Summoning the spirit of Major Tom, we take McLaren’s most refined supercar to England’s industrial birthplace. Words: Adam Hay-Nicholls.
I went to the David Bowie musical Lazarus with a thunderbolt painted on my face. I also arrived in transportation fit for a Starman: a McLaren 570GT. In sparking silver with dark accents, it seemed to suit the noir intergalactic mysteries our hero described on Blackstar.
Stepping out from under the McLaren’s swan-like doors, you feel like an astronaut arriving on a new planet, or perhaps that you just punched through to a new dimension. This is what luxury car makers refer to as a sense of occasion, but let’s call it what it really is; showing off. Yet there’s a lot more substance to the 570GT than you might imagine.
This is a machine with the performance to merit the badge. McLaren don’t make SUVs and saloons, unlike some of their competitors on road and track. McLaren are in the business of making two-seat supercars. You could argue they have more in common with Lockheed Martin than Aston Martin. These are weapons-grade motors, though the GT in this 570’s name hints that you’ll be flexing the laws of physics in total comfort.
The 570S version is stripped-out, lightweight, designed purely for thrills. The GT comes with comfier leather chairs, more luggage space, better sound insulation and other creature comforts, plus some chassis and steering tweaks to make it more refined. With narrower door sills, it’s also easier to climb in and out. This is the most luxurious McLaren to date. However, don’t for one minute think that it feels compromised.
With the 570GT, McLaren have created a £154,000 sports car that is every bit as arresting and rewarding as its more powerful sibling, the £195k 650S, and can match far more sober GTs for cross-continent mile-munching. At 1,350kg it’s easily the lightest Gran Turismo on the market. I suppose the concept is a Louboutin in which you could run a marathon.
While other models are best enjoyed with the aid of a private race track, the 570GT is McLaren’s something for the weekend. There’s 220 litres of luggage space behind the seats, leather-lined and accessed through a natty glass hatch built into the flowing fastback, and an additional 150 litres under the bonnet. The engine, like all Macs, is mid-mounted for perfect balance. They’ve therefore been rather clever in creating the ‘touring deck’ behind the driver’s head. Customized luggage is, of course, available which makes maximum use of the volume. What this means is, true to GT form, you can get sufficient supplies in here for the blast down to your Umbrian villa.
My destination was, admittedly, a little less jet set. Shropshire. Still, when steering one of the finest examples of Blighty-born state-of-the-art engineering, Ironbridge seems a pretty apt place to aim for. It was here, in this gorge, that the Industrial Revolution was kick-started, when a man named Abraham Derby perfected the technique of smelting iron with coke, thus allowing cheaper and more plentiful iron production.
There’s nothing cheap and plentiful when it comes to McLaren’s production philosophy, but perfection is key. Attention to detail is engrained in McLaren’s DNA to frankly irritating levels. Ron Dennis, the founder of McLaren Automotive, has what many people would describe as an illness. The slightest imperfection is met with contempt. He once boasted that they could scientifically prove McLaren had built the best performance car in the world. I wouldn’t doubt that, but there is more to building a perfect car than science. It needs soul.
This is where intellectual McLaren road cars fail to excite the loins in the same way as a passionate Ferrari. However, things are starting to change at McLaren. For one, Ron’s gone.
Dennis should take credit for everything McLaren has achieved, which is an awful lot, but for whatever reason the board decided to stage a coup and are looking to retain the characteristics of excellence that Ron instilled while bringing a renewed element of flexibility, fun, maybe even cool. It’s too early to tell if they’ll end up missing the 69-year-old mechanic-turned-entrepreneur, but the cars they have in the pipeline suggest their sense of ambition is undiminished.
There’s also the company’s manufacturing expansion, which must feel like a grand prix win to the government. Regular (prime) ministerial visits to the factory affirm the brand’s importance to UK trade and industry. In addition to the Foster-designed facilities in Woking, Surrey, where over 5,000 people are employed by the McLaren Technology Group, a further 200 auto workers will be hired to staff its proposed £50 million composites manufacturing plant in Sheffield, which will come online in 2020. There, they will build what is at the heart of the 570GT and the rest of the range – not the engine, but the innovative carbon fibre monocoque. It’s what makes this car so light, agile and stiff.
Bag packed, I pull down the dihedral driver’s door – ooh, the sense of occasion – and fire up the 3.8 twin-turbo. I dart through London traffic, open up the eight cylinders on the motorway, then spear off as soon as I hit Oxfordshire to chuck the GT down some Cotswolds’ lanes, activating Sport mode and setting some of its 562 horses loose.
The panoramic glass roof makes the cabin airy, while the driver-focused design has a suitably cockpit feel, so you sense you’re on a daring mission without the claustrophobia. The driving position was probably designed by a chiropractor; it’s perfect. The floating central console and seven-inch touchscreen is ergonomic and fairly intuitive, though some of the features take a while to discover.
Approaching Shropshire, I cue up Bowie’s The Next Day. McLaren have collaborated with Bowers & Wilkins to produce a 12-speaker surround audio system that boasts two carbon-fibre subwoofers, Kevlar drive units and aluminium tweeters. Like the GT, it subscribes to high-volume low-weight.
Ironbridge sits in a wooded valley through which the River Severn runs, and its namesake Iron Bridge is the region’s landmark. It was built by Abraham Derby’s grandson, Abraham Derby III, in 1779. I check into the White Hart Inn, and then shoot up to Blists Hill, where a mock Victorian town sits on the site of early blast furnaces, iron and fire clay mines. It’s the scene of a huge annual fireworks display, where people like to dress up in 18th Century costumes.
It’s an incongruous location for my alien wheels. I feel a bit like Marty McFly in Back To The Future, when he crashes his DeLorean into a barn and onlookers from the past think he must have sprung from the pages of science fiction.
The 570GT is perfectly capable of creating its own fireworks. The top speed is 204mph. Sixty arrives in 3.3 seconds – two-tenths down on the skimpier 570S, but still blistering – and hits 100mph in a phenomenal 6.6.
It sprints, steers, grips and brakes with immense confidence and connection. It’s forceful but not intimidating. It doesn’t dance and talk to you to quite the same extent as the Ferrari 488, and the engine chorus isn’t as magical as those from Maranello, but it’s 9.5 out of ten.
McLaren Automotive are getting into their design groove. Yes, the racing marque had already produced the stunning F1 and Mercedes-badged SLR, but the first car to come off the sub-brand’s production line was the MP4-12C, which was lovely and everything but a bit generic-looking and forgettable. Now design tsar Frank Stephenson, who drew the new Mini before joining McLaren in 2008, is really starting to swagger. The 570 is truly distinctive, and the forthcoming 720S, which was unveiled at this month’s Geneva Motor Show, takes that identity a step further still.
McLaren is building cars that make British industry proud and, most importantly, a craft deserving of all the Ziggy Stardusts that Bowie left behind.