For millions of gearheads who came of age in the ’90s, the McLaren F1 was more than just a car, it was mythical. It stunned the automotive world when it burst on the scene in 1992 and was unlike anything that came before it. For this writer (and countless other American kids), raised in a sea of Ford Tauruses and Dodge Caravans, it was pure science fiction. Everything about it was hyperbole, and what we knew about it seemed almost too good to be true. It sat three, with the driver in the middle, it cost over $1 million, its engine compartment was lined with gold for better heat dissipation, and with its BMW-built V12, it could top 230 miles per hour.
The ’90s were the final golden years of the poster car era. On top of the hand-me-down bedroom staples like the Lamborghini Countach, Ferrari F40, Porsche 959, we had the Corvette ZR-1, Dodge Viper, and the Lamborghini Diablo to marvel at. But none of us kids had ever heard of McLaren before, and it seemed like it was in a class by itself – in most ways, it was. The F1 was nothing like the Countach or the Viper; cars that looked good on the wall, but left something to be desired on the road. The F1 was a true technological marvel, and nearly 20 years later, we’re still reckoning with how truly great it was.
As obscure as it may have seemed to American elementary school kids, McLaren was no startup or flash-in-the-pan automaker. Since the 1960s, it had been one of the premier racing manufacturers in the world, with success in Formula 1, Can-Am, and at the Indianapolis 500. By the late ’80s, the company was riding especially high. Thanks to an engine partnership with Honda, its white and red Marlboro-sponsored cars dominated Formula 1 throughout the decade, and its MP 4/4 cars owned the 1988 season, taking 15 of 16 races. But during that iconic season, technical director Gordon Murray began to think of possibilities outside the track.
Company founder Bruce McLaren had wanted to build a road-going car using racing technology in the late ’60s, but plans were scuttled after his death testing a car in 1970. In the 18 years of success since, Murray believed that the company had the know-how to create the ultimate road car, but he wanted to do it in a way that had never been done before.
Speaking with Honda on a history of its NSX supercar, Murray outlined his lofty ambitions for the F1:
“To my thinking, the ideal car is one in which I could get in the driver’s seat and be out for a drive in downtown London, and then want to continue straight on to the South of France. A car that you can trust, with functional air conditioning, and retains daily drivability. No offset pedals allowed. No high dashboards restricting your view either. Having a low roof hitting your head every time you go over a bump in the name of aerodynamics and styling is out of the question. It is essential that a supercar be a pleasure to drive, and anything detracting from that must be excised.”
While these goals sound fairly simple now, 25 years ago it seemed virtually impossible. Reliability and ergonomics were the first things to go in the pursuit of speed, and it wasn’t until the arrival of the NSX did it seem that an exotic car could be anything other than a temperamental toy. For the F1, Murray wanted to combine the handling and ease of Honda’s car with the extreme power that could still blow the doors off supercars like the Ferrari F40, Lamborghini Diablo, and Jaguar XJ220.
Turbocharging and supercharging were both dismissed by Murray outright as being too needlessly complex and heavy, as were airbags, anti-lock brakes, and power steering. But for all the F1 didn’t have, it made up for it with cutting-edge technology: It was the first production car to use a monocoque carbon fiber chassis, making it incredibly strong and stable at high speeds – and incredibly light weight. If anything went wrong, it even had a modem so McLaren could collect data and remotely diagnose any issues the car may be having.
The F1 was a sensation when it debuted, and easily took the “fastest production car” title away from the XJ220 (in 1998, a prototype set a world record with a top speed of 248 miles per hour). But despite the car’s capabilities, and McLaren’s pedigree on the track, Murray had no desire to take the F1 racing. After pressure from owners and racing teams, the company relented and released the competition-ready F1 GTR in 1995. Lightened and lowered (despite having to be detuned to compete in the BPR Global GT Series), the F1 GTRs were an unprecedented success. At that year’s 24 Hours of LeMans, the cars joined the pantheon of racing legends, finishing first, third, fourth, fifth, and 13th overall.
By 1998, production ended on the F1 after 106 had been built. For its first attempt at a road car, McLaren set out to build the best, and astonishingly, it did. In the 23 years since its debut, the F1’s legend looms as large as ever before, and has become the standard by which all supercars are judged. There have been prettier, more advanced, more expensive, and even faster exotics in the decades since, but none (except the Bugatti Veyron) have had an impact that comes anywhere close to the F1.
After collaborating with Mercedes-Benz on the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, the company returned to building road cars under its own name in 2011, and today offers some of the best performance cars on the planet. Still, for millions of a certain age, McLaren’s legacy can be summed up in as little as this: F1.