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.