Kevin Hackett tours the British auto maker's £50 million state-of-the-art production facility in Surrey, England.
MP4-12C assembly line is ruthlessly efficient and totally McLaren
The sight of cutting-edge architecture as you approach McLaren's UK headquarters never fails to impress. It's a stunning building from the outside and 10 times more impressive when you're within its steel and glass facade.
It's been two years since my last visit to McLaren Technology Centre (MTC) in Woking, Surrey. Sat in a crowd of hundreds of international journalists to see the covers being whipped off the MP4-12C, I heard and saw the company's almost mythical boss, Ron Dennis, saying he wanted us all to judge this car by its abilities rather than how it looks. He told us that construction of the McLaren Production Centre (MPC) was just getting under way and that soon this fledgling company would be building thousands of technically superior cars every year.
Dennis is many things, not least a man of his word. Barely 18 months after the bulldozers moved in, MPC was officially opened by the UK prime minister, David Cameron, and nine 12Cs are rolling out of it every day. Connected to MTC via an underground tunnel, it's that rarest of car factories: one that was designed and built, like the car, using a clean sheet of paper. "Most of the time," says managing director Antony Sheriff, "car manufacturers have to install production facilities that fit in with an existing infrastructure and buildings that have, sometimes, been decades old. With MPC we had the incredible advantage of designing something totally bespoke, totally McLaren."
When he says "totally McLaren", it's easy to see what he's getting at. MTC, where McLaren develops and builds its F1 race cars (as well as having been used to build the ground-levelling F1 supercar and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren), is like a huge science lab. Practically every surface is white (Dennis famously says something is either clean or dirty and white should remain white) and acres of glass allow natural light to pour in. Clinical, pristine and minimalist, MPC was bound to follow suit; bound to be totally McLaren.
The MPC, despite working at full tilt, is a hushed place of concentration. I've visited other car factories where a similar number of vehicles are produced (like Lamborghini, for instance), and they're noisy and sometimes a bit chaotic. Not here. That would not be very McLaren. Instead, there's a small army of engineers hand-assembling MP4-12Cs, each mounted on wheeled dolly frames. There's no automated lines, no screeching machinery, just peace, quiet and a lot of white.
At one end there is McLaren Special Operations, where individual orders for bespoke cars are taken care of. "Our official line," says Sheriff, "is that anything is possible for a price. So long as the engineering integrity remains totally intact, you can have whatever you want." A 12C's nose is protruding from under a sheet and it's evidently been treated to a special design; that's as much as I'm allowed to see, but it's obvious that everything that happens here has to meet the strictest standards of quality control. Dennis wouldn't have it any other way.
Even the cabinets that house the components used to piece together each car were designed by him. They have curved, rather than squared, edges, and have hidden wheels that make them appear afloat on the factory floor. They're also the exact height for the head of operations to see over them, enabling him to survey everything that's going on, spot problems straight away and deal with them. If a car is found to have any flaw whatsoever during its build process, it's simply wheeled away so production isn't held up.
This place is actually carbon neutral thanks to its processes - a shrine to world-class engineering that shows that Britain can still be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to manufacturing. It's simple, spotless and ruthlessly efficient. It's totally McLaren.