Sheffield is home to the new Composites Technology Centre
The brains behind the British company explain how it has become a top sports car firm in just eight years
The remarkable thing about McLaren Automotive – if you set aside the amazingly short time it has taken to establish itself as a bona fide Ferrari rival – is how perfectly it fits the philosophy of its founder, the New Zealand-born constructor and racing driver Bruce McLaren.
McLaren died in 1970, a few weeks before he could complete his first road car, and McLaren Automotive didn’t start selling until 2011. Yet there’s an almost mystical alignment between the unabashed ambition and instinctive love of engineering of the Auckland-born racer killed at 33 while testing one of his own Can-Am sports cars and the similar ethos of the Woking-based company that, in only its eighth year, has already put 15,000 McLaren cars on the road. Those who knew Bruce say he’d have approved their every move.
McLaren Automotive’s rise is accelerating, what with 2018 production tipped to approach 4000 cars, the fifth year of profitability.
Yet road car manufacture under the famous name has definitely had its share of fits and starts. Had he lived, McLaren would undoubtedly have built some M6GT coupés in the early 1970s, crossing the road car/race car divide. But those never made it. Two decades later, with Ron Dennis at the helm, a successor company called McLaren Cars built the legendary run of 106 Gordon Murray-designed F1 hypercars. More were planned, but McLaren’s marketing people of the time simply ran out of billionaires.
McLaren Cars became dormant but the wider group kept its road car manufacturing hand in (and kept its Formula 1 engine supplier of the time, Mercedes, tolerably happy) by building the car officially known as the Mercedes-McLaren SLR at Woking between 2003 and 2008 – until Dennis’s unquenchable ambition to make road cars of his own eventually kiboshed both deals.
By the end of the decade, the plan for today’s mid-engined, Woking-built turbo V8 two-seat McLarens had surfaced, and in 2011 the very first MP4-12C models reached customers. Early cars were beset by electronic and infotainment gremlins – rapidly chased away by an incoming manufacturing guru soon to become CEO, Mike Flewitt – but the essential car was plenty good enough to bear early comparison with the Ferrari 458 Italia, the road testers’ darling of the time. In the ensuing six years, following the announcement of a three-tier model structure (Sports, Super and Ultimate Series), McLaren has already launched nine models and derivatives and promises another 12 by 2022, more than half of which will be hybrid. At least one – the Ultimate Series successor to the mighty P1 supercar – will be pure electric.
Yet a fascinating series of unknowns surrounds McLaren’s achievements; billion-pound questions, if you like. How do you start a company in one of the most failure-prone areas of industrial manufacture and make it stick? How has the company made such progress so quickly? How do you get launch customers to trust you, then find follow-on customers to sustain you through the years. What about the talent, the money, the ideas, the facilities: where does all that come from? The simple answer to seems to be that you think very deeply and plan very well. We spent a deep-dive day at Woking, talking specifics with key members of McLaren’s multi- talented executive group…
Assembling the building blocks:
Alan Foster, McLaren’s hugely experienced executive director of infrastructure projects (and former manufacturing chief), joined McLaren back in 2005 instead of going to Russia to establish yet another mass-market plant, the kind he had been setting up or running most of his working life.
He remembers the day they first started talking about moving the company from a two-a-day SLR operation to the 20-a-day production scale needed for a profitable all-McLaren future: “‘Okay, clever clogs,’ they said, ‘how do we make as many cars as we need?’ I made it pretty clear straight away that our paint shop would never cope with the new volume and that we needed much more manufacturing floor area.
“Then we had to make key decisions about what kind of manufacturing system to go for. In volume manufacture you often sacrifice technology to chase numbers, but for a new McLaren, technology had to be king.
We have a clear technology bias towards F1, and a bunch of engineers who want it that way. So our build process had to be as flexible as we could make it, to give customers the latest and best. And it work. Do you know, in nearly eight years of production, I doubt if we’ve made the same car twice.”
Foster was convinced McLaren would function best with a large number of key suppliers delivering components and sub-systems just in time. The priorities, he reckoned, were to maintain the F1 carbon fibre heritage, and to keep 100% control of design, 100% control of assembly. The idea of Ricardo, a supplier, building the engines was fine. “Engine manufacturing isn’t that difficult,” says Foster. “The hardest bit is designing them.”
Early on, Foster and his top management disagreed over the floor area the new manufacturing centre would need. Foster said 36,000 square metres, and allowed himself to be argued down to 32,000. But some in the company reckoned the right figure was 20,000, whereupon Foster dug his heels in and won. “They told me if the MPC [McLaren Production Centre] turned out to be too big, I’d be fired,” Foster grins, “but I’m still here.” This year, McLaren will make close to 4000 cars, against a maximum capacity of 5500 to 6000 units.
McLaren uses skilled human technicians to paint its cars, rather than robots, and will stick with that plan for the foreseeable future, though robot bracketry has been installed. “You only save on robots if you produce big, big numbers,” Foster explains. “And besides, really skilled painters can do things a …read more