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McLaren's design chief on what it takes to build a beautiful car

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Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman are garden-variety superheroes, but dedicated comic book fans are equally smitten with Luke Cage and Hellboy. The same logic applies to car enthusiasts: there are the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porsches of the world, and then there are more obscure stars, which are no less revered. McLaren falls into this villainous category. McLaren is a powerful might that’s been lurking in the shadows among diehards, but only now getting its mainstream due. Some even call McLaren the supercar brand of choice in Silicon Valley.

Why? Because McLarens are wicked fast, and their lightweight, tactile surfaces certainly look and feel the part of a car to be feared. Its virulent tone runs throughout the design language of the brand from the $200,000 570S to the $2.59 million P1. It’s the sports car brand a young child who dreams of growing up to be a car designer might imagine, like Rob Melville once did. “As a kid, my mom and dad told me at four years old I was drawing cars,” Melville, who was promoted to McLaren design chief this past spring, said in an interview with The Verge. “I was always drawing cars, birds, boats, anything that moved. I went off to art college. I tried photography, I tried fine art, but eventually I came back to cars, again and again. It was just in me.”

Melville studied automotive design at the University of Huddersfield and earned a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art. After stints at Jaguar and General Motors, he joined McLaren in 2009. “I was lucky enough to get the main job, the big job at McLaren. That was like my dream come true.” Melville entered the design studio at a critical moment, just as McLaren was growing into a real car company.

McLaren has long been a giant among Formula One motorsport enthusiasts. More recently, it become a brand with an actual production arm, McLaren Automotive. It’s one of three companies that make up the McLaren Group, which bills itself as “one of the world’s most illustrious high-technology brands.” This includes McLaren Applied Technologies, which has research projects in both the healthcare and energy fields, and McLaren Racing, the company’s McLaren-Honda Formula 1 racing team and the DNA of the McLaren brand.

Its racing heritage dates back the founder, a racecar driver and New Zealand native, Bruce McLaren, who at age 22, was the youngest Grand Prix winner ever in 1959. McLaren died tragically in an accident at Goodwood in 1970, but his namesake lived on in motorsports. Famed drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Ayrton Senna, and Lewis Hamilton won places on the F1 podium for team McLaren.

The McLaren F1.
Photo: McLaren

In 1988, McLaren management first dreamed up the idea for a production car before a delayed flight in Milan, and the iconic F1 was born. Altogether, only 106 F1s were ever produced. (The very first McLaren F1 sold at the Pebble Beach Bonham’s auction for $15.62 million this past weekend.) Then came a partnership with Mercedes-Benz, which resulted in the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. But when McLaren introduced the MP4-12C in 2009, it began to forge its way as a brand to contend with against other sports car rivals. The debut of the 570S in 2015 pushed McLaren firmly into the supercar market as a contender, and exposed the brand to a whole new audience, one that was looking for a car that was both extraordinary and distinct.

“It was an incredible journey to start a brand that has so much heritage. In terms of automotive, there were only two products out there that people knew of — the F1 and the Mclaren-Mercedes SLR. How do you apply those pillars and principles and implement it in a new generation?" Melville was part of the small team that defined that process. He worked on both the P1 and 650S, and in 2014, he became design director. In May, he succeeded Frank Stephenson as the head of McLaren design.

Photo: McLaren

The small, coveted British carmaker currently makes the most expensive production car in the world, the $3.7 million McLaren P1 LM, a gussied-up variant of the P1. Its latest debut was a bespoke electric purple 720S at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance last weekend, called Fux Fuchsia, named for the collector Michael Fux that commissioned it. The 720s is a car capable of fantastic speeds: 0–60 miles per hour in 2.77 seconds, topped in milliseconds by only a handful of models. Melville led the design of the 720s as well as the 570s. “What makes McLaren unique when you look at it is the story starts with a unique process. We work literally hand in hand with design and engineering. There's nothing on there which is decoration,” he says. “We literally take what you need and we make it beautiful. We’re not about trends.”

The McLaren exterior form is instantly recognizable, guided by performance, but pushed by its sharp, menacing proportions. “The department’s mission is that when you look at (the cars) you understand the way they work. That includes art, psychology, every which way the customer could interact with the car. You need perfect proportions. This is where the art comes in. Then you can look at functional jewelry, the mechanisms, hinges, and the controls, which affects your perception of quality. All these things communicate luxury or lightweight. It’s an emotional feeling when you look at the sketches.”

Throughout the process, engineering is constantly a factor. “We know we need to generate 600 kilos of downforce on P1, and we need to reduce ground clearance, and it’s packed full with technology,” Melville says. “It’s a nice blend of the surfaces. Aerodynamics inform the shapes of nature and birds. The shapes are familiar to people, so they understand how the car works.”

He encourages his designers to be edgy and provocative. “We do look for things that feel groundbreaking. We need to push ourselves out of the comfort zone.” What guides the process is balance between engineering and gut intuition; there’s no time for tinkering on concepts. Unlike some car design studios, only a handful of designers work on the actual car. In the early days of Melville’s tenure, there was one interior and one exterior designer, and now there are 10 total designers made up interior, exterior, clay modelers, and computer-aided model designers. “On a small team, you've got a really strong dynamic, information flows much quicker, you can react much quicker… Every department really breathes in and sleeps what we do.”

McLaren will continue to grow its design program as UI increasingly becomes a part of the mix. “On the UI front, that’s something where we don’t have specialists in the studio, but we have specialists within the company, electrical departments and suppliers and we develop UI together. As we move forward, this is an area in which there's no escaping it. It's essential.”

The production department also borrows from the McLaren Formula One team’s manufacturing processes, such as 3D-printing parts to keep weight down, understanding how to work with crushed carbon and aluminum, and using computer-aided tools for aerodynamics. “You could never imagine the way the air's moving around the car. You have a trickle of air in front of the car that can impact completely what happens at the back of the car,” he says.

“That’s where Formula One plays a role in the law of hidden thinking — the dynamics, the handling, the cooling, the way we take air and expel air from the car, the way we create downforce underneath the car and over the top of the body. Every area is a science.”

And while self-driving may eventually creep into McLaren’s architecture, maintaining the driver experience will always be paramount, Melville says. “Our mission is to keep the driver engaged and keep the driver at the center of the action, and that will be our mission even as legislation changes.”

Moving from behind the studio scenes to being the face of the brand, Melville exudes a sense of pride that’s not always found in designers at large car companies. “You have a company that was here long before we joined it and will be here long after we leave. Our mission is almost like a member of any football team or rugby team that actually wears the shirt with pride, and you leave the team a better place than what you found it.” What’s certain about Melville’s era is that it will be prolific; McLaren has announced that it will produce 14 new models and significant variants in the next five years.

An early draft of this story was mistakenly published on Sunday, August 20th. The article has since been revised.