According to two newspaper reports, Apple is interested in buying McLaren. McLaren flatly denied that any talks were underway, but it’s worth a look at why Apple could be interested in the small British carmaker.
An acquisition would give Apple a small but significant carmaker that has enormous amounts of technological expertise in building drivetrains, vehicle control systems, and navigating complicated supplier-OEM relationships. McLaren also has significant experience working with advanced materials like carbon composites, aluminum, and carbon fiber.
It’s a small but important firm, best known for its sports cars — it sold 1,654 road cars in 2015 — and its Formula One team. But the company is much more than just a car manufacturer. The 5,000 employees of the McLaren Technology Group work across six different divisions including automotive, racing, marketing, and as an automotive supplier for race teams and high-end performance cars.
McLaren has quietly been growing its consulting division as well. McLaren Applied Technologies works with firms across a number of industries — both automotive and otherwise — to provide R&D and technology expertise behind the scenes. McLaren is privately owned and one of the smallest independent carmakers, making an acquisition logistically simpler.
McLaren even makes a plug-in hybrid
The company is no stranger to electric cars either; its P1 hypercar was actually a plug-in hybrid that could travel more than six miles on electric power alone. Though much of McLaren’s expertise is in building race and high-performance vehicles, its knowledge of advanced materials would be applicable if one were to build a next-generation car like Apple is said to be doing. It also builds its own Kinetic Energy Recovery System, a battery-charging system for F1 cars.
McLaren built the first carbon fiber chassis in Formula One in 1981 and the first carbon fiber road car in the McLaren F1 in 1993. It also has done extensive work with active aerodynamics and adjustable suspensions, both of which are now banned in F1 because of the enormous performance advantage. However, all these elements could be used on a more standard vehicle — with the right investment partner.
It’s possible that McLaren could continue operating its automotive and racing divisions (the latter is especially unlikely to go away in any scenario), even with an Apple acquisition. Beats, another large Apple acquisition, has continued to develop and sell its headphones under its own brand even as Apple looks to integrate Beats’ technology and know-how into its own products.
A McLaren acquisition would give Apple access to an incredible amount of engineering expertise and experience that would take years to develop internally, as well as a private development center in England where it could focus its car development efforts.
The McLaren Technology Centre, finished in 2004, is a gorgeous facility designed by Foster + Partners (the same firm behind Apple’s Spaceship campus and many of the most visible Apple retail stores). The building and its lake form a perfect circle, and rainwater that falls on the roof is drained into the lake. The water in the lake is circulated through the building to cool it in an energy-efficient manner, while the wall of glass around the edge of the building provides natural light throughout the facility. There’s also a wind tunnel for aerodynamic testing.
The McLaren Production Centre, completed in 2011 (also designed by Foster + Partners), is where the company’s vehicles are assembled. The building is a "roundrect," a rectangle with rounded corners, similar to the windows on the original Macintosh.
In fact, the entire McLaren design ethos seems eerily emblematic of Apple. From the circular headquarters building to the sparkling white floors of the factory, it seems that McLaren is basically the car company that Apple would build if it started a car company from scratch.
I don’t know if Apple will buy McLaren, but I do know that if it was looking to buy an automaker, it couldn’t find a better fit.