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

In 1974, this Zepp–sponsored racecar spent one impressive season on the racetrack before disappearing from history.
By cscapelliti,

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.

A deal was cut, and by late 1973 Griffiths’ McLaren was in a paint shop in London receiving a custom design from Richard Evans, a designer from Hipgnosis, the art firm that created countless classic-era album covers, including several for Pink Floyd. The project was the perfect cap to what proved to be a banner year for the company, which also saw the release of Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, both featuring Hipgnosis cover art.

“The McLaren was just one of many jobs that Led Zeppelin and their record company, Swan Song, gave Hipgnosis,” recalls Evans, now the head of his own design firm. “If I remember correctly, I did three completely different concepts for the car, and I produced very detailed air-brushed illustrations with side, back, and front views of the car, plus a top view. I first presented the ideas to Peter Grant. Later, I showed the ideas to [Led Zeppelin drummer] John Bonham, who loved the design.

“Once I completed the design, I oversaw the painting in a body shop in Regent’s Park, London. The shop only worked on very special cars for the rich and wealthy. It was in a mews in a smart part of London near Abbey Road Studios. I remember there were two other cars there at the same time: a Facel Vega belonging to Ringo Starr and a Ford Popular that had been customized for Paul McCartney.”

In January 1974, the repainted McLaren made its public debut at a rather unusual auto show called the Evening News Motor Racing Showboat, so named because it was held on a ferry moored next to a battleship on the Thames. Period film clips of the show, now posted on YouTube, are among the only remaining documents of this unique intersection between Led Zeppelin and automotive culture.

Griffiths went on to do quite well in the Led Zeppelin–sponsored M8E/D. Its huge 500-cubic-inch engine (good for nearly 700 horsepower) propelled him to several podium finishes at the famed Silverstone track during the first half of 1974. Then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he sold the car, and the unusual sponsorship was over. The Led Zeppelin McLaren made its way to a fresh chain of owners, one of whom quickly repainted it in McLaren orange.

During the Nineties, an owner restored the Led Zeppelin paint livery, and the car was later purchased in 2002 by Jules Moritz, Jr., a longtime fan of Can-Am racing who had dreamed of someday running one of the powerful machines, himself. Moritz restored the McLaren to racing condition and entered it at vintage events in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, usually with his son, Jules III, in tow. Both men were mechanical engineers. Having turned a wrench since he could walk, the younger Moritz, now in his fifties, would work on the car while his father schmoozed passers-by and let kids sit in the cockpit. It became one of those father-son bonding rites worthy of a Hollywood script.

After the elder Moritz passed away in 2012, Jules Moritz III continued to run the Led Zeppelin McLaren in his father’s memory. He says the M8E is one of approximately 10 customer cars originally built and the only one converted to D-style bodywork. During a 2009 engine blowout, the car nearly caught fire. Such incidents illustrate the quandary facing any owner of a valuable historic racecar who actually wants to put in on a track.

“Dad always believed that racecars should be raced, and I agree,” Moritz says, with a chuckle. “But this car definitely challenges my ability to not think about how much it’s worth when I’m out there on the track.”

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.

Loading ...
Join the Conversation