In the early 1990s, McLaren set out to build the ultimate road car. Their achievement, in the F1, may well be the greatest car ever built.
Superlatives fail to capture the unprecedented levels of painstaking detail, precision, and power that define the McLaren F1. The car is spoken of in hushed tones of reverence and awe nearly thirty years after its initial debut. Even among those accustomed to the otherworldly performance of modern supercars, the McLaren F1 represents the pinnacle of automotive engineering and remains no less than the greatest car ever built. We dig into the design and history of the F1 to discover what made it so revolutionary, how it changed our idea of what constitutes a “supercar,” and why it retains a special place in the imaginations of the automotively obsessed.
Though McLaren had seen great success in the realm of Formula 1 racing, the F1 would be the company’s first road car. The aim was a showcase of all the lessons learned from their racing experience distilled into the purest sports car ever made. There would be no ABS, no traction control, no power steering, no buffer (or safety net) between driver and machine. There also wouldn’t be any expenses spared. In 1992, Chief Engineer Gordon Murry was given free rein to build the greatest car he and his team could conceive of, and in large part they did just that.
Colin Chapman of Lotus is perhaps best remembered for his design philosophy of “simplify, then add lightness.” When designing the F1, Murry was all too happy to follow the second half of Chapman’s dictum while eschewing the first half. Instead of simplifying, Murry and his team at McLaren embraced the most innovative techniques and designs in the industry when conceiving the F1. The product of their efforts broke new ground and influenced a whole generation of supercars to come.
Murry did, however, “add lightness” to the F1, employing a carbon fiber monocoque design; the first ever in a road-going car. The chassis was a major undertaking, requiring a total of 3,000-man hours apiece to build. The space-age chassis was just the beginning of the extremes McLaren went to in their pursuit of lightness. In addition to the carbon fiber, they used an entire array of lightweight materials including titanium, magnesium, and Kevlar. They had the Kenwood stereo and CD changer custom built to save weight. Even the car’s tool kit had to be slimmed down; it too was titanium. The F1 ended up weighing in at trim 2,579lbs., just a hundred pounds more than a modern Miata.
Perhaps the best known of the F1’s innovations was the use of a central driver’s seat, flanked by two rear seats. This central position greatly increased visibility and allowed the driver’s hips to finally be squared up to the pedal box. The design also meant McLaren could array controls more evenly to the left and right of the driver.
The cabin of the F1 is full of innovative design choices. The steering wheel featured paddles but not for shifting. Instead the right paddle functioned as the horn while the right toggled the car’s high beams. As with many contemporary supercars, starting the F1 wasn’t just a matter of turning the key. The F1 has a separate ignition button, a little red one kept under a flip-up cover.
McLaren took the custom, bespoke nature of the F1 to extremes. The driver’s seat isn’t adjustable, such mechanisms would add weight. Instead, each F1 driver’s seat was positioned to spec for the buyer’s personal comfort. The same went for the steering wheel and pedals. In the F1, the phrase of “fits like a glove” ceases to be purely metaphorical.
The McLaren F1 featured cutting-edge design and an astounding level of attention to detail, but it would’ve been all for naught if the car didn’t have a thundering heart at its center. That heart came in the form of a 6.1L naturally aspirated DOHC V12 built by BMW. Murry had initially reached out to Honda to build the F1’s engine. Honda, after all, was behind McLaren’s championship winning Formula One cars. The reasons remain unclear, but Honda declined.
BMW’s M division (M for motorsports) stepped into the void and built McLaren the S70/2 V12. The engine produced 620 horsepower and 479lb.-ft. of torque. In another unique twist, the F1’s engine featured twelve separate throttle bodies, one for each cylinder. The engine bay featured 16 grams worth of gold foil to act as a heat shield. The six-speed manual transmission offered another first, formerly only employed Formula One cars, that used an aluminum flywheel and carbon clutch assembly.
This powertrain, along with other innovations, made the F1 the fastest production car in the world when it debuted in 1992. Its zero to sixty was just 3.2 seconds and it ran a quarter mile in just 11.1 seconds. It set the world record for top speed at 240.1 mph in 1998. All of this was achieved without forced induction.
Indeed, the McLaren F1 still holds the record for the fastest naturally aspirated car ever built. It held onto its title as the fastest car in the world for 12 year, finally unseated by the venerable Bugatti Veyron.
The F1’s legacy isn’t limited to speed runs on closed airplane runways. In 1995, McLaren entered a race modified version of the F1, the F1 GTS into the 24 Hours of LeMans. Their cars placed first, third, fourth and fifth.
Another major legacy for the F1 is its rarity. Today, supercars like the Bugatti Chiron Super Sport, the Koenigsegg Jesko, and Aston Martin Valkyrie to name only a few, are made in very limited numbers from around one hundred to as little as a few dozen. The F1 also saw a very small production run from 1992 to 1998. In that span, only 106 cars, including prototypes, racing, and street cars.
At an original price of $815,000, the McLaren F1 was among the most expensive cars in the world. Famous owners, former and present, include Elon Musk, Ralph Lauren, Jay Leno, and the Sultan of Brunei. Of the 106 McLaren F1s built, 64 reportedly survive. Today, they typically change hands between ultra-wealthy collectors at around $20,000,000 apiece.
The McLaren F1 was a revolutionary car in its day. It set benchmarks for rarity, speed, and expense that have come to define the supercar. But perhaps its most important legacy is the level of care, detail, and sheer obsessive perfectionism that Gordon Murry and his team at McLaren put into building the F1. It serves as an object lesson for car company bean counters that sometimes greatness is worth chasing, no matter the expense.