Exhilaration tinged with fear flooded through Leon Macdonald as he drove the McLaren race car he’s spent 12 years building, around a track for the first time.
“I was buzzing, I was scared,” he said. “It’s a lot of money tied up in it, if anything went wrong, I’d have been looking for a new place to live.
“But after the first lap, the car drove so well, I was just over the moon.”
Macdonald, 63, from Inglewood in Taranaki, has been a motorsport enthusiast since he was a kid, when he fell in love with the cars built by McLaren, the British race car company founded by New Zealander Bruce McLaren.
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“I’ve always loved anything that goes fast and makes a lot of noise.”
The bright yellow replica 1972 McLaren CanAm car did both during its maiden run at Manfield on August 7, and he was stoked.
“It really drew a crowd, especially when we fired it up, it’s anything but quiet.”
The 1972 CanAm is one of McLaren’s most iconic models. Despite that there are only three original Mclaren M20 cars in the world, all of them in America.
The last one sold for US$2 million in 2014 and is currently estimated to be worth double that.
Macdonald calls himself a truck driver, but he’s a qualified panel beater and a self-taught engineer.
“I’m pretty proud of what I’ve achieved, I’m not an engineer, but I have a pretty good eye and am pretty handy with my hands,” he said.
Previously, he has built 4WD and rally cars for himself and friends, but nothing this major, he said.
“My lifetime friend Dean Savage said to me one day ‘why don’t you build something that’s really good, to be special and worth something, you clearly have the talent, but you build all these things that you take out in the bush and wreck’.”
He took the advice and enlisted the help of another close friend, Kelvin Pearce.
“He’s a builder, so he was tasked with the job of making the final finishing shapes [timber moulds] for the bodywork.
“Since then, he’s put in hundreds of hours, purely voluntary.”
Initially, Macdonald expected to spend three or four years building the McLaren.
“The time quadrupled and pretty much, so did the cost.”
Leon’s car has an 8.3litre V8 engine that is tuned to produce 700hp, and a top speed of about 250kmh, as it is lower geared than the original.
“The acceleration is mind-blowing.”
Fuel consumption is about three miles to the gallon. Or, in metric speak, it takes 3.8 litres of fuel to travel 5km.
“The car weighs a little over 800kg, so the power to weight ratio is pretty amazing.”
The original car was the first car to break the 1-1 power to weight ratio, producing 750hp in a 740kg car.
Macdonald’s replica is a little heavier, as he used aluminium instead of magnesium (it’s easier to weld and less costly).
“I had no drawings or plans for this car, the whole thing has been done from photos and information I researched on the Internet and from books.”
He had to build every component.
“We had a few failures, some things took two or three attempts to get it right. That’s why its taken so long.
“We built a gearbox for the car, it was complicated as it has the differential and everything all in one.”
To buy a gearbox would have cost about $65,000, he said, while buying a set of wheels from the United States would have cost US$10,000. So he made those as well.
He’s had help from several Taranaki businesses along the way.
“I made all the patterns and took them to Steve Morrison of Morrison Enterprises at Inglewood, they really helped me with that side of it.”
The really tricky engineering was done by Connett Engineering, and Steve Hildred Motors built the engine.
Macdonald spent tens of thousands of hours building the car, averaging 15 hours a week over the 12 years, for 11 of them fitting it around his job in the oil industry.
“I was working in Oman, five weeks on, five weeks off, and had all this spare time. If I’d had an ordinary five-days-a-week job, it would never have got finished.”
After the first Covid lockdown in 2020, he returned home for good, and returned to driving trucks.
The car will be his one and only ”from scratch” project, he said, as the dedication he put into it was hard on his family and his wife, Karen, he said.
“My wife said she wants her husband back, and I’ve been told no more projects,” he said.
“She’s been the most understanding woman in the world.”
Building the car had been both a dream and a nightmare at times during the process.
“It’s been a big financial commitment and a huge time commitment, but Macdonalds aren’t quitters, that’s how I raised my kids, there’s no way in the world they would have let me give up.”
Now it’s completed, the car will likely be sold, he said.
“It’s probably too much car for me, that’s why we have decided to put it on the market.
“I’d like to think it would stay in New Zealand, but it’s more likely to go to an overseas buyer,” he said.
Until then, he plans to take it out racing, at Manfield and the Mclaren Motorsport Park at Taupo, and possibly to the Stoke Classic at Ruapuna in Christchurch “depending on finances” he said.