Matt Bishop Monthly Edition 1

Matt Bishop Monthly Edition 1

I have two Omologato watches, both of which I bought via the website at full retail price: a Le Mans ’59 and a Can-Am. I bought the former because the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours was won by Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby in an Aston Martin DBR1/300, and until very recently I used to work for Aston Martin in Formula One, and I bought the latter because I love Can-Am and because it is a lovely watch.

In 1966, the year in which Can-Am was inaugurated, the size limit of Formula One cars’ engines was increased from 1500cc to 3000cc, and therefore a competitive Formula One car’s maximum power output rose from about 215bhp (Lotus-Climax 33) to about 350bhp (Honda RA273). Can-Am? No engine restrictions whatsoever. Turbochargers? Yes, if you like. Superchargers? Go ahead. What about aero regs? None at all. Can-Am cars had to be two-seater sports cars whose wheels were enclosed by their bodywork. End of. 

That first 1966 Can-Am season consisted of six races, two in Canada and four in the United States (hence Can-Am), five of them won by Lola T70s and one by a Chaparral 2E. All the 1966 Can-Am cars used either 4736cc Ford V8s or 5359cc Chevy V8s, the more powerful and more successful Chevys good for 500bhp. 

The circuits were fast, challenging and dangerous. The 1966 season began at hilly Mont-Tremblant-St-Jovite, after which races followed at daunting Bridgehampton; scary Mosport, challenging Laguna Seca, perilous Riverside and, bucking the trend, Stardust, a nondescript three-mile road course in Spring Valley, Nevada, which was opened in 1966 and closed in 1968. The lap record is and will always be held by Bruce McLaren, set in a McLaren-Chevy Can-Am car in 1968. 

Can-Am drivers were the very best in the world. John Surtees won that inaugural 1966 Can-Am series, winning three races, and the other three were won by Dan Gurney, Mark Donohue and Phil Hill. Graham Hill, Chris Amon, Peter Revson and Bruce McLaren also took part. 

The next year Can-Am became known as ‘the Bruce and Denny show’, the former taking the title, kickstarting a glorious five-year period of Can-Am domination by Bruce McLaren Motor Racing, as McLaren was then called, during which Bruce McLaren won two series, Denny Hulme won two series, and Peter Revson won one. The McLaren M8F, in which Revson won the fifth of that McLaren quintet, had an 8095cc Chevy V8 producing 800bhp. It weighed just 646kg. By that time, Can-Am cars were seriously quick.

They would become quicker still, thanks to the arrival of Porsche, whose famous 917 was powerful enough in Le Mans spec but in Can-Am spec, as run and fettled by Penske, was literally awesome. George Follmer became Can-Am champion in 1972 in a 917/10 and Mark Donohue blitzed everyone in 1973 in a 917/30. How powerful were those behemoths, exactly, you may be wondering? Get ready. Donohue’s 917/30 was fitted with a 5374cc twin-turbo flat-12 that delivered 1200bhp to the (usually spinning) rear wheels. It weighed 795kg and was a genuine 240mph machine. As a reference, Formula One cars still had only about 400bhp at that time.

It could not last, and it did not. No Can-Am races were run in 1975 or 1976, and when the series returned in 1977 the cars were no longer insane. Lolas were the machines to have once more, and they won the series five years in a row, the winning drivers still international A-listers, respectively Patrick Tambay, Alan Jones, Jacky Ickx, Tambay again, and Geoff Brabham. Thereafter, the outlandishly styled Frissbee won four series (1982, 1983, 1985 and 1986) before Can-Am finally bit the dust in 1987.

Let us finish with an anecdote. Bruce McLaren was killed at Goodwood, testing a McLaren M8D Can-Am car, on 2 June 1970. Forty years later, I was McLaren’s Communications Director, and we wondered how we should best mark that sombre anniversary. We considered a minute’s silence, but that seemed too obvious. Then we hit on a better idea: a minute’s noise. The M8D that Bruce McLaren had been testing when he died had been wrecked in the accident, but its sister, Denny Hulme’s M8D, was on display in the McLaren Technology Centre’s pristine ‘boulevard’ (aka foyer). Under the direction of Tyler Alexander, who had worked on the those Can-Am monsters back in the day, capably assisted by fellow McLaren stalwart Neil Trundle, the car was readied for 2 June 2010. When the day arrived, everyone downed tools and filed out of the factory, outside which the hunkily beautiful papaya-orange car was waiting. Ron Dennis, our chairman, wearing an expensive dark suit as always, and a tie meticulously tied, positioned himself behind its muscular exhausts. When it was fired up, and Trundle gave its throttle a bit of stick, the sound it made was prodigiously loud. Some of us had already popped plugs into our ears. Others, perhaps unaware of and therefore unprepared for the guttural roar of an old Can-Am car being given the beans, hurriedly put their fingers in their ears. 

Ron Dennis did not flinch. He stood where he was, as still as a statue, until the minute was done. As we all filed away, Tyler Alexander stage-whispered the following words in my direction: ‘Say what you like about Ron, but he’s one of only about three or four of us here today who’d be able to strip that car down and build it back up without asking anyone how to do it.’ 

‘That was good,’ said Ron as he turned on his trademark tassled loafers and made his way back to his office, ready to chair that month’s board meeting.

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