There are places that haunt a car buff's imagination - like England's Formula One Alley, where you can swing open a wooden door that dates back to the time of Charles Dickens and find yourself in a race car workshop, surrounded by whirring machinery, milled titanium and sculpted carbon fibre.
Here, speed is a religion, and one of the most sacred temples is McLaren, a firm that epitomizes the British high-performance ethos: For decades, it operated out of a tiny building in Woking that has been compared to the Abbey Road studio where the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper.
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As at Abbey Road, the prosaic surroundings yielded brilliant results: McLaren's workshops produced some of the most inspiring and advanced cars ever built - championship-winning Formula One racers, and of course the ultra-exotic McLaren F1, a limited production super-car that came out in the 1990s with a 400-km/h top speed and a $1-million price tag.
Yet none of this made the company a household name - unless you live in a household of racing fans or exceptionally well-informed car fanatics, you've probably never heard of McLaren. But maybe you will. After years of catering to a tiny niche market, McLaren has decided to get bigger. And they're coming to Canada - HJ Pfaff, a Toronto-area car retailer, has been selected as the flagship dealer for McLaren's entry into the domestic market. (The first McLaren is scheduled to arrive at Pfaff in less than a month.)
"We're really excited about it," says Tony Joseph, McLaren's director of North American operations. At the moment, Joseph's U.S. office has only half a dozen people in it, but that's all he needs. McLaren may be expanding, but that doesn't mean they'll be big - if things go as projected, they will be selling 5,000 street vehicles a year by 2015, putting them in approximately the same league as Ferrari. (Porsche, by comparison, sells about 75,000 vehicles a year.)
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McLaren's has designed and produced a signature vehicle for its new push into the street car market - the MP4-12C, which uses design philosophies and techniques derived from McLaren's highly successful Formula One cars. The MP4-12C is built around a tub-style carbon fibre chassis, and is powered by a 3.8-litre V-8 with twin turbochargers. The styling evokes the company's famous F1 road car, and uses the same type of double-pivoting doors - they scissor up vertically, like a Lamborghini's, but also pivot outwards, like a dragonfly's wing. (McLaren refers to them as "dihedral doors.")
They do look cool, and in this market, capturing a buyer's imagination is key. "Our customers are people who love speed and cutting-edge technology," says Joseph. "And we give it to them. We have the engineering ability."
Although it's undoubtedly exotic, the MP4-12C tones down the all-out approach that the company took with the F1 back in the 1990s. Most noticeably, the price will be lower. Although nothing has been finalized, Joseph believes the MP4-12C will have a base price of $225,000 to $250,000 - about a quarter of what the F1 cost. The new car also makes important concessions to customer demand, including conventional, two-abreast seating. This is a departure from the radical F1, which featured a three-seat setup that placed the driver in the centre of the car, with a passenger seat on either side. F1 designer Gordon Murray insisted on the unusual seating configuration for a number of reasons, including weight distribution, even though it made getting in and out of the car difficult, and killed its appeal to all but the most committed enthusiast.
The F1 was a showcase for cost-is-no-object engineering. The titanium exhaust system cost more than a Mercedes sedan. The carbon-fibre chassis tub took more than 3,000 hours of expensive, highly-skilled labour to construct. The engine compartment was lined with 24-karat gold leaf, which optimized heat reflection, and the tires were custom moulded by Michelin. Even though the F1 sold for nearly $1-million, the car was never profitable for McLaren, due to the extraordinary costs of its design and manufacture.
Only 106 F1s were built, and 100 of them are still in existence, occasionally changing hands among wealthy car buffs like actor Rowan Atkinson (best known as Mr. Bean) and designer Ralph Lauren, who reportedly paid more than $4-million for one five years ago. Although a couple of cars (including the Bugatti Veyron) have now surpassed the F1 for outright speed, many still consider the F1 the greatest all-round sports car ever built. Although a Veyron can outrun it in a straight line, for example, the F1 is far lighter, and can lap a race course (or a twisting road) far more quickly. (A team of McLaren F1s dominated the 24 Hours of Lemans race in 1995 on the car's debut outing.)
The F1 is like the supersonic Concorde airliner, a lasting monument both to an era and the company that built it. "We will never see anything like it again," one British car journalist recently declared. I think he's right. But I think the new MP4-12C may be a case where less is more.
Although I admire the brilliance of the F1's design, for example, I'd rather have the MP4-12C's conventional seating. And a lower price doesn't have to mean a cheaper car - instead, it can reflect smart decisions and much-needed economies of scale. When you build several thousand cars instead of 100, the cost goes down.
The MP4-12C is designed to retain the F1's exotic appeal, but in a more accessible package. The engine will have less power (592 hp compared to the F1's 672) but that's still a staggering figure. Porsche's brutally fast 911 Turbo, for example, has 500. And the relentless march of technology has given the new McLaren some advantages over its costly forebear - carbon ceramic brakes weren't ready when the F1 came out, but you can get them on the MP4-12C.
Joseph is confident that the new car's refinement and performance will sell it to North American driving enthusiasts. "This is a car you can take on a racetrack or drive to the supermarket," he says. "It's designed to be accessible to a wider group of customers. We wanted it to be very high-performance, yet driver-friendly."
He may be right. In the exotic car market, pedigree counts. Names like Porsche and Ferrari show the power of automotive mystique. Porsche conjures up James Dean, German precision and high-speed laps on the Nurburgring. Ferrari evokes a run through the Maranello hills on a sunny day, and elite Italian craftsmen polishing and balancing jewel-like parts before assembly.
To a car nut, the McLaren name is equally powerful, but with different flavours. To me, it says Formula One, and it speaks of England, birthplace of the industrial revolution, and still home to genius - an old wooden door swings open to reveal something shining and new.