On September 17, Bonhams will present an important and historic sports-racing two-seater at the Goodwood Revival Collectors’ Sale in Chichester, Goodwood, UK. As its name implies, the “Transformer” race car morphed over its lifespan, adapting to many specifications throughout the course of its short racing career. Each iteration was meant to meet and beat changing race regulations—which it did, winning at a top level with almost every one of them.
With the auction, the Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Team’s first sports-racing car returns to Goodwood for the first time since its eponymous driver bested Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Denny Hulme in the 1964 RAC Tourist Trophy race, setting the fastest lap in the process. It’s rare to discover such a significant barn find as the Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile, which spent more than half a century in storage; starting out stateside from 1965 to 1966 and then on to South America from 1967 until 2022.
Ultimately, during its few years of competition, the “Transformer” adopted seven distinct configurations, a fascinating story of survival of the fittest in the mechanical world. Beginning life in 1961 as a Formula 1 Cooper-Climax T53P, powered by a 1.5-liter inline-four engine, the car wore Briggs Cunningham white-and-blue livery and was crashed by Walt Hansgen during the 1961 United States GP.
Rebuilt in 1962 for West Coast sports-car races, it was acquired by Roger Penske and fitted with a 2.7-liter inline-four Climax FPF engine, a covered-wheel body, a center seat and a vestigial “passenger seat” on its left-side to meet racing regulations. Penske’s red “Zerex Special” went on to win professional sports car races at Riverside, Laguna Seca and Caguas that year. Modified to meet 1963 rules requiring matching seats, the “Zerex Special” used the same engine but was rebodied on a right-hand drive chassis. Once again, Penske took multiple wins, including the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch in the UK.
Sold to Bruce McLaren in early 1964, the car, retaining its 2.7-liter Climax engine, was repainted green with a silver stripe. That year, driven by McLaren himself, it achieved victories at Aintree and Silverstone. The vehicle was rebuilt in June that year with a 3.5-liter Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile V-8 engine, using a new straight-tube-chassis center section and reusing the original F1 Cooper end frames. Still green with a silver stripe, it was again driven to victory by McLaren, this time at the Player’s 200 at Mosport Park, Canada. By August of 1964, a 3.9-liter Olds V-8 with a top-ducted radiator gave even greater performance, and the car, still green but now with a white stripe, won the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch with McLaren at the wheel.
The race car’s seventh and final iteration came in the 1965/1966 season after it was bought by Dave Morgan, an amateur driver from Texas who fitted it with a curious “anteater-nose” body, repainted it red and raced it in SCCA South-Western Region events and in the Bahamas Speed Week. Morgan sold the vehicle in 1967 to a Venezuelan amateur racer, who campaigned the car until at least 1968, when it was sold to a dealer who eventually sold it to a South American buyer. Preserved by the family of the octogenarian owner, stored in dismantled form and lacking only parts of the original body, it survived mostly complete until its recent return to the UK.
As one of the initial sparks to Bruce McLaren’s racing legacy and the marque that bears his name, the Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile, as it exists today, represents the foundation of a dynasty whose enormous impact on the automotive world is one its builder likely never would have imagined. Although it will be offered without reserve, it could fetch upward of nearly $690,000 according to Bonhams representatives.