SPOILER ALERT. WE’RE seated in a makeshift theatrette in an old Georgian manor in West Sussex, roughly 12km from the famed Goodwood House and Goodwood Motor Circuit, popcorn and beers in hand, essentially feeling festive. “I think you’ll enjoy the movie. But I have to warn you, the lead character meets with an untimely end,” says our host with a wry smile. Thanks. The name of the film was a dead giveaway anyway. Produced by Universal Pictures and directed by Roger Donaldson — the man behind Cocktail, the Tom Cruise hit from 1988 — McLaren (2017) is more documentary than movie, tracing the whirlwind rise of Bruce McLaren, one of only two men ever to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix in a racing car bearing his name. A gifted driver and engineer, the New Zealander was 32 when he fatally crashed at 290km/h on the Lavant Straight at Goodwood, in June 1970, during a test run of his CanAm M8D (nicknamed Batmobile for its low mounted rear wing).
Most of us know the McLaren story. But this is the first we are watching home video footage of nine-year-old Bruce immobilised in a stretcher as treatment for a hip disorder, Perthes’ Disease. Unable to pursue his dream of playing rugby with the All Blacks, even after the braces came off, he instead restored an old red Austin Ulster, got it race-ready, and in it, set the fastest time in the 750cc class at the Muriwai Beach hill climb in Auckland. He was only 15. Later, at 22 years and 104 days, he became the youngest-ever Grand Prix winner at Sebring in Florida, a record that stood for over 40 years, until Fernando Alonso turned in his first win in 2003.
The film isn’t quite Palme d’Or material but it is engrossing, what with interviews with Bruce’s widow Patty and his friends in motorsports, a few of whom passed on between the making of the film and its release. McLaren, especially its road car division McLaren Automotive, is clearly intent on giving us the full brand experience.
As it is, earlier in the day we already toured the Sir Norman Foster-designed McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, the stunning all-white facility flanked by a serene artificial lake with Bruce’s daughter Amanda and her husband; and took an expeditious
2-hour drive through narrow country lanes in a fleet of pulse-accelerating 720S, the supercar conceived to vanquish rivals.
While McLaren Racing Limited, aka the Formula 1 constructor competing as McLaren Honda, was founded just outside London in Bruce’s Grand Prix heyday during the 1960s, the road car production arm was officially incorporated only in 2010, four decades after his death. But what McLaren Automotive may lack in age (comparatively, Ferrari celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, while Aston Martin has had cameos in
James Bond movies since 1964), it makes up for with innovative breakthroughs, a desire to elevate the driving experience, and judging from today, a sprinkling of stardust.
And McLaren Automotive has been profitable.
Taking over the ground floor of the Earl of March country house on the first morning of this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed — held annually on the Earl’s front lawn — the company announced it had raced to its fourth consecutive year of profitability thanks to a record 3,286 cars sold in 2016. The 720S, with a 341-km/h top speed and twin-hinged dihedral doors that sweep forwards and up, that we drove over from Woking? Already sold out for the year with 1,500 orders taken. It was launched only in March at the Geneva International Motor Show.
Good thing then that a new 570S Spider convertible was debuted at Goodwood minutes after the financial announcement. Jolyon Nash, head of global sales and marketing and a selfprofessed petrolhead, describes it as “the best Sports Series car we’ve got — it’s fantastic”. Nash looked up to racing greats Jim Clark and Stirling Moss as a child, and based on this alone, one would be inclined to believe him. As with other top executives, he does, at least, have the good fortune of testing the cars through every stage of development at the company’s home circuit, Dunsfold Aerodrome (otherwise known as the Top Gear test track), “so we can all be sure we’re going in the direction we want with a particular car”.
“At McLaren, when we design cars, we design them completely around the driver. And we pride ourselves on using innovative technology to deliver the best driving experience,” he adds.
The goal is to produce 4,500 vehicles annually by the end of 2022, with at least 50 percent of them featuring hybrid powertrain technology. Which makes this a good juncture to point out that every sports car, supercar, hypercar and bespoke car is absolutely assembled by hand. As Stephen Donnell, McLaren’s visitor experience ambassador and Bruce’s son-in-law, relishes in regaling guests on his VIP tour at the Woking campus: “For those of you looking forward to some conveyor belts and robots, I’m sorry, you’re going to be very
disappointed, because we don’t have any here. Not even in the paint shop.”
One shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, a company built around the Bruce McLaren philosophy: If you can’t win it because it’s not a race, be the best at it. If one wouldn’t put together haute joaillerie on an assembly line, why would you a £1.55 million, 1,000PS (986bhp), super-sexy and wellreviewed McLaren P1 GTR?
“[Bruce’s] successes on the track were fairly well documented, [but] not so much the fact that he was planning to diversify the racing team and to build road cars,” says Amanda, when we meet on the “Boulevard” — the expansive glassfronted lobby at Woking with an endless display of history-making cars, including the banned M7C “Thursday Car” and the Le Manswinning F1 GTR. “The fact that every car that goes out of here, whether it’s a race car or road car, still bears his name — is a fabulous tribute to him.” Amanda, we learn, was only four when Bruce died.
It’s worth knowing that the last of the original McLaren Racing founders sold off their shares in the early 1980s, so Amanda’s role is purely ambassadorial. It’s even endearing that she introduces herself as such: “Though I’m a McLaren, I’m not on the board and I don’t make decisions on behalf of the company. [Stephen and I] are here because we wanted to be part of what is truly the most exciting automotive company in the world.”
Instead, it was Formula 1 Team Principal Ron Dennis (Chairman of the group until July) who, with designer Gordon Murray, launched the first production car, the F1, in 1993 — a good decade and a half before McLaren Automotive was even formalised. The rest, as they say, is history. Like Phil Kerr, joint managing director of McLaren Racing from 1968-75, said in the film’s final scene: “The legacy of Bruce McLaren lives on.”
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: A LIFE-SIZE LEGO REPLICA FEATURED AT THE MCLAREN COMPOUND AT THIS YEAR’S GOODWOOD FESTIVAL OF SPEED; 570S SPIDERS IN CURAçAO BLUE AND SICILIAN YELLOW; BRUCE MCLAREN’S MODIFIED AUSTIN ULSTER IS DISPLAYED AT THE MCLAREN TECHNOLOGY CENTRE IN WOKING