Bruce McLaren was a New Zealander who grew up in his parent’s service station, soaking up mechanical knowledge about the automobile while fueling his growing passion for motorsport. That early exposure to all things automotive was put to good use as McLaren became respected as both a driver and engineer who went on to create some of the most successful sports racing and Grand Prix cars ever built prior to his death while testing in 1970. The company McLaren founded continued at the leading edge of Formula 1 and in recent years have added the manufacture of road cars to their repertoire.
Prior to sitting down for a chat with the new CEO of McLaren Automotive, Mike Flewitt, I was given the opportunity to take a drive through Toronto traffic in a 2012 McLaren MP4 12C. Supercars typically aren’t designed for us portly folks, so I was prepared for a challenge as I swung the driver’s door into its upright position. Despite the wide outer sill, I was surprised to find access to the pilot’s seat to be easy. Sliding down into the supple leather and pulling the door closed, the cockpit feels unexpectedly roomy and comfortable. After a short briefing about where all the controls are (climate controls are on the doors) and how they work, a quick stab of the starter button and the 3.8L, twin-turbo V8 whirls to life with a bark before settling down to a purr of an idle. At this point, the cabin is surprisingly quiet.
Out into the real world, the McLaren drives just like a “regular” car, except for the stares from other drivers and pedestrians. Twiddle a couple of knobs to select track modes for the chassis and drivetrain and the car’s race bred nature becomes instantly evident. The suspension firms up so your bottom feels every imperfection on the road, while the exhaust note becomes angry even at lower speeds. Forget what you know about North American V8s, this monster revs to a screaming 7,000 rpm where it generates close to 600 horsepower. The acceleration is nothing short of mind blowing, making the MP4 12C the most savage car I have driven on the street. Turn the dials back to Normal mode and the beast becomes a kitten again. Most supercars do not handle traffic well. The McLaren isn’t like most supercars.
Officially taking the helm of McLaren Automotive in July, 2013, Mike Flewitt has been running things as C.O.O. since May of the previous year when he joined the company. Just 51 years of age, Flewitt seems to be a good fit for the company in spirit, having worked his way through the auto manufacturing industry from the ground up, having started working 31 years ago on the Ford line in Liverpool. At one point during lunch with Flewitt and a handful of journalists, it became clear that for most of us at the table perception of the brand was rooted in the original Can-Am series and Formula 1.
Noting this, the former Ford exec was quick to point out that “McLaren is a very modern, technically led company, we look to the future which gives a bit of balance because this year we are celebrating 50 years. What that 50 years has done is give us a motorsport heritage and to be successful in motorsport you’ve always got to be on the leading edge of technology. What we’ve done with our car company is take that technology and put it into our road cars and in just two years, we’re establishing ourselves as one of the exclusive, leading super car companies.”
To emphasize how the brand has changed the super car market, McLaren Toronto President, Chris Pfaff told us a story about a young lady on the west coast who had just purchased a McLaren at just 19 years of age, who decided upon that car rather than one of those other makes, because those are what her Dad drives, saying “This is new and cool”. So while the McLaren brand is steeped in motorsport and engineering history, the cars speak to a whole new generation of consumer, who consider leading edge technology before past racing wins.