From carbon fiber to cartoons, McLaren has a storied history.
The last decade has been a bright one for McLaren Automotive and has seen the company take its place in the supercar world next to Lamborghini and Ferrari. This year marks the end of an era, however, as Mike Flewitt is stepping down as CEO and opening the door for the company's next evolution. Flewitt oversaw McLaren's automotive arm transition from a brand known for a fantastic limited-run road car and some collaborations and into one known for its range of supercars designed and manufactured in-house at the McLaren Technology Centre alongside the rest of the group, which includes the McLaren Formula 1 team. From a cartoon series to a car that looks cartoonish in the Senna, McLaren has come a long way.
The McLaren story starts with the New Zealand-born racecar designer, driver, engineer, and inventor Bruce McLaren. Most famously, he was one of the drivers of the first Ford GT40 race cars to win at Le Mans. After proving himself as a race car driver, he formed Bruce McLaren Motor Racing (BMR) in 1963, which made its first entry into Formula 1 in 1966. BMR also successfully built cars for CanAm. Unfortunately, CanAm is where Bruce's story ended as he died on the Goodwood Circuit in the UK while testing McLaren M8D.
His name lives on in the company, which was then bought by Ron Dennis, a former mechanic that built race teams. Dennis formed the McLaren Group, which had a diverse array of technology groups under its banner, and McLaren Cars was founded in 1985. The group's first production road car is the now-legendary McLaren F1 that launched in 1992. The F1 set the tone for what McLaren would go on to produce using its race car technology and know-how. It also set a new record as the fastest production car in the world. It's still viewed as one of the greatest road cars produced, and with its 618-horsepower V12 engine and 3.2-second 0-60-mph time, carbon monocoque chassis, and advanced suspension design, it's still a devastatingly fast track weapon today.
It's impossible to talk about McLaren just in terms of its road cars as the road cars rely heavily on McLaren's pioneering in racing technology. McLaren is still out in front when it comes to developing composite materials that bring lightness and strength to its designs, and in 1981, McLaren created Formula 1's first carbon fiber monocoque chassis. Car MP4/1 was first to roll out using the technology that formed the chassis and body of the car in one piece from carbon fiber. It claimed its first victory at the 1981 British Grand Prix, then proved its strength by protecting driver John Watson in a 140 mph crash at Monza later in the year. The rest of Formula 1 followed, but McLaren had both changed the game and took the lead. It was also McLaren that took the technology onto the road car with the legendary F1 road car.
The McLaren F1 was a landmark piece of technology that brought Formula 1-level technology to the road and has been written about ad nauseam. What's less talked about is how South-African Formula 1 car designer Gordon Murray got McLaren's first production road car in motion. He had been thinking about a road car, but in 1988, the company's directors decided just building a "regular" supercar would be too easy. That was music to Murray's ears, and he sat down and wrote a four-page manifesto on how the supercar would not compromise anything. For example, there would be no plastic used; the car would do 200 mph, pull over 1g in lateral acceleration, and be based around an F1-derived monocoque chassis with a safety cell to protect the three occupants. Furthermore, the driver would be centrally situated and the car would use an F1-based push-pull rod suspension, and so on.
Murray wasn't so bothered about performance numbers, though. He didn't care about the 0-60-mph time. That was just a byproduct of building a race car you can enjoy on the road and as a GT car. What he did want was at least 100 horsepower per liter from the engine, and he knew only Honda, BMW, or Ferrari could build that engine reliably. McLaren had a relationship in F1 with Honda, but Honda just didn't seem interested. Luckily, Murray bumped into his friend Paul Rosche from BMW Motor Sport at the German Grand Prix in 1990. Murray had specific design parameters, so Rosche had BMW build him a new engine - a 6.1-liter, 60-degree V12 with dry-sump lubrication.
After the F1 went out of production in 1998, McLaren Cars lay dormant until 2007, when the company started playing with a Ferrari 360 as a test mule. It then hired a Moroccan-born designer called Frank Stephenson as design director and started a follow-up to the F1 called the MP4-12C. Later, the name was shortened to just 12C, and it was designed and built entirely by McLaren. The V8-powered McLaren 12C made 592 hp, weighed just 2,868 pounds dry, and like its ancestor, used Formula 1 technology such as a one-piece carbon-fiber tub chassis weighing just 170 pounds and a hydraulic suspension system to replace traditional coil springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars. The McLaren 12C went into production in 2011 and was blisteringly fast. It hit 60 mph in 2.8 seconds and 100 mph in 6.0 seconds. To really work those neck muscles, it'll also come to a complete stop from 124 mph in under five seconds.
The MP4 in the original name is the chassis code prefix to all McLaren F1 cars since 1981. The M stands for Mclaren and the P4 for Ron Dennis's Project 4 that was merged with McLaren when he bought it. The 12 comes from the internal Vehicle Performance Index that McLaren uses to rate performance criteria for its own and competitor's car. The C stands for Carbon, highlighting its prevalence in the design and construction of the 12C.
Following F1, NASCAR is the second-largest motor racing series, and in 2012 it went through a momentous change. Out went carburetors, and in came electronic fuel injection. McLaren already sold alternators to race teams, but in 2012, every car ran using a McLaren Applied electronic control unit (ECU). McLaren had won a five-year contract to supply the mandated part and extended the contract for another three years. McLaren also provides non-mandated parts to teams and engine builders, including sensors, harnesses, and alternators.
The McLaren F1 was the company's first production road car, but Bruce McLaren had already been thinking about taking his racing expertise to the road. He wanted to homologate the championship-winning M6A Can-Am car for the 1969 series but couldn't meet the new rules and their demand for 50 models to be built. The M6B was shelved, but Bruce McLaren didn't give up on his road car dream. In 1970, he created a prototype by merging the M6B chassis with an M6 GT body and a Chevrolet engine tuned by BARTZ. The wild M6GT became his daily driver, and there was talk of it being put into a 250-unit production run, but the idea was shelved when Bruce McLaren was killed on June 2, 1970. The rear bodywork of the Can-Am test car he was testing separated from the car mid-corner. With a sudden case of no downforce to the rear of the car while cornering, he became a passenger as the car hit a bunker used as a flag station. He was killed instantly.
In Woking, Surrey, UK, you can find and visit the 500,000-square-meter site that houses the entirety of the McLaren Group. The main building was designed by architect Norman Foster as a semi-circle with a lake completing the circle. There are four more lakes on the site and around 13 million gallons of water are pumped through the building's heat exchangers to cool it and dissipate the heat generated by running the wind tunnels. The second building is the McLaren Production Centre, which was built in 2011. McLaren also hosts visitors through its underground visitors center while staff has access to a 700-seat restaurant, a juice and coffee bar, a swimming pool, and a fitness center. Navigation is through corridors, suspended bridges, and seethrough cylindrical elevator shafts. You can also find the "boulevard," essentially a display showing off five decades of McLaren's cars.
To keep the grass around the McLaren site neat, you need to push a lawnmower around 20 miles. McLaren engineers laid over 600 miles of power and control cabling to run the place, and McLaren even created and patented a type of screw for the buildings.
In an exceptionally smart piece of branding, Mclaren produced an animated cartoon series that ran for three seasons. Amongst its stars were racecar drivers Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Kevin Magnussen, Sergio Pérez, and legendary British racing commentator Murray Walker. Thirty episodes were produced for the brand's YouTube channel and aired on the UK's Sky Sports 1 TV channel before Grand Prix events. It's delightful, brilliantly written, and very funny. The episode below is a special produced in honor of legendary Formula 1 driver James Hunt and features Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button.