Bruce McLaren's Austin 7 Ulster: The car that started it all

It was the car that taught Bruce McLaren the basics of engineering and racing. This is where the McLaren legend began, with this very Austin 7 Ulster

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McLaren is an incredible brand with a wealth of history in motorsport and on the road. Bruce McLaren founded the iconic marque, helped engineer its cars, and even raced them. In fact, he remains one of the only drivers to win a race in a car bearing his own name. Bruce’s — and arguably McLaren’s — story begins with this Austin 7 Ulster.

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From a young age Bruce was fascinated with cars, but the Austin really allowed him to learn about mechanics and racing. At the age of nine he developed Perthe’s which reduced his mobility until he recovered. As a shared project and a bit of a treat during his recovery, Bruce’s father bought a 25 year-old Austin 7 Ulster in pieces for $110NZD. The pair were to build and sell it for a profit. Or at least that was the plan…

Bruce McLaren took to engineering like a duck to water, and when the car was complete, he learned to drive it on a figure of eight track in his backyard. It wasn’t long until Bruce’s competitiveness got him thinking about racing, but at 13 he wasn’t old enough to compete. It was his father who sat in the driver’s seat when the Austin took to the track. One faithful day his dad had to go to the hospital after contracting gallstones — Bruce saw this as his chance to enter the race. In that event in 1954 Bruce McLaren, aged just 15 years-old, won the race. An astonishing achievement, especially in a car with a hand operated clutch.

Bruce tinkered and modified the Austin, clearly displaying a natural talent for engineering. He hand-painted the optimum points to change gear on the speedometer in order to get the most out of the engine, and also flipped the leaf spring suspension upside-down to lower the car’s centre of gravity. Legend has it that he once managed to get this little old car up to 100mph.

The original car still exists and is perfectly preserved in the McLaren Technology Centre. As impressive as the rest of the racing legends on display are, it’s fitting that every visitor is greeted by the car that started it all.

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