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Repeating history

Gardner Douglas

from John Minett - CEO of the project:

 "Doing a modern M1A had been going around in my mind for a while. I’ve got fond memories of cars from that era and even had an M1A slot car!  Back then the main design consideration was that the cars “looked right”. There was an understanding that a low drag shape was a good idea, but that was the only consideration; the concept of downforce was only just coming in. The realisation that downforce was desirable at the expense of drag was still some way off.

So in some ways, the M1A bridged an engineering era. To my eyes, it was a beautiful shape and something which I felt could be brought right up to date while still keeping the basic DNA. Tyre development was also progressing back then. The M1A raced with treaded tyres on narrow rims. Our “new” M1A would be designed to take advantage of modern rubber and I was pretty sure that the wider bodywork necessary would also increase the car’s presence.

Steve Nichols is a friend and colleague of many years and I had discussed the idea with him on various long journeys speculating what the resulting vehicle might be like. Classic looks with modern chassis and suspension. Substantial, reliable power and exceptionally lightweight. And the technical side overseen by the chief designer of the most successful F1 car of all time!

For me, the real start for the project came at the 2016 Goodwood Revival. About to cross the bridge to go into the circuit proper, I found myself by the Gardner Douglas stand looking at a beautifully finished version of their GDT70 MODA. Their products were clearly in a different league to what I (rather snobbishly?) associated with their market sector, and, importantly for my M1A idea, they had 20 years’ experience in the design and build of a similarly packaged vehicle, overcoming many of the issues which we would inevitably stumble across.

A brief chat with Gardner Douglas’ Andy Burrows was enough to convince me that this was someone with a sound engineering background who would be of exceptional value to the project. I arranged to visit their factory.  When I next met Steve, I updated him on what had I had seen and we started to think we might genuinely be about to get the idea off the starting line. The trip to Andy’s facility merely confirmed the initial impression; well-engineered products beautifully put together with real pride. We discussed how we could move forward most efficiently and decided that the quickest way to get started would be to acquire a Gardner Douglas GDT70 as a development mule and use it to try out various engineering ideas as it “morphed” into the definitive product. Styling the body was a separate issue.

We set out our basic dimensions and packaging requirements and then started to modify the original M1A shape on computer to see the implications. They were substantial. We would be looking to increase the width by around 150mm and the wheelbase by a similar amount.  A great deal of effort was put into determining how and where the increases would be accommodated within the M1A-inspired design. We also wanted proper doors rather than the flap down panels of the original.

The shape was subtly altered to make it more modern and aggressive; the nose is much more ground-hugging, for example, and the edges sharper. The result is that every panel is significantly different when compared to an original M1A, but those who know an M1A will see it in our car; those who don’t will see something modern….it’s been commented that the side profile is not unlike a Pagani Zonda roadster!

Development of the body was entrusted to BAMD of Upper Heyford on the introduction of Andy Burrows and they put in a lot of work perfecting the shape, going beyond the effort required for a merely “satisfactory” job.

We considered various names. I wanted something which had an obvious McLaren link and having looked at a few options had come to the conclusion that using Steve’s name ticked a number of boxes. Steve is a very modest individual and the biggest problem was not convincing him about the use of “Nichols”, but sheer amazement that anyone would have heard of, or if they did, remember him, and incredulity that I believed his name would be a benefit!

The car in its current, but evolving, form has been on the road for over a year now and we have been constantly amazed at the positive reception it gets. We often use the same petrol station as the McLaren test drivers and there’s no doubt whose vehicle creates the biggest impact! At the suggestion of our Commercial Director, David Laird, we filmed the short video with Peter Windsor over the Xmas break and have been staggered by the number of views and fantastic comments it’s achieved.

Although we set up a company for the project (and gave ourselves grand job titles!), we never really looked beyond the first car, produced purely for our own pleasure. There was a vague understanding that depending on how it was received we could have another chat and maybe consider production but nothing more than that.

It really brings the M1A/N1A story full circle. Bruce McLaren produced the first car as a one-off for his own use, to race himself. Demand from others wanting similar vehicles led to production versions being built.

Hopefully, history will repeat itself!