The story of Jan Bussell and the only McLaren M4C built

By Eli Solomon

The McLaren M4C in Singapore in 1972.

Francis Jan Bussell wasn’t your ordinary run-what-you-brung racer based in South East Asia. It was a serious hobby for the owner of Malaysia Air Charter. And because the aviation charter business was growing, he could indulge in his hobby and promote the sport in Malaysia, something which has never been acknowledged.

Jan served his National Service in 1949 with the Royal Air Force and in 1954, between stints as a motor mechanic, timer porter, technicolour processor, street photographer and clerk, he joined Silver City Airline, a car ferry aviation service over the English Channel. He came to Singapore in 1956 as a pilot for Malayan Airways. Interest in motor sport was intense during the period and Jan participated in many of the sprints and hill climbs in his Triumph TR3 and MGA. Fellow pilot Phil Caroline recommended a “baby” car, a Berkeley, for Jan to race in Macau in 1958 and off Jan went with five fellow Singapore residents for the race of their lives. It was an overly ambitious assault on Macau in the miniscule Berkeley. That year Jan made Captain with Malayan Airways.

There was demand for air charter services in the region and Jan established Malaysia Air Charter Co. Ltd in 1962, a five-seater Cessna 310G his first aircraft. It was the first commercial business in newly-independent Malaysia to use “Malaysia” in its name. MAC’s services soon broadened to include cloud seeding for the Public Utilities Board in Singapore in the early 1960s. He established an aircraft servicing facility in 1964 at Subang Airport, the first light aircraft maintenance, overhaul and assembly workshop in Malaysia at the time. In 1970 MAC, with a fleet of 11 aircraft, was a leading candidate for a licence to operate a second Malaysian airline. At the same time, Jan established a workshop on Jalan Sungei Besi called Torque Shop. With Deryck Cook as workshop manager, Torque Shop immediately became a magnet for serious racers and sports car owners.

The opening of Torque Shop coincided with a change in the complexion of racing in Asia. Grand Prix racing in Penang, Selangor and Singapore was no longer for sports and saloon cars with giant killing aspirations. It was a game for the wealthy, the very talented and those with solid backing. In other words, you needed big bucks to compete at the sharp end of the grid. Jan’s earlier single-seater, a Brabham assembled by Howden Ganley, was long in the tooth. Something serious was needed – something with wings! Maybe something with Formula 1 bits as well. Former Formula 1 racer and McLaren engineer Howden Ganley recalled, “I had completed the M4C [McLaren] at the end of 1969, but then Bruce [McLaren] gave me an F1 test at Goodwood , which went well and he then put me into the ‘works’ F5000 for 1970. I asked him what I should do with the M4C. ‘Sell it,’ he said. Just at that time Jan came to visit me and said he had been so happy with the Brabham I sold him that he wondered if I had something better to sell. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘An M4C.’.  We agreed a swap for his Monza Ferrari, but unfortunately somebody else made him a better offer, so he paid me cash for the McLaren.” Ganley went on to race a Yardley BRM in the 1971 Formula 1season.

Howden Ganley’s Formula 5000 chief mechanic Bob Daily (right) helps pack the McLaren M4C for its Far Eastern sojourn.

The M4C was a one-off that Ganley worked on. Bruce McLaren, Ganley told me, “had some thought of making more – but then they switched to F5000, so there was just the one M4C.” It has been acknowledged that the Formula 2 McLaren M4Asuffered from a total lack of development. Selangor and Singapore triple-double winner Graeme Lawrence admitted to having reengineered his M4A before he was comfortable racing it. The Ganley M4C originally began life as a John Coombs car for aspiring F1 race Piers Courage. Courage crashed it at Brands Hatch in 1967 and the damaged tub was left in the McLaren workshops until Ganley took it upon himself to work on it. The undamaged bits went into a new monocoque tub while the damaged tub was rebuilt with Formula 1 M4B suspension and brakes and body work similar to the McLaren Formula 1 M7A. It was, to put it rather bluntly, another Bitsa, albeit one with a McLaren designation – M4C-1. The one-off M4C twin cam five-speed FT200 and its trick suspension slipped right through the local fishing nets.  

Jan gets into his newly-acquired McLaren M4C for a test at the Batu Tiga Circuit.

Torque Shop was based in Kuala Lumpur, not far from the Batu Tiga circuit. It made it easy for Jan and his team to test their cars there, ahead of the regional races.

The McLaren M4C on its way to Hong Kong for the 1971 Macau Grand Prix.

Team Rothmans’ first foray in sponsoring a driver took place in 1971 and resulted in a stunning Macau Grand Prix victory, Jan Bussell’s second Macau Grand Prix win.

The car was flown to Subang Airport and arrived at Jan’s Jalan Sungei Besi race shop in August 1971, just in time for the Malaysian Grand Prix in September. An aviator, his cars were naturally as well-prepared and superbly turned-out and Jan knew a win straight out of the box wasn’t on the cards. His mechanics, Martin Howard, Cheong Hock Wah and Dick Lim, must have spent some sleepless nights preparing the car. Remarkably, Jan finished 3rd, behind John Macdonald and Sonny Rajah. The car may not have been a game changer in South East Asian racing but Bussell’s contact with Rothmans of Pall Mall Malaysia was. Here was Rothmans now directly backing a local driver, not just signature events. Rothmans’ blue colours went on the McLaren and Team Rothmans Malaysia was up and running. Its first foreign venture was to Macau for the 1971 Grand Prix, complete with a totally rebuilt twin cam motor. Poor Sonny Rajah’s Lotus 69 disintegrated within sight of the finish and Jan gratefully added another massive trophy with his second big win in Macau.  

Team Torque’s McLaren M4C being slowly unloaded in the paddock ahead of the 1972 Singapore Grand Prix. Jan Bussell guides the car down as his smartly-attired crew of Eve Bussell, Hock Wah and Dick Lim look on.

Fueling up for the 1972 Singapore Grand Prix.

The M4C on Upper Thomson Road ahead of the 1972 Singapore Grand Prix.

Like a shooting star, it was just a fleeting appearance for the M4C in Asian racing. Jan had the McLaren rebuilt in time for the 1972 Singapore Grand Prix where it qualified a disappointing 15th. On lap 4 of the Grand Prix, just nine and half minutes after the start, the McLaren driver found his car engulfed in flames as he rounded Sembawang Circus for The Snakes. Jan pulled off the racing line, the Rothmans car ablaze. Marshals, unaccustomed to such antics, found themselves with just hand held extinguishers to put out the fire while the fire truck awaited orders to set off for Snakes. It took the fire fighters three laps worth of time to reach the burning McLaren, by which time the car was a mess of mangled aluminium. Meanwhile, Kevin Bartlett came charging along in his Rennmax BN3, slid on Jan’s oil and had a fright of his life when one marshal darted across the track with a fire extinguisher. In one go Big Rev Kev relieved two marshals of their duties.

A Palliser WDB3 replace the McLaren M4C for the 1973 Singapore Grand Prix.

The story goes that Jan crated the remains of his M4C back to Jalan Sungei Besi and cut a deal to replace it with Henky Iriawan’s Palliser WDB3-1. Years later I heard of the car on the roof of a workshop in Selangor, Torque Shop having shut its doors in 1975. Team Rothmans’ brief didn’t include race car restoration but the tobacco firm’s support for local motor sport soon graduated from mere sponsorship of drivers to eventual ownership of the cars as well. For Jan, the Palliser was but a stopgap to something much better.   

Words by Eli Solomon

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