These days, new car companies rarely succeed. For every Tesla, there are 10 would-be companies that never get beyond an initial press release. Five years ago, we test drove the first model from a brand new car manufacturer, McLaren Automotive. It was a supercar named the MP4-12C and in many ways—from the confusing name to the bland design—it was a dud. The car was fast, but it was a ponderous beginning for the fledgling company. This month we flew to Rome to drive the successor to the MP4-12C: the 720S. The design is brilliant—and heart-stopping fast.
There’s nothing clumsy or slow about McLaren now. Since the unsuccessful launch of that first model, they’ve released a string of hits, including a $1+ million hypercar, a Porsche 911 Turbo competitor, and (as mentioned) the new 720S. Sales have ramped up from zero to an expected 3,900 cars this year and, by 2022, the company promises 15 new model variants.
How did the English upstart so quickly ramp up from one problematic car model to a car manufacturer that is spoken of in the same breath as Ferrari and Lamborghini? Best known for racing in Formula 1, to racing aficionados, McLaren was the tiny engineering powerhouse that regularly felled mighty Ferrari in ultra-competitive racing. And so in 2009 the company created an automotive division separate from its racing division, effectively setting it up to compete with Ferrari in the real world. (The overall umbrella company is now known as the McLaren Technology Group.)
Street cars weren’t entirely unknown to the brand. In the 1990s it had produced a single road-legal model, the F1, which is still considered one of the best exotics in the world. How hard would it be to make a whole legion of cars as good as the F1? Difficult indeed, as it turned out. The MP4-12C was an engineering marvel, using all types of technology gleaned from racing. But those innovations were hidden under a bland skin, and customers simply weren’t impressed by the carbon-fiber structure or trick hydraulic suspension. The supercar market thrives on noise and bombast, and the twin-turbo V-8 (located behind the driver, in the center of the car) wasn’t loud enough. The design failed to thrill. Driven hard in a safe environment like a racetrack, the car could nearly perform miracles, but it was clinical and cold. The company quickly abandoned the 12C for a new name and an exterior redesign. (Incidentally, it also burned a number of the brand’s earliest adopters—who suddenly owned cars that had dropped in value.)
The 650S replaced the 12C with a more outré design and tweaks to the twin-turbo V-8 engine, giving it a much bigger dose of torque and more personality. The 650S still had some issues, but the company was on an upswing. It launched and then sold out a $1.15 million hypercar called the P1, which competed directly against the $1.5 million Ferrari LaFerrari. Special (and more expensive) variations of the 650S and the P1 would follow—and also sell out.
Eventually, McLaren released a less expensive car, the 570S and 570GT, which are the equivalent to ready-to-wear collections versus the P1’s couture status. All future models will fall into one of three distinct model lines, ascending in price: the Sport Series, Super Series, and Ultimate Series. The rollout of new product at such a pace is unheard of. It normally takes carmakers at least four years to design, engineer and manufacture a brand-new car. But McLaren has leaned on skills learned during F1, where it has to create a new car and technologies every season. It uses sophisticated computer modeling and simulations allowing countless iterations of a design to be improved before a physical model is ever built. It saves tremendous amounts of time. Nonetheless, the new 720S is the first in the McLaren line to completely replace a former model, and it is illuminating in terms of where the company is going.