McLaren Cars, Ltd was established in March, 1989 by Ron Dennis, Mansour Ojjeh, Creighton Brown, the McLaren Group boardmembers and Gordon Murray, the chief designer for the McLaren race team. McLaren had dominated the 1988 Formula One season with drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. While the men were waiting for a delayed flight back to the UK, the question was asked: what would make the ultimate road car?
Murray wanted to leave the world of Formula 1 racing, so Ron offered him the opportunity to stay on and design the 'ultimate' car. The temptation was too great for Murray to resist and he accepted the challenge to build the ultimate road car at any cost. The name McLaren Cars was given to the new company set up to build this car. The name was originally used by Bruce McLaren, a former racer form New Zealand who died on 2 June, 1970 while testing a Can Am Car at Goodwood, UK.
The F1 was created as the purest driver's car, compact and above all ultra-lightweight. It also embodies the most advanced engineering, intricate and elegant detailing and peerless quality.
After having set up McLaren Cars, Ltd in Albert Drive, Woking (next-door to the Formula One team) and McLaren Composites in Guildford, development began on what would become the McLaren F1. The construction would be a carbon monocoque, like in an F1 car, with a mid-mounted engine, rear-drive set-up. The monocoques and carbon body parts were built in the Guildford plant and the cars were assembled in the Woking factory by hand. The engine development went to BMW, who developed a 6.1-litre, quad-cam, 48-valve V12 with 627 brake horsepower. The engine was normally aspirated. This meant there was no form of turbo-charging to the power plant, giving an instant snap response to the throttle with no lag or delay.
Weight was a massive concern with the project and any item that was fitted to the car was skimmed and shaved until it was as light as it could possibly be, giving the car a final overall weight of just 1,100kg. Considering that the Ferrari Enzo, released ten years later, weighs in at 1,365kg, this was a considerable accomplishment. This combination of low weight and lightweight design, plus a body design that was tested in a wind tunnel before even being styled, gave a very high level of performance. The car could go from 0 - 60mph in 3.1 seconds, 0 - 100mph in 6.3 seconds, 200mph in 28 seconds and would keep going to a proven 240mph. This record has only recently been bettered by the Koenigsegg and the Bugatti Vayron.
Handling was paramount in the design brief, with F1-inspired double wishbones and push-rod coil springs for the suspension. Murray insisted on the absence of driver aids such as traction control and anti-lock brakes. The car did not even have power steering, in order that nothing would dilute the driving experience. The handling set-up was developed by racing drivers Mika Hakkinen and Jonathon Palmer.
Three in a Row
One of the many revolutionary design aspects was the inclusion of three seats: a centrally-mounted driving position and a passenger seat on either side. This gave a much improved driving position and improved the car's centre of gravity. More practically, the car could be sold anywhere in the world without developing left-hand drive/right-hand drive variants. The only downside was that getting into the central seat took practice and could never be done with any dignity by women in skirts.
The car was designed and developed over the next four years with absolutely no compromises. When a problem arose, instead of settling for a lesser product, a new solution was invented. Instead of adding wings to help the car remain stable, they used the ground effect generated by the flat underside. To aid braking, they added a passive airbrake that would rise slightly at over 55mph, improving down force, and raise fully when braking, moving the centre of gravity away from the front. To disperse the heat generated from the engine bay, it was lined with 24-carat gold leaf that cost over £1,000 per roll.
The car was released in 1993, at a retail cost of £550,000. The order book was filled fairly quickly: famous owners have included George Harrison, Jay Leno and Wycliffe Jean. Rowan Atkinson famously drove his into the back of a Metro in 1999. Owners literally had the car built for them. They were invited to the factory then sat in a mock-up of the cabin and asked to hold the gear lever, as this was the only part of the car that could not be adjusted. The seats, pedals and steering wheel were then adjusted to fit them perfectly.
Prior to delivery, McLaren would find out what the driver's favourite CDs were so that when they picked up the car they could listen to their favourite songs on the stereo. The car came with bespoke luggage that, when fitted into all the car's stowage sections, gave the same volume as a Ford Fiesta — not much, you think, but try doing that in a Ferrari F40 where there isn't enough room for a toothbrush. Customers also had the option of purchasing a leather-bound book called Driving Ambition, containing plans and technical charts. They could have a custom-made toolbox with the chassis number engraved on the titanium tools and, because McLaren has a long-standing relationship with Tag watches, the customer could buy a special-edition watch, again with the chassis number engraved on the back. These were all high-cost extras, but money wasn't really an object for the sort of client who bought the car.
McLaren's level of customer care was second to none. The car was designed with the ability to be serviced at any trained BMW service centre. If any major work was required, the car would be shipped back to Woking where 24-hour assistance was available. The customer could also plug the onboard modem fitted to the car into a phone line and a technician in Woking could see a full diagnostic of the car and take full control of the car's systems1. If the solution could not be sorted out there and then, a technician would be on a plane to assist within an hour.
Many customers asked about the possibility of racing their F1s and in 1995 McLaren revealed the F1 GTR, a stripped-out, race-ready version of the road car with a high down-force kit and even lighter race spec components. This went on to not only win at Le Mans that year, but managed to finish all five cars that were entered in first, third, fourth, fifth and 13th. This is an amazing achievement for a car that was never designed to race.
During its production run, 64 standard road cars were made. The LM model was released to commemorate the Le Mans victory, but only five of these were produced to represent the five cars that finished the race. The LM runs the most powerful engine of any F1, road or race, using a 1995 GTR engine without air restrictors. It also features the race car aerodynamics, gearbox and 18-inch wheels. This means a spleen-busting 680bhp and 0 - 60mph in three seconds. The LM also broke the 0-100-0 mph time, with a run of 11.5 seconds stretching 828 feet. The LMs were painted in vivid McLaren papaya orange as a tribute to the cars Bruce McLaren used to race. McLaren also brought out the GT model, to allow them to make aerodynamic changes to the race cars under homologation rules — only three of these cars were made. Of the racing GTRs, 28 cars were built, leaving just five prototypes and 100 customer cars ever built. At auction now, they will start at £750,000 and normally end up close to the million-pound mark. When a new owner is found, the car is then re-built to the customer's specifications.
The SLR - Silver Arrow for the 21st Century
As the production and race programmes ended, Daimler Chrysler acquired a share in the McLaren Group, allowing the Formula One team to use their Mercedes works engines. This in turn led to the agreement for McLaren cars to design and build the Mercedes SLR for them, the first time they had ever not done this in house. However, this caused a lot of well-documented friction of differing ideas between Merc and McLaren about how to design the ultimate GT car.
The SLR was meant to be built in much greater quantities than the F1, so the company had to grow. They moved composite production from Guildford to Portsmouth, where a state-of-the-art composite factory was set up to cope with the increased volume of production. The main assembly, along with most of the rest of the McLaren Group, was moved from Albert Drive to the new Norman Foster-designed McLaren Technology Centre in Horsell Common. This enormous, glass-fronted building brought all the separate McLaren Group companies under one roof.
Unlike the F1, the SLR was styled first by Mercedes designers. McLaren were then given the task of getting it all to work within that package. Being a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car, there were concerns of unbalance and under-steer. This was solved by moving the engine back into the centre of the chassis so that it sat almost under the dashboard. This gave an almost 50-50 weight distribution front to rear; this is normally only found in mid-engined cars. The engine was an AMG-built 5.4L 24-valve V8 with a massive screw-type supercharger sitting between two water-fed intercoolers. This means the supercharger pushes about 40,000 pounds of air per hour into the engine. All of this together gives the driver a massive 617BHP with 575ft/lbs of torque. This means that the car will keep going all the way to 212mph and then throw you to 60 in 3.8 seconds.
One of the striking design features is the side exit exhausts: the pipes expel the exhaust just behind the front wheels. Not only is this a nod back to the old SLR races of the 1950s that Stirling Moss took to Victory in the famous Millie Millia, but it is an integral part of the car's aerodynamics. As the engine is at the front, you would normally have to route the exhaust along the underside of the car. The ideal surface of a sports car is flat, as it creates a suction called ground-effect to keep the car stuck to the track round corners. With the pipes exiting from the side, they could leave the underside totally smooth. Another element copied from the original SLR and the F1 was the airbrake. As with the F1, it raises slightly over 55mph and deploys to a 65° angle over this speed when braking. This, combined with the massive ceramic brake discs gives the SLR unequalled stopping power.
One of the main advantages of this car is that it is a Mercedes, with an interior like that of a standard SL. It has everything a normal Mercedes car should have: satellite navigation, air conditioning, cruise control and, unusually for a supercar, an automatic gearbox - although the gears can be manually shifted using switches on the back of the steering wheel. It drives very happily around town, but on an open road it will destroy motorway miles, the only problem being that flat-out it will empty the fuel tank in 19 minutes. It's because of its practicality that many people don't see the SLR as a true sports car — just another fast Mercedes. But this has attracted many new buyers who want supercar performance with Mercedes practicality.
At the time of writing, McLaren Cars are in full production of the SLR, with over 1,000 cars rolled off the production line. They are continuing to develop new projects for the future. In Ron Dennis's words:
The company we have created will be a leading force in pushing forward the boundaries of automotive design.