Cars | Past Masters

McLaren F1

For many petrolheads the McLaren F1 is the ultimate supercar: very fast, very rare – and very expensive, says Simon de Burton.

November 26 2010
Simon de Burton

McLaren’s new MP4-12C is due to hit the streets in spring 2011. Supercar fans the world over are champing at the bit to get hold of one, but when it comes to having big shoes to fill, the MP4-12Cis faced with a pair of extra-broad-fitting size 18s – at the very least.

I refer, of course, to the last pure McLaren road car, the F1 – the fastest normally aspirated street-legal automobile ever produced; the car that, 20 years after its inception, many people still regard as the apotheosis of automobile perfection; the car that, when new, cost around £540,000 (plus taxes) in the UK, but which has since soared in value to around £2m.

According to F1 lore, the idea was dreamt up by McLaren Automotive chairman Ron Dennis and legendary racing car design engineer Gordon Murray while they were waiting for a plane following the 1988 Italian Grand Prix. The concept was relatively simple: to create an ultra-high-performance, road-going car that was replete with Formula One technology but that would also be fit for real-world driving.

On March 5 1990, the process of building such a car began. A bespoke 12-cylinder, non-turbocharged six-litre engine producing 627 horsepower had been commissioned from BMW, a six-speed, fast-shifting gearbox was engineered from the ground up, and leading designer Peter Stevens had set to with his magic pencil to create a body shape the like of which had never been seen before.

Despite being extremely small, the F1 has three seats, with the driver positioned in the middle. It is virtually glued to the ground by Formula One-style downforce enhancement, the mid-engine configuration makes for perfect front-to-rear balance and the overall shape is aerodynamically superb.

To ensure maximum driver “feel”, neither brakes nor steering is power-assisted and, as a result of Murray’s obsession with lightness, the car is replete with exotic materials such as titanium, magnesium and Kevlar. The body panels are made from carbon fibre and, in order to insulate the cockpit from heat, the engine bay is lined with gold foil.

The first F1 was delivered in 1993 and production ceased in 1998 after little more than 100 had been built. There were 64 road cars, five prototypes, three long-tailed GTS versions made for racing homologation, 28 pure race cars and five Le Mans models made after the F1’s victory at the famous 24-hour race in 1995.

On March 31 1998, the F1 established its place in automotive history when a road-going example was taken to a record 240mph, a speed that has only ever been surpassed by cars with turbo-charged engines – yet, ironically, 1998 was also the year when values bottomed out with used cars fetching “just” £0.5m.

Inevitably, however, supply and demand came into play and within a couple of years prices began to creep up to the point where, in October 2008, RM Auctions sold the very F1 that for several years had graced McLaren’s showroom in London’s Park Lane for £2.53m. Now the going rate for an F1 is anything between £1.8m and £2.2m. The most recent public sale took place at the Pebble Beach concours in August this year, when Gooding & Co sold a silver example that had belonged to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison for $3.57m. Ellison is fairly typical of the type of person who has an F1 in their motorhouse: other owners include Ralph Lauren, Rowan Atkinson, Jay Leno and Eric Clapton.

Another high-profile driver is Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. He owns chassis number 10R, a racing car that has been converted for road use. “I am a fan of Gordon Murray’s design, and the F1 reeks of his approach to building a really high-performance car,” says Mason. “It took me a long time to acquire one, partly because of the breathtaking cost, but it was always obvious that this was the supercar to have and the Le Mans win absolutely set in stone the car’s pedigree.”

Buying an F1 is, however, just the half of it. This decidedly exotic racer for the road needs to be maintained, and while there are a handful of specialists who will work on them, the vast majority are looked after by one of the five McLaren service centres around the world.

Harold Dermott was closely involved with the F1 project from its inception until his recent retirement as head of McLaren customer care. With so few having been made, he knows every F1 inside out. “The car is extremely tough and has no significant problems. It was built on a no-compromise basis from the outset and is therefore very reliable with annual running costs in the region of £20,000,” he explains. “A small service costs £5,000, a major one £10,000. One of the reasons that values have remained so strong is that McLaren is totally committed to keeping these cars on the road – it has an enormous stock of parts.”

McLaren also offers an F1 brokerage service that brings buyers and sellers together. There is a waiting list of would-be owners, but anyone planning to buy a car from another source can be sure that a quick call to McLaren will turn up its full history.

The only drawback with creating a legendary supercar, says Dermott, is that it attracts no end of dreamers. “The F1 brokerage service has always received a great deal of enquiries,” he says. “But 99 per cent of the people who used to contact me couldn’t actually afford one.”

See also

Collecting, McLaren