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

Spiderman, Super Man, and Batman are the obvious super heroes. But dedicated comic book fans are equally smitten with Luke Cage and Hellboy. When it comes to super cars share elements with super heroes: there are the Ferraris, Lamborghini, and Porsches of the world and then there are more obscure stars, which are no less revered. McLaren falls into this category. McLaren is the Luke Cage of the car world.

McLaren is a giant among Formula 1 motorsport enthusiasts, but has only recently become a company with an actual production arm. It’s small, coveted British carmaker that caters to the buyer in the high-six figure range. Its latest debut was the bespoke 720S at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance this weekend. Other models range from variants of the 570S, 650, 675 and the P1. The names are distinct, but the sleek architecture is uniform. It’s a language that communicates the idea of what it is to be wicked fast, the super cars a young child might imagine who dreams of growing up to be a car designer.

Photo by Mike Dodd for The Verge

“As a kid, my mom and dad told me, so at four years old I was drawing cars,” Rob Melville, the McLaren design chief, said in an interview with The Verge. Melville studied automotive design at the Royal College of Art and the University of Huddersfield. After stints at Jaguar and General Motors, he joined McLaren in 2009, working on the P1 and 650S, and in 2014 became design director. “I was working up to get the main job, the big job at McLaren, that was like my dream come true.” In May, he succeded Frank Stephenson as the head of design.

The British sports car company was founded by race car 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 podium for team McLaren.

Photo by Mike Dodd for The Verge

One reason that McLaren doesn’t have the same cachet in general audiences is that it only recently began to sell production cars. 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. Then came a partnership with Mercedes-Benz, which resulted in the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. But when McLaren introduced the MP4-12C, it began to forge its way as a brand to contend with against other super luxury rivals. The debut of the 570S in 2015 ushered the rarified model in the super car market.

“Our actual design statement is to tell a great story. My mission and the department’s mission is to create designs that when you look at them, you understand the way they work.” Melville says. “So first of all, you need perfect proportions. You need the car to visually tell the story that shows the intentions when you look at it, this is where the (study of) art can be really useful. There’s nothing on there which is decoration. We literally take what you need and we make it beautiful.”

The McLaren is exterior form is instantly recognizable, guided by performance, but pushed by it sharp proportion. “It’s packed full of technology,” Melville says. “It’s a blend of the body and surfaces of the car, they have a strong classical element they are fluid. It starts with aerodynamics. Aerodynamics inform the shapes of nature and birds. The shape that are familiar to people they understand how the car works.” He encourages his designer to takes things a step further to turn heads. “We do say okay, this feels too normal, it’s not bold enough, it’s not brave enough.”

Photo by Dominic James for The Verge

What guides the process is part engineering and part intuition. Unlike some car design studios, only a handful of designers work on the actual car. “A lot of it is based on a gut feeling, it’s, when you feel something is right, rather than try to do something else, or remake it. “On a small team, you’ve got a really strong dynamic, information flows much quicker, you can react much quicker, you’re deeply, deeply involved in the process and you really care passionately about what you’re doing. It’s lots of hours. You really breathe in these car Every department breathes in and sleeps what we do.”

McLaren designers work closely with the engineers throughout the process. Increasingly UI designers are becoming a part of that process. “On the UI front, that was sort of the thing of which we have specialists in the company, we work with them in electrical departments, we also work with them in to develop the UI together. We’re moving forward into an area in which, there’s no escaping, it’s essential. It figures into every part of life and people have very high expectations. So it, yeah, we will be looking to recruit more in-house specialists in the future.

The production department also borrows from Formula One manufacturing processes, such a 3D printing parts to keep weight down and using computer-aided tool for aerodynamics. “You sit down with those guys and they show you the airstreams and they’re using the same technology as they used on the Formula One cars, and it’s incredible, I mean you could never imagine the way the air’s moving around the car.” While self-driving may creep into McLaren’s architecture, maintaining the driver experience is paramount. “Our mission is to keep the driver engaged and keep the driver at the sense of the action, that’s our mission and that will be our mission even as legislation changes.”

Photo by Mike Dodd for The Verge

Melville exudes a sense of pride in the brand that’s not always as common among designers at large car companies. “You have a company over here that’s 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, you wear the shirt with pride, and you leave the team better place than what you found it.”

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