The car features numerous proprietary designs and technologies; it was designed and built with no compromises to the original design concept laid out by Gordon Murray. It is lighter and has a more streamlined structure than even most of its modern rivals and competitors despite having one seat more than most similar sports cars, with the driver’s seat located in the middle (and slightly forward of the passengers seating position providing excellent driving visibility). It features a powerful engine and is somewhat track oriented, but not to the degree that it compromises everyday usability and comfort. It was conceived as an exercise in creating what its designers hoped would be considered the ultimate road car. Despite not having been designed as a track machine, a modified race car edition of the vehicle won several races, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1995, where it faced purpose-built prototype race cars. Production began in 1992 and ended in 1998. In all, 106 cars were manufactured, with some variations in the design.
In 1994, the British car magazine AutoCar stated in a road test regarding the F1, “The McLaren F1 is the finest driving machine yet built for the public road.” and that “The F1 will be remembered as one of the great events in the history of the car, and it may possibly be the fastest production road car the world will ever see.
Chief engineer Gordon Murray’s design concept was a common one among designers of high-performance cars: low weight and high power. This was achieved through use of high-tech and expensive materials like carbon fibre, titanium, gold, magnesium and kevlar. The F1 was the first production car to use a carbon-fibre monocoque chassis.
Gordon Murray had been thinking of a three-seat sports car since his youth, but when Murray was waiting for a flight home from the fateful Italian Grand Prix in 1988; Murray drew a sketch of a three seater sports car and proposed it to Ron Dennis, pitched as the idea of creating the ultimate road car, a concept that would be heavily influenced by the Formula One experience and technology of the company and thus reflect that skill and knowledge through the McLaren F1.
Murray declared that “During this time, we were able to visit with Ayrton Senna (the late F1 Champion) and Honda’s Tochigi Research Center. The visit related to the fact that at the time, McLaren’s F1 Grand Prix cars were using Honda engines. Although it’s true I had thought it would have been better to put a larger engine, the moment I drove the Honda NSX, all the benchmark cars—Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini—I had been using as references in the development of my car vanished from my mind. Of course the car we would create, the McLaren F1, needed to be faster than the NSX, but the NSX’s ride quality and handling would become our new design target. Being a fan of Honda engines, I later went to Honda’s Tochigi Research Center on two occasions and requested that they consider building for the McLaren F1 a 4.5 litre V10 or V12. I asked, I tried to persuade them, but in the end could not convince them to do it, and the McLaren F1 ended up equipped with a BMW engine.”
Later, a pair of Ultima MK3 kit cars, chassis numbers 12 and 13, “Albert” and “Edward”, the last two MK3s, were used as “mules” to test various components and concepts before the first cars were built. Number 12 was used to test the gearbox with a 7.4 litre Chevrolet V8 to mimic the torque of the BMW V12, plus various other components like the seats and the brakes. Number 13 was the test of the V12, plus exhaust and cooling system. When McLaren was done with the cars they destroyed both of them to keep away the specialist magazines and because they did not want the car to be associated with “kit cars”.
The car was first unveiled at a launch show, 28 May 1991, at The Sporting Club in Monaco. The production version remained the same as the original prototype (XP1) except for the wing mirror which, on the XP1, was mounted at the top of the A-pillar. This car was deemed not road legal as it had no indicators at the front; McLaren was forced to make changes on the car as a result (some cars, including Ralph Lauren’s, were sent back to McLaren and fitted with the prototype mirrors). The original wing mirrors also incorporated a pair of indicators which other car manufacturers would adopt several years later.
The car’s safety levels were first proved when during a testing in Namibia in April 1993, a test driver wearing just shorts and t-shirt hit a rock and rolled the first prototype car several times. The driver managed to escape unscathed. Later in the year, the second prototype (XP2) was especially built for crashtesting and passed with the front wheel arch untouched.
Gordon Murray insisted that the engine for this car be naturally aspirated to increase reliability and driver control. Turbochargers and superchargers increase power but they increase complexity and can decrease reliability as well as introducing an additional aspect of latency and loss of feedback. The ability of the driver to maintain maximum control of the engine is thus decreased. Murray initially approached Honda for a powerplant with 550 bhp (410 kW; 560 PS), 600 mm (23.6 in) block length and a total weight of 250 kg (551 lb), it should be derived from the Formula One powerplant in the then-dominating McLaren/Honda cars.
When Honda refused, Isuzu, then planning an entry into Formula One, had a 3.5 V12 engine being tested in a Lotus chassis. The company was very interested in having the engine fitted into the F1. However, the designers wanted an engine with a proven design and a racing pedigree.
- 0-30 mph (48 km/h): 1.8 s
- 0–60 mph (97 km/h): 3.2 s
- 0–100 mph (160 km/h): 6.3 s
- 0–124.28 mph (200.01 km/h): 9.4 s
- 0–150 mph (240 km/h): 12.8 s
- 0–200 mph (320 km/h): 28 s
- 30 mph (48 km/h)-50 mph (80 km/h): 1.8 s, using 3rd/4th gear
- 30 mph (48 km/h)-70 mph (110 km/h): 2.1 s, using 3rd/4th gear
- 40 mph (64 km/h)-60 mph (97 km/h): 2.3 s, using 4th/5th gear
- 50 mph (80 km/h)-70 mph (110 km/h): 2.8 s, using 5th gear
- 180 mph (290 km/h)-200 mph (320 km/h): 7.6 s, using 6th gear
- 0–400 m: 11.1 s at 138 mph (222 km/h)
- 0–1000 m: 19.6 s at 177 mph (285 km/h)
- With rev limiter on: 231 mph (372 km/h)
- With rev limiter removed: 243 mph (391 km/h)