Sometimes referred to as the thinking man’s supercar, the McLaren F1 was the fastest production car in the world for almost a decade. Its origins were suitably exotic: designer Gordon Murray and three McLaren executives Ron Dennis, Creighton Brown and Mansour Ojjeh were discussing production cars in an Italian airport lounge. By the time they flew out they had decided to build the best performance car in the world.
McLaren was already a dominant force in Formula 1, so the company had the necessary knowledge, tools and money, plus a well-honed drive to succeed. Murray designed the carbon-fibre chassis around a 627 bhp, 6.1-litre BMW V-12 engine and the car’s driving position was centrally located, which hadn’t been tried in a road car since the Art Deco Panhard Dynamic of 1936. The McLaren incorporated active ground-effect aerodynamics with fans.
The finish of even the smallest parts was exemplary, and exotic materials were used where required. For example, the engine cover heat shield was made of gold foil. Although the car seated three people it was small by supercar standards, and light at only 2,500lbs. Murray owned a Lotus Elan and was a fan of minimalism, having designed the tandem-seat Rocket, so everything on the car was functional.
The chassis was designed by Steve Randle, who minimized weight transfer to the point where he didn’t need anti-roll bars. Randle was also mindful that the McLaren F1 was not just a track car and the new car was easy to drive and notably forgiving. It dethroned the Jaguar XJ 220, by recording 231 mph in 1994 and 240.14 in 1998. That figure would stand until eclipsed by the Koenigsegg CCR in 2005, at 245 mph.
The F1’s power to weight ratio still puts other supercars to shame. It boasts 550bhp per ton, while the Bugatti Veyron records 530bhp per ton and the Ferrari Enzo has “only” 434bhp per ton. The McLaren can reach 180 mph from a standstill in 20.3 seconds, while the 4,000lb Veyron’s 1,001 bhp, W16 engine powers it to 300 kph (187.5 mph) in 16.7 seconds, and the Ferrari Enzo takes a laggardly 26.8 seconds to reach the same speed.
The McLaren was also luxuriously appointed. It had air-conditioning, SeKurit electric defrosting windshield and side glass, power windows, remote central locking and a Kenwood stereo. Fitted luggage included a golf bag.
All F1s carried an on-board modem so that the car could “talk” to the factory in the event of problems. McLaren established a worldwide support network and if necessary, expert technicians would be flown in. A tune-up, by the way, would set you back £6,500.
Costing £600,000 in 1993, 107 McLaren F1s had been built by 1998, when production ceased. Of those 107 cars, seven were pre-production prototypes, 65 were road cars, five were LM street cars to commemorate victory at the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans, where five GTR racers finished and three were F1 GT cars, which were road-going versions of the long-tailed GTR. The other 28 cars were F1 GTR racers built for private customers to compete in the FIA GT series and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Buyers of the McLaren F1 made a very good investment indeed. The cars hovered around the £1.5 million mark until 2008, when the last street car sold for £3 million in London. Then they took off along with the supercar market in general. Rowan Atkinson reportedly sold his twice-crashed example in 2015 for £8 million and an enthusiastic buyer paid £9.5 million for an F1 at a Pebble Beach, California auction that summer. Soon, that price will probably seem like a bargain.
This paragraph usually notes alternatives to the car being described. For the McLaren F1, there are none.