Mike Flewitt, McLaren Automotive CEO and true car guy, is evolving the brand. We spend a day with him
Steve Cropley Autocar
10 November 2015

In another life, Mike Flewitt, boss of McLaren Automotive, helped to dismantle a large part of Britain’s car manufacturing industry.

In his previous job as Ford’s vice-president of manufacturing, he came to believe making small cars in the UK would never be viable and helped to take the decision to end it. “I didn’t enjoy it,” he says of terminating car manufacturing in Dagenham, “but I knew it had to happen.”

Life is different now. Flewitt loved his time at Ford – and prior stints at TWR and Rolls-Royce – but building a new family of McLarens is a better gig. Things are going well, too. Drafted in as COO halfway through 2012 to fix problems with the 12C (“a brilliant base car whose details weren’t where they should be”), Flewitt became CEO after a year.   

Last year McLaren Automotive sold 1649 cars (up 18%) and posted its second consecutive profit, a fine performance for a company just four years old. So far this year McLaren has launched a pair of volume-boosting Sports Series models, the 540C and 570S, and revealed a limited-edition, extra-performance 675 LT (for Long Tail).

Another notable indicator of progress, though, has come from the coterie of well-heeled supercar owners who keep broadcasting how much Flewitt has done to turn austere, secretive McLaren into a customer-focused concern with an open house – which is one reason why, on a Tuesday morning, I’m in our 8000-mile 650S, heading for Silverstone.

8.00am - The mission is to meet Flewitt at one of the ‘Pure McLaren’ track days staged regularly for prospective customers and existing owners who want to drive better. This one is a three-day production. Flewitt came yesterday and will be here tomorrow. I’ll spend the morning here and then accompany him and his wife to London to attend a dinner in the New Zealand embassy to welcome a new Auckland University project to invoke the name of Bruce McLaren to inspire young Kiwi innovators. 

Our Verdict

McLaren 570S

Is this a genuine supercar slayer for top-rank sports car money, and can it see off rivals from Porsche, Audi and Aston Martin in the process?

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8.30am - Fretting about slow traffic but marvelling at the McLaren’s limo-like ride. In the 650S, there’s a complete disconnect between its pliant bump absorption and its near-perfect body control. The steering, hydraulically power assisted, feels more ‘natural’ than the unassisted system in my Lotus Elise at home. As you drive, you can feel how many engineer-hours have gone into this

9.45am - Silverstone at last. “Are you Steve?” asks a cheerful McLaren-liveried bloke in the paddock, finding my name on his list. Another McLaren pulls alongside and its occupant gets the same brand of brisk friendliness. We’re directed to an inspection station where technicians check our tyres, do a visual check and clean our screens. Then we’re directed to park in one of the pit garages normally occupied by Formula 1 drivers.

9.55am - Over the partition in the bay next door, things aren’t as I expect. This is no garage. McLaren’s event organisers have transformed the place into a spacious, modern lounge area with comfortable sofas, armchairs, tables, video screens, bars, drinks and nibbles.

There are desks with screens that help you examine the telemetry traces from your own driving (everyone gets expert help to compare his or her performance with a well-driven example) and there’s even a sit-in driving game offering the chance to ‘Beat Bruno’. The second Senna, now on McLaren’s team, is on hand to drive and mingle.

10.15am - Flewitt has been here for a couple of hours, but everyone wants a piece of him. He has driven early and still wears his race suit. His slim build and medium height make him one of an exceptionally small number of car company bosses who look good in racing gear.

Small wonder: for Flewitt, racing is a weekend hobby. He shares a classic Lotus Elan with his Swedish wife, Mia, a former Volvo engineer whom he met when both worked on the TWR-Volvo Autonova joint venture. She’s retired now. Her last engineering project was the first-generation Renault Clio V6, created by TWR.

Mia comes to these events for two reasons: she is exceptionally handy behind the wheel and “just loves” driving the 675 LT, plus her presence always improves the ambience for women who might otherwise feel uncomfortable at events like this.

11.00am - Flewitt and I are supposed to be talking, but it’s almost more fun watching him at work. He sees the job as meeting, chatting, driving, explaining, confiding – but never selling.

He explains: “We do these days for prospective customers and for existing owners who won’t yet have seen the 570S or the 675 LT. They come strictly because they want to. Nobody needs a McLaren, but events like these enthuse customers. We promote the experience of driving fast – responsibly – but there’s no macho atmosphere and no arrogance. We do things professionally, but that doesn’t mean they have to be formal or overly competitive.”

11.30am - Something I say suggests these events are local to McLaren. Flewitt makes it clear how wrong this is. They’ve done Spa and the Nürburgring, of course, and there’ll be a Barcelona event soon. But the Middle Eastern F1 circuits are becoming popular, and Flewitt tells me of an extraordinary event in China where 30 of the 38 P1s sold to Chinese owners turned up. 

11.40am - There’s a shattering roar as chief test driver Chris Goodwin fires up his 1966 McLaren M1B, brought along as a live exhibit. The Pure McLaren days tend to feature unusual, inspirational exhibits. Not long ago, a member of this community brought his ex-Mika Häkkinen F1 car.

Goodwin plans to race his M1B at Goodwood in a few days’ time, so a shakedown is handy. It is McLaren’s first-ever CanAm car, beaten to the title by John Surtees in a Lola T70. Later CanAm McLarens would dominate so much that the competition would become ‘The Bruce and Denny Show’ – and then in 1970, one of them would claim Bruce McLaren’s life.

12.00pm - Time for lunch. Mike and Mia Flewitt, Senna, Goodwin and all the driver coaches sit among us punters, sharing talk of the morning’s excitement plus a nice but unpretentious buffet. One bloke, the former owner of a Porsche Carrera GT, talks of testing the 918 Spyder and not liking it, so he bought a P1. Which is why he’s here. Like me, this man has two arms, two eyes and parts his hair on the left; why can’t we have similar buying power?

1.30pm - I’m delighted to become Flewitt’s excuse for a few laps in the 675 LT. He strokes the car around at chastening speed, feeding the loads in and out rather than banging the car about. It doesn’t need it, he says.

Flewitt seems totally on top of the car to me, but he cheerfully concedes “real ability” to his wife, who has discovered a rare skill at conducting 675bhp supercars. We get into an esoteric discussion about whether this one is better with its aero bits deployed or not. With them working, it’s stable but feels rather heavy. If you don’t use them, it’s lighter at the rear and more adjustable, which is the way, I divine, good drivers prefer it.

3pm-6.30pm - We take Flewitt’s personal BMW M5 to a nearby hotel to don clothing suitable for an embassy reception, and then set out, the three of us, into central London in the back of a Volkswagen Transporter. The traffic is awful, but we still arrive at New Zealand House in plenty of time to view the famous McLaren ‘father and son’ Austin Seven special parked in the foyer and be conveyed to the top-floor penthouse, with its commanding views.

8pm-10.30pm - I feel honoured to join a gathering of about 80 people that includes Bruce McLaren’s widow, his sister and a group of devoted friends. We are given a fine meal and listen to affectionate speeches – from ambassador Sir Lockwood Smith, Flewitt, a representative of Auckland University and Bruce’s old friend and racing associate, Howden Ganley.

Everyone’s theme is the same: the more you knew of Bruce, the modest leader, the greater he seemed as a driver, engineer and person. To a room full of venerable people, Bruce’s death at 32 is very sobering – notwithstanding his comment about life being “measured in achievement, not years alone”. I wander quietly home through London’s streets, but there’s no such relaxation for the Flewitts. They’re into the minivan again, due at Silverstone tomorrow. The demands of the customers will start early.

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