Led Zeppelin’s McLaren Racecar: An Untold Story from Rock History

March 8th, 2017

This is a feature from the March/April 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the making of Martin’s one-of-a-kind two-millionth guitar, Ricky Gervais and the return of his guitar-playing alter ego David Brent, plus GA’s annual motoring section, including features on the Doobie Brothers’ Pat Simmons and his antique Harley-Davidsons, and John Oates and his life-long fascination with cars and racing, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

LEDDED: In 1974, a Led Zeppelin–sponsored McLaren M8E/D racecar spent one impressive season on the racetrack before disappearing from history. Here is its untold story.

By Mike Daly

Led Zeppelin’s colorful history and classic tracks have been thoroughly covered by journalists over the years. The Library of Congress has cataloged no fewer than 188 titles related to the band, including biographies, song-by-song analyses, and tell-alls of the group’s legendary partying. From Stephen Davis’ classic 1985 tome Hammer of the Gods to Brad Tolinski’s 2012 Light and Shade oral biography of guitarist Jimmy Page, it would seem that every aspect of the group’s existence has been scrutinized and documented.

So to encounter a large piece of Led Zeppelin paraphernalia that has somehow eluded the standard narrative is somewhat like stumbling on an extra Dead Sea Scroll or a lost da Vinci. Such is the epiphany offered by a stroll through the paddock at the Monterey Historic Races in Laguna Seca, California, each year. Among the various Ferraris, Trans-Am Camaros, and Lolas sits a 1971 McLaren M8E/D with a Led Zeppelin airship balloon painted on each fender and the nose. According to a sign sitting beside the imposing Can-Am racecar, it was sponsored by the group during the 1974 season—which will probably come as news even to diehard Zeppelin fans.

As most Led Zeppelin histories will tell you, after touring extensively for several years in the early Seventies, the group crashed hard in England in fall 1973. In the year to come, during which Led Zeppelin would take more time off than they ever had before, they released their 1973 concert film, The Song Remains the Same, and founded their own boutique label, Swan Song records. Both of these achievements were largely attributable to the tireless efforts of Peter Grant, the group’s shrewd and ruthless bear-like manager who built the mold for guys like Suge Knight.

It was around this same time that Grant invited Led Zeppelin to attend a cocktail party at the Playboy Club in London, where they were to meet a racecar driver named Kaye Griffiths. A Brit who campaigned in the Interserie, Europe’s version of Can-Am (the unlimited engine-displacement series that fielded history’s most powerful racecars), Griffiths had recently purchased a used McLaren M8E that was factory-converted to M8D-style bodywork. His would-be manager and friend, a photographer named Zelma Wilkins, was actively seeking a rock-band sponsorship to put Griffiths on the map. While on their way to a race at Hockenheim, Germany, in September, she and Griffiths took a meeting with the Rolling Stones. In the end, though, Grant—always looking for unique ways to market Led Zeppelin—was the interested taker.

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  • Jeff Lee

    I have photos of the Zeppelin Mclaren, just before
    it was sanded and the brand new orange. My
    brother was the guy who repainted it. I took a few
    pictures, before and after.

    • Jules Moritz

      Hi Jeff, Thanks for your comment. I am very interested in the pictures. Bob Lee who owned the car after Tom Tait gave me six pictures of the car before in a grassy field with Tom’s kids behind the wheel and one of the bodywork between two Gulf sponsored cars (GT-40 Mk II & Mirage?) The only picture I’ve seen of the car after was in the Monterey Historic Races program (not sure what year.) Any other information would also be appreciated. Jules