In 1994 Autocar road tested the fastest and most extreme road car ever built. Here is the definitive verdict on the McLaren F1

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"What you are about to read is not simply the fastest road test in history. It is, in all likelihood, the fastest road test there will ever be.

"Until we strapped our equipment to the McLaren F1 no one knew how fast it would go. Now we know it all, because we have driven it beyond 210mph, timed it to the last hundredth of a second. And here it stops.

Find a strip of Tarmac long enough and it will power you to 230mph – and beyond

"McLaren will never release another of its amazing £540,000 supercars for road testing to anyone, anywhere in the world."

Those were the words that introduced Autocar's review of the McLaren F1 in 1994. To this day, it remains the definitive road test of the most iconic British supercar of all time. 

It was such a hammer blow that it took McLaren 21 years to produce a supercar capable of coming close to the F1.

In May 1994 we took the fifth McLaren prototype, codenamed XP5, to two proving grounds – Millbrook and Bruntingthorpe – to attempt to generate a full set of performance figures. That same car was driven, four years later, by Andy Wallace at Ehra-Lessien in Germany to record a world record-breaking 243mph.

Here, we republish that original Autocar road test from May 1994. It must be noted that the F1 was superceded by the limited-run hybrid P1 and lost its performance title to firstly the Bugatti Veyron and most recently the Bugatti Chiron.

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McLaren F1 dihedral doors

The McLaren F1 is powered by a 6.1-litre, four-cam, 48-valve 60deg V12 engine, designed and built by BMW Motorsport. It produces 627bhp at 7400rpm and more than 479lb ft of torque all the way from 4000 to 7000rpm. This combines with the F1’s 1138kg kerb weight to give a power-to-weight ratio of 550bhp per tonne.

Unlike any other production road car (save Gordon Murray’s other baby, the Light Car Company’s Rocket), the F1 has a central driving position. You sit far forward in the car with a passenger seat on either side and some distance behind. Luggage is carried in two carpeted compartments, one on either side of the car, behind the passenger seats.

McLaren will paint an F1 in any shade a customer desires. Standard colours include Magnesium (silver), International (grey), Silverstone (green), Grand Prix (red), Black 235 and carbon

The dihedral doors flip upwards rather than outwards and as you take your position behind the wheel you see that you are sitting in a carbonfibre channel to remind you that the car’s composite construction is unique among road cars. 

As you will see from the performance statistics, it has no real rival.

A £238,000 Bugatti EB110 GT is a fine car and less than half the price of the McLaren, but it will not even allow you a glimpse at the world of the F1. Spending £403,000 on a Jaguar XJ220 buys performance that is monstrous. But you could drive one for a year and never know what it is like to visit the places the £540,000 McLaren will take you on the slightest piece of straight open road

Each F1 takes three and a half months to build; large luxury saloons can be mass-produced in little more than a day. Thanks to its carbonfibre construction, it possesses a sense of indomitable strength and McLaren has also paid much attention to the all-important details such as the way the doors close, the stitching of the leather and the exorcism of all rough edges. 

The exterior paintwork is as good as it ought to be given the car’s price. The quality of the carpeting and leather trim set similarly high standards. The F1’s safety comes from its almost unparalleled ability to get out of trouble before it takes its toll, surrounding you at the same time with a Formula 1-style carbonfibre safety shell and a four-point harness. Fashionable modern safety features such as airbags are unavailable.


McLaren F1 dashboard

There is the stuff of genius in this cabin, no question about it. The McLaren F1 has a driving position, for instance, that is without rival. For a start, those over 6ft will find driving a Bugatti or XJ220 largely a matter of contortion, whereas the F1 will come as revelation

All heights up to 6ft 4in fit perfectly, with ample head and legroom. Because the driving position is central, there is no pedal offset, no wheelarch to negotiate. And the positioning of the pedals, the rake of the steering wheel and its location relative to the gear lever are as close to perfection you’ll find. 

Luggage is stowed in side compartments in front of rear wheels. Space is generous by supercar standards, and custom-made leather suitcases make the most of it

The pedals and wheel position can be adjusted, but only by the factory who will tailor the car to its driver before delivery. Thereafter, apart from fore/aft seat travel, the driving position is fixed.

But for one reservation, the F1’s cabin ergonomics work well. The instruments, beautiful, clear and individual, are a delight; a change-up light in the rev counter that flickers on at 7500rpm is especially pleasing. That instrument sits in front of you with the smaller, 240mph speedometer displaced to your right. 

In the left-hand cluster are dials for fuel level, water and oil temperature but, oddly, not oil pressure. This is regarded as information that’s only required if there’s a problem and is dealt with, like all other fault-finding functions, via a warning light and an LCD readout. 

Our reservation concerns the minor controls, laid out in banks either side of your legs. They deal predominately with the modest air conditioning and incredible Kenwood CD player. These switches are too far from your line of sight for comfort. 

Rearward visibility is also a problem. Two interior mirrors provide some but ultimately insufficient detail of what is directly behind the car, while the usefulness of the exterior mirrors is compromised by the A-pillar, which cuts off much of the view they would otherwise give. Worse, if you have tall passengers on board, the interior mirrors are close to useless. Reversing the F1 without external guidance can be a heart-in-mouth affair

The McLaren will sit three in comfort while swallowing enough luggage to make the eyes of a driver of the physically larger F40, XJ220 or Bugatti pop out. Because you rarely travel three-up anyway, the spare seat becomes useful auxiliary stowage space.

In packaging terms, it is an utter triumph. That said, there are some problems. The driver cannot close the doors without undoing the four-point safety harness and those of a fuller frame will find getting in and out neither easy nor dignified. Heat soak from the engine warms your luggage and, to a lesser extent, your passengers as they sit alongside you in their surprisingly comfortable seats.

The driver, sitting forward in one of the most supportive and just plain comfortable seats we’ve come across, remains cool. 

The McLaren is not an especially quiet car at motorway speeds. Surprisingly, perhaps, the engine is the least dominant sound source in the cabin, with wind and tyres vying for that title. What’s more, the driver hears a lot less than the passengers, for whom the noise on a long motorway haul will eventually become a little tiresome. 


McLaren F1 getting air

You pick your moments with the McLaren F1. To drive it safely on British roads, with consideration to other road users, requires considerable mental discipline. You have to accept that, save on empty autobahns, there is no way you will sample the F1’s performance potential safely and legally on a public highway. The truth is that, even for drivers of exceptional experience and skill, driving the McLaren fast in public is an exercise in restraint

For this is a car that can exit a curve at 60mph onto a straight and, just 11.4sec later, be travelling at 160mph. This is a car that will accelerate from 100 to 200mph considerably faster than most quick cars will reach 100mph from a standstill. This is a car which, unless driven with a cool head, could land you in greater trouble than you could imagine. As we said, you pick your moments.

Engine produces 627bhp and 479lb ft of torque with the roar of a Le Mans racer, yet it is docile enough to perform sweetly for the most inexperienced of drivers.

Happily, though, it is a car that is both simple and enjoyable to drive slowly. The engine, despite having a specific output of 103bhp per litre, the highest of any normally aspirated production engine, uses its capacity and variable valve timing to summon huge chunks of torque from idle onwards.

The clutch is a little lighter that you’d expect given the power it must transmit, and it bites gently. The engine has no flywheel so the revs don’t so much fall as vanish when you lift your right foot, but so swift is the six-speed gearbox that changing gear smoothly is simple.

Threading your way through town, the F1 seems almost sedate. Behind you the V12 whirrs softly to itself, you adapt to the central driving position without thinking about it and, thanks to the F1 being no wider than a Toyota Supra, gaps are easy to negotiate. Once you reach the city limits, slot the lever into sixth and you could spend hours wandering around the lanes at 60mph and 2000rpm. But this is not what the F1 is for. 

We used two proving grounds for this test: first there was our usual visit to Millbrook in Bedfordshire to exploit the superb grippy surface that all our test cars enjoy, then we left for the Bruntingthorpe test track in Leicestershire with its two-mile runway to record the performance figures that, of all production cars in the history of the motor car, only the F1 could produce. 

Starting a world record breaking acceleration run in an F1 is easier than you’d think. There are cars with considerably less than half the F1’s power that will prove trickier. Because the engine has no turbos, just good old fashioned cubic capacity with an icing of high-tech variable valve timing, instant and reliable torque is available everywhere. You just call up about 2500rpm on the large, central rev counter and gently feed in the clutch.

If you get it right, your brain will be too preoccupied with keeping the rear tyres on the edge of wheelspin and the bark coming through the rear bulkhead to appreciate just how fast you are travelling. You’ll need to be quick with the six-speed gearbox to hook second before the engine slams into its 7500rpm limiter. But even before your left foot touches the clutch, you’ll be doing more than 60mph, just 3.2sec from rest.

And only now will you start to appreciate how fast this car is because, until now, you’ve only been using part throttle. How fast? So fast that it’s actually uncomfortable on first acquaintance. As the car shoots forward, the acceleration penetrates right through to your deepest internal organs. In second gear, the F1 added 10mph per each half second. You’ll pass 100mph in third, having been mobile for 6.3sec. The second-fastest car we have tested, Jaguar’s XJ220, asked for 7.9sec for the same measure. And still the McLaren is not in its stride. 

It does 0-120mph in 9.2sec, a decent enough 0-60mph time for a hot hatch. It will reach 150mph from rest quicker than the new Porsche 911 will reach 100mph. But the statistic to end them all is this: in sixth gear, it will cover 180-200mph in 7.6sec. A Ferrari 512 TR needs longer to do 50-70mph in fifth

Even at 200mph the F1, as sure and stable as it was at 100mph, accelerates hard. Had we enough Tarmac, we have no doubt that it would finally stop accelerating at its rev limiter in top which, taking tyre growth into account, would be somewhere the far side of 230mph. A prototype with only about 580bhp has achieved 231mph – and that on a banked circuit in 40deg C heat, both of which would serve to blunt its potential. 

Its in-gear performance is similarly stupefying. How does 60-80mph in second in 1.2sec grab you, or 90-110mph in third in just 1.7sec? Or the fact that every single 20mph increment between 30mph and 130mph in fourth is dispatched within a tenth of 2.2sec? It doesn’t slow much in fifth either, every increment between 30mph and 160mph taking 3.0sec flat or less. But it is sixth, geared to allow the car to reach beyond 230mph, that stretches belief beyond breaking point.

Our standard measure for top gear flexibility, aimed at cars with maximum speeds of about half the McLaren’s, is 50-70mph. The F1 covers the ground in 3.7sec, blitzing the next fastest production car we have tested (the TVR Griffith 500) by 1.7sec. 

For its flexibility, throttle response and power alone, this V12 would probably wrest the title of world’s best engine from the Ferrari 512 TR. But the sound it makes puts the issue beyond doubt. Smooth, subtle and, above all, quiet when you want it to be, the F1 gives everything you have ever wanted from an engine note when the throttle is opened wide

Full throttle at 60mph in sixth produces a noise closer to that of the Mustang in Bullitt, only louder. It’s a growling crackle that bores into your brain at just the glorious side of painful. Drop four gears and repeat the exercise and only those who have seen the film Le Mans or were present at endurance races in the early 70s will have any inkling of the complexity and savagery of its utterly pure V12 howl. It is the finest noise any of us here have ever heard from a production road car. 

If there is room to carp in this section, the F1’s ultra-quick gearbox attracted mild criticism from some who drove it. No one argued about the ratios which, apart from the necessarily long sixth, are stacked as close as you could wish, but many felt that a touch more weight and a shade less travel in the admittedly short-throw lever would have been more in keeping with the F1’s character

One tester also observed that, for the money, a sequential box could be expected; others preferred the convenience of skipping gears that a conventional gate and the monster torque allow. 

At a more mundane level, reverse proved unusually tricky and frequently impossible to engage without several attempts, although slotting briefly into second gear before attempting reverse did improve the situation.

We don’t quibble with the McLaren’s ultimate stopping power though even its huge ventilated discs and four-pot monobloc callipers have their work cut out reining in its power. But despite McLaren’s best efforts, we would like more feel through the pedal, which only bites hard if you tread hard. And tread hard you must because, with no servo, even mild deceleration requires twice the pedal effort of a conventional car. 

And while we admire the aims behind omitting power assistance and anti-lock brakes from the specification – weight reduction and feel retention – we think for a road car of this potential, the F1 would gain more from their presence than their deletion.


McLaren F1 hard cornering

The McLaren F1 delivers headlines as you’d expect from any top-line supercar. Double wishbones at each corner, anti-roll bars at each end and fat tyres on each wheel – unidirectional, custom-made Goodyear 235/45 section rubber at the front and 315/45s behind, in this case.

The small print, however, is different to say the least. Each of the front suspension units has its own subframe mounted to the body via compliant bushes that are 25 times stiffer radially than axially, allowing considerable longitudinal wheel compliance to aid ride quality with no loss of stability to adversly affect handling. 

Central driving position inspires complete confidence

At the rear, the lower wishbones are mounted to the gearbox, itself mounted compliantly to the body, and all suspension forces are fed through the engine/gearbox assembly to the central core of the car. There is no traction control, nor is there any assistance for the rack and pinion steering which nevertheless retains a swift 2.8 turns across its acceptably tight lock. 

Another crucial facet of the F1’s handling is its central driving position. As we shall see, this forces compromises in other areas but, from a purely dynamic point of view, it makes all symmetric cars appear flawed. The knowledge that, regardless of which way the corner turns, the apex will always be the same relative distance from you, the driver, is hugely reassuring. You find yourself placing the F1 to within inches of the apex without the slightest fear of accidentally banging a wheel rim

The car’s ultra-compact dimensions (small enough to make an XJ220 seem elephantine) and the splendid forward visibility afforded by the central driving position are the final raw ingredients. 

If we tell you that the F1 handles as well as it goes, you’ll have a good idea of the esteem in which we hold this car’s chassis. The first words from the lips of all who drove it spoke of accessibility, how mere mortals could climb into this machine for the very first time and drive it hard despite its power, despite its price. 

Although it is firmly sprung, there is body roll through corners but, as you sit in line with the roll-centre, you scarcely feel any of it. The steering, which loads up dramatically and undesirably with lock at urban crawl speeds, comes alive on proper roads. 

Grip through slow corners is not limitless, allowing you to spot a safe, open road ahead, turn towards the apex with just a whiff of understeer detectable through the steering and power slide this half-million pound car away from the apex with the abandon you might feel safe to exhibit in a small sports car that’s perhaps 30 times cheaper. 

Four factors combine to create this extraordinary state of affairs. First there is the steering: quick, lucid and as successful an example of kick-back elimination while retaining feel as we’ve experienced. Next is the on-limit behaviour. If you wish you can exploit the F1’s traction – a brief look at the acceleration figures from rest will show you how well McLaren has done here – or you can tread a little harder, feel the tail start to move, replicate that movement with the steering for as long as your right foot dictates and watch while it straightens and streaks up the road ahead. 

In the dry, there is no trace of malice in this chassis. When it’s wet, the tail, predictably, moves more swiftly, but so long as you are prepared to match that speed, the F1 will remain faithful. 

The third and fourth factors are what really splits the F1 from the likes of the Ferrari F40, Bugatti EB110 and, particularly, the XJ220. It is compact, allowing you to exploit its performance on many more roads than the others. But, crucially, it is powered by a large capacity, naturally aspirated engine, not a small, turbo unit. 

Hence throttle response is not only immediate, but also reliable. You get what you ask for when you squeeze the accelerator, something which, with the best will in the world, you cannot say about the aforementioned supercars. 

In faster bends, the F1 does the only thing a sane person could hope for on the public road. It grips. It goes beyond merely rounding curves accurately at high speed; whatever you throw at it, from an off-camber corner on a crest to a sequence of left-right sweeps creating ever-increasing g-force transference, it simply does what its told, displaying a level of adhesion we never came close to broaching anywhere but on track. 

In our experience, only the XJ220 approaches such levels of gilt-edged grip and security in its body control over the most challenging roads this country has to offer. 

The F1 is firmly sprung but, thanks in the main to the way it allows longitudinal wheel movements to absorb the shock of country road lumps, its ride quality in such conditions is wonderous. If superb poise and apparent imperviousness to most surface imperfections were the only consideration in this class, we would have awarded the McLaren the full five stars.

We’ve marked it down because it feels less composed on the motorway. It has a slightly jittery attitude to coarse and especially concrete surfaces which, while never much more than an increase in feel through the steering, contrives to be wearing after a couple of hundred miles. 


McLaren F1 1992-1998

The McLaren F1 has a fuel tank which takes 90 litres of 98 octane super-unleaded and, depending on whether you thrash the car hard across moorland roads or gently trundle down the motorway in sixth, it will return anywhere between 9mpg and 23mpg. 

We did quite a lot of both, resulting in an overall test consumption of 15.2mpg, which we geared as an excellent result for a car of the McLaren’s performance. It was achieved through the efficiency of the engine, the lightness of the car and a drag coefficient of just 0.32.

BMW dealers equipped to service M-cars will be able to perform routine servicing of the F1

Using our touring route return of 23.4mpg as a guide, it could put more than 450 miles between tanks. 

What car can cost £540,000 and still represent good value? One built to the highest technological standards from the strongest materials such as carbonfibre and titanium? One that burns one and a half man years in labour alone in the course of construction? Or one where a vast number of parts, not simply the chassis, engine, and gearbox, but even such items as the CD player and air conditioning components, were specifically built for this car, setting new standards in lightness and compactness on the way? All these things the F1 has

Certainly its value does not stem from its equipment level which, while including all the usuals like leather and air conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, also provides a titanium Facom tool kit on board, a fully equipped garage tool kit, a set of fitted luggage (with golf bag, which fits into a passenger seat), a car cover and magnesium alloy wheels.

All these together still account for a small slice of £540,000. No: if this car is good value, it stems from its ability to provide the ultimate in dynamic performance. 


5 star McLaren F1

The McLaren F1 is the finest driving machine yet built for the public road. It possesses more performance than most of the cars racing at Le Mans this year, but that is almost a side issue compared with its real achievement: that of containing such performance within a car that is without guile. A car that always inspires, never intimidates. 

Yes, it has too much performance for most public road situations but, paradoxically, it is this excess that actually provides the F1 with its justification

In the event of an emergency and failure of the on-board modem to link to the Woking factory, McLaren will immediately dispatch a mechanic, by plane if necessary

The F1 is a car which, no matter how often you drive it, no matter how skilled you are, will always be capable of showing you something undiscovered, something you didn’t believe a road car could manage.

We can see F1 drivers, after 20 years of ownership, still having their jaws felled by its abilities. And, in that time, there will be occasions where it can safely be exploited to the full and many, many more where merely nibbling at the surface of its abilities will still provide more driving inspiration than any other production car driven at maximum effort.

We are also convinced that the F1 will be remembered as one of the great events in the history of the car, one to rival the launch of the Mini and Jaguar E-type.

What you are looking at here is very possibly the fastest production road car the world will ever see, a walking, talking piece of history. But £540,000? If we had the money, we’d form a queue.