penske zerex

Roger Penske aboard his devilishly clever ‘Zerex Special’ Sports Car in 1963…

By 1962 Roger Penske was a well established competitor, whilst later his friend and driver Mark Donohue coined the phrase gaining ‘The Unfair Advantage’ in racing, Roger himself contrived rather a clever plan to develop a very quick sportscar for the lucrative US series.

Upon careful study of the SCCA Rulebook Penske concluded that whilst the sports car regs required said cars to have two seats the rules didn’t define their dimensions.

Rogers’ cunning stunt involved resurrection and fitting of a small seat and sports car bodywork to a Cooper T53 Climax F1 car (chassis #T53 F1-16-1) crashed by Walt Hansgen in the 1961 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

Walt was launched over Olivier Gendebiens’ Lotus, Olivier having spun and re-entered the circuit right in Walts path. Briggs Cunningham, the Coopers owner, sold the damaged Cooper to Penske in the ‘Glen paddock less engine.

hansgen cooper

Walt Hansgen Cooper T53 Climax ‘T53 F1-16-1’, the ‘Zerex’ donor car, behind is Roger Penske in his Cooper T53 Climax. US GP Watkins Glen 1961. Both cars 1.5 litre Coventry Climax FPF powered. (Ron Nelson)

zerex puerto rico grid

Zerex Climax looking absolutely superb on pole as Roger Penske settles himself into the cockpit for the 200 mile race. Puerto Rico GP 1962. Penske won from Tim Mayer in a Cooper T57 Monaco and Dan Gurney, Porsche 718 WRS. (Unattributed)

The car was then repaired, rebuilt and transformed by Roy Gane and Penske himself …by fitting a wider alloy body with round and square tubing and brackets added to support the new body and ‘mini seat’. The cars first race, powered by a 2.7 litre Climax FPF ‘Indy’ engine was the 1962 LA Times Grand Prix at Riverside in October.

It was an International event that attracted the Worlds’ best including Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Innes Ireland and Masten Gregory as well as World Class Americans’ Penske, Jim Hall, Walt Hansgen, Ken Miles, Lloyd Ruby and others.

The Zerex, to all intents and purposes a current GP car with an all-enveloping body promised to be competitive!

At a distance, even up close, the car appeared to be a single seater in contravention of the rules, as soon as the car was unloaded in the paddock the SCCA were deluged with protests.

Watched by a large crowd of media, mechanics, specatators and drivers Penske calmly undid the Dzus fasteners attaching the left side panel revealing a small, cramped passenger seat, whereupon the lanky Philadelphian attempted to insert himself into said seat…the car was ‘Kosher’, legal to the letter of the rules, Penske canny enough to have the SCCA’s Chief Technical Inspector see the car when it was being concepted and approve it as compliant.

penske in car

Nearly in…Penske sees the funny side even if the competition does not…before the car takes to the track. LA Times GP October 1962. Scrutineering, SCCA had approved the car as ‘complying with the rules’ during the cars build. (Dave Friedman)

The car won 3 events in late 1962; at Riverside during its first race meeting from Jim Halls Chaparral 1 Chev, Laguna Seca and the GP of Puerto Rico.

The Riverside and Laguna races were USAC sanctioned. The car was protested but USAC allowed it to run, but storm clouds were brewing from some very pissed off, wealthy and influential car owners!

la times 62

LA Times Riverside 1962. Penske leads # 63 Hansgen Cooper Buick, #5 McLaren Cooper Monaco Climax, #8 Jerry Grant Lotus 19 Buick, #66 Jim Hall Chaparral 1 Chev, #3 Masten Gregory and #26 Lloyd Ruby both Lotus 19 into turn 1 lap 1. Penske won. (Dave Friedman)

zerex pqurto

Penske on the grid of the Puerto Rico GP 1962, a win. Car looks simply fantastic. Workmanship a treat. (Dave Friedman)

pr circuit

In the winter of 1962, the entire chassis centre section was cut, shut and widened by Penskes’ team to provide a seat either side of the Zerex centre-line to meet the quickly-tightened rules for 1963…

The car was sold to John Mecom in that form, the body modified to conform, the new seating arrangement, a new windshield and roll bar added and repainted in the blue and white Mecom colors.

zerex in paddock

Zerex in the paddock, circuit unknown 1964. Full roll bar and space for second seat, offset driving position. Zerex in its third evolution T53/Zerex central seat/Zerex 2 seat here, final evolution after McLaren fabricated new chassis centre section and fitted Olds F85 engine. Climax FPF and CS5 ‘box on display, as is simple brackets to retain body and ‘orrible curvy chassis frame. (Unattributed)

It is in this guise the Zerex raced during 1963, always with a Climax FPF engine. That year the Zerex won 2 SCCA national events; ‘Marlboro Motor Raceway’ and Cumberland and the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch in August, Roy Salvadori 2nd to Penske in a Cooper Monaco Climax.

mecom owned la times 63

LA Times GP Riverside 1963. The car now modified to include the second seat and owned by John Mecom but still driven by Roger Penske. Zerex 2nd to Dave McDonald in a Cooper Ford ‘King Cobra. (Dave Friedman)

la times 63 penske and macca

LA Times GP ’63 a fantastic 200 mile race initially lead by Halls Chaparral, DNF. Here is the later dice between Penske and Dave MacDonalds’ Shelby Cooper Ford for the lead, MacD prevailed in the 289cid small block Windsor engined Cooper. (Dave Friedman)

See this YouTube footage of both the ’63 LA Times GP and ’64 Sebring 12 Hour…

The Zerex is also historically significant in that it was sold to Bruce McLaren after Nassau in 1963 and was effectively the first in the long line of very successful McLaren sportscars which became the dominant force in CanAm and Group 7 racing from 1967…

In 1962 Bruce, a factory Cooper driver and Penske shared a Cooper ‘Monaco’ Maserati at Sebring. He later wrote, ‘After that race I came back to England and asked Charlie Cooper if I could run the sports car side of the Cooper Car Company because I felt sure there was a tremendous market for this type of car to use an American engine for American racing. I was convinced at that stage that sports car racing was going to really boom providing there were cars available, and that it would be a great market for an English manufacturer. Charlie turned me down flat.’

Penske moved on from the Zerex as it became less competitive, he drove a Chev engined Cooper for Mecom and later Chaparral before retiring from driving in late 1964, having signed to race for Jim Hall again in 1965.

The Zerex was still sitting in John Mecoms workshop together with an aluminium Olsmobile engine which had never been fitted.  Bruce bought the car and shipped it back to the UK, it arrived with a 2.5 FPF fitted with the Olds F85 (the block used, in much modified form for the ’66 Championship winning Repco Brabham ‘RB620′ 3 litre engine) on a pallet just in time for Oulton Park in April 1964.

After several events with its original Coventry Climax FPF Tyler Alexander and Wally Willmott, Bruces’ mechanics fitted the Olds engine, the car competed at Oulton Park in April, the Aintree 200 defeating Clarks’ Lotus 30 Ford and the Silverstone International beating Roy Salvadoris’ Cooper Monaco Maserati 5 litre, all fitted with the Climax FPF.

aintree 200 sports 64

Start of the Aintree 200 Sports Car race 1964. L.R: #87 John Coundley Lotus 19 Climax, #95 Tony Lanfranchi Elva Mk7 BMW, Jack Sears AC Cobra, Bruce on the right in the Zerex Climax. McLaren won from Jim Clark, Lotus 30 Ford and Sears in the Cobra. (Unattributed)

The day after Silverstone Zerex was stripped at Bruces’ workshop in New Malden, South London… The chassis was then rebuilt from just behind the front suspension to just ahead of the rear suspension with the new McLaren designed centre-section welded in.

In its Penske modified form the car lacked the torsional rigidity to cope with the additional power and torque of the Olds engine. The chassis was far stiffer that the Zerex original, the main chassis longerons acting as structural members and as oil and water pipes from radiators to engine. A Colotti gearbox was used with the Olds engine.

There was no time to fabricate a new exhaust system, the car was flown to Mosport with eight stub exhausts poking up through the tail. First time out it won at Mosport in 1964 and again at Brands Hatch in August.

zerex mosport mac laren 64

McLaren victorious upon debut of car now named Cooper Oldsmobile with its new chassis centre section and Olds engine fitted. ‘Players 200’ Mosport, Canada 1964. (Unattributed)

Given the sensitivities about Jack Brabhams’ departure from Cooper and building his own car, calling the car a Mclaren was not going to wash with Charlie and John Cooper so the hybrid was entered as a Cooper Olds at Mosport.

In Bruces’ hands the car won the Aintree 200 in April 1964, the Silverstone International, the Player’s 200 at Mosport in June and the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch in August’. After the Toursist Trophy at Goodwood in August Bruce sold the car, via Mecom/Teddy Mayer car to Dave Morgan having obtained all the information he needed to build his first sports car. The prototype McLaren M1A , also Oldsmobile powered, appeared later in 1964.

Morgan raced the car into 1965 and 1966 in the US and Nassau. From Morgan the car was sold to Leo Barboza in Venezuela, the car is still there is his families hands.

Continually modified the hybrid Cooper T53/ Zerex/McLaren Olds maintained its ‘Unfair Advantage’ for 3 years…

zerex in venezuela

Cooper T53 aka Zerex aka Cooper Olds in Venezuela shortly after its arrival in 1967. (Unattributed)


zerex paddock 2

Paddock shot in 1964, circuit unknown. T53 Cooper standard front suspension of upper and lower wishbones and coil spring/damper units. Widened chassis clear as is offset driving position and second ‘full size’ seat to comply with end of ’62 tightened rules…(Unattributed)

zerex butt shot

Zerex ‘butt shot’ in 1964. Beautiful aluminium fabricated body. Circuit unknown, Pensacola perhaps. (Unattributed)

cooper mosport

Mosport ’64 color shot of Bruce in his ‘new’ Cooper Olds. (Bruce McLaren Trust)


The ad which inspired this article…in a pile of ‘Road and Track’ magazines i bought. I was well aware of the ‘Zerex Special’, if not the infinite detail, the thing i didn’t know or care about! was the derivation of the Coopers’ name…Penske securing sponsorship from Dupont to promote their ‘Zerex’ antifreeze, not a product ever available in Australia, so now i know!

zerex ad

Bibliography and Credits…

The Nostalgia Forum generally and Doug Nyes posts ‘on topic’ specifically, Bruce McLaren Trust, MiniWerks Forum

Photos; David Friedman, Ron Nelson. Bruce McLaren Trust


  1. […] So, in the McLaren pantheon, its an important car. I wrote about it early in 2015, click here to read the article; […]

  2. Thomas Bucher says:

    Ken Dallison illustration?

    • markbisset says:

      Hi Thomas,
      Good to hear from you, are you asking or telling me? Not sure who the illustrator is, I don’t know- if it is Ken Dallison I will attribute as such. Forgotten about that article, it was a while ago!
      Thanks for reaching out.

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