McLaren’s Formula One History Drives It on the Streets
WOKING, England — “These are not like rational purchases,” Mike Flewitt said. “You don’t need to buy a McLaren.”
Sharing the room was a sculptural, blue McLaren 570S Spider convertible. Scary fast with a top speed of 204 miles an hour, it is cheap for a McLaren, starting at 164,750 pounds — about $230,000.
“A car like this is just an indulgence,” said Mr. Flewitt, who is the chief executive of McLaren Automotive. “It is a luxury.”
Mr. Flewitt, a former Ford executive, is leading McLaren’s bid to make the company a force at the very top end of the car market. The company can trace its origins back more than five decades to the race driver and car designer Bruce McLaren, who made his name on circuits like Formula One. By marrying the pedigree and technology of racing machines to what are (at least nominally) street cars, McLaren aims to win the sort of customers who can afford any car they like.
The formula has won McLaren a following. The company sold more than 3,300 cars last year, the best year in its history. Mr. Flewitt recently added a second shift at the factory, where the cars are hand-assembled, to keep up with its growing orders.
“They are extremely good drivers’ cars,” said Simon Evans, a technology entrepreneur who owns five McLarens and has a sixth on order. Mr. Evans, who lives near Reading, west of London, said he chose which car to take depending on his route. The McLarens, he said, are not only fast around a racetrack but “a pleasant place to be” for ordinary driving.
His McLarens are equally at home cruising highways and shuttling into the office. At the same time, Mr. Evans said, driving the cars on more interesting roads with hills and hairpin turns s “hugely rewarding.”
“What you find is that you are able to carry lots of speed into corners,” he said. “It is very, very possible to have fun in the legal speed limits.”
The connection between racing and road vehicles has a long history. Ferrari, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, Bugatti and others can point to a proud racing heritage.
McLaren Automotive is distinct from the McLaren racing team, but both are owned by the McLaren Group. The relationship is hard to miss at the group’s lavish headquarters here in a London suburb. Racing machines from years past line a soaring interior boulevard overlooking an artificial lake. Amanda McLaren, a “brand ambassador” for the company, noted that the only car on display that McLaren hadn’t made is a 1929 Austin Ulster that Mr. McLaren, her father, raced when he was 15.
Although the family no longer has equity in the company, Ms. McLaren said her father had planned to someday build street cars before he was killed in a crash at Goodwood, a well-known British track, in 1970. He even built a prototype, the M6GT — “basically a racecar with a roof and number plates,” she said.
McLaren’s design engineering chief, Dan Parry-Williams, said that with both the company’s Formula One and road car designers on the same site, “it is not very hard to pick up the kind of D.N.A. that comes from racing.”
McLaren’s road cars, for instance, are increasingly built of expensive carbon fiber, a material it first used for racing, to give them lightness as well as strength that among other things protects the driver in a crash. McLaren’s road models also use aerodynamic techniques first developed in racing, like wings or spoilers placed in the rear to create down force to help the car stay planted on the road.
McLaren’s new Senna — a £750,000 hypercar named for Ayrton Senna, who won three Formula One titles driving for McLaren — is track worthy but street legal. The aerodynamic features of the Senna even go beyond what is allowed in racing, Mr. Parry-Williams said, with adjustable blades on the front end to complement the wing on the rear.
McLaren says it will make only 500 examples of the Senna. It is an aggressive-looking vehicle with a large air intake snorkel on top along with the huge back fin. Top speed: 211 m.p.h. With only enough storage space for two helmets and two racing suits, “it is not really the ideal thing to go and buy your furniture in,” Mr. Parry-Williams said.
Technologies developed for these high-priced vehicles are rolled out to other cars in McLaren’s line. For instance, the Senna’s predecessor, the P1, which was introduced in 2013, used an electric motor coupled to a gasoline engine to improve the car’s performance as well as reduce emissions. While McLaren is not currently making a hybrid vehicle, the company says hybrid engines will power half of its vehicles by 2022.
The 500 Sennas that McLaren plans to make are already sold out to buyers like Mr. Evans. He said that he had once owned a Ferrari but sold it after he found that he was using it a lot less than the McLaren he owned at the time, which did “everything at least as good or better.”
Yet McLaren has some way to go before it catches up with Ferrari, the company that Mr. Flewitt considers his main competitor. The Italian company with the bucking horse logo sold more than twice as many cars as McLaren — about 8,400 — last year.
McLaren’s customers may be genteel, but it has entered itself in a cutthroat race, analysts say. Mr. Flewitt may be able to charge almost unlimited prices for his cars, but he needs to put whatever money he makes back into new models and other investment.
“In the past, models from very specialist manufacturers could stay in production for 15 years,” said Peter Wells, a professor of automotive studies at Cardiff University. “That is not the case anymore.”
Mr. Wells said McLaren needed to sell more cars to make more money to pursue new markets like China, where the company’s sales are growing. They are “trailing Ferrari on that kind of track,” he said. McLaren is also lagging Ferrari in the prestigious Formula One competition, where Ferrari is a perennial contender. McLaren’s top driver, Fernando Alonso, finished 15th in last year’s championship.
Yet McLaren doesn’t strike a visitor as being short of cash. The headquarters, which also house an applied technology unit, are a sunlit, crescent-shaped structure that almost seems to float in the lake. The factory floor gleams with spotless white tiles. Unlike most car plants, where assembly lines also produce a din, this one is eerily quiet because McLaren’s vehicles are assembled by hand.
Experts say Britain is one of the better locations for designing and building these cars. Many of the Formula One racing teams are based here, and there is a deep pool of designers and engineers who relish the opportunity to work on the most expensive and prestigious vehicles.
Mr. Flewitt said the company’s small group of shareholders, who are led by Mumtalakat, the sovereign wealth fund of Bahrain, have bought into a strategy of forgoing dividends and reinvesting profits into increasing the company’s value. Last year, McLaren had revenues of about £650 million and invested £140 million in new models and the capability to manufacture carbon fiber chassis in Sheffield, in central England.
Yet Mr. Flewitt acknowledged the intensity of the pressure to keep customers convinced that the machines McLaren made, no matter how superlative, were worth buying.
“When it is no longer new and exciting, somebody else will be doing something new and exciting,” he said, “and they will be taking the market.”