More than 20 years on, the McLaren F1 still stands as a hypercar benchmark. We talk to the men responsible for its creation
5 November 2013

Given that we’re discussing a car which today sells for eight times its 1993 launch price, it seems ridiculous that the remarkable McLaren F1, the 20th century’s king of supercars, should for a while have been viewed as a failure. 

When production began in 1992, McLaren declared it would make 300 F1s. But when demand petered out and work stopped a couple of years later, the tally stood at just 90 cars, including half a dozen factory racers. It looked as if Woking had dramatically overestimated the world supply of car-minded billionaires

Today, this miscalculation won’t bother those who bought an F1. 
While they paid a little over half a million pounds in the early 1990s, a car sold at auction recently raised £4.5 million – not only eight times the F1’s original asking price, but five times more than is being asked for the new P1, the F1’s spiritual successor, unveiled just a week ago in Geneva.

Twenty years ago Autocar was given privileged access to the F1’s creators, led by chief engineer and technical director Gordon Murray and designer Peter Stevens.

We featured the car six times on covers through 1992 and 1993 and also produced an 80-page special supplement. So close was our co-operation that the performance figures for our world-first road test in 1994 were adopted by McLaren as its official factory standard.

They told an astonishing tale: a top speed of 230mph-plus, 0-60mph in a shattering 3.2sec, 0-100mph in just 6.3sec and 0-150mph in 12.8sec. It was literally the fastest production road car you could buy, with the highest price.

The giant presence behind the F1 effort, McLaren chairman Ron Dennis, stayed mostly in the background, partly because he didn’t know as much as he now does about building road cars for the super-rich, but mostly because he was still heavily involved in grand prix racing. 

Even so, a large helping of credit for the car’s appearance must go to him, and to McLaren’s other money men of the time, Mansour Ojjeh and Creighton Brown, for giving the green light to a programme that inspired Murray and possibly stopped him heading to a rival grand prix team. 

Leading the company

Even then, Dennis now says, he had his eye firmly fixed on evolving McLaren into a road car company surrounded by a wider technology group, the kind of firm it has become in recent years. “I’ve wanted to lead a company making road cars for so long that I’ve forgotten when the idea first came into my mind,” says Dennis. 

When we met in his Guildford studio to talk McLaren F1, Murray insisted the car was never built to win notice for its top speed. If that had truly been the issue, he says, they wouldn’t have given it the “relaxed, tickover top gear” that went into production. 

“The F1 was born with three goals,” Murray explains. “One was to solve the problems inherent in most supercars: bad seating position, lack of visibility, terrible pedal offsets, no space to carry stuff in the cabin, poor luggage space, no decent sound system or air conditioning.

“Another was to enhance the driver’s experience. It seemed to me supercar design was being dictated by performance figures, whereas building a really great driver’s car is a much more emotional thing than figures on paper. We knew the F1 would be fast because it would be small and light, but we didn’t dwell on that.

"My original notes called for a V10 or V12 of about 450bhp; it wasn’t until my pal Paul Rosche, BMW’s top engine expert, proposed a very compact 6.0-litre V12 that we knew it would be as quick as it was.

“The third thing was to make the most of the central driving position –
to really focus on giving owners the best possible driver experience. The F1’s layout allowed us to concentrate absolutely on driver location and comfort, and it worked. We found you could move the driver about a foot forward and give him a very low cowl that gave great vision.

"You could also hide all the stray bits and pieces –
washer bottle, ventilation system and even air vents – in the nose so you were left with a pure, fighter-style cockpit, something owners still love.”

A project from out of the blue

Peter Stevens, the F1’s designer, says the project arrived out of the blue. “It turned up at just the right time,” he says. “We’d done the Lotus Elan, and at night I’d been working on the Jaguar XJR15 for Tom Walkinshaw. But when those projects ended, there wasn’t much else on the horizon. 

“One night Gordon rang and said he needed my advice on a designer for the new McLaren road car. I knew nothing about the F1 except what I’d seen in Autocar. Gordon told me they’d thought about using the Italian studios, but really wanted someone to work with them on the job. I knew Gordon socially because I’d been drafted in by Bernie Ecclestone to design graphics for some of his Brabham grand prix cars. After a few beers, I told Gordon I had just the name he needed: me. We shook hands on the deal that night.”

With a small design team, Stevens worked full time at McLaren for more than a year. Arriving at the final shape took only about three months, but before that Murray and Stevens did about nine months of packaging work – starting with a three-person seating buck – to decide exactly the proportions of a car they needed to build. “I produced half a dozen different simple front and rear ends, all to suit the same seating buck,” Stevens says.

Murray was “fanatical” about keeping weight down, and everyone knew that if you had too much car, you had too much weight. “We’d looked at the Lamborghini Countach and the Jaguar XJ220 and knew we didn’t want anything like that,” he says with typical candour.

Stevens also loved the central driving position. “It made a terrific difference to driver comfort,” he says. “It’s subtle, but getting the details right adds up to an enormous benefit in driver comfort and confidence. We also found we could place all the controls, switches and dials – not to mention big stuff like the right-hand gearchange – in exactly the right places.

"And there was another benefit: a central position lets you place the car with fantastic accuracy on the road. I can remember realising this the first time we ever rolled the mock-up around the workshop.”

Only after months of packaging and aero work did Stevens get serious about finalising the car’s shape. “The sequence was unusual, but deliberate,” he says. “We didn’t want to build something we liked too early, then have to put ‘bandages’ on it to make it fit the package. There are too many examples of designers having to force a shape over such a car.

“We didn’t do lots of scale models, but our sketches were more realistic than you’d see today. Three of our four principals – Ron, Mansour, Creighton – weren’t that used to looking at sketches that simply convey a feeling. So we showed them as exactly as possible what they would be getting.

“When the car was first revealed to the public at the 1992 Monaco GP, I got the feeling Ayrton Senna, who was driving in our team at the time, was inspired at least to some extent by it. I remember him saying he felt he had to win this race because a company that could make this car needed his best effort. Our car wasn’t the best. But he was always fantastic at Monaco, drove out of his skin and won anyway.”

An F1 driver takes the lead

Soon afterwards, another big name entered the story. Jonathan Palmer had just retired from grand prix racing and was chief test driver of the cars raced by Senna and Gerhard Berger. He was made lead development driver of the F1, then head of marketing for the car, because his credentials gave him instant credibility with the customers and no one else could demonstrate the car so well.

“I’ve got such fond memories of the F1,” Palmer says. “The 6.0-litre V12 sounded phenomenal and had instant throttle response. The official 0-100mph time was 6.3sec, but if you got bored with that, you could show off the car’s torque by doing a 0-100mph run in one gear – third – which still only took 11.0sec. Mind you, the car had some issues early on. Gordon was keen to make it comfortable, and it was soft and pointy until we did some revisions.

“I remember being at Nardo, doing high-speed testing, sitting at 200mph for 10 minutes at a time, with some BMW kid with a laptop sitting in the passenger’s seat making adjustments to the engine mapping. It’s funny how you can get used to such speed. But Nardo has a hands-off speed of 150mph, so we were cornering all the way around the five-mile lap. Once, after the passengers got out, I gave it everything there was.

"Eventually the speedo showed 237mph, which the experts worked out at a true 231. But when I lifted off, the car was all over the place. We learned a lot right there about early balance issues but went home elated by how quick and slippery the car was.

“The F1 was an awesome car. Looking back, I’m even more pleased and proud to have been involved, and I loved it at the time. Not that everything was roses; we had big issues to cope with. But what Ron and Gordon achieved seemed amazing then and it’s still amazing now.”

Autocar has produced digital books on the McLaren P1 hypercar as well as the F1 and 12C supercars.

Download the McLaren F1 digital edition.

Download the McLaren P1 digital edition.

Download the McLaren 12C digital edition.

Our Verdict

McLaren P1

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Comments
8

5 November 2013
Been driving since 1980 and can't think of a car built over that period which eclipses this one.

5 November 2013
Highlight of Peter Steven's career! I'd imagine his house has a picture of the F1 on every wall.

5 November 2013
A proper gentleman and Clubmans racer.

PBR

5 November 2013
Whether this is the greatest hypercar is open to debate. I personally think that the F40 is but the F1 isn't far behind, and in terms of design and engineering focus, purity and obsessive design, I think the F1 is unrivaled. McLaren decided to to down a different engineering route compared to the Diablo, XJ220 and EB110 and what we ended up with was a featherweight, pure, almost zero-compromise hypercar with amazing attention to detail which was also state of the art at the time. And although it had more power than its rivals of the day, but only 24bhp more than the EB110 (SuperSport), its design and engineering meant it possessed performance figures that blitzed the opposition. And daft as it sounds, but costing 'only ' £100k more than the XJ220, the F1 looked a bargain in terms of the end product and what it could achieve. And it's engineering feat is even more remarkable because to beat the F1's performance figures almost 15 years later, Bugatti produced a heavy, lumbering, not-exactly state-of-the-art car that needed what is effectively two twin-turbo 4.0 engines producing 50% more power than the F1. And it also shows a totally different direction McLaren has taken with the F1's successor which is more about technology, figures and on-paper statistics compared to the F1's ethos.

5 November 2013
[quote=Lanehogger]Whether this is the greatest hypercar is open to debate. I personally think that the F40 is but the F1 isn't far behind, and in terms of design and engineering focus, purity and obsessive design, I think the F1 is unrivaled. McLaren decided to to down a different engineering route compared to the Diablo, XJ220 and EB110 and what we ended up with was a featherweight, pure, almost zero-compromise hypercar with amazing attention to detail which was also state of the art at the time. And although it had more power than its rivals of the day, but only 24bhp more than the EB110 (SuperSport), its design and engineering meant it possessed performance figures that blitzed the opposition. And daft as it sounds, but costing 'only ' £100k more than the XJ220, the F1 looked a bargain in terms of the end product and what it could achieve. And it's engineering feat is even more remarkable because to beat the F1's performance figures almost 15 years later, Bugatti produced a heavy, lumbering, not-exactly state-of-the-art car that needed what is effectively two twin-turbo 4.0 engines producing 50% more power than the F1. And it also shows a totally different direction McLaren has taken with the F1's successor which is more about technology, figures and on-paper statistics compared to the F1's ethos.[/quote] Utter nonsense Lanehogger. As great as the F40 and F1 were, the definitive hypercar has to be the XJ220 which could also be described as the greatest. The F40 looked the part and went like stink, but it was crude and stripped out, being raw, and it was merely a lightened, stripped out evolution of the 288 GTO, itself a hypercar based on the run of the mill 208, not exactly recipes for greatest. The F1 was advanced, pure bad phenomenally quick, but it had no emotion and was similar in feel to a F40, while looking at it, it doesn't exactly exude great looks or style. The XJ220 is a thing of beauty, easily better looking than the Miura which many regard as the best looking hypercar ever. Looks alone often define a car's greatest and this is what the Jaguar has in spades, it looks gorgeous while it's clearly from the Jaguar stable, and a stable full of heritage. Unlike the F40, it's a bespoke car and unlike the F1 it exudes emotion and style. And unlike both, there were no compromises, being luxurious kitted out and refined. And it's dynamic ability was unsurpassed too, with Autocar saying it had "unrivalled chassis ability", which is still the case today. And the icing on the cake is the power and performance. It might not have the acceleration or top speed of the F1, but it is more usable and it blitzes the F40, Diablo and EB110 while producing 542bhp from only a 3.5 litre engine is exceptional. The F1 needed 6.1 litres for just for a extra 85bhp, while its V12 engine was derived from a mainstream M3's engine unlike Jaguar's V6 which was bespoke and not shared with any other Jaguar, bar it's sports-prototypes, a pure bred racing car, so basically a racing car engine in a road car which no hypercar then or since has sported. And it's engine was superior than the F1's in all respects too, as well as the F40s, EB110s and Diablo's. So, there you have it, all the ingredients that make the XJ220 the greatest hypercar made. Second place? That's got to be the XJR-15.

6 November 2013
The F1 needed 6.1 litres for just for a extra 85bhp, while its V12 engine was derived from a mainstream M3's engine unlike Jaguar's V6 which was bespoke and not shared with any other Jaguar, bar it's sports-prototypes, a pure bred racing car, so basically a racing car engine in a road car which no hypercar then or since has sported. First of all the F1 has a N/A engine so you cannot realistically compare it to a blown unit. Secondly the V12 in the F1 is a dedicated engine project by BMW's M division and shares no parts with an M3. Thirdly Jaguar promised customers that their car would have a bespoke V12 and when they ran out of budget they picked the engine from the Patrick Head designed Metro 6R4 rally car and whacked two turbos on it to get the numbers. XJ220 is more of a parts bin special made to work in comparison to the exquisite and beautiful F1. Oh and the XJ220 had the worst brakes out and a windscreen wiper that would not stay on the windscreen above 300km.

6 November 2013
XJ220 was comprimised in many places it never achieved it's halo goal of 220mph. To call it luxurious on interior is bit far fetched. I've seen garden sheds with more luxurious deck chairs. I wouldnt say the XJ220 was a thing of beauty but looks are completely subjective, but it was a prettier thing than the F40 and F1.For looks of that generation of supercar I think I would hold the candle to the EB110. The veyron was the only closest thing to a no comprimise project of the F1. Both had different stratetgic goals, but both made hyper fast cars in the process.

26 November 2013
Would-be buyers literally turned away in droves when it went on sale. People who had paid huge deposits for cars surrendered the money rather than own the car. The company even considered suing people who had paid deposits and wouldn't complete the purchase. Buyers were promised 4WD and got RWD Buyers were promised a V12 and got a V6 - from a Metro. ...and even now I'm not sure a low mileage example has earned back its purchase price. Yes, that's definitely a recipe for the world's greatest something or other and the fact that prices for used F1s and 288GTOs - to name just two - have gone up and up and up must just be some kind of weird statistical anomaly.

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