The McLaren F1 is a $20 million car today, and it remains the ultimate representation of the Professor's genius. At least until Gordon Murray's next supercar, the T.50, arrives. When it comes to comparably great automotive achievements of that early nineties era, none came as close to representing one man's vision of the perfect sports car as the F1. And because that one man is a highly successful race car engineer obsessed with lightweight design, the F1's performance, proportions, functional jewelry and multiple levels of built-in wow factors put McLaren's offer well above anything else on four wheels. Even if the economic downturn meant production had to stop after just 107 cars instead of the planned 300.

Because of all this, it may feel as if the McLaren F1 has already been covered from every possible angle.

Sure enough, catching up on the F1's story couldn't be easier. We talked to owners, drivers and the team behind it to dig as deep as possible. McLaren also produced a great film about its unbeatable 1995 Le Mans victory, with all the key figures involved. We then told the tale of how F1 XP5 became the last non Volkswagen product to break the speed record at Ehra-Lessien, and visited Kevin Hines, the only man qualified to service McLaren F1s in the United States. There's also Driving Ambition.

But reading a book will never beat a chat with Mark Roberts, McLaren's ninth employee, who came up with all the logos, fonts and drawings that make up the F1's outstanding graphics package, including the exploded blueprints. Without using computers.

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McLaren

What is rarely mentioned is that McLaren poached quite a few people from Lotus in order to get the car known back then as 'Project 1' going. In those post-bankruptcy days, Lotus Engineering was an R&D powerhouse owned by General Motors under Bob Lutz. And for a brief moment in 1987, it also seemed that they may create a mid-engined carbon fiber supercar called the M300. But after this Cadillac-powered 200mph proposal got shelved by GM in 1988, car designer Peter Stevens, graphic designer Mark Roberts, clay modeler Gordon Shrigley, packaging master Barry Lett and chassis guru Mark Masters all left Hethel to get on Ron Dennis' payroll at Woking.

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Lotus M300 full scale model, 1987.
Peter Stevens

Today, Mark Roberts is Head of Design Operations at McLaren Automotive, but his career there all started with a hand-written letter to Murray in 1989:

I was at Lotus, and I heard through the industry network that Gordon Murray was putting together a team of people to build the ultimate drivers’ car. A lot of people think of the F1 as "the fastest car in the world." It was never ever designed for that. It was designed to be the ultimate driving experience. I was working at Lotus on a program called M300, which was probably along the same lines, and when I heard McLaren is going to do one, I thought "I gotta get involved." It shows how long ago it was, end of 1989…I wrote in a letter! That’s how ancient it was, a hand-written letter. I did that, he invited me down for an interview, and offered me the job, on the day. A couple of month later, we had a starting day. We started in April, 1990.
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I was doing technical illustrations at Lotus. This is ancient, but these kind of exploded illustrations, and stuff like that. Graphic design, technical illustration. So, it was getting the engineers’ drawings, putting it all together, and drawing it up. Gordon needed someone to do that, because he saw the value of a sort of Bible for the car. But what I loved with the brief at McLaren is that it was way-way more than that. I got involved working with Peter Stevens, who was the design chief, and I was working with all of the other engineers, which to me felt like a family union. We operated like a tiny little family, and that’s what made it really special.

After a big organization like Lotus, I was number nine at McLaren. It was very different, and we all played a key part. At the very beginning, Gordon let us settle in for a couple of weeks, and then he gathered us up on one Friday, and we did like a ten-hour meeting, where he basically did this complete brain dump of what the F1 was going to be. We didn’t even have a name at that point. But the first thing he said was the central driving seat, and we were all…"wow, that’s pretty radical." And then he said it’s definitely going to have a naturally-aspirated engine, and he wanted that to be a V-12. He had very-very fixed opinions about the whole thing, and he said it will take all of the design philosophy and all the learnings of Formula One, composites, carbon fiber, etc. So, it’s going to be the first all composite, carbon fiber road car. And we were absolutely stunned, as we all thought this was amazing. We were all given our tasks: you look after this, you sort that.
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One of the first jobs we had was–because there was no internet yet–to gather all the magazines, and research what other vehicles are out there, and what the overall package is of those cars. Look into what the footprint of the car would be, the proportions. Width, length, which are absolutely crucial. Find out what the horsepower figures are at all of the competitors. Things like F40, Porsche 959, EB110, Cizeta-Moroder V16T, some quite quirky cars! In the 1990s, there was this big push with all those supercars. The XJ220…there were just lots around we talked about. Not all made it into production. We made this old school, hand-written database with of all the stats, put it together and started looking at what the ideal footprint would be for the car. Mansour Ojjeh (CEO of TAG, co-owner of the McLaren Formula One team - Ed.) had a BMW M1, and it was in the building.

He also had a Porsche 959, but it was the M1 Gordon really-really liked in terms of proportions. He felt like on the road, it had enough supercar presence, but it wasn’t a Countach. It wasn’t oversized, and you know, some of those cars, you can’t see out of, so they are just impractical. He wanted the F1 to be drivable every day, and so visibility was absolutely key. And Gordon was right on this, because visibility is actually an aid to performance. All the horsepower in world means nothing if you’re not confident driving the car. If you can’t see the road, it’s going to limit your performance. Here, you sit in the middle of the car, and you have a 180-degree view in front of you. Okay, the rear visibility is slightly challenged still, but in terms of the frontal view, it had to be ten out of ten. And it’s the most natural. You sit in the middle, and it’s just 100-percent correct. You don’t even think about your positioning.

Roberts is perhaps best known for creating the McLaren F1's Owners Manuals. These books are almost as rare as the cars themselves, and cost McLaren roughly $500 to make in 1992 money, due to all the complicated printing methods they threw at it.

In fact, Mark's personal copy is the result of a mistake made by Gordon Murray:

The manuals are quite rare, and it’s only the owners who are aware of these. One or two may have appeared on eBay or something, but this is a reject. Gordon used to hand write these, because there were so few of them. He would also sign them at the end. I think this is one where he might have got a number wrong, or maybe something changed. So it was like: "oh shit, we need to scrap this one." But I’ve looked after it.
For me, doing the owner’s manual was the dream brief. Gordon said go out, look at what the opposition is doing, and do something significantly better. And because the nature of the car was all hand-crafted and attention to detail, I thought the owners manual would be perfect if rather than digital images or photographs, we would do watercolors and pencil drawings. And again, because the car was so unusual with the central driving seat, it needed instructions for getting in and out of the car. I hate to see humans in manuals as well, because why have all this technology, sculpture and art, but you see a photograph of a human in it, it takes away your focus, and doesn’t look right. So I thought crash dummies would be really cool. It seemed to make sense, so we put crash dummies in it. We used a mate of mine I went to college with. He helped me take some of the images and with the artwork, putting it all together. And it was so funny. He was an obsessive cyclist, so he was a skinny guy. I can still see his face when I was actually taking the photos: "Dave, Dave, Dave, move towards me". And that drawing became kind of iconic among those who know about it. The "How to get in and out of an F1."

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There was no real budget, in a positive way. I said when a yellow light comes on, why don’t we print it in yellow, and spot color it? And the highlights…we’d spot UV things, and threw every print process at the paper to make it have real texture and quality to it. I think they cost about £400 each, almost thirty years ago. As a book, it would have retailed for a thousand back then.

I was able to indulge myself and say "Hey, why don’t we do this?" And nobody was stopping me. Gordon is a big Bob Dylan fan, and again, it was a lovely opportunity for me. Okay: you’re doing a serious book for people who spent half a million pounds on a car twenty odd years ago. But it allowed us to add a bit of personality and humor. And I said "we got a real opportunity here Gordon, and I figure you want a Dylan CD, but which one do you want?" And he went "It’s gotta be Street Legal", which makes a lot of sense. And I hid a few other things as well. XP3 has just done 231 miles per hour, so I thought for the trip total we put 2.31. It was a 6.1-liter engine, the BMW V-12, so again, the trip meter reads 6.1. I just like it. Silly things like that. There must be some other things I hid in there, but of course some real old school guys did this long before me with their illustrations. There would be things like a wiring diagram or a routing diagram where someone would put a snake’s head, and other crazy stuff like that.
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Of course the graphics job went well beyond producing exclusive books and brochures. Extensive parts catalogues had to be drawn for the racing program, while on the car, everything from the instrument cluster through the small car on the rear wing knob to the GTR logo's font was Mark's creation. And learning more about his work only makes you wonder how this team went into production with the F1 in less than three years:

The instrument cluster is another nice one. I designed the instrument pack, and again, it seems so old fashioned now, but it was all done by hand. Pen and ink, and typography. I’d lay the letterset out, and then position the individual numbers by eye. It was a real challenge to get the visual balance right. Then, we photo-etched them into aluminum. On XP5, it’s just in kilometers per hour. The master one has miles per hour on the outside, which you can see on the XP1 LM. Graphically, it looks much nicer, because its proportion is just better. This version came later. Obviously, just like a race car, we wanted a big rev counter in the middle, because that’s your real focus. And you only need to see the key numbers, the 1-2-3-4-5, and then, to balance out over on the other side, the little warning lights. Maximum revs 7500 on the road car, slightly higher on the LM. Acid-etched into aluminum, it’s a beautiful lightweight piece. On the LM, it looks even cooler. I did it in carbon, engraved it and then filled it with white, so it’s reversed. Some customers chose those for their road cars. The hands are all machined.

Even now, if you do something with a digital software, it will preempt the spacing, and it doesn’t look right. You need the human element, you need to modify it yourself to get it absolutely correct. I studied technical illustration. I’m not a car designer, I studied illustration and graphic design. That was my background, exploded engine drawings and the sort, you know. And the other thing is, you couldn’t have photographed this, because it didn’t exist. In the old days, this was visualization. You’d have blueprints, or engineer’s drawings, and I’d put together a side view and a front view, I would stitch together these illustrations, and turn them into a 3D representation on paper. So, the guys who designed and did the actual engineering drawings of the part saw their work the first time through my illustrations.
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On the F1 logo, we spent two or three days. Gordon was thinking about what we'd call the car, and with the F40 out, he liked the idea of calling it an F1. But also, because of McLaren’s history and background, that was quite a quick decision. We were all just playing around, sketching logos, and I think two or three of us could claim to have done it. Between us, it just came out. It’s a nice graphic, a simple logo. The font, I remember. OCD…Univers 67. It’s a condensed font, kind of a real classic, but it still looks quite contemporary. It just seemed right for the car. Aluminum, machined from solid, black anodized.

I did the livery of the 1995 test car, the GTR. We just flipped the colors, our historic orange and silver. There was a bit of influence from Ron (Dennis), as he always liked his silvers and grays. So we did that as a shakedown car. The GTR logo was mine, and that seemed to work really well.
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Henry Winkworth-SmithInstagram
And then the graphics for "The World’s Fastest Production Car". So, I had to cut all those individual numbers, and get the graphics all ready, because we knew we would hit a high speed, but we didn’t know if we'd beat the opposition out there. So I had all sort of combinations of what it could be, and on the other side, it was in kilometers per hour, so I was trying to work out how many threes we need, and how many twos? And in the end, it was 243, which was brilliant.

Functional jewelry is what the F1 is all about, and all of the controls are about the driver. Gordon and I spent about a week in the car, in the seating buck, and we were looking at all the generic ergonomics. What motion would work better, what comes naturally. And rather than having just a variable control, you want a bit of detents, little clicks giving you more control. You don’t have to look down, you’ve got one-two-three clicks, so you can remain focused on the drive. The way you’re sitting in the car, holding the steering wheel, you also need everything to be easy to reach. Everything has to be focused around you, so you can look constantly ahead, and if you want to twitch the controls, you can set up the car pretty easily. Gordon wanted the key touch points, the handbrake and the gearshift to not be cold. You know, you start the car up on a cold morning, and that’s not ideal, so he wanted to have a bit of warmth about it. Because he’s from South Africa, he chose this African black wood, which is really nice, and has a slightly warm finish and feel to it. And we did the same for the test car on the gear knob, but then what he wanted to do is put an element of damping into this, so when you’re going through the gears, it’s actually got I think a little oil-filled damper inside so that there’s no harshness to it.

When you have the whole car as an overview, you can interrogate it to whatever level you want...
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The other thing was weight, as well. With the whole car, we were just obsessed with it, so every component is listed by weight. If you look at the catalog, 0.008 kg would be a fixing, or something. Every part would have been rejected by Gordon two or three times. He would say things like "Yeah, I like the look of it, but it’s too heavy. You need to make a few changes, put lightening holes in it." When Kenwood came over, they brought over an amplifier, and said this was their latest, and they were really delighted with it. We picked it up and thought "my goodness, it’s really heavy!" Gordon have it to me to take it down to the workshop, and during the afternoon meeting, the workshop manager set it up on a CNC cutter, and he machined all of the material away from it. Later on, I gave it back to Gordon, and he said "yeah, that’s better". The Kenwood guys were puzzled about how we’ve done this, it was very funny. The other thing was that they came up with new magnets that were super lightweight as well. Funny enough, the unit doesn’t have a balance dial. Gordon kept telling them we don’t need one, and when they saw the car, they got it.

When it came to the engine, there was talk about Honda, as they powered the Formula One cars at the time, and it would have been a logical conclusion. The NSX was a really good benchmark car as well. Gordon was really impressed with the gearshift. The actual movement of the shifter, he really liked. He took some dimensions off it, so that had an influence. We thought "hey, maybe we could put two NSX engines together, make a six-liter V-12?" But that wasn’t meant to be. BMW came along, and that was fantastic. The best engine.
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Gordon wanted some of the finishes to be anodized. Nobody except a service technician or maybe an odd customer would ever see it. If you’re undoing a number of fixes and take the whole thing out, underneath it, there are purple and gold anodized components of the gear shift. I love that, because Gordon could actually see a situation where somebody is having his car serviced, and go: "What are you up to? I’m just taking this out. Wow, look at that! Awesome!" It was a really nice touch.

The McLaren F1 was pretty much the last supercar made before CAD took over industrial design forever, and it would be great to know exactly how many pencils Murray's team chewed through between April 1990 and the F1's debut at the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix. But before they could celebrate there, Mr. Roberts had to leave drawings and custom fonts behind in favor of medium-format photography:

I went to the quarry in Wales with our photographer Colin Curwood, and we spent a week with the show car. It had an engine, but it’s not a running car at all. It had an interior, with doors you could open, and there’s are a few subtle exterior differences compared to the production cars.

It was great fun. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this. I actually invited my wife there, for the weekend. I told her we were going away for the weekend, but I didn’t mention it was for a photo shoot. We built kind of a patio, and we got Colin strapped up to this hopper, so he could take a shot hanging on top of it. And that became one of the hero pictures of the brochure.

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Then came the Saturday evening of the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix, and the genie was about to get out of the bottle:

We had two launches. A VIP first, and then straight after we did the press launch. We had the car on stage, and we built a false floor, which came down, giving the impression that the car was coming through the floor. With dry ice, and that sort of stuff. And then the lights came on, and I've loved it, because the first hit was the car. Just squire on, not on a turntable. And everybody went "Oh my god", and people were sort of rushing towards the stage. I remember Niki Lauda was one of the first ones to rush to the car. And then, we had a little light inside the cabin, which came on, you could see the seat, and straight away tell how it was a central driving seat. Then, there was a guy hiding inside, who popped both doors at the same time. The gas struts went "whoosh", and so we had three "oh my god moments".

Enjoying the benefits of having a successful Formula One team in house, McLaren F1 models spent quite some time in the wind tunnel before Gordon Murray and Peter Stevens could settle on their final design.

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Peter Stevens

Still, putting scale models and individual parts into an air stream using fluid dynamics isn't quite as effective on its own as modern, supercomputer-powered aerodynamic simulations can be. That's why one of McLaren's notes from 1993 included "Warning over 200." I had to ask Mark about that, and it turned out to be referring to a message sent home by one of the very first customer F1s, via its Bosch-supplied remote diagnostics modem:

There was a German customer who used his car a lot, commuting to work, with part of his journey going on the Autobahn. He started to ring in and complain, or express his concern about coming up with a buzzer. Like if there was a panel that opened, but when he stopped the car, it was totally fine. He couldn't understand. The team has diagnosed it, only to find out that he was doing over 200 miles per hour on every run, and so what was happening was the panel started lifting, giving the impression that the lock, or something else was going wrong. Of course when he slowed down, it went back to its place. It's just the extremes of doing over 200, but when we called back with "Sorry Sir, but you were doing over 200", he said "Yeah-yeah, I do that every day."

And grabbing that Nardi with confidence, wouldn't we all?

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