1972 was a bare-knuckle brawl between two of the greatest names in motorsport: McLaren, which had just won the Can-Am championship the year before, and Porsche, which threw its all in an attempt to dethrone them. McLaren vs. Porsche made Ali vs. whomever he fought look like a playground slapfest. M20 vs. 917/10, a 750-hp duel across North America! Revson, Hulme on one side; “George Am” himself on the other! A lurid blur of colors, a podium of larger-than-life characters.
When people spout the tiresome cliché of, “The days when sex was safe and racing was dangerous,” they surely mean the time when Mark Donohue flew into the wall at Road Atlanta, then Dennis Hulme flipped over at 190 mph. He bounced right back.
McLaren developed the M20 —this one will go up for auction on Aug. 16, when Mecum raids the Hyatt Regency in Monterey, Calif.,– for the 1972 Can-Am season with few changes from Revson’s winning M8F the year before. The radiators were moved to the back, primarily to make Peter Revson feel less hot. With hot air no longer breathing down Revson’s and Hulme’s necks, designers Gordon Coppuck and Tyler Alexander added an adjustable wing between the front wheels to increase downforce. Redesigned fuel tanks didn’t affect the car’s weight distribution during cornering. Other than that, the car was mostly similar to the winning M8F. Why change what won?
But it’s one thing to appease Revson, one of the most underrated drivers of Formula One and Indy and Can-Am, a man who deserves a far greater reputation than that of a mere playboy, a sentiment often repeated. It’s another thing to move a radiator in the guise of aerodynamics; it’s another to improve downforce, even out the fuel tanks for weight distribution, then take on the 850-hp turbocharged terror of the Penske Racing Porsche 917/10. The M20, meanwhile, featured a 509 cu-in. Chevrolet V8 engine that produced at least 750 hp. A four-speed Hewland MkII gearbox was mounted behind it.
Hulme took this exact M20, chassis number 01, to a victory at the inaugural 1972 Can-Am race in Mosport; Revson set the fastest lap with another McLaren M20, but he ultimately came in third. A little over a month later, Hulme placed first at Watkins Glen — teammate Revson, here, came in second. The two were never far apart from each other. When they didn’t finish, they did so, together — at Road Atlanta and Mid-Ohio and Road America and Donnybrooke, for instance. The M20 was always nipping at the heels of Porsche — but with so many mechanical problems it slipped far, far behind the Penske team. George Follmer won the 1972 Can-Am season after substituting for Mark Donohue, who had been cresting the 917/10 over a hill at Road Atlanta when half the bodywork sheared off; the car sent him into a wall, leaving his exposed legs dangling out of the front. When Follmer resumed testing for Penske Racing, Donohue said, “It just doesn’t feel right…it must feel like watching another man in bed with your wife.”
Revson came in second at the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside on Oct. 29 that year. Shortly afterward — and after dominating the series for five years — McLaren pulled out of Can-Am racing for good. The cars were sold to privateer teams for the 1973 and 1974 seasons, and at least one M20 won at Road America in 1974 — the last year that the original Can-Am championship was held, the year Revson lost his life at Kyalami.
Velocity stacks are cool.
These days, there’s been talk of a Can-Am revival — idle talk that they’ve been doing since around the time Ford fell off that airplane. The cars of the Unlimited Racing Championship’s “Heritage Series,” if it ever becomes a Real Thing, bear a close resemblance to the M20. This is unsurprising. If there is any shape that spells Can-Am — if there’s any shape that suggests speed to children and the easily amused alike race car — it is the garish yellow M20-01 that Revson took around Watkins Glen, a car that even archrival Follmer drove it in 1976, during the brief US Racing Series.
This epitome of McLaren Can-Am has belonged to the same owner since 1987, and it has swept up concours victories from Milwaukee, Wisc., to Geneva. (Revson, the playboy, has been to at least one of these places.) Mecum’s pre-auction estimate for such racing history is over $2 million.
It’ll be joined in the Mecum Monterey catalog by more than 750 cars — including such luminaries as an early Ferrari 250 Series II Cabriolet, two Porsche 935s, and the token 300SL Gullwing. (Every high-dollar auction seems to have at least one or two Gullwings.) It’ll be on NBC Sports, if you can’t make your way down. The molten orange will really pop on those television cameras.
The McLaren M20 dates to a time when outrageousness ruled the world.