McLaren was founded 50 years ago today. The firm's rise to the very top of motor sport and supercar manufacturing has been nothing short of incredible, but how did a small firm achieve such great things?
Founded as Bruce McLaren Motor Racing in 1963 so its charismatic Kiwi founder, already a successful Formula 1 driver, could compete in the Australian Tasman Series, the company first operated from a small south London lock-up.
By the second half of the 1960s, the team was enjoying success on two fronts. In Can Am sportscar racing, McLaren and team-mate Denny Hulme dominated with cars such as the monstrous Chevrolet-powered M6A. They won every Can Am race in 1969, and their success was in no small part due to the thoroughness of McLaren's engineering and attention to detail.
The team entered Formula 1 in 1966, when Bruce McLaren left Cooper, the team with which he'd won three grands prix, to race cars bearing his own name. The first race was the Monaco Grand Prix in 1966, but McLaren's car let him down in the early stages. The first victory came when McLaren guided his Cosworth-engined M7A to success in the Belgian Grand Prix, while Hulme added two more wins later in the same season.
McLaren had arrived, but tragedy struck when the team's founder was killed in a Can Am testing accident at Goodwood. Teddy Mayer, who had been involved with the running of the team since its early days, took over as team principal and led McLaren to its first F1 constructors' title in 1974, while Emerson Fittipaldi secured the drivers' crown in the same season.
James Hunt secured further silverware for McLaren in 1976, winning the championship in the last race of a controversial and hard-fought season during which the first signs of an intense rivalry between McLaren and Ferrari began to emerge.
Despite a fairly constant stream of race wins, in the early 1980s the team was encouraged by chief sponsor Phillip Morris into a merger with the Project Four Racing concern run by a certain Ron Dennis, who was installed as team principal.
This marked the beginning of McLaren’s most successful run in the sport. The team became one of F1's pioneers and was the first to introduce composite structures into the sport. Armed with potent TAG-badged (but Porsche built) V6 turbocharged engines, McLaren scooped the drivers' title in 1984 (courtesy of Niki Lauda) and 1985-86 (thanks to Alain Prost).
A new union with Honda prompted another spell of dominance. Ayrton Senna joined Prost for the 1988 season, when the pair won 15 out of 16 races. Senna won, squeezed out Prost and established himself as McLaren's number one driver, adding world crowns in 1990 and 1991 to the one he claimed in 1988.
McLaren started a long collaboration with Mercedes in 1995. Further world titles followed for Mika Häkkinen and Lewis Hamilton – who ended a lengthy barren spell by lifting the 2008 title – but by then the company had developed into more than a racing team.
In 1993 the McLaren F1 was revealed. Designed with the aim of creating the ultimate road car, Gordon Murray’s mid-engined supercar pushed the envelope, not just in its outright performance, but also in its design and the way it was built and conceived. The first production car to use a carbonfibre monocoque, the F1 also used gold leaf as engine bay heat insulation. It was entirely designed on paper with a pen - no computers were used in producing the slippery shape - and the CD changer was specifically designed for the car by Kenwood, which made the smallest, lightest system it had ever built.
Power came from a 6.1-litre BMW V12 producing 627bhp, driving through a six-speed manual gearbox. The engine has 12 coils, providing direct ignition for each cylinder, and at 30mph in sixth you could hit 225mph without changing down.
It entered the history books as the fastest-ever production road car with a top speed of 242.95mph, a record that wasn’t beaten until 2005 when the Bugatti Veyron reached 253.81mph. And even then, it required four more cylinders, four more turbos and an extra 369bhp than the McLaren.
It took ten years for McLaren to build another road car: 2003's Mercedes-McLaren SLR. Developed in a joint venture between the two companies, the SLR was a very different animal to the F1, although most of it was made of carbon and with 617bhp its power output was very similar. The 5.4-litre supercharged V8 engine pushed the car to a top speed of 207mph and it could hit 62mph in 3.8sec, making it the world's fastest automatic production car – a record that it still holds. The SLR Roadster, which didn't arrive until 2007, matched the coupé's performance despite a weight increase.
McLaren decided to turn up the wick on the SLR with the 722 Edition, a more powerful and faster limited edition. It was also designed to address criticisms that the SLR was a bit too soft on the track — so the 722 was lowered, with stiffer damping, bigger brakes and lighter wheels to cut weight. The V8 was tinkered with by AMG to kick out 641bhp and 605lb ft and there was more downforce, too, thanks to a reworked front spoiler.
SLR production finished in 2009, but McLaren was already working on another road car project – what would become the McLaren MP4-12C. This was a completely in-house design, a car that McLaren designed to take on Ferrari, with a carbonfibre centre tub and aluminium front and rear sections hanging off it. Like the F1, much of the MP4's design was centred around funcitonality; it's front wings, for example, have their highest point directly above the tyre's contact patch to make it easier to accurately place the car at speed.
And, for the first time, McLaren commissioned its own engine for a road car. A twin turbo V8 with 592bhp and 442lb ft, it makes the MP4 ferociously fast – we recorded a 0-60mph time of 3.2sec, and that was on a wet day.
The McLaren 12C Spider appeared in 2012, and looks set to take 80 per cent of 12C sales. It gets the updated, more powerful engine (now with 616bhp) and a reworked gearbox for faster shifting.
McLaren Special Operations Division has accepted commissions for bespoke one-off creations such as the McLaren X-1, which was unveiled at the Pebble Beach Concours d’elegance in 2012. Devised by an anonymous McLaren owner and enthusiast, the car is not a concept, but a fully functional one-off based on a 12C.
And the next stage in McLaren's road car project is the McLaren P1 hypercar. Like the 12C, it is built around a carbonfibre tub but this one has a roll cage built into it, and the car's entire design is said to be more about the function of a hypercar than a styling exercise. Despite a price tag of more than £860,000, there have been no shortage of buyers interested. Indeed, McLaren says that the average purchase price is more than £1, with 80 to 90 per cent of buyers opting to customise their car in some way.
It might not be the biggest car maker in the world, but with an expanding range of wonderful supercars, it is one that has a very bright future ahead of it.
Autocar has produced digital books on the McLaren P1 hypercar as well as the F1 and 12C supercars.