McLaren supercars – behind the scenes at the birthplace of dreams

London // The McLaren Technology Centre, set in the leafy “stockbroker belt” outside London, is a place where British supercars are born – and, as with many a birth, grown men have cried.

As I found during a visit there for The National, on Sunday, there is plenty to stir the emotions of ardent petrol-heads at the home to the both the Bahrain-backed McLaren Automotive, and its namesake F1 team.

But it is not the line of historic Formula 1 racing cars along the building’s indoor “Boulevard”, nor the gracefully sweeping curves of the Norman Foster-designed headquarters, that drives people to tears.


Nor is it the frosted glass which, frustratingly for nosier visitors, shields workshops where new road cars and high-speed F1 racers are being developed, and gives the place the feel of a top-secret gadget lab from a James Bond movie.

It is not even the eye-watering prices of some of McLaren’s road models, which in the United Kingdom have ranged from about £126,000 (Dh615,000) to £866,000 for the recently discontinued – 350kph – P1.

It is, rather, the sight of a McLaren supercar descending from the on-site assembly line – something that has caused some of the marque’s wealthy customers, literally, to weep.

Arriving at McLaren’s glass-walled UK headquarters by taxi does not seem suitably glamorous. But given the dearth of supercars-for-hire outside the train station at nearby Woking – a busy but bleak commuter town about 40km from central London – it is an unfortunate necessity.

Invited visitors are issued electronic passes that open some doors, but certainly not all. Security is paramount, mainly due to the need to protect the industrial secrets of McLaren Racing – home of the McLaren-Honda Formula 1 team – as well as McLaren Automotive, which builds luxury sports cars for general sale, and its associated technology business.

From above, the McLaren Technology Centre resembles a giant Chinese yin-yang symbol, one side being the kidney-shaped main building, the other a lake. The taxi sweeps around the crescent-shaped lakeside road, reserved for visitors and VIPs, to the main entrance.

Here awaits Amanda McLaren, the only child of McLaren Racing’s New Zealand-born founder Bruce, who was killed in a testing accident at the UK’s Goodwood race track in 1970, when Amanda was just four years old.

As a young adult Ms McLaren worked in health care in New Zealand, with McLaren Racing moving under different ownership after her father’s death. But, decades later, after a meeting with the McLaren Automotive chief executive Mike Flewitt in 2013, Ms McLaren and her husband Stephen were offered jobs.

As a brand ambassador for McLaren Automotive, part of her role is to show customers around the centre. If they time it right – and the centre is not on “lockdown” due to new car prototypes being developed – they will get to see their own car leave the assembly line at the McLaren Production Centre next door.

“We’ve had customers cry when they first see their car. They’re so attached emotionally,” Ms McLaren tells The National.

“One guy said, ‘It was like watching my first child being born.’ The car touched the ground and he dissolved into tears.”

More tears are likely to be shed this year compared with previous years. McLaren Automotive increased its production capabilities earlier this year, adding 250 staff to its ranks, which now number about 1,750. A second shift at its Production Centre started in February, with the aim of doubling the number of cars made here daily from 10 to 20. Every single part of a McLaren road car is designed at the centre, before being manufactured off site, and shipped back for assembly.

The brand is looking to double the 1,654 cars it built last year, primarily to meet demand following the introduction of its Sports Series. That includes cheaper models such as the 570S, which has a UK list price of £143,250, making it accessible to a broader – well, slightly broader – customer base.

Many of these cars will be destined for showrooms in the Middle East – including those in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – thanks to the company’s expanded global footprint into territories traditionally dominated by longer-established rivals such as Lamborghini, Ferrari and Aston Martin.

“Six years ago we had one retailer, in Hyde Park, London. And now we’ve got over 80 retailers in 30 countries,” says Ms McLaren. She adds that the company’s order books are full, and “demand outstrips our ability to supply.”

But limited supply is of course part of any niche brand’s appeal. Due to the bumper price tags, supercar sale numbers are naturally quite low globally. About 13,590 sports cars priced at £150,000 or more are forecast to be sold this year, of which just 707 will be in the Arabian Gulf and Iran, according to IHS Automotive data.

And while McLaren’s production will increase to above 3,000 this year and “up to 4,500 to 5,000” later, that is about as high as it can go, Ms McLaren says.

“We were profitable last year at a smidgeon over 1,500 cars. So we don’t need to sell volumes,” she says. “The exclusivity of a McLaren is also appealing to our customers. And so keeping that number capped or fairly low is important.”

Analysts confirm that McLaren’s sales are on the rise – but point out that this will probably slow when the marque starts to renew its more expensive models.

“McLaren is still very much in a growth phase,” says Ian Fletcher, a principal analyst at IHS Automotive in London. “We’ll probably start to see them level out in about 2018, 2019, once they’ve finally released all the variants of the sports series and they can then go to start renewing their Super Series models like the 650S.”

For now, McLaren is launching at least one new road car model a year _ although it has ruled out producing a 4×4, a route pursued by some other luxury car makers. “We’re profitable without doing it,” says Ms McLaren. “Our expertise is in supercars. That’s what we’re good at. And our customers aren’t asking for a SUV.”

Ms McLaren, dressed in a grey suit and wearing a silver McLaren badge, sits in the company’s sleek meeting room, her eyes frequently flicking to the £154,000 (Dh750,000) McLaren 570GT, its doors raised vertically, silently rotating on a nearby platform.

The company she works for has its origins in McLaren Racing, which was established by her late father in 1963. Although Bruce McLaren intended to manufacture road cars, this dream was cut short by his death. Road cars were subsequently built under his name – notably the 64 limited edition McLaren F1 road models made between 1993 and 1998 – but McLaren Automotive was not formally launched as a stand-alone manufacturer until 2010. Part-owned by Mumtalakat, the Bahraini state holding company, McLaren Automotive is separate from its Formula 1 namesake but shares facilities at the McLaren Technology Centre, which opened in 2003.

“There is crossover between the businesses with regard to technologies and, of course, our road cars have drawn an awful lot of innovation and technology from the Formula 1 cars,” says Ms McLaren.

Like the cars produced here, the McLaren Technology Centre may look pretty but many of its design features are more functional than aesthetic. Water from the lake actually forms part of a cooling system for the wind tunnel, in which prototype F1 vehicles are tested. Other neat design details include the reduced air pressure in the staff restaurant, which means that air rushes in when the door is opened, helping to contain food smells and moisture.

Behind glass in a sunken room off the main Boulevard, the intensely focused staff work painstakingly to make parts for McLaren F1 cars by hand. There’s a “heritage” section, where old cars are fixed up, as well as a pit-stop practice area. “I say to people: ‘Don’t blink, or you will miss it,’” says Ms McLaren.

The current McLaren F1 drivers and former world champions Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso visit the centre for various reasons, such as to use the car simulator, physiological testing at the High Performance Centre, or to attend events. The F1 car area is spotless – about as far from the oily rags of a traditional car garage as you can imagine – and there are no fuel smells or engine sounds to be heard.

“It is clean for a reason,” says Ms McLaren. “You’ve got millions of pounds of car down there, so you don’t want oil dripping around.”

Opposite is a long glass cabinet with 500 or more trophies, including several won by the brand’s late founder. The positioning by the F1 car workshop is no accident: “It’s strategically placed in front of these guys to remind them what it’s all about,” says Ms McLaren.

Technology has, of course, moved on considerably since Ms McLaren’s father used to build and race cars. But Ms McLaren says “the DNA of McLaren” and its core values, such as a particular attention to detail, have not changed in the supercars it produces today.

“I wouldn’t link his name to something that I didn’t think he would believe in,” she says of her father. “I think he would take one look at this and say, ‘Good job.’”

And many of the teary-eyed supercar buyers visiting today’s high-tech McLaren HQ would seem to agree.

business@thenational.ae

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