McLaren unveiled its first sports car, the 570S Coupe, at the New York Motor Show. It is intended as a competitor for the Audi R8, the Porsche 911, and the Ferrari California — roadsters meant to be driven on actual roads, not tracks. It will retail for an estimated $180,000, (R2 172 276) which is a pretty penny but a far cry from the $349,500 (R4 525 575) 675LT supercar they unveiled a month ago at the Geneva Motor Show. (The pricing puts it well above the Audi and Porsche but just under the comparable Ferrari.)
I got up close with the car back in January, in a single-story brick building on the outskirts of a London suburb. It was hidden in a major photography studio there, and when I entered a camera guy whispered to me, “Madonna shot her last video here.” In person, the mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive V8 coupe looks lean and curvaceous—not too different from its supercar forebears. With its carbon fibre chassis it weighs just over 1270 kgs, has 419kW and a sprint time of 3.2 seconds—fast enough to beat a Porsche 911 S by more than a second.
But the point is you don’t have to race with it; it’s OK if you just need to drive it to the grocery store. Robert Melville, McLaren’s head of design, said they’ve “taken every opportunity to increase the stowage.” The interior feels more spacious and comfortable, as well. McLaren predicts it will triple sales volume by 2020. Among racecar headquarters, and I’ve visited a few, McLaren may be the most secretive. It’s certainly the most sterile.
I drove over there after my visit with the 570S. To access its campus in Woking, England, you must pass through well-manned safety gates and long corridors locked on each end by glass tube elevators. The manicured grounds contain hiking trails and a winding driveway entrance circling a mirror pond. Security cameras abound. “We enter through white space to cleanse our mind,” a flack says as we descend a spiral staircase and walk quickly through a stark hallway. I took his word for it. Inside, workers on a pristine assembly floor follow strict hours building 1,750 McLarens a year. (By 2016 they’ll make 3,000 and eventually make 4,000 each year, says the company’s chief executive officer, Mike Flewitt).
The job is considered desirable among the locals, and for good reason: Employees get multiple cigarette, tea, and biscuit breaks each day, access to an underground pool and gym, and privileges at a company restaurant festooned with olive trees. It’s as silent as a museum—which is fitting, because the company’s chairman, Ron Dennis, commissioned his favorite Romanian artist to create glass sculptures that line the interior.
This is where they make the McLaren racecars too, through thick soundproof laboratory windows along one end of the building. But if you try to take a photo, McLaren minders jump any time your phone turns in the direction of that lab. Corporate espionage, they blame, practically glancing over their shoulder as they usher you quickly past. The secrecy is understandable.
The 52-year-old British brand is the second-oldest racing team in history, behind Ferrari. McLaren is the only team ever to win F1, Can-Am, Indy 500, and LeMans championship titles. Last year it placed fifth in F1 team standings. Not ideal. But at the end of the year McLaren-Honda announced an auspicious development, signing two of the league’s premier drivers—Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button—to drive in 2015. At any rate, Flewitt hopes the historic successes will carry over to McLaren’s production car business.
The image certainly has. McLaren Automotive produced the 12C just two years after forming and saw six-month waitlists for the 616-horsepower supercar. The first company retailer was in Hyde Park. Since then McLaren has opened 72 dealerships in 32 markets worldwide and has introduced a new model every year, including the P1. (That car sold out in 5 months flat—and none of the people who bought it even test-drove it first.) Executives say the company was comfortably profitable in 2014, though they declined to specify by how much. And they know there’s plenty of room to expand.
“In China the typical luxury sports car buyer is in their early 20s and their first car is something like a McLaren,” Flewitt told me. He expects double-digit revenue growth in 2015 with 100 total dealerships open soon after. America is McLaren’s biggest market, followed by Asia and then Europe. That’s where the 570S sportscar and 675LT supercar, the one they introduced in Geneva, come in. The latter is a 496kW monster that belongs on the track, up against the Lamborghini Huracan and the Ferrari 458 Speciale. When it goes on sale it will be the highest-powered, lightest McLaren on the market.
And these two cars are, simply put, the only way McLaren is going to grow, since unlike Lamborghini, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes—most everyone, really—the brand steadfastly refuses to build an SUV. Its bosses believe that the SUV gives a false sense of security and removes incentive to innovate across the board. “There is no product range that makes you immune to economic cycles,” Flewitt said. “We are a sports car company, pure and simple. We will never have an SUV.” If the latest treats from McLaren do as well as he hopes, he may never have to.