Mar 13, 2019
Insight: McLaren Automotive CEO Mike Flewitt Talks GT, Supercars And Brand Building
by Nargess Banks
McLaren Automotive has been exhibiting at the Geneva Motor Show for only three years. I recall the first pavilion – a modest stand on the top deck alongside the design consultants and tuners. This year, this young British maker of exclusive performance cars occupied an impressive spot on the main landing alongside Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin.
The full model lineup were on display here as the company used the occasion to announce a completely new model, a McLaren grand tourer. Although very little was visually revealed on the press day other than this camouflage car, it will sit separately to the current Sports, Super and Ultimate Series. What’s more, when it is fully shown in May, the grand tourer will share its proportions with the exotic, almost deco-styled Speedtail – a car created to honor the original McLaren F1. I caught up with the chief executive officer Mike Flewitt to discover more about the grand tourer and to find out how he sees McLaren evolving in the coming years.
Nargess Banks: McLaren has pioneered a visual language anchored around carbon fiber - and it will be interesting to see how the team interprets a grand tourer. What can you reveal about this car?
Mike Flewitt: It is a car designed for distance and one that will also provide the comfort and space expected of a grand tourer, but with a level of agility never experienced before in this segment. It will also be the lightest of grand tourers and, by having the best power-to-weight ratio, I promise it will be one of the quickest.
NB: Tell me about the design.
MF: With our motorsport and Formula One heritage, the grand tourer is a little less intuitive than our track cars. The whole design language is different with a grand tourer. It is such an evocative shape that takes me back to the cars I loved from the 60s. Ours will be a grand tourer with a sporty edge. It will be the best driver’s car but remain a luxury grand tourer. We sell cars emotionally to people and I am sure the grand tourer will add to that. Wait until you see the car properly in a couple of months. It is beautiful!
NB: Was a grand tourer always in the product plan?
MF: It wasn’t when we started the company in 2011, but plans evolve. When we did the 570S we also made a GT derivative with a fastback body style. We loved this car and the feedback from customers was that they love to see us do a grand tourer for it is more comfortable, luxurious and usable. Our cars are track focused and raw – so it makes sense to add a product in the other direction. Funnily everyone always asks if we are planning an SUV – and no we are not - but never a grand tourer which to me feels like a much more natural evolution.
NB: Who will drive this new car and how many are planned?
MF: We see a great number of our grand tourer customers to be new to the brand – people for whom our cars are possibly a bit too extreme. We will build around 500 cars this year and we will see what the demand is. We are limited to making 5,000 cars a year, that is 20 cars a day because of our production capacity (at the center in Woking, UK). By 2024, we intend to increase this and the customer will define the product mix and volume.
NB: The US is your strongest market with some 40% of buyers coming from the east and west coasts of the country. Surely a grand tourer will add to the allure – especially on the open roads of California.
MF: The BMW i8 is a huge success in California as it fits their roads and lifestyles, so yes we see our new car helping build brand awareness in the US.
NB: You appear to be successfully navigating the Track 2025 plan you have set to produce 18 new models and derivatives by 2024 to include a range of hybrid-electric drivetrains. Do you have plans for a pure electric performance McLaren – much like some of the inspired electric supercars we see on the halls of Geneva this year?
MF: In those 18 cars, there isn’t a full electric vehicle. Having said that, we do believe electric is where the market will go. I don’t know if it will be a 100% in the supercar world which relies on customer demand, but certainly the bulk of the industry will go towards this. We have a mule car, an old 12C re-engineered with battery power to help us understand the technology. We are talking with partners too.
NB: What are the challenges for a McLaren electric car, after all your cars are all about weight reduction and ultimate aerodynamics?
MF: Electric vehicles can have reasonable battery range as commuter cars, but the reality is if you drive these supercars properly, they won’t have much range. Also, the battery power weighs so much, which takes away from the efficiency. Therefore, we really need to work on the technology quite considerably before we launch our car as we don’t want to compromise. It won’t be long after 2025 before we deliver our first electric vehicle.
NB: You have, however, committed to introducing hybrid engines, which still require an additional battery on-board. What are the challenges there?
MF: There are two – weight and cost. As a company, we set ourselves high targets and as the new hybrid content adds weight, the challenge we've placed on our engineers is to make sure our first series hybrid will come in at almost the same as the car it replaces. I do believe we can be within 30 to 40 kg by reducing bulk in other areas such as the sub-frame, seats or wheels. I passionately believe that weight is the enemy of sports cars.
NB: What’s fascinating about McLaren is that each new product is better than the one before. Your standards are so high that you are almost in competition with yourself. How does this logistically work?
MF: We run fairly short life-cycles of our cars because we want to constantly be at the forefront of technology. As soon as we deliver a car, our engineers are working on the next and we will keep launching better and better cars.
NB: McLaren has a long history in motorsports and F1, but you have only been making road cars for seven years. Now you have a full family of sports cars, supercars and hypercars which sell well around the world. What’s your next move?
MF: We have seen incredible growth, some 44% last year and band awareness has grown enormously in these seven years. To put it in perspective, we are 10% of Ferrari’s life which turned 70 recently! Compared to Porsche or Ferrari, McLaren is not as widely known worldwide and we need to raise awareness and grow demand. This involves a whole range of activities from traditional shows like here in Geneva, to the more exclusive events, as well as digital communications. Give us a bit of time and we will catch up with them.
NB: Do you see this as also involving more customer engagement?
MF: By May we would have sold some 20,000 cars to date, so there is a customer base. We will now concentrate on doing more activities with them – social events around the world and track driving. We want to grow this aspect of our business, as people who buy our cars want to have a relationship with McLaren as well as other customers who share the same hobbies and values.
NB: Will this involve more of a focus on your McLaren Special Operations bespoke division?
MF: Absolutely. Our customers are increasingly wanting to be involved in the design process and bespoke the cars. MSO’s business has tripled in the last two years from creating special paints and trims, to modifying body panels and even making new vehicles. Without growing our total volume, we can build on this area. It makes each car even more exclusive and our customers become more engaged with the product.
McLaren displayed samples of its collection of cars at Geneva
McLaren displayed samples of its collection of cars at the 2019 Geneva Motor ShowMCLAREN AUTOMOTIVE
NB: Do you see the company making McLaren boats or planes in the future? It feels like a natural fit given your pioneering carbon technology and engineering knowhow?
MF: There are people who think we should do exclusive speedboats, but we have enough on our plate.
NB: How would you describe your buyers?
MF: It really is different around the world. In the east coast of America, they are the traditional 50-year-old male supercar buyer, while the west coast has a broader demographic. In Asia, the buyers are much younger and in China, where people my age don’t typically buy super cars, the customers are their sons and daughters – 25 year olds!
NB: Do you worry about the millennial and younger generations losing their love of the motor car?
MF: In the transportation business those trends will be very different - ours though is the entertainment business. Our cars appeal to people who want to have fun with cars and that will always be the case.
NB: Supercars need to be driven. What is your position on the driverless car of the near future?
MF: We don’t see a fully autonomous McLaren. Saying that, we are incorporating autonomous technology and systems especially around safety and efficiency. I could imagine an extreme day when you need to have autonomous capabilities when it is mandatory in cities, but we still want to provide the freedom for customers to drive our supercars.
Read about the McLaren Speedtail here and the company's latest involvement with Belstaff
I cover cars and design — and where they intersect.
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