One of motorsport’s most legendary classic sports cars, Bruce McLaren’s 1964 Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile “Jolly Green Giant” – which has become something of a long-lost “holy grail” for collectors – has been dug up and returned to British soil for the first time in 57 years.
The first sports car to wear the Kiwi team badge of Grand Prix and Le Mans winning driver and constructor Bruce McLaren has been unveiled at the Bonhams Festival of Speed Sale in Goodwood, where it will go on sale later in the year, at the auction house’s Goodwood Revival sale on 17 September.
Considered the taproot of the entire modern McLaren brand, this famous machine enjoyed top-level success in the hands of a trio of mid-century motorsport legends: not only Bruce McLaren but also Roger Penske and, previously , Briggs Cunningham team driver Walt Hansgen.
Not only has the Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile had three famous owners, it has also had several different shapes, being continually adapted – from Formula 1 single-seater to three different sports car shapes – to match changing regulations. racing for three full seasons from 1962-64, earning him the reputation of “The Great Transformer”. In the hands of Bruce McLaren, the then-conventional sports car had its chassis modified and painted a rather untraditional “garden gate” green – the only color available in a hasty re-completion – earning its nickname, while as his victories on the track and won him general admiration.
Having effectively disappeared in the late 1960s, this treasure was found dormant and dismantled, buried in an obscure South American warehouse some 50 years later. After a six-week voyage via the United States and Europe, the Jolly Green Giant arrived on British shores last weekend, before being brought to Goodwood for its first public appearance in over five decades.
Beginning life in 1961 as a 1.5-litre Formula 1 Cooper with Coventry Climax engine, the car was entered by America’s most revered patron, millionaire Briggs Cunningham, for Grand Prix driver Walt Hansgen of the United States of 1961 at Watkins Glen.
After Hansgen’s crash there, the car was sold by Cunningham (for $1,250) to American star driver Roger Penske, now multiple motor racing title winner and billionaire at the head of the international company Penske Corporation. Forward thinking and ingenious Penske had the Formula 1 car repaired and rebuilt into a “lightweight Grand Prix car in sports car gear”.
Penske retained its central driving position in a sleek, streamlined body that wraps around the wheels. The ‘Zerex Special’, named after the antifreeze brand sponsor, in the hands of Roger Penske quickly dominated America’s most important (and highest-paying) sports car races, winning the Grand Prix from the 1962 Los Angeles Times at Riverside Raceway in the Pacific. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca and the Puerto Rico Grand Prix at Caguas.
Modifying the car further into a conventional staggered driving position sports car form to meet further regulatory changes, Penske then sold it to young Texas competitor, John Mecom Jr., and drove it to that he won the 1963 races at Marlboro and Cumberland, USA, as well as the Grand International Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch, England.
However, it was in the ownership of Bruce McLaren that the car later cemented its legendary status. The Cooper Car Company Formula 1 team manager at the time had long admired this Penske Cooper-Zerex and bought it for 1964. Between Grand Prix races for Cooper, Bruce campaigned it at the sports cars under his new personal ‘McLaren Motor Racing Team’ banner.
Using a 2.7-litre 4-cylinder Climax engine similar to that of Penske, Bruce drove it to victory in British international sportscar races at Aintree and Silverstone, before having the car converted to use a V8 engine 3.5 liter Traco modified Oldsmobile. When complete, the modified chassis was hastily finished in the only paint the team could find available on an English Sunday: garden gate green, earning its nickname The Jolly Green Giant.
The Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile immediately picked up further victories at the Player’s 200 International Race at Mosport Park, Toronto and, powered by an upgraded 3.9-litre Oldsmobile engine, the Guards Trophy International Race at Brands Hatch in 1964 ; the car’s second consecutive victory after that of Roger Penske the previous year.
Fittingly, Bruce McLaren’s last appearance in this Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile was at Goodwood where he started from pole position in the world-class 1964 RAC Tourist Trophy race, leading world champion drivers Jim Clark and Graham Hill in their rival Lotus and Ferrari cars. and set the fastest lap before being kicked out by a clutch failure.
After its replacement in September 1964 by the prototype M1 sports car, built entirely by McLaren, this Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile had three subsequent owners before being acquired by the seller’s father in South America.
Long preserved in dismantled form, this once-magnificent motorsport gem survives essentially complete – save for the body panels – and still remarkably original. After a six-week voyage between South America and the UK, the Jolly Green Giant is now back on British shores.
He was hosted by Howden Ganley, last survivor of the 1964 Bruce McLaren team, and a later successful Grand Prix, Le Mans and Can-Am driver; Doug Nye, Bonhams competition car consultant and author of Cooper Cars; and Allen Brown, Editor, Oldracingcars.com, who witnessed the opening of the treasure chest containing the once-magnificent sporting gem and examined its contents for authenticity.
“I always felt privileged to have been Bruce McLaren’s third shop worker,” said Ganley. “Incredibly, it’s now 58 years since I helped my teammates Tyler Alexander and Wal Willmott work on the Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile. I have just examined this chassis frame on its return to England, to me it is certainly the real car.
Nye added: “Opening the crate on the car’s return to English soil, to find this iconic motor racing treasure inside, was truly memorable. I saw Bruce McLaren’s spectacular Goodwood TT in 1964, and now I’m in 2022, handling such a prodigious piece of motor racing archeology. For me, it’s magic!
Allen Brown commented: “I have known this car for many years and to actually see it was just fabulous. It’s great to see cars before they are restored and it was a surprise that they are in such good condition. The climate in South America must be favorable for the metal as it would have corroded if kept there.
“The car was exactly as we expected and the parts were exactly where they needed to be. It’s spot on.
Mark Osborne, Bonhams Global Motorsport Director, said: “Finding this automotive treasure halfway around the world is our version of Indiana Jones finding the Arc of the Alliance, both its importance to racing Tiered automobile is great.
“Of all his headline-grabbing attributes, his career when spearheaded by two of the sport’s most eminent and respected giants – Roger Penske and Bruce McLaren – perhaps speaks loudest. was, of course, the first McLaren sports car to wear the famous Kiwi emblem designed by Michael Turner.
“We are rightly proud to publicly display the car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed – 58 years after, in Bruce’s hands, it starred in the 1964 Goodwood TT race. there was no more appropriate setting.