McLaren is a renowned automaker headquartered in Woking, England. The brand builds luxury sports cars around a lightweight carbon fibre chassis tub, including the latest McLaren 750S and the Artura.
Besides making world-class supercars, the British company is well-known for its motorsports success, including in Formula One.
Here are seven major milestones that helped make McLaren the global powerhouse it is today.
Bruce McLaren Era
Born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, Bruce Leslie McLaren’s family had an auto service business, where he developed his passion for cars and racing competition.
He competed in his first race when he was 14 years old at the Muriwai Beach hillclimb. Bruce’s father, Les McLaren, was supposed to compete in the race but was hospitalized, so Bruce entered the race under his father’s name. He drove a rebuilt in-house 1929 Austin 7 #58 capable of reaching 144.8 km/h with a four-cylinder engine. Bruce won this race.
In 1963, Bruce founded the Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. and the company was heavily influenced by the country where he was born, New Zealand. In 1964, designer Michael Turner created the first McLaren logo based on the Kiwi, the national bird of New Zealand.
After three years, the “Speedy Kiwi” became the second McLaren emblem and still influences its sportscars. For example, the 2015 McLaren 570S’s dihedral doors had the Kiwi’s body shape.
The history behind the papaya orange shade began on September 3, 1967, at the Canadian-American Challenge Cup (Can-Am) season with the McLaren M6A. McLaren chose this colour due to a sponsoring company, “while others claim that it was appropriated by the team as the national racing colour of New Zealand,” McLaren says on its history page.
In Formula One, the papaya colour scheme debuted on March 17, 1968, and this year, Bruce McLaren won his first Formula One (F1) race at Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, onboard the M7A race car. After 50 years, the orange returned in the 2018 F1 season.
Bruce McLaren died at 32 years old during a test for the Can-Am season on June 2, 1970. His McLaren M8D race car had an issue with the rear bodywork and hit the barriers, killing him instantly.
Ron Dennis Era
McLaren’s trajectory continued to rise under the leadership of the official British business ambassador for the United Kingdom and commander of the British Empire’s (CBE) order for services to motorsport, Ronald “Ron” Dennis.
As McLaren’s Formula One team principal in 1980, the Dennis administration had remarkable achievements: 158 Grand Prix victories, seven World Constructors’ Championships, and 10 World Drivers’ Championships, including with Austrian Niki Lauda in 1984.
Dennis established McLaren Applied Technologies and McLaren Automotive in 2004 and 2010, respectively.
McLaren Applied Technologies concentrates on developing advanced electronic components, such as the IPG5 800V Silicon Carbide Inverter; the function is to support ultra-fast charging and “increase drivetrain efficiency allowing a reduction in battery-size for electric vehicles,” McLaren said.
After 37 years as McLaren’s chairman and chief executive, Dennis agreed to sell his McLaren Technology Group and McLaren Automotive shares.
McLaren’s legacy in motorsport, with extensive research on the latest technology and materials, inspired the design and production of world-class sports cars.
1969 McLaren M6GT
Before McLaren Cars and McLaren Automotive, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. built its first road car in 1969, the McLaren M6GT.
McLaren intended to race in the Group 4 GT series (1966–1982), with the M6’s open-top body converted into a coupe. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), however, revised the World Championship of Makes homologation process and required every car manufacturer to build at least 50 series road-legal production vehicles in 12 consecutive months, and McLaren did not have enough time to comply, so the racing project ended.
Chassis number one, registered as OBH 500H, was one of three prototype M6GTs built and belonged to Bruce McLaren, who drove it daily. At the time, the intention to construct 250 production cars ceased after Bruce’s death.
Chevrolet was the engine supplier for the McLaren M6GT, so it got 364 hp from the LT1 small-block, a top speed of 266 km/h, and could accelerate from zero to 160 km/h in eight seconds.
The M6GT remained present throughout McLaren’s history in pursuit of lightness and breaking world speed records, which inspired the 1992 McLaren F1.
1992 McLaren F1
In September 1988, the first hypercar made by McLaren Cars started to see the light through the hands of four McLaren personnel after they examined the brand’s business model: Gordon Murray, a South African-British designer of Formula One racing cars; Creighton Brown, a shareholder and director of McLaren, Mansour Ojjeh, McLaren co-owner, and Ronald “Ron” Dennis.
Murray sketched the McLaren F1’s three-seat layout at Milan’s Linate airport when he returned from the ’88 Italian Grand Prix after one of the major rival Formula One teams, Scuderia Ferrari, took a 1–2 finish.
Dennis agreed to finance Murray’s proposals for a road car, and one year later, McLaren Cars began to build its first Experimental Prototype (XP). There were two notorious McLaren F1 XP models, the XP1 and the XP5.
During the testing process in the Namibian desert in Africa, the XP1 lost control at 240 km/h, hit a gutter, and rolled over. Luckily, the carbon fibre tub chassis was intact, and the driver escaped unharmed through the broken windshield.
The collision was a complete disaster: the engine fluids met the heated exhaust and burst into uncontrollable flames. Days after, the book Driving Ambition: The Official Story of the McLaren F1 says that Dennis collected the XP1’s debris, put it in a box, and buried it in a tomb at the McLaren Technology Centre.
Not to be deterred, the McLaren F1 XP5 was driven by race driver Andy Wallace to break the world land speed record of the time, hitting a 386.4 km/h top speed in Volkswagen’s test track in Germany.
The 1992 McLaren F1 defined the meaning of driving purity, especially because there were no safety features we consider mandatory today, including ABS, traction control, and airbags.
Showing its dedication to innovation, McLaren Cars applied 24k gold foil in the McLaren F1’s engine bay as a heat shield for the 6.1L BMW V12 that developed 627 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. It was paired with a six-speed manual transmission and allowed the supercar to accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in 3.2 seconds.
The McLaren F1 became the first road car made of carbon fibre, which was cutting-edge technology from the 1981 McLaren MP4/1 Formula 1 race car.
According to McLaren, the 1992 McLaren F1 road car was never intended to be a race car. Yet, at the 63rd Le Mans endurance race on June 17 and 18, 1995, the McLaren F1 GTR #59 made history, winning the race in some of the most challenging conditions. Today, the F1 is considered the supercar that put McLaren on the map as a serious threat to established brands and remains one of the most desirable collectable cars ever from the brand.
2003 Mercedes-McLaren SLR
For the 1995 Formula 1 season, Mercedes-Benz had an engine manufacturer agreement with McLaren’s Formula One team. After three years, the McLaren-Mercedes F1 team won the Constructors’ World Championship and the World Drivers’ Champions with Finnish racing driver Mika Häkkinen.
During the partnership, McLaren and Mercedes-Benz developed a luxurious grand touring coupe: the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.
The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren was an homage to the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, and the design was a ground-breaking development. The long hood and the nose mimicked the 2003 Formula One McLaren MP4–17’s shape, and the enormous three-pointed star logo ensured everyone knew it was a Benz. The side pipe exhaust system made a remarkable rumbling engine sound, and a rear flap spoiler helped to maintain the SLR’s stability under braking.
The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren was powered by a handmade 5.4-litre supercharged V8 with 617 hp and 575 lb-ft of torque. Although SLR stood for Sport Light Racing and the chassis was made from carbon fibre, the SLR was heavy for a supercar, weighing 1,792 kg. Despite this, the SLR still performed well: it could accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in 3.8 seconds and hit a top speed of 334.74 km/h.
Inside, the SLR was the definition of refinement. Back then, the SLR had a powered seat with Iridium Silver Metallic on red AMG Nappa leather interior, paddle shifters, and the driver had to press the flip-top-covered button on the shift lever to fire up the V8.
The SLR sold 2,157 units, including many special edition versions.
During the SLR’s development, Mercedes-Benz and McLaren Automotive had a team conflict and couldn’t agree on the engine placement, how the V8 would sound, and the car’s weight. But the McLaren-Mercedes relationship deteriorated even further after the so-called Spygate scandal in 2007.
The Spygate scandal, also called Stepneygate, began when a former employee from Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1, Nigel Stepney, stole 780 pages of qualified technical information about the 2007 Ferrari F1 car and passed it to Mike Coughlan, who was the chief designer of McLaren F1 Team at the time.
FIA World Motor Sport Council found the Woking team guilty when it breached the sporting regulations, excluded the team from the 2007 Constructors’ Championship, and fined them $100 million. Mercedes-Benz had a 40 per cent stake in McLaren, so the German company had to pay its share of the fine.
In 2009, Mercedes-Benz decided to supply the Constructors’ World Championship, Brawn GP. One year later, the German company took over the Brawn GP and became the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team. McLaren F1 Team still had the Mercedes-Benz engine until the end of the 2014 Formula One season.
2010 McLaren MP4-12C
The next most important vehicle in McLaren’s history was the MP4–12C. The MP4–12C, or 12C for short, stood for McLaren Project Four, a reference to the McLaren Formula 1 race car, and when Dennis merged his company, Project Four Racing, with McLaren.
The 12C had a 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 producing 592 hp and 443 lb-ft for torque paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch seamless shift gearbox (SSG). Zero to 100 km/h was achieved in just 3.1 seconds, and the supercar was capable of a top speed of 329 km/h.
Before the 12C road car began production on December 17, 2010, McLaren announced the MP4-12C GT3 with many performance-enhancing upgrades.
McLaren Special Operations (MSO) was established in August 2011 at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. MSO is a division of the brand that works with its customers to create bespoke special editions of its vehicles.
McLaren launched the 12C Spider in 2012. This convertible had the same powertrain specs but weighed 40 kg more.
2013 McLaren P1
The McLaren P1 started the brand’s super sports era and represented its most ambitious car so far. At the 2012 Paris auto show, Ron Dennis said that McLaren called it the P1 because it was short for “position one” or first place, which is an important nod to the brand’s legacy in racing.
“It captures everything that we’re about,” Dennis said. “Formula 1 heritage with form following function.”
The P1 power unit carried over just 10 per cent of the MP4–12C’s engine, with the rest being entirely new. The 3.8L twin-turbo V8’s output was boosted to 717 hp and the hybrid tech boosts came from the 2009 Formula One season, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS).
The KERS system utilized the vehicle’s kinetic energy from using the brakes and converted it into electrical energy stored in the P1’s high-voltage battery pack. The driver could redeploy the power via the Instant Power Assist System (IPAS) button on the left side of the steering wheel for an immediate power boost. This e-motor generated 176 hp, and combined, the P1 had 890 hp and 664 lb-ft.
The performance numbers were staggering: zero to 100 km/h in 2.8 seconds, zero to 300 km/h in 17 seconds, and top speed of 350 km/h.
The P1 has the Drag Reduction System (DRS), which operates a hydraulic active rear wing that deploys 300 mm out of bodywork and pitches up to 29 degrees to maximize rear downforce and generates 600 kg of downforce in Race mode.
In 2015, McLaren Automotive launched the P1 GTR. This track-focused version had 972 hp and replaced the hydraulic suspension with a fixed suspension, making it lighter by 50 kg.
McLaren had a special relationship with Brazilian racing driver and the brand’s three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna. In 2018, the automaker paid tribute to the driver with the McLaren Senna, a special edition P1 GTR that was overhauled by MSO to give it a green and yellow livery, reproducing the same colours as Senna’s signature helmet and the Brazilian flag.
What’s the Next Step?
The McLaren F1 team is still striving to regain the dominance it experienced in the ’80s and ’90s. The Woking team is currently in sixth place.
McLaren has been part of the electric off-roader series Extreme E since 2021 and announced Michael Leiters as the automaker’s new chief executive officer. Leiters was the program manager responsible for the first Porsche Cayenne. With this in mind, it’s possible that McLaren could develop a V8 hybrid or an electric SUV.
An SUV involves two main challenges that McLaren has to overcome. First is the cost of developing a specific carbon-fibre monocoque cell to manage the extra weight and off-road capabilities while still maintaining the performance expected from a McLaren.
Second, it involves adapting and reshaping an SUV design around carbon fibre. This will result in an interesting challenge if McLaren wants to keep its trademark dihedral doors.
Whatever happens, it’s clear that McLaren will continue to innovate and fascinate, pulling inspiration from its strong racing legacy as well as all the legendary people who have made their mark on the brand.