McLaren Cars Ltd was set up in March 1989 by Ron Dennis, Mansour Ojjeh, Creighton Brown, the McLaren Group board Members, and Gordon Murray, the Chief designer for the race team. McLaren had dominated the 1988 Formula one season with Ayton Senna and Alain Prost, and while the 4 men were waiting for a delayed flight back to the UK, the question was asked, what would make the ultimate road car?
As Gordon wanted to leave the world of Formula, Ron offered him the opportunity to stay on and design this car. (Not wanting him to go to another team.) The carrot was too good to resist for Murray and he accepted the challenge. 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 buy Bruce McLaren, the former racer form New Zealand who died 2nd 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.’
Setting up McLaren Cars Ltd in Albert Drive, Woking (next 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 mono’s 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 Horse Power. The engine was normally aspirated, meaning 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 a light as it could possibly be, giving the car a final overall weight of just 1100 kilos. Which is amazing considering a Ferrari Enzo weighs in at 1365 kilos and was released 10 years later. This combination of low weight and lightweight design, plus a body design that was tested in a wind tunnel before even being styled, gave to an absolutely stunning level of performance. 0-60 in 3.1 seconds 0-100 in 6.3 200mph in 28 seconds and would keep going to a proven 240mph. This record has only recently been bettered buy the Koenigsegg and the Bugatti Vayron But it has taken them over ten years to build a faster car.
Handling was paramount in the design brief with F1 inspired double wishbones and push rod coil springs for the suspension. Murray insisted on no driver aids such as traction control and anti lock brakes, the car did not even have power steering so nothing would dilute the driving experience from the driver. The handling setup was developed buy racing drivers Mika Hakkinen and Jonathon Palmer.
One of the many revolutionary design aspects was to have 3 seats with a centrally mounted driving position, with two passenger seats either side. This gave a much improved driving position and improved the cars centre of gravity. Other more practical aspects is that you could sell it anywhere in the world without developing Left Hand Drive/Right Hand Drive variants. And you could also scare the life out of two people at a time. The only downside was that getting into the central seat took practice and could never be done with any dignity buy women in skirts.
The car was designed and developed over the next 4 years with absolutely no compromises, and when a problem arouse 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 buy the flat underside. To aid braking they added a passive airbrake that would rise slightly at over 55 mph 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 caret gold leaf that cost over £1000 a roll.
The car was released in 1993 at a retail cost of £550,000. The order book was filled fairly quickly. Famous owners include 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 and sat in a mock up of the cabin and asked to hold the gear leaver, 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 drivers favourite CD’s were so when they picked up the car they could listen to there favourite songs in the bespoke Kenwood stereo. (Which had special magnets built for the speakers to save weight?) The car came with bespoke luggage that when fitted into all the cars stowage’s gave the same volume as a ford fiesta, not much you think, but try doing that in a Ferrari F40 where there is enough room for a toothbrush. Customers were also had the options of a leather bound book of the car called Driving Ambition containing plans and technical charts. They could have a custom made tool box with the chassis number engraved on the titanium tools, and because McLaren has a longstanding 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 for the sort of client who bought the car, this was not really a problem.
McLaren’s customer care was second to none. The car was designed with the ability to be serviced at any trained BMW service centre. Any major work and the car would be shipped back to Woking. There was 24 hour assistance to a technician in Woking. The customer could then 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 cars systems. (One customer in Germany apparently complained he could not hear his stereo on the way to work, when they plugged it in they found the problem he was driving 190mph to work every day.) If the solution could not be sorted out there and then, a technician was on a plane to assist within an hour.
Many customers had asked about the possibility of racing there F1 and in 1995 McLaren reviled 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 5 cars that were entered in 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th 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 5 of these were produced to represent the 5 cars that finished the race. The LM runs the most powerful engine of any F1, road or race, by using a 1995 GTR engine without the air restrictors. It also features the race car aerodynamics, gearbox and 18" inch wheels. This means a spleen busting 680bhp and 0-60 in 3 seconds. The Lm also broke the 0-100-0 mph time, with a run off 11.5 seconds stretching 828 feet. The LM’s were painted in vivid McLaren Papaya orange as a tribute to the cars Bruce McLaren used to race. They also brought out the GT model to allow them to make aerodynamic changes to the race cars under homologation rules, of which they made 3 cars. And of the racing GTR’s, 28 cars were built. Leaving just 5 prototypes and 100 customer cars ever built. At auction now they will start at £750000, 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.
A Silver Arrow for the 21st Centaury
As the production and race programs ended, Daimler Chrysler Acquired a share in the McLaren Group as and agreement for the formula one team to use there 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. Though this caused a lot of well documented friction of differing ideas between Merc and McLaren’s differing ideas of how to design the ultimate GT car.
The SLR would be built in a much greater volume 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 was moved from Albert Drive along with most of the rest of the McLaren group 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.
As opposed to the F1 the SLR was styled first buy 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, these can be unbalanced and cause under steer. This was solved buy moving the engine back into the centre of the chassis so it sits almost under the dashboard. This gives an almost 50/50 weight distribution front to rear which is normally only found in mid engined cars. The engine is an AMG built 5.4 litre 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 617 BHP with 575 ft/Lbs of torque. This means that the car will keep going all the way to 212 mph. and throw you to 60 in 3.8 seconds.
One of the striking design features are the side exit exhausts the exit the car just in behind the front wheels. Not only is this a nod back to the old SLR races of the 50’s that Stirling Moss took to Victory in the Famous Millie Millia. But it is an integral part or the cars 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 out the side they could leave the underside totally smooth. Another item copied from the original SLR and also the F1 is an airbrake. Like the F1 it will raise slightly over 55 mph and deploy to a 65 degree angle over this speed when braking. This combined with the massive ceramic brake disks, gives the SLR an un equaled 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 and normal Merc should have. Satellite navigation, air con, cruise control, and unusually for a super car, 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 get it on an open road and 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 it as a true sports car, rather just another fast Merc. But this has attracted many new buyers who want super car performance with Mercedes practicality.
McLaren Cars are now in full production of the SLR with over 1000 cars now rolled off the production line. And 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’