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The 1969 Evergreen McLaren M8C

The 1969 Evergreen McLaren M8C

Finding a suitable engine has preoccupied race car designers for decades, but it is certainly easier now than it was. Road car engines have become ever more powerful, light and efficient and the rules for most categories take advantage of that. When they didn’t, it was a good reason why the great marques like Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Mercedes, then Ferrari, gained such ascendancy. They made their own and they wouldn’t sell them to just anybody.

It’s also a reason why the grids for Grand Prix races were often sparse or padded with local specials using much older power. Ironically, then, it was in the top category where the status quo changed so dramatically in 1967 with the arrival of the Cosworth-Ford DFV. 
A genius piece of foresight by Ford’s Walter Hayes combined with the entrepreneurial savvy of Keith Duckworth, at exactly the right time in history, meant the motive power capable of winning a Grand Prix was available to anyone with the means.

What then of sports car racing? In the early years this and Grand Prix racing featured similar machinery but then sports cars evolved into a separate category and by the mid-50s there was an official World Championship. That meant there was more emphasis on reliability for longer races and more room in the engine bay for special builders to adapt their power unit of choice.

There was still the problem of factory teams though, and whenever these decided to apply their resources, privateers would continue to struggle. That much 
will probably never change, but then factory teams will come and go, while privateers have always provided the bulk of most sports car grids.

The DFV that revolutionized Grand Prix racing was compact, weighed just 140kg and pushed out 400 horsepower. Surely it could be made to work in a sports car? Compare the specifications with those of a Chevrolet small-block, which gave similar power and was cheaper but substantially bigger, weighed 100kg more and, ironically, was more fragile. The prevailing wisdom, though, was that a DFV had been designed to run flat out for 1-1/2 hours and, since it didn’t need to last any longer, it definitely wouldn’t. It’s hard to overcome a belief like that. It’s only when you look back that it seems so conservative but, where racing budgets are hard to find, car builders and their sponsors usually go with the majority view.

Not all of them, however. Enter long-time Ford-supported race driver Chris Craft, former Grand Prix car builder and driver Keith Greene, Black Country industrialist and race enthusiast John Jackson, Gil Baird (whose Techspeed team had already run Chevrons for Craft), and philatelist, racer and entrepreneur Alain de Cadenet. This disparate band of enthusiasts all had their reasons but together they were looking for a step up from the Chevron B8 with which to tackle the big-money events. They couldn’t afford a Porsche 908 so there had to be another way.

Craft credits Jackson with an insistence that a DFV must be worth a try. And besides, if they really wanted to move into the big time, they didn’t have anything else on the table. Craft duly approached his friend Keith Duckworth, who said that provided they kept the revs down – say to 9000 – a DFV would be no problem for six hours. Now they needed someone willing to build a car.

With the prior approval of Bruce McLaren, the group approached Peter Agg of Trojan, which was the importer of Suzuki bikes into the UK but also built all McLaren’s customer cars. Could they build a stripped-down, lightweight version of the M8C CanAm car? Apparently they could, and lighter still because it wouldn’t need the big Hewland gearbox required to withstand a big-block Chevrolet.

Craft approached Ford’s Walter Hayes, who spirited a DFV away from the hordes of Grand Prix teams clamouring for them, and de Cadenet and Craft did some deals to pay for it all. Evergreen Racing was born, set to take on the world. This ad hoc creation of a World Championship contender sounds so delightfully amateur but it was, as Craft says simply, how it was done in those days. It was ‘all about finding a way to empower the little guys’. The factory teams have to have someone to beat 
but, because long races create more opportunities, the mouse also gets the odd chance to outwit the cat.

With hindsight’s unique perspective, it does seem odd that Evergreen chose something as big as a CanAm car, but the customer Lolas and Chevrons that might seem more obvious now were about a year away, so there wasn’t much choice. Besides, as Craft points out, they had to find someone who was willing to supply. Trojan did just that and the car duly appeared for the 1970 season – which didn’t go according to plan despite real flashes of promise (see next feature). Now, more than 40 years on, my job is to help sort it for today’s historic race trail.

The Evergreen M8C, now owned by charming Italian businessman Stefano Rosina, had lain in pieces for many years in various parts of the world before only recently being reassembled in Italy. Under the bodywork, much of it still looks 
period but it’s always hard to work out which modifications have been made since manufacture; almost certainly it would have been fitted with a less exotic power unit for local events while it was in South America. And even in the unlikely event that a car is still essentially as it left the factory in 1969, the spring rates, anti-roll bars and suspension geometry still have to be determined and adjusted correctly to make it work as it should.

Parked in the Donington garage, the M8C (hastily prepared for the day by Fox Motorsport) didn’t seem as big as the last one I drove, or as its advance press suggested. True, the tires (common to the Lola T70 Mk3B Coupe) were a bit smaller than those of the CanAm option and there wasn’t the vast array 
of inlet trumpets poking up from a big-block, but it was a surprise to hear the team borrowed an artic specially for this test because the car wouldn’t fit in the space normally reserved for a Lola T70.

And yet when you take off all that expanse of fiberglass bodywork, the M8’s layout is very simple and in the style of almost all mid-engined cars of the period from Formula Ford to Formula 1. Simple double wishbones at the front, long forward and short transverse links at the back, telescopic dampers inside coil springs. The difference is in the size of the part that goes in-between, in this case a wide, flat expanse of sheet aluminium riveted to bulkheads and 
formers to create a monocoque chassis tub.

The Ford DFV looks compact in its unfamiliar surroundings too, but again, perhaps not as much as 
I was expecting; the cams and boxes that adorn the heads of a DFV make it bigger than a pushrod engine of equivalent displacement. The definite bonus of a bigger chassis though is of room, especially for my legs and feet. Far too often I can just about get into a car, only to find my shins are wedged hard against 
the tube that runs under the steering column, or I can’t move my foot from accelerator to brake because it hits the top of the tub. Not here, and I was soon comfortable with a minimum of padding.

Less good was a track that was still distinctly 
damp in places. We were running on the treaded Dunlops, which are mandatory for The Masters Sports Car series (the category best suited to the M8C-DFV), but cold and greasy is still just that.

Best be careful then, but, instead of adding to any slight sense of trepidation because of its rarefied origins, the DFV imparts a sense of calm. Electric pump on, watch for 120psi on the fuel pressure gauge and spin the starter. The engine catches after a second or so and immediately settles into a 1500rpm hum. It might have been different had Chris and Andrew not already warmed the engine, enriching the mixture by the simple expedient of a squeezy bottle that squirts petrol down the inlet trumpets, that and a twist of the knob on the injection pump, which enriches the mix by about 30%, or all the stuff that electronics does without our knowledge. Not in 1969, and this was state of the art then.

The engine is so smooth too, despite its 180-degree crank, and once the needles are off the stops it’s left and back on the stubby gear lever connecting to the ubiquitous Hewland transaxle and drive away. Steering lightens immediately the car moves and thus far it could be a road car for all the drama. Push the gear lever forward and let the springs guide it to the right for second, and we hum our way down the pit lane, gently riding the ripples and ruts. Out towards Redgate, pull back for third, and give the accelerator a prod. No explosion, just a smooth shove in the back and the beginnings of a wail from behind.

The limit of 9000rpm imposed by Evergreen for reliability in 1970 is still in force, but the reasons are different in 2012. An unrestricted DFV will happily go beyond 10,000rpm but The Masters Series has imposed a limit in case the car turns out to be too competitive. Something of a tall order against the more powerful T70s which have had a fair bit of development, but so far the M8C is easy to drive.

It now feels bigger than it looked at rest – or Donington has shrunk in width – and lining up to pass a saloon car takes a bit of care and more than once I find a couple of wheels on the grass. Craft 
tells the story of a race at the Sudschleife – the Nürburgring’s southern section, which closed in 1971 – against German ace Helmut Kelleners in a March 707 CanAm fitted with the big-block Chevy. They were side-by-side many times as Craft tried to find a way to exploit his car’s greater speed round the lap against the Chevy’s massive drag out of the slow corners. Craft went back later and measured the road. It was a foot narrower than the two cars side by side...

At Donington, a similar sense is made worse by the way the M8 dives from side to side on the brakes. We need to find something that hasn’t been tightened up or, more likely, shift the brake bias or check the tracking. A wider car makes for great stability though, even a bit too much in the slow corners, where I can’t get the nose to point in and then I have to come off the gas to help, then go back on again.

That would be a good point on which to focus the team’s efforts, were it not for the fact that there was a deal of snap oversteer on the exit of the faster ones. Craft keeps saying that it was ‘the nicest car he ever drove’, so there’s something, like springs, bars or dampers that don’t match the car’s needs. A bit of earnest discussion to follow in the camp but, meanwhile, there’s no doubt about the engine and how it completely changes the character of the car.

The 8.5-liter M8E CanAm, which is very similar in dimensions and layout and which I drove last year, was so completely dominated by its engine. The massive power (870 horsepower no less) was always trying to tear the back end to pieces, at the same time picking up the nose and shoving it straight on instead of letting it turn. The modern defence is to pin down the front by restricting the suspension’s droop, but that makes the car feel numb to the touch; while massive gears in a massive gearbox that can withstand the power were clattery and brutal on the palm, and a slightly too eager touch of the accelerator in an attempt to synchronise them would spin the huge engine to the max and beyond.

It’s easy to think of a big Chevrolet as a simple item that’s easy to manage but you have to be so careful not to over-rev the thing, and all the time I was thinking how I could make proper use of the massive power without compromising everything else. I wrote at the time that I don’t think they were quite like that in period, but then a lot of people got hurt when they flipped or speared off the road.

Most CanAms are now driven by non-professionals, so it’s the necessary courses for horses but, whatever the set-up, there would be no overlooking the size of the engine behind you. Just like you can never forget where a 911’s engine is mounted.

By comparison, the DFV makes for a reassuring constant which it is possible to take for granted. It spins up quickly but there is no need to over-concentrate on how I tickle the pedal for the downshifts, and it hums, wails or burbles exactly as I ask. The shove in the back simply varies in direct proportion to the amount I push the pedal. Same thing every time, so I always know it will drive me out of a corner in an exactly similar fashion without leaving two black lines on the road. And the gearshift is instant, fingertip-light and accurate. The engine, gearbox and car are all part of the same thing rather than feeling like an appendage bolted round an explosive leviathan of dubious temper.

There’s less power of course, but I always know how much and exactly how much of it I can use. It leaves me free to concentrate on the chassis and how we might get it to be the nicest car I ever drove. No doubt about the DFV, though. It is so precise. So 
classy to the touch.

And if the M8’s bigger dimensions hurt its 
straight-line speed compared with a Porsche 908, it is still reassuringly stable despite the quirks that Fox and Co are attempting to dial out. I can see how it might soon be possible to take enormous amounts of extra speed into a fast corner and let the car float through, and Craft says that’s how it was. And how he liked a car that ‘moved about’, which is why he liked small anti-roll bars. It’s what allowed him to feel out the McLaren’s grip at scary places where there was no run-off area, such as Vila Real in Portugal, Karlskoga in Sweden and at Buenos Aires.

So, did this marriage of DFV to a CanAm car 
in particular, and sports car racing in general, usher in a flood of imitators? Maybe not quite, but it certainly proved it could be done successfully and plenty 
of others chose a similar route.

Before Evergreen’s M8-DFV marriage, Ford itself had already tried with its own GT car, the P68, which was massively unsuccessful, although that was probably nothing to do with the DFV that powered 
it. Then, in the early 1970s, Ligier, Lola and March 
all built sports cars with DFV engines but it was 
1975 that provided the ultimate proof; Derek Bell 
and Jacky Ickx won the Le Mans 24 Hours with 
a DFV in the back of a Mirage.

The engine that wouldn’t last more than the distance of a Grand Prix had passed the biggest endurance test of all. After that, and as a slightly stretched 3.3-liter version, the DFV went on to be the power unit of choice for the Group C2 category during the 1980s. The Evergreen effort created a 
brief opportunity to shine and should have fared better, but the fact that it didn’t certainly wasn’t down to the car, or the team.

Back to now and the winter sun is dipping towards the horizon and the damp is returning to Donington’s sweeps and dips. The McLaren is still walking about at the front under braking and I’ve had the bias all the way to the back but it still doesn’t lock the rears. 
I asked the guys for a bit more camber on the front, which makes the M8 turn slightly better into the slow corners, but then I can’t do the Craners flat-out. And now that wonderful DFV is beginning to splutter a bit in fifth as the car steams towards the chicane…

But I still really want to see how this particular combination could be. The M8 seems to have expanded and contracted throughout the day, according to where I was and what it was doing, but even when it felt big, it wasn’t heavy. There was also something about the slightly bigger dimensions that tempted me to believe the car would stick. It doesn’t have that will it/won’t it feel that distinguishes 
some, and yet I can see it might still be agile when they sort it out, and the engine that made that possible is an integral part of it all.

Nicest car I’ve ever driven? Not yet, but it could be right up there. Jarama in spring, anyone?

1969 Evergreen McLaren M8C
Engine 2,992cc Cosworth DFV V8, gear-driven DOHC per bank, Lucas fuel injection
Power 410bhp @ 9,000rpm
Torque 240lb ft @ 7,000rpm
Transmission Five-speed Hewland manual transaxle, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: top and bottom transverse links, radius rods, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Vented discs and four-piston calipers, inboard at rear
Weight 700kg
Performance Top speed 175mph (dependent on gearing). 0-60mph 4.0sec (est)

Published Dec 7th, 2015

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