 1966 Can Am racing season McLaren developed a new prototype called the M1B. Three “production” M1Bs were then fabricated in the McLaren shop for use as McLaren team racers. Since they were not really set up for production, as with the M1A, Elva made the M1Bs that McLaren sold to privateers.
Antonelli’s car is the first M1B that the McLaren shop made after the prototype, and it has an outstanding racing provenance and history. Not only is it the first M1B used in racing, it’s it’s the first McLaren with a Chevy engine. Between the prototype and the finished design, McLaren had switched to Chevrolet power, an association that would famously continue through McLaren’s career. This particular car was raced by Bruce McLaren himself along with F1 champion Phil Hill and Chris Amon. It finished third in the 1966 Can Am championship, sandwiched between two T70 Lolas and two Chaparral 2Es.
Racing technology was advancing very quickly in the 1960s. Back then there was no vintage racing and teams discarded old race cars like used tissue paper. For example, out back behind the Petty shop in Level Cross there are all sorts of wrecked cars that have gotten buried over time. After the ’66 racing season, McLaren sold this M1B to Kar Kraft in Dearborn. Kar Kraft was closely tied to FoMoCo’s racing program so it’s speculated that it was used it when they were working with Ford on the GT40 projects. Apparently the Ford engineer from whom Antonelli bought the car acquired it himself from Kar Kraft. I’m sure that in 1970, just four years after it was built and raced, it was considered just another used up and worn out racer, worth only scrap value.
With many (most? almost all?) of the cars at a show the level of the CoA, the most they get driven is from the trailer to the show field. When writing about collectible and special interest autos, catalog descriptions from the major auction houses are a good resource for historical information. It’s uncommon to see cars that have been driven less than 100 miles since they were restored a few years ago.
This McLaren, though, is no trailer queen. Michigan has fairly lax laws when it comes to required equipment on a car and the previous owner had added the lights that the M1B needed to be legal in the Water Winter Wonderland. Since it’s street legal, Becker drives the car to regional car events. When the McLaren Engine shop had an open house three years ago Becker was there with the car. He drove it to this year’s Concours of America from Belleville, he said it was about a 30 minute drive. He also said it was great fun but a bit scary. The is essentially a one of a kind historic artifact and it is still shod with worn, 1960s vintage Firestones. As a matter of fact, when I asked him what the insured value was, he told me that haggling with insurance companies to arrive at an agreed value wasn’t easy.
While it’s true that race cars are routinely wrecked and reconstructed, and repairing a car wrecked when vintage racing probably won’t affect the value much, this is not a restored racer. While not in as-left-the-McLaren-shop condition, it’s still more or less original – and if it does have some things that aren’t original, like that gold paint, it’s certainly in time capsule shape. It’s a cliche to say that things are only original once, but you can’t genuinely fake patina and you can’t fake real history. Notwithstanding the hassles with the insurance companies, Becker estimates that the car is worth about a million and a half dollars. That the Antonelli-Becker family would even consider the risk of driving it on public roads says that they are car enthusiasts of the highest rank. I shook Becker’s hand, twice.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS