McLaren’s Very First Race Car Was Also a Film Star

by Kyle Smith
13 March 2024 2 min read
McLaren’s Very First Race Car Was Also a Film Star
Photos: Jay Leno's Garage

The first of anything often carries a certain cachet. Good, bad, or otherwise, first impressions are something that people only get one shot at. Bruce McLaren seemed to understand that truth, because this M1A race car made sure it was going to be remembered … only to have its connection to a rock-n-roll star be the thing for which most people outside the racing community remember it.

This M1A, in gold-over-white livery, was built by Elva as the first production M1A, and the mid-engine design was still quite experimental in 1963. Keeping the side profile ultra-low required some interesting design choices: The fuel cell is split into four separate tanks held outboard of the driver’s compartment, and the spare tyre is stored on the dash. (Is that considered an airbag?)

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McLaren Jay Leno Garage front

The M1A was designed by Bruce McLaren himself, from the tube-frame up. The small-block V8 behind the driver’s compartment of the car you see here does not appear to be the original Oldsmobile V8 that powered the car from new. Later iterations of the M1A featured even more power from big-block engines, but we can’t help but think that kind of power would be overkill in a car that weighs less than 1800 pounds. Don’t take our word, though; watch comedian and car guy Jay Leno take one for a spin down the airport service road next to his collection:

The drive is at the end of the video, but the story that precedes it is pretty fascinating. The striking gold-and-white colour combination was not Bruce’s original vision for this M1A. The car was originally white with a green stripe down the centre, but when it was cast in a movie alongside Elvis Presley, the gold hue was sprayed on and the look seems to have stuck. The movie, Spinout, debuted in 1966 and featured a whole host of awesome iron alongside the superstar lead actor.

McLaren Jay Leno Garage engine

Somehow the car has retained many of its original parts. That exceptional originality is what really drives the value of this particular M1A, rather than the star connection. “This car is a big deal; the first or last of anything is highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts,” says Greg Ingold, editor of the US Hagerty Price Guide. “While the lustre of the Elvis connection is undoubtedly a plus, it is likely more of an interesting footnote compared to the racing and development history of the M1A.”

Regardless of what makes this McLaren cool to you, we can all agree it is indeed cool. How could a race car designed by Bruce and powered by a snarling small-block V8 inhaling through quad Weber carbs not be cool?

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