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A short history of McLaren – not featuring F1 cars…

The supercar maker has crammed a lot into six years.

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“We share the same name, and the same address – and that’s it,” is how Wayne Bruce, global communications director of car manufacturer McLaren Automotive, describes his company’s relationship with the racing team every Formula One fan knows about.

Welcoming The Car Expert to a day experiencing McLaren’s much-desired cars, Bruce explains that McLaren Automotive is physically separate from the F1 team that propelled James Hunt and Lewis Hamilton to their first World Championships, and turned Ayrton Senna into a racing icon.

The supercar maker is just six years old, yet already has set an impressive tally of achievements – and the pace is increasing…

A racing heritage

The brand’s history goes back to 1963 when New Zealand-born racing driver Bruce McLaren launched his own team, building cars for Formula One, American IndyCar racing and the Can-Am sportscar series, where initially the team enjoyed its greatest success.

Sadly Bruce McLaren was killed in 1970, testing one of his Can-Am cars at Goodwood, and his number two, American Teddy Mayer, took over as team principal. But it was after 1981 that the team would see its greatest success, when Ron Dennis assumed control.

Dennis became the brand’s driving force through many an F1 World Championship, and in 1991 diversified into road car manufacture – Bruce McLaren having been developing a light sports car at the time he was killed.

Created by race car designer Gordon Murray, the F1 road car became legendary. The supercar with its novel three-seater layout – the driver sitting between and slightly forward of their passengers – sold for £600,000 and in total 106 were built. To buy one of them today you would likely need around £10 million…

The company later collaborated on a road car with its F1 engine supplier Mercedes-Benz. That car was the McLaren-Mercedes SLR, and when the collaboration ended with Mercedes setting up its own Grand Prix team, the brand created its own road car manufacturer, launching McLaren Automotive in 2010.

Where it all began - the iconic McLaren F1.
Where it all began – the iconic McLaren F1.

A different direction

Initially, Ron Dennis played a major role in the road car division – even stepping back from the F1 racing team to focus his energies on the project. And many people think he still runs the show today – at the start of our driving day, news is breaking suggesting that Dennis is about to be replaced as head of the McLaren Technology Group, the umbrella company encompassing most of the brand’s operations, and Bruce is thus fielding questions on the subject.

McLaren Automotive, however, is its own entity, not part of the group, and while Dennis owns 11% of the car maker and has the title of chairman, he plays no day-to-day role. “Ron Dennis doesn’t run McLaren Automotive – he attends quarterly shareholder meetings but has other things to occupy his time these days,” Bruce says.

CEO of McLaren Automotive is Mike Flewitt, described by Bruce as “a real car guy,” with a CV that saw him join Ford at the age of 18, rise through the ranks, spend some time at Rolls-Royce and return to the blue oval to oversee its European production before joining McLaren in 2012.

It was Flewitt who, at the Geneva motor show in March 2016, unveiled a very ambitious business plan for the company – dubbed ‘Track 22’, it will see McLaren Automotive launch 15 new models over the next six years.

While some might think such volumes would daunt much larger manufacturers, McLaren has already crammed a lot into its six-year history. In 2011 the company opened its factory, the McLaren Production Centre, adjacent to the F1 team and part of the futuristic Woking facility that from outside looks more like an aerospace centre. We are told it is just as different inside but that will have to wait for a future feature…

Six busy years

Also opened in 2011 was the first retailer, in the upmarket surroundings of London’s Knightsbridge, and to fill its showroom the company promised a new car each year. The first was the MP4-12C, the seemingly dull name recalling the F1 team’s most successful line that in the hands of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna dominated the sport in the late 1980s, winning all but one GP in 1988.

In 2012 the MP4-12 Coupe gained a topless sister, the Spider. And at that year’s Paris show, McLaren showed a concept for a highly exclusive supercar dubbed the P1. “Some 750 people around the world contacted us interested in buying a one million pound McLaren, enough to convince us to show a production version at Geneva in March 2013,” Bruce says.

“They didn’t care so much about how much it was going to cost or how fast it was going to be – they clearly knew it would be very fast. The number they were most interested in was how many we were going to make.

“There’s an old saying in marketing that if two people like popcorn one will change their mind, so we took 750 and divided by two to get 375 – in five months they had all sold out.”

The following year’s Geneva show saw the debut of the 650S, in both coupe and spider form. It was intended to be a faster, more aggressively styled version of the 12C but in the process it killed its inspiration. “Within a few weeks everyone wanted the more expensive, newer car, so we decided to cease production of the 12C.”

However before the news was released, the company wrote to all 2,500 12C owners to explain the decision and to offer them a free software upgrade pack. “It gave them many of the advantages of the 650S at no cost – an example of the different way we do things at McLaren.”

The past year has seen the company launch an incredible eight cars. The 650S Le Mans was a 50-strong special edition and predictably sold out quickly. A production run of 500 for the 675LT – the letters standing for ‘Long Tail’ and recalling Le Mans sports cars – was accompanied by a £259,000 price tag, and all were sold in four months. Bruce says that today the occasional example is advertised for sale, at upwards of £350,000…

Not planned was the P1 GTR, an even faster version of the P1, and produced as a result of customer demand. Each had a £2m price tag and to buy one a customer had to already own the stock P1. Demand eventually pushed the planned 25-strong production run to 50.

Possibly the most important car launched in 2015, however, was the 570S ­– unveiled at the New York show in April, it was priced at only £146,000 and for the first time pitched McLaren against mainstream rivals such as the Porsche 911 Turbo and Audi R8. Later that year it was joined by an even less expensive sister, the 540C. At £128,000 this car is dubbed by Bruce “as affordable as a McLaren will ever be – we can’t make a true McLaren for any less.”

Another special 650S, dubbed the Can-Am and recalling those sports car successes of the 1970s, ran to 50 units and of course sold out quickly, while customers were also pressing the company to make more examples of the Long Tail.

Instead at the winter ball that McLaren holds for its customers in Woking each December, a Spider variant was revealed; “We thought at 500 units costing close to £300,000 it might take three to four months to sell out, so we surprised ourselves when they went within two weeks.”

The newest McLaren, for now, is the 570GT, unveiled at the 2016 Geneva show and described by Bruce as “a different type of car for us, more comfortable, tuned for longer journeys – it’s the most practical car we’ve done yet.”

From Sport to Ultimate

Today McLaren’s portfolio comprises three strands – the Sports Series is the entry point, comprising the 540C and 570S, the Super Series is the core of the range and encompasses the 650 and 675, while the Ultimate Series currently has no models following the end of the P1 GTR production run. “We are working on a future Ultimate Series car, we can’t say when it’s coming but like the P1 it will be a very limited production and cost more than other cars in the range, and it will be very focused in what it does.”

Also part of the company is MSO – McLaren Special Operations, the ‘bespoke’ division, and itself split into five parts. MSO Ltd produces cars such as the 650 S Can Am; MSO Programmes organises events, usually at F1 GPs, for owners of the P1 GTR. MSO Defined offers a range of accessories fitted on the production line, such as carbon door mirror arms for example.

McLaren Special Operations aims to answer every owner's bespoke requests...
McLaren Special Operations aims to answer every owner’s bespoke requests…

MSO Bespoke will specify a car to anything the customer desires, “apart from messing with the drivetrain – we feel we know better than our customers on that, but we are not the style police and whatever the customer wants the customer gets.” And finally MSO Heritage cares for the original McLaren F1, and in future will maintain P1s.

So far, it all seems to be going to plan. McLaren has seen record results each year, in 2015 selling 1,654 cars across the globe, through a dealer network that now numbers 80 outlets, six of them in the UK. And the company is particularly proud of recording a third successive year of profitability.

The brand’s sales are expected to double in 2016 to around 3,000 cars and by the end of the decade the company would like to be producing around 4,500-5,000 each year – but no more; “We have no aspirations to make any more cars than that, not least because we are committed to production staying in Surrey – a plaque in each car proudly proclaims that fact. We’ve just introduced a second shift at Woking and hired 250 new people, taking our staff to 1,700 in total.”

So a very positive picture, and one that allows Bruce to deny with conviction the other big rumour of recent times, that the company was about to be taken over by computer giant Apple. “McLaren is most certainly not for sale – we will remain self-funded and fiercely independent. All the components in our cars are unique to ourselves, we don’t borrow from anyone.”

Electrifying plans

What form that planned future product, the 15 new models, will take Bruce is unsurprisingly not saying – though there are some clues.

McLaren puts some 30% of its turnover – £120m in 2015 – into developing future product. “I think a typical manufacturer puts in 3%,” Bruce says, adding; “We will invest a billion pounds in the next six years and at the end of this period at least half of our cars will feature hybrid technology.”

He also points out that the brand is happy not to follow convention; “ We were the first supercar maker to go from a V12 to a twin-turbo V8 engine and the P1 is a hybrid.”

And a full electric vehicle is also in the pipeline; “We have begun work on a pure electric vehicle to sit in our ultimate series – it’s a big challenge for our engineers, not least how to make an EV as exciting to drive as one of our petrol-fuelled cars.”

McLaren already offers an electric car – this is it, and it only costs £375...
McLaren already offers an electric car – this is it, and it only costs £375…

And how about following the lead of other premium makers, Bentley, Maserati, Rolls-Royce, and building an SUV? “Don’t wait for a McLaren SUV – it’s not coming for several reasons,” says Bruce.

“We don’t have the space to build one, we don’t have the desire to build one, financially we have no need to make one and finally our customers are not asking us for one – they are very happy with their Range Rovers and Bentaygas.

“McLaren is about supercars – and it will stay that way.”


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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.