History of Road Cars

A History of McLaren Road Cars

The McLaren Group has always been committed to motor sport and has successfully competed at the very highest levels, in Formula 1 and other great motor racing series and races such as Can-Am, Indy car and Le Mans.  But looking ahead, the establishment of an independent McLaren Automotive, designing, building and marketing a range of high performance sports cars, will make a major contribution to McLaren’s future success. Over 70 Formula 1 teams have come and gone from the grid since McLaren Automotive Chairman, Ron Dennis, entered Formula 1 and it is clear to Dennis and his fellow shareholders that a sustainable and profitable McLaren group of companies relies on the success of this new sports car company. Yet it does not represent the first time McLaren has harboured ambitions to replicate its racing success in commercial markets for the ultimate performance cars.

McLaren M6 GT – a beginning

Early on in McLaren’s history, company founder and racing driver Bruce McLaren set out to capitalise on the team’s success in the Can-Am series by building a racing car for the road.  The McLaren M6 GT was Bruce’s pet project and he developed the car in-house at his Colnbrook factory near London during 1968/9.  Only one prototype was made based on the dominant 1967 McLaren M6 chassis – a full monocoque tub made of aluminium alloy sheet over steel bulkheads.  The engine was a 5.7 litre Ford unit producing around 370bhp and the chassis was clothed in an attractive coupé body made of reinforced polyester resin.  The M6 GT’s dry weight of 725 kilos testifies that it really was a racing car for the road, rather than a civilised supercar.

Bruce’s underlying idea was to make a road car that could be easily modified to compete in the 1969 Group 4 sports car category – a car to compete with Ferrari, Porsche and Alfa Romeo – as well as to offer the fastest, quickest accelerating and best handling road car on the market.  Bruce’s prototype was good for over 165mph with a 0-100mph acceleration time of eight seconds.

When the FIA changed the homologation rules to require a minimum of 50 units to qualify for the race series it became too much of a commercial challenge for the young company, and Bruce’s tragic death at Goodwood in June 1970 effectively terminated the project. Trojan (McLaren’s partner for production of customer race cars) however, did build three M6GTs for customers.  It would be almost 20 years before the McLaren company would dream of producing another road car....but it would be worth the wait.

The world’s greatest supercar – the McLaren F1

It all started in an airport lounge in Milan in 1988.  While awaiting a delayed flight McLaren Group Chairman Ron Dennis, Director and shareholder Mansour Ojjeh, Technical Director Gordon Murray and Head of Marketing Creighton Brown were discussing how to harness the company’s technical prowess in order to develop its future direction.  Despite almost total domination in that season’s Formula 1 world championship (ultimately winning 15 or 16 races), it was clear to Dennis that a sustainable business could not rely on motor racing alone. Among a range of suggestions the idea of building the best sporting car in the world was raised.   It struck a chord and the seed had been sown.

In 1989 a new company, McLaren Cars, was established and in March 1990 an infamous ten hour design meeting was held that resulted in a commitment to build the fastest and best handling supercar in the world. Not only that, but it would also have the highest power to weight ratio of any production car, and be practical and usable on an everyday basis.  McLaren’s obsession with low weight and packaging was bred from years of successful motor racing and resulted in what was considered, by those fortunate enough to take to the wheel, to be the best car in the world.

Although McLaren had neither the facilities nor the traditional expertise to make a road car, let alone one that would achieve new standards in almost every area, a small, focused and highly-committed team of engineers applied original thinking and drew on the McLaren Group’s technical prowess to overcome the many challenges and the stringent targets set by the design team.

A carbon composite body and chassis

An overall weight target of below 1,118 kilos was set, which was exceptionally challenging in view of the considerably heavier weights of supercars then available.  Furthermore, the F1 would feature a central seat driving position with one passenger seat on either side sited slightly further back.. the McLaren F1 would be a three-seater.   That was novel thinking but the basis of the car was to be even more innovative.  The carbon composite chassis had been pioneered by McLaren in 1981 with its MP4/1 chassis but no car maker had yet ventured to use the material as the structural basis for a road car.  Its advantages were clear:  low weight, high strength and torsional stiffness, safety and durability.

The carbon tub was literally hand made at a new facility in Shalford, England. Every fibre was laid by gloved hand to a template-cut pre-pregnated carbon cloth, vacuum bagged and prepared for long baking and curing cycles in ovens.  The components of the body made in this way were then fine finished and assembled into the complete body/chassis units.  The first prototype, XP1, took 6,000 man hours to complete this process and although series production reduced this time to around 3,500 hours it is evident that the costs of making such a car would only suit the most elevated echelons of the market.

The finished unit would then go for painting (any colour ordered by the customer) before returning to Genesis Business Park in Woking where final assembly would take place at five stations in the former prototype shop.  Here suspension, interior, engine and gearbox and all the remaining elements of the car would be assembled by hand – a process that took around 2,500 hours alone.  Every step in production was checked and re-checked before being signed off.  The documentation log for each car was as rigorous and as meticulously-recorded as in the build of a passenger aeroplane.  Unsurprisingly the company planned to build a maximum of just two cars a month.

Testing times

Testing started long before the first F1 chassis was completed.  Two Ultima cars, Albert and Edward, were purchased as mules on which each new component could be tried, modified and re-tested.  When the decision was made to drive the first F1 prototype before Christmas 1992, the small team worked day and night to meet the challenge.  This period included the famous ‘lost weekend’ when they worked constantly from Friday morning until Sunday, but the first car, XP1, did turn its wheels for the first time and a landmark in the project was set.

Tragically, this first car was crashed by a test driver in Namibia when undergoing high speed, hot weather testing.  It hit rocks at over 150mph, rolled over and caught fire...yet the driver crawled out unscathed proving that the carbon fibre safety cell was strong and uncompromised.  The next car, XP2, underwent its official front impact testing and reinforced the safety story by being the only car ever to survive the 30mph block impact and remain driveable. Testimony to the inherent safety of a carbon fibre tub.


The well-respected and talented Peter Stevens was brought in to design the exterior and interior of the F1.  No part of the styling used computer aided design - it was all hand drawn.  Stevens started from the inside out, waiting for the seating buck to perfect the driver and passenger positioning.  What he drew was a restrained, functional yet attractive shape that eschewed flashy spoilers and unnecessary and garish styling flourishes.   The F1 shows a purity of design that has been described as timeless and elegant, with no spare fat – the body with short front and rear overhangs seems to be stretched tightly over the cabin and mechanicals. Neither was it wide when compared to some supercars, despite the third seat it was still narrow and wieldy enough to be nimble on country roads.  Inside the F1 is a comfortable and surprisingly spacious place.  The packaging is well considered and carefully thought through - another trait that has become a McLaren trademark.  Close attention was paid to ensure that an F1 owner could travel three up in comfort and each car was equipped with a bespoke luggage set that filled every last cubic centimetre of space within the shell and side panel storage bins.

A range of door types was considered and a dihedral arrangement agreed upon. This solution required less space for door opening and closing than many other sports cars when parked, and provided a large opening that allowed much easier ingress and egress, especially bearing in mind the wide sill that is part of the chassis.  The doors also create a sense of occasion whenever and wherever it stops.

Motive power

The F1 team was making good progress on achieving the light weight they targeted but to deliver the highest power to weight ratio the other half of the equation was the engine.   A high revving, large capacity, normally-aspirated engine that produced over 100bhp per litre was sought.  BMW was approached and enthusiastically embraced the project, developing a new engine – a 6.1 litre, 48 valve V12 with variable valve timing that produced 627bhp and 651 Nm of torque. BMW started work in March 1991 and the first units were on the dynamometer by Christmas.

Dream chassis for poise and handling

Just as important for a supercar as a powerful engine, light weight and a beautiful body is the attention paid to suspension, brakes and steering.  McLaren had, of course, considerable experience with racing car suspension but such uncompromising layouts would not suit a road car.  No one would want to drive to the South of France in a racing car.  The F1 does have suspension that takes some elements of racing design, though, including double wishbones front and rear, co-axial coil springs with light alloy dampers and clever geometry with toe in and toe out control links.  However the emphasis was on ride comfort too. 

Innovative compliant bushes mounted the suspension to the composite tub, ensuring race-car suspension control over the wheel geometry.  This guaranteed that the F1 would deliver finely-poised and responsive handling with a compliant and comfortable ride.  Combined with a 41:59 front to rear weight distribution, 17 inch alloy wheels, pure feedback from the unassisted rack and pinion steering and powerful Brembo brakes with four pot monobloc alloy callipers and large ventilated discs, the McLaren F1 offered its driver fine control and a thrilling experience.

The F1 makes its debut

The first XP model was unveiled to the world’s press at Monaco before the Grand Prix in May 1992.  It caused a clamour of interest and the bold claims made for its performance ensured that everyone there knew they were in the presence of a new type of supercar.   At 1140 kilos the F1 was much lighter than any competitor and its engine produced more power too.  It accelerated from 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, 0-100 in 6.3 seconds, 0-150 in 12.8 seconds and 0-200 in 28 seconds and was so flexible that it could accelerate cleanly, with neither jerk nor shudder, from 30 to 225 mph in sixth gear.  McLaren had achieved its aim to produce the ultimate supercar.

Attention to detail and fastidious design

Behind the fanfare of publicity and the natural media focus on its performance there lay a host of detail and intelligent design.  For example it featured an airbrake that assisted braking effectiveness and also brought the centre of pressure rearward to aid stability.  As the airbrake rose it opened ducts that cooled the air just when the brakes needed it most.  A lightweight, but top quality air conditioning system weighed half as much as typical units in other performance cars.  More entertainingly, in-car entertainment also received the dietary treatment and with the help of Kenwood the McLaren F1 has a bespoke 10 disc system that weighs a mere 8 kilos. It is no coincidence that McLaren’s new sports car, the 2009 MP4-12C takes these design developments as inspiration. It features an airbrake with a lightweight activation mechanism, a bespoke air-conditioning unit that reduces weight and supports segment-leading packaging, and a brand new in-car entertainment by Meridien, their first in a road car.

All around the car aircraft quality fasteners were used for durability.  The F1 was built to last - if one were to be found in a barn in 60 years time it should be relatively easy to restore. Hence there are few plastics in the cabin.  The instrument panel had stainless steel dials with hand painted numbers.  Each needle was individually machined.  The accelerator pedal is made from titanium, drilled for lightness of course.  Also each car had a discreetly hidden socket covered by an F1 badge from which engine diagnostics could be downloaded from anywhere in the world.  One story linked to this system is that of a German owner contacted about his F1 on the belief that there was a fault in the diagnostic information storage.  The system had recorded that each day the car had been driven at very high speed – reputed to be 200mph – but surely this couldn’t be true?  Sure enough the owner confirmed that he drove daily to his office enjoying the full potential of the F1’s performance on the same piece of de-restricted autobahn.

There was a price to pay for all this labour, no compromise engineering and the gold foil-lined engine bay (each F1 has about 20 metres of gold foil for the best possible thermal insulation).   The price was announced at £634,500.  But the orders rolled in and the first cars were delivered in 1994.

The call to race at Le Mans

It wasn’t long before keen drivers looked for a racing version of the F1 for the burgeoning GT series and the Le Mans 24 Hour race.  The car had not been designed to be a racer but the demand led to McLaren adapting the F1 for the rigours of long distance races.  Nine GTR versions were built with 90 kilos less weight, bigger brakes, and aerodynamic additions for the 1995 GT1 race series.  The rest is history.  The F1 GTR dominated the BPR Global GT series and in unprecedented style won an historic victory on debut at Le Mans against the lighter prototype sports cars, cars built for the sole purpose of racing.  It was a landmark both for McLaren and for Le Mans.  This was also the first time since the early 1930s that the 24 hour marathon had been won by a production model designed for road driving, rather than a racing car built with the specific intention of racing. It was also the first time that a Le Mans winner had to be detuned to enter the race – the rules required an air restrictor of a size that limited power output to 600bhp, 27bhp less than the road car.  Most impressively, this victory was not beginner’s luck:  McLaren F1s finished first, third, fourth, fifth and 13th with only one retiring due to a crash.

McLaren duly celebrated with the development of a prototype LM version and then a limited edition of five F1 LM models, one to celebrate each of the finishers at Le Mans.  It was lighter at 1062 kilos, it sported the front bodywork and splitter, in CF of course, and a rear wing and it had the most powerful version of the BMW engine ever made – 680bhp with 703 Nm of torque.  Three of the five were painted in McLaren Papaya orange in homage to Bruce McLaren’s own aspirations to make a road going supercar. 

Record breaking

In 1999 sports car racer Andy Wallace took an F1 LM to RAF Alconbury and achieved 0-100mph and back to halt in 11.5 seconds – an absolute record for a road car.  Its impressive performance credentials included a sub three second 0-60 time, 60-100 in third gear in the same time and 0-100mph in less than seven seconds.  Prior to this, in March 1998 Wallace had driven the now five year old XP5 test car at the 21 km Ehra-Lessien proving ground in Germany.  There he was independently timed at 240.1 mph – and so the McLaren F1 went into the record books as the world’s fastest production car.

Three more versions of the McLaren F1 appeared before production ceased in 1998. First was an updated version of the GTR race car in 1996 of which another nine were made. Then a long-tailed F1 GT which was intended as an homologation car for the 1997 GT series, followed by two more GTs, built for insistent existing customers. Finally the racing car known as the FI GTR (Longtail) of which a further ten examples emerged. 

With the five XP F1 prototypes, one spare F1 road car shell, and 64 production F1 road cars, a total of 107 McLaren F1 cars were built, ensuring that its rarity matches its provenance. One example was sold at auction in 2009 for a record price of £2.53 million

McLaren had at last fulfilled its ambition of making a road car.  That it managed to produce such an ‘icon’ – the media’s phrase, not McLaren’s – first time out was remarkable.   The clarity of its conception, the elegance of its design and the intelligence of its execution all ensure its place in the history of the automobile.

McLaren joins forces with Mercedes-Benz

By the end of 1998 the last of the 107 F1s left the Woking factory, but McLaren was soon working on a new road car project.  McLaren’s partner and engine supplier in Formula 1, Mercedes-Benz, wanted to build a supercar for distribution through its dealers to high net worth individuals around the world.  McLaren’s proven expertise in designing, engineering and producing the F1 convinced Mercedes that it would be the perfect partner to realize its ambition.  Although Mercedes dictated the basic architecture of the new car and supplied the engine, the engineering and production was carried out by McLaren.  The plan was not to replicate in any way what McLaren had achieved with the F1 but instead to produce a high performance Grand Touring supercar, that is to say a car possessed of superb handling and exceptional performance with the safety standards, comfort and luxury features expected of a limousine.

The SLR name revived

Mercedes showed a concept of the car, the Mercedes-Benz SLR Vision Roadster, at the 1999 Detroit Motor Show and the styling remained remarkably faithful to this first reveal.  When the dramatic shape made its world premiere as a production car at the 2003 IAA Frankfurt auto show it bore the name Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.  Two icons from the world of motor racing had wedded their names on the same car for the first time.  The SLR nomenclature stands for ‘Sport- Leicht - Rennsport’ or ‘Sport – Light – Racing’ and harks back to one of the most memorable and historic victories for the Stuttgart marque, at the 1955 Mille Miglia.  In this 1000 mile road race from Brescia to Rome and back, Stirling Moss drove single-handed and covered the distance in just over 10 hours to average almost 100mph.  Appropriately the Frankfurt launch was preceded by McLaren team drivers Kimi Räikkönen and Alex Wurz driving from Brescia to Frankfurt and right on to the IAA show stand where they were joined by fellow team driver David Coulthard.

Power and comfort

The SLR offered an abundance of characteristics that justified such a lavish motor sport feast.  At its heart is a bespoke carbon composite tub that delivered a high torsional rigidity of 30,000 NM/degree and ensured safety, integrity and a sound basis for fine handling.  The engine is a supercharged 5.4 litre AMG Mercedes V8 that produced 626bhp and no less than 780 Nm of torque from only 3,250 rpm.  It is mid-engined, but rather than behind the driver it lies ahead under a typical long sports car bonnet with side exit exhaust pipes.  The engine was sited further back in order to achieve a near perfect front to rear weight distribution of 49:51. The rear wheels are driven through an AMG Speedshift R five speed automatic gearbox and it covered the 0-62 mph sprint in 3.8 seconds, 0-125 mph in 10.6 seconds reaching a top speed of 207 mph.  Such performance makes stopping even more important and standard carbon ceramic brake discs were fitted to provide better, fade-free braking under high performance conditions.

Unlike so many other cars offering such prodigious performance, the SLR is equipped with all the benefits of Mercedes-Benz technology such as dual zone automatic air conditioning, two stage airbags, AMG Sensotronic brake-by-wire system and enough space in the boot for two sets of golf clubs or several suitcases.  Inside is a comfortable place to be with supportive leather seats and a real cocooned cockpit feeling.   McLaren brought its unique palette of technology to enhance performance and dynamic qualities.  The carbon fibre chassis is a unique innovation inasmuch as it was racing car-derived and features a separate carbon crash structure like the nose of a Formula 1 car at the front.  The weight saving over a conventional metal chassis is around 50% while its energy absorption rate is five times greater.

The aerodynamics, too, were derived from motor racing experience.  The SLR has a flat floor with a rear diffuser and airflow management that together help create downforce.  Also in the aero package is a new interpretation of the airbrake pioneered on the F1.  Not only does this feature have a positive effect on braking, it also adds downforce to the negative lift created by the under body airflow and helps to bring the centre of pressure rearwards under braking to enhance stability.  Another trademark feature is found in the SLR’s dihedral doors. 

722 Edition – Mille Miglia revisited

The SLR came with a price tag of £315,000, but this did not deter eager owners asking for a roadster version.   Before that reached the market it was decided to produce a limited edition of the coupé named the 722 edition.  The number 722 signified the number with which Sir Stirling Moss won his historic Mille Miglia victory because he started at 7.22 in the morning.  Some customers asked for an even more focused sporting SLR and this resulted in uprated, stiffer suspension, a reduction in ride height by ten millimetres, larger carbon ceramic brakes, new 19 inch forged wheels that saved 10 pounds in unsprung weight, a modified front spoiler with a splitter that increased front  axle downforce by 128%,  and a new diffuser.  Inside were new, more grippy leather seats, a new steering wheel and gearshift paddles as well as detailing throughout the car.  Mercedes-Benz introduced an uprated version of the V8 AMG engine that produced 650 bhp and more torque.  Weight was reduced by 44 kilos.  These substantial modifications made an already blindingly quick car yet faster.  The top speed increased to 210.6 mph, 0-62 and 0-125 mph acceleration times fell to 3.6 and 10.2 seconds respectively while the 0-186mph sprint is reached in a breathtaking 28 seconds.  A limited run of 150 examples of the 722 were made in 2006.

The SLR Roadster

Mercedes-Benz then challenged McLaren to design a roadster in record time. McLaren beat that target and the long-awaited SLR Roadster was launched in May 2007.  It offered fundamentally the same specification as the SLR Coupe and used all the same mechanicals. For the same high levels of safety, integrity and handling poise the carbon composite monocoque had to be re-engineered, which subsequently maintained the light weight advantages and the same rigidity as the coupé.  The A-pillars were reinforced and two roll over hoops added behind the seats.   The electrically-operated soft top was a product of Mercedes-Benz experience but had to be proven weatherproof at 200mph.  The hood opens and closes in just ten seconds.  It was immediately popular.  Inevitably, there was demand for a 722 edition and it duly arrived in 2008 in a limited edition run of 150 examples.

The SLR swansong

The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren story ends with a final special edition – a very special car – the SLR Stirling Moss.  This will be the final incarnation of the SLR project which ends production at the McLaren Technology Centre in December 2009. Only 75 of these roadster models will be made at a price of 750,000 Euros. The car is absolutely unique in its design and all 75 were immediately ordered by existing SLR owners. The body is entirely different to other SLRs with a low sleek nose, a speedster style cabin with neither roof nor windows and twin aero headrests that taper to the rear of the boot.  The headrests also have strong roll hoops above for rollover safety and are strongly reminiscent of the headrests on the 1955 Mille Miglia winner.  The Stirling Moss edition harks back to a bygone era and weighs in some 200 kilos lighter than the SLR Roadster.  This is enough to give it a 0-60mph time of 3.5 seconds and a top speed of 217mph.

The next big step

McLaren has come a long way with the two road car projects it has undertaken over the last two decades.  With the McLaren F1 it created a low volume exotic sports car that broke new ground in many ways, most noticeably in the use of carbon composite technology for the whole vehicle.  In other ways it proved that McLaren possessed the capability and ambition to develop not just a road car but a world-beating performance car.

The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, on the other hand, has given McLaren the opportunity not only to engineer and develop a high performance sports car for one of the world’s most dedicated makers of luxury cars, but also to develop further the art of making carbon fibre based cars in much higher volume.  From a maximum of three a month with the F1, McLaren has developed the capability to make up to four cars a day and over the life of the SLR a sales total of 2114 (2039 SLRs; 75 Stirling Moss SLRs), double that of the next most successful car in its segment. All in an environment in which it has been able to match and exceed the quality standards set by its illustrious partner.

McLaren has developed the technology, applied large scale production techniques and quality standards to a hand-built production philosophy...and perhaps most significantly it has placed customer satisfaction at the head of its priorities.

The next chapter in the McLaren road car story is about to unfold...

Notes to Editors

McLaren F1 production numbers: 64 F1 road cars; 5 XP prototypes; 18 GTR race cars; 10 GTR Longtail race cars; 6 F1 LMs (5 production; 1 prototype for homologation); 3 Longtail F1 GT models (2 customer cars; 1 for homologation); 1 F1 road car bodyshell