HERE’S A FUN FACT most people might not be aware of: McLaren Automotive, as we know it today, is younger than Tesla. Sure, legendary Kiwi Bruce McLaren might have founded the trophy-racing team in his name back in 1963, but it took another 47 years before it would take the learnings borrowed from motorsport to the road to launch a fully-fledged road car company.
As legend has it, in 1992, McLaren set its sights on creating its first-ever production car, the iconic, and still-referenced to this day as one of the most incredible supercars ever produced, the McLaren F1. It was not until eight years later when former owner, CEO and automotive titan, Ron Dennis, decided to introduce a new focus on road-ready production supercars, and the division was created. Through integrating Formula 1 materials and applied technologies, such as the carbon fibre monocoque and electric-hybrid powertrain, the company made waves with the debut of its second poster car in 2012: the epic McLaren P1 hypercar. And the rest is history.
McLaren has many long-winded and thrilling tales of Formula 1 domination, innovative engineering, perfection-seeking and historic storytelling under its tyres. Except, when other supercar makers are leaning on their past to sell their future, McLaren, oddly, is not. And in a moment in time where we’re saturated with nostalgia and lifestyle-centric marketing, which frankly, has become a repeat cliché in a world where we are now wanting to look towards a better, more equitable future, the independent British marque is the only legacy supercar maker refusing to jump on the bandwagon.
Instead, it’s leading with a futuristic outlook that echoes the type of connoisseurship and science-led focus found in other technology spaces, while still adhering to its technical DNA—it’s no wonder Apple’s Tim Cook was once in talks to purchase the marque. In a more elegant way of explaining, McLaren is also completely devoid of the brash and bolshy attitudes and signalling of other car brands that turn many people off; it has genderless appeal, possesses a lean and timeless aesthetic, and has always been rooted in technology and purity of the experience.
Having overcome many issues around ownership and financial stability over the years, McLaren has also somehow landed in a place where it’s come to embody the attitudes emerging in culture today-particularly as we tire of old stories in favour of scientific authenticity. And though it may be a high achiever in the supercar world and a very famous Formula 1 team, for many, it’s still a brand shrouded in esoteric mystery. Yet, take the temperature of the zeitgeist, and this avant-garde darling of the supercar market might just be on the cusp of having its well-earned moment in the sun.
“When we think about technology at McLaren, the technology isn’t there for technology’s sake,” explains George Biggs, McLaren Automotive’s chief sales and marketing officer. “It’s there to deliver a better performance of the car, a better driving experience, and ultimately exhilaration and enjoyment for the customer.”
Long before it was in fashion, McLaren as a group (including the motorsport, applied technologies and automotive divisions) always slated itself as a technology-first company—an ethos that dates back to Bruce McLaren’s innovative vision. You could argue that’s something found at the heart of a winning motorsport team, but beyond its racing pedigree which has spanned Formula 1, Formula E, IndyCar, Can-Am, GT3 and more, the road cars also get this treatment in how they’re spoken about, sold, engaged-with and packaged. But importantly, it’s how technology is spoken about.
The shift happening within automotive means that ‘technology’ is often synonymous with software, autonomy and driver aids, leading us to put the purity of the driving experience on the back burner in place of computer advancements. But where is the thrill in that? And as many car enthusiasts—or simply, those of us who drive for pleasure—have wondered, will the future of driving still be a pure, freeing experience? And in the wider context, if everything in our lives becomes automated by AI or driven by algorithms, what will be left for us to feel in control of? This is a thought many futurists are starting to consider—how much are we losing in the handover to convenience?
“As we move forward, it’s not necessarily all about ‘we’re a technology company’—we’re a company that uses engineering and technology to deliver that driving experience,” says Biggs, noting the sheer pursuit of excellence and precision that happens within the McLaren Technology Centre, the marque’s famed HQ in Woking, UK. “The second realisation that happens, is [understanding] the effort and time our engineers have put into delivering that product.”
Take the McLaren Artura, for example. An all-new from the ground-up hybrid supercar powered by a 3.0-litre, twin-turbocharged V6 engine with an output of 500kW/720nNm, a top speed of 330km/h, the addition of the small 7.4kWh battery allows it to not only move about in silence when needed but helps it claim a crazy fuel efficiency of 4.6L/100km—better than a modern-day hatchback. Artura has been developed with a brand new Carbon Fibre Lightweight Architecture (MCLA), giving it agility aplomb, while every element has been developed in-house by McLaren’s team of molecular material scientists, engineers, designers and powertrain geniuses, which has led to new solutions in cooling, materials and aerodynamics. In short: Artura is lean, mean and minimal; a perfect driver’s car and a pleasant, futuristic antidote to all things automated or software-defined.
While it’s easy to see why some people might buy a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, unpacking McLaren’s appeal sits within its specialness. You see, driving one of these cars is a very specific experience. Like mini spaceships on the road, McLaren’s cars unlock a childlike wonder in everyone who encounters one—on the street, there’s no little finger- wagging or road-hate that happens with other brands and people will willingly approach the car to ask about it (something that often happens with classic cars, but rarely meaty new supercars).
There are signatures and nods to engineering purity found all over: little trills made by the hydraulic pumps that have deliberately been left audible within the cabin, incredibly focused and direct steering, fantastic visibility, ergonomics that are thoughtful and considered and exposed carbon fibre that is not there for sporty aesthetics, but a weight-shedding purpose. All in all, tiny reminders of the lightweight focus and applied technologies behind the machine. And despite the mind- bending speeds at which they can bolt, there is a friendliness present rarely found in other cars of the same calibre.
“Some of our competitors will use very obvious cues that are less relevant to us,” says Biggs. “Because we don’t necessarily feel that those cues are something which adds to the driving experience.” There is passion and authenticity, but not necessarily passion in an overt way, he points out—McLaren is speaking to those who aren’t there for show. “Our customers are really into the engineering details and things that you can’t see,” he says. “They love the fact that when you’re with a McLaren product, there’s hidden details that you get further and further into, and the relationship gets stronger as you get to know the product.”
Like the carbon fibre tub that underpins Artura, for example—an incredible engineering feat borrowed from Formula 1, which also allows the brand to deliver electrification in a lightweight frame. “And you can’t you can’t see that because it’s under the skin,” says Biggs.
So if, according to Frank Sinatra, ‘You buy a Ferrari when you want to be someone, a Lamborghini when you are someone’, perhaps one buys a McLaren when they have nothing to prove? Because the poster car of the future is no longer about a projection of ego or myth, it’s about the purity of the drive itself.
This story originally appeared in the December/January 2023/2024 issue of Esquire. Subscribe here.