The Swedish 'home built' McLaren-Elva Coupe
In an unassuming farm workshop in the Swedish countryside a unique racing car was built in 1967: a 'home rebuilt' McLaren-Elva. An extremely ambitious project, but unfortunately after all the input, the car was destroyed in a fire after just one race. Here is the story as told by one of the builders, Carl-Åke Eriksson.
Swedish motorcycle ace Sven-Olov Gunnarsson, known to everybody known as 'Esso', was in the early sixties successfully riding Matchless, Norton and MV Agusta motorbikes as a privateer on the continent including the heart-stopping Isle of Man road circuit. When the Formula Vee class was introduced he began to race on both two and four wheels. Also quick to enter into Formula Vee racing were brothers and farmer boys Carl-Åke and Stig-Arne Eriksson who lived in the small rural village of Hackvads Via south of Örebro, home town of Ronnie Peterson. They competed almost all year long in their self built cars called Slymper.
The Formula Vee series drew a large numbers of competitors on to tarmac in the summer and on the ice in the winter. "Many of us had tyre tracks across our helmets. You know, 35 lunatics with home built cars...", Carl-Åke recalled. The two brothers became acquainted with "Esso" Gunnarsson as he was a fellow competitor who was based in nearby Laxå. Esso Gunnarsson worked for British Petroleum driving a service bus to motor races. The bus was a combination of a mobile petrol station and camper, in addition to a trailer which transported the Formula Vee cars for both "Esso" and his girlfriend Barbara Johansson.
Swedish racing was strong in the sixties. Picko Troberg and Sten Axelsson were the top drivers during 1966 in the sports car class driving Porsche 906's. Picko decided to step up his game for the 1967 season by buying the year old ex-David Prophet McLaren-Elva M1B (30/08). At the same time fellow competitor Yngve Rosqvist announced that he was going to enter a Lola T70.
"Esso" Gunnarsson and his employers BP wanted something similar, but good affordable cars were not easily found. Fortunately "Esso" Gunnarsson managed to find a McLaren-Elva M1A in England, or rather what was left of it - it was basically a pile of chassis tubes and wheels. "The steering wheel and the nose also came with it, not very much more", Carl-Åke Eriksson recalls. That meant an engine, gearbox, body, tanks, radiators plus umpteen other parts needed to be found or reproduced. "Esso" mustered farmer Carl-Åke, workshop owner Stig-Arne and Matti Pajula, a race mechanic from Örebro, and the work began. "Esso" parked his bus in the farmyard and stayed there during the rebuild with his girlfriend. They were all kept very busy that spring.
Carl-Åke Eriksson shows the workshop on his farm where the McLaren-Elva of Esso Gunnarsson was built in 1967. Photo Lars Vernersson.
"A large percentage of the car was built in my workshop", Carl-Åke says. "Stig-Arne´s new garage was just finished but he had to make a living repairing customer cars." Carl-Åke on the other hand had to attend to spring planting on the farm. But everybody involved were in their late 20´s or early 30´s and so used to hard work and long hours. Swedish regulations did not recognise the McLaren sports-racing cars straight away as they were Group 7 cars and in Sweden there was no such class.
The McLarens would have to be modified to Group 6, which meant that they had to have a luggage compartment, windshield wipers, lights and a spare wheel. Picko Troberg famously bolted on two tin boxes at the rear which looked very much like mail boxes. "Esso" and his gang decided to put a coupe body on their car. Matti Pajula penned it and had Olle Johansson in nearby town Lindesberg build it. Olle Johansson manufactured boats, Formula Vee bodies and motorcycle fairings from glass reinforced plastic, hence his nickname "Plast-Olle".
The car turned out to be a beauty - the first McLaren sports racer with a roof, predating the M6GT, with gullwing doors, albeit precisely located with hinges from a Morris Minor! The origins of the car is unclear. Judging from the nose it was originally built as a McLaren-Elva M1A from 1965. According to the local newspaper the car had been used for "factory testing" equipped with a Ford V8 and Hewland gearbox. During its' time in Hackvads Via, the car was rebuilt with a 5-litre Chevrolet Corvette engine using four twin Webers aligned to a 5-speed ZF gearbox; it was claimed to produce 425 hp at 6500 rpm.
Boxes in the rear serve as mandatory luggage compartment. Photo courtesy of Iréne Gunnarsson Sjödahl.
Gunnar ”the Blacksmith” Eriksson (left) and Esso´s brother Åke (right) working on the car at Dalslands Ring. Photo courtesy of Iréne Gunnarsson Sjödahl.
The project involved many local people who volunteered to undertake certain jobs. The plumber Gunnar Eriksson, known as "Gunnar Sme´n", or "Gunnar the Blacksmith", bent the complicated exhaust pipes.
The windshield was formed at local rubber factory Vintrosa Gummifabrik which had useful heating equipment. The work with the windshield was not entirely successful, as according to Carl-Åke: "It got a bit creased. When you were approaching a corner you saw four!".
It was well into the racing season that the car became ready for testing at the Gelleråsen track in Karlskoga west of Örebro. "Esso" offered Carl-Åke and Plast-Olle rides. He did not hold back, Plast-Olle having got out of the car reported "I became religious in the first corner". "Esso" debuted the the smart blue and yellow coupe on July 2 1967 at Dalslands Ring north of Gothenburg. The car was not fully sorted and "Esso" was forced to retire with clutch problems. Yngve Rosqvist won in his Lola; Picko Troberg was fourth in his McLaren-Elva.
"Esso" also ran the car too low, throwing sparks round the track. That needed to be fixed before the next race in Falkenberg during the first weekend in August. On Monday afternoon July 25 the team went to Gelleråsen for testing. This was only the third time the car had run on a track, and on the tenth lap, in the late afternoon, it all ended. The car burst into flames when "Esso", with Stig-Arne in the passenger seat, exited the Velodrom corner. "Esso" braked and tried to open his right hand side door while still moving. It was stuck and so he pushed Stig-Arne out of the car and crawled out on the passenger side before the car had come to a standstill. Once the car had stopped, "Esso" leaped back into the burning cockpit to get the fire extinguisher. He emptied it on the fire but to no avail and so ran away from the inferno. "I did not dare to stay there, there was 140 litres of petrol in the fuel tanks. I only got about 30 yards when the car exploded. Parts flew around, luckily without hitting someone", he later told a newspaper.
In the pits of Dalslands Ring. Carl-Åke Eriksson (in foreground with hat) readies the McLaren-Elva for its first, and only, race. Man in white bending over on the far side of the car is Esso Gunnarsson. Photo courtesy of Iréne Gunnarsson Sjödahl.
Work on the McLaren-Elva at Dalslands Ring. Man second from right is driver and owner Esso Gunnarsson. Photo courtesy of Iréne Gunnarsson Sjödahl.
Esso Gunnarsson works in the cockpit while Gunnar Eriksson tends to the engine at the first test of the McLaren-Elva. Photo courtesy of Per Eriksson.
Gunnar Eriksson (left) and Esso Gunnarsson (right) getting the car ready for its first test at Gelleråsen.
The local fire brigade finally put the fire out, but the car was completely destroyed. Why the car caught fire is unknown but a broken fuel line is the most likely cause. Carl-Åke saw it all from the pits: "I felt terrible, a shock of course. "Esso" and Stig-Arne were lucky to be alive as they had escaped with just some bruises and minor burns."
Esso was disheartened, as was the rest of the team. He had, of course, put a lot of money into the reborn car. However, he very soon picked himself up and with the help of BP "Esso" was able to purchase the Picko Troberg McLaren-Elva and continued racing that car.
As always with racing cars, there was some work to do but Stig-Arne, no stranger to all nighters, rebuilt the transmission before the Falkenberg race. It was three o´clock on the dark Friday morning that he finished the job and sent Carl-Åke out for a test drive on the public road.
Carl-Åke opened the throttle waking "Esso" who was asleep in his bus, and probably most of the neighbourhood! "When I came back he ran out in his pyjamas", Carl-Åke said. "Does it work? he shouted. Yes, I shouted back. Then let´s go, was the enthusiastic reply". The car was loaded and they went straight to Falkenberg. "Esso" came second there, after Yngve Rosqvist.
McLaren-Elva M1B 30/08 driven by "Esso" in Group 6 before the car was later sold in auction (www.artcurial.com).
That car (30/08) is today restored having been put back to its original Group 7 condition by enthusiast Kaj Wallin who had bought it from "Esso" Gunnarsson in 2003, shortly before "Esso" sadly passed away. Kaj Wallin happens to live only a few kilometers away from Hackvads Via. However, on the 9th July 2016 he sold the McLaren-Elva via an auction in France, at the Le Mans Classic, the auction arranged by Artcurial Motorcars. The Swiss buyer paid 216,944.00 euros.
Carl-Åke Eriksson and "Esso's" brother Åke Gunnarsson are the only people still around from the group involved in the rebirth of the sports racing car in Hackvads Via. Now, what would have happened if "Esso" had been able to campaign his unique 'home built' reborn McLaren-Elva coupe? "Well, competition was fierce", Carl-Åke said but the McLaren-Elva was one of the most powerful cars and "Esso" was a top driver. "Still, the Yngve Rosqvist Lola T70 was probably faster", he concluded. Unfortunately we will never know!
See information of the Artcurial sale and pictures of a beautiful McLaren-Elva racing car in the Swedish countryside on https://www.artcurial.com/en/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=2929%20%20%20%20%20143%20&refno=10568295