For a company resolutely on the up it’s an unexpected downward blip – to the ground floor of the Geneva Motor Show. When the show opens on March 1st McLaren Automotive will have left behind the sports car specialists and VW empire on Palexpo’s ‘upstairs bit’ and set up shop near Britain’s big boys – Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Jaguar Land Rover – on the larger ground floor.
It’s a small geographical step to take but a move full of symbolism for a company not yet six years old and exhibiting at Geneva for only the fourth time.
And this year? There will be an addition to the Sports Series range (we have already seen it but it’s under wraps until February 24th), and McLaren will also have quite a story to tell. One of increasing sales (1,654 in 2015), staff recruitment, an extra shift at the factory, successful racing programmes, three model lines launched and more dealers around the world. McLaren is also making more money, and spending more money: 30 per cent of turnover, £120m, is going into the R&D budget. That’s high.
One of the men who will be helping spend it is Rob Melville, McLaren’s chief designer. After showing us round the new model for Geneva he sat down with us for a pre-show catch-up on life and times at Woking…
What’s keeping you busy in the design studio?
Lots of advanced work, or vision work as we call it. It’s about laying the foundations for where the brand will be in the future. Other companies tend to look forward 10-15 years but at McLaren it’s 20 years. It’s almost like designing a car for a science fiction movie for the year 2036. You have to ask yourself what legislation there will be, and what the transport infrastructure will be like.
How does McLaren’s ethos fit in such a potentially different automotive world?
Our design philosophy is breathtaking products that tell the visual story of their function. This is a pure thing that’s not about trends or fashion, it’s about what works. No matter where technology takes us McLaren will always deliver on this.
Technology like alternative power sources and cars that drive themselves?
All the major manufacturers are looking at the autonomous car. Obviously we are looking at it as part of our vision work. And we are looking at all sorts of different powertrains. I can’t say any more.
For a company that trades on driver involvement, the autonomous McLaren must be difficult to reconcile?
We have some very clever solutions to get round those issues… if we were to go down that route. Driving a McLaren is all about driver engagement and fun, and will always be so.
McLaren makes a joke about there never being a McLaren SUV. But are other, more practical developments such as all-wheel drive or 2+2 cabins in the pipeline?
These are not on the agenda. Mike (Flewitt, the CEO) has been very clear: we are about two-seater sports cars with maximum driver engagement. Our objective is to be recognised as king of the hill in the hyper- and supercar markets. We have come a long way but we still need to prove it – if we spread our field of view too far it would be a distraction.
Do you ever get fed up designing sports cars?
I am interested in all design, furniture through to planes and boats, but cars have always been my passion. At other companies I have designed sedans (Cadillacs and Buicks, ed) and off-roaders (Hummers, Land Rovers) but at McLaren, working with engineering geniuses on supercars, I am in designer heaven.
Does McLaren know yet what the next step-change is that will mark out the P1’s successor as the next Ultimate Series car?
No we don’t know. There are a lot of new technologies out there and they all have to align. It won’t be a flash in the pan. It will be something that truly changes automotive history. When we know what that is we will act on it.
The new Bugatti Chiron out this year is going to do 275mph we believe. Do you think you should be designing a McLaren to be the world’s fastest car?
Personally no. We don’t need to. We will always chase power but for us it’s power with lightweight and active aerodynamics that count. For us it’s going very fast around corners as well as in a straight line. We are a company born on the track.
What’s at home in the garage?
A Honda FR-V! (Rob has a family and a dog…)
What should be in your garage?
An Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale, that would be number one. A Porsche 550 Spyder. A McLaren F1. A Facel Vega, maybe a Hispano Suiza or Talbot Lago. A Countach – I used to have that Countach poster on my bedroom wall as a kid. And a Land Rover Defender. I love the Defender and I loved working at Land Rover (he worked in advanced design on the cars that became the Evoque and current Range Rover, ed). Land Rover is the most similar company to McLaren that I have worked for. Like a McLaren, everything on a Land Rover has to be there for a reason.