McLaren, the British carmaker of championship-winning Formula One cars and supercars such as McLaren F1 or the new two-seater sports MP4-12C, has made a £780m bet that it can cut it in mainstream manufacturing.
Such is the company’s confidence that it claims that the setting up of an all-new British car company is only the tip of its ambition. Even before its new car factory is finished, McLaren is already working with the healthcare and sports industries and has set its sights on aerospace.
It is easy to pick holes in McLaren’s lofty goals – after all, the company made only 2,500 of its last road car in three years, a collaboration with Mercedes called the SLR, and it now plans to build 5,000 a year by 2015.
The company also has the cushion of wealthy and devoted investors such as the Bahrain sovereign wealth fund and its own executive chairman, Ron Dennis. It has not been touring the banks cap-in-hand like other small British engineering companies trying to keep their business going in tough times.
But McLaren says it sees the new MP4-12C, the two-seater sports car at the heart of the £780m investment, as a “standard bearer” for expanding into other areas of manufacturing. The ultimate aim is to keep the company going if or when Formula One comes to an end.
McLaren has spent about $70 million on a new production facility next to its glass-and-steel headquarters in Woking, both of which were designed by Norman Foster.
The sleek new facility is an adjunct to McLaren’s Technology Centre at the UK HQ, which Mr. Foster also designed and built for the company.
It now has 1,000 employees, 500 of whom work for McLaren Automotive, the road car company, and will hire another 300 technicians and production engineers for the new facility when it opens in 2011.
In contrast with mass-production car factories, McLaren’s new facility will have no robots and very little automation other than a conveyor belt for bringing the cars through the heat process in the paint shop. The cars will be hand-sprayed.
“It’s part of our manufacturing philosophy, the hand-built craftsmanship and personal pride,” said Alan Foster, operations director.
There is more to McLaren’s decision to keep heavy machinery to a minimum than its principles, he says. It gives the company flexibility in what it can use the factory to build.
A new car, or derivative of a model, is planned every year for the next five years, and Mr Foster is thinking beyond that. “I don’t know what a car looks like in 15 years time,” he said. “It could be electric, it could be anything.”
At the heart of the MP4-12C, which will set you back £175,000, is what Mr Foster calls “the bathtub,” a single-piece carbon fibre structure that he says makes the car lighter (100 kilos lighter than the Ferrari 458), stronger and more fuel-efficient than its rivals.
The “mono-cell”, its official name, is hollow but has been passed as strong enough to protect the passengers of a 600-horsepower vehicle that can travel at 170 miles an hour.
McLaren first took carbon fibre from the aerospace industry in 1981, because both sides are obsessed with losing weight for fuel efficiency.
McLaren is now “far ahead,” Mr Foster said. “We’ve got companies such as Boeing looking to talk to us and to come to see what we’ve done.”
It is very quiet inside the curved glass walls of McLaren’s building, engineers work on the improvements to next week’s Formula One racing car behind opaque glass, and James Bond-style secret rooms are reached through doors without handles.
In this environment, the company’s ambitions to lead the world of manufacturing by selling cars to the super-rich can seem fairly far removed from reality. But McLaren already has 3,000 registrations of serious interest for the McLaren MP4-12C supercar, and the company successfully raised £260m of financing earlier this year.
“This is not a short-term gain,” Mr Foster admits. “But our investors back what we have done. There’s no going back to Britain’s industrial past, but maybe this is what manufacturing looks like in the future.”