The Amazing McLaren MP4-12C

What happens when a championship-winning Formula 1 team decides to design, engineer, and produce a premium sports car for the consumer market? This: the McLaren MP4-12C.

While this resembles some sort of high-tech architectural rendering, it is actually the real McLaren Technical Centre (left) and the McLaren Production Centre (right). Within this complex, cars for the McLaren F1 team and the MP4-12C cars for consumers are created.

This is a car plant. A car plant unlike any production facility in the world. By mid-decade, plans call for McLaren Automotive to produce some 4,000 vehicles per year. As of Spring 2012 they are producing eight cars per day.

MP4-12Cs move through the assembly process on wheeled carts.
Note the lack of hoses, wires, robots, lifts, and other elements characteristic of an assembly plant. This is the way the plant actually looks. Just add workers.

Although it is designed and engineered to drive on ordinary roads, the MP4-12C is more than capable of running on tracks, such as this, the Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, which
you may be familiar with from watching Top Gear. (The Stig turned a 1:16.2 lap
in the car there.)

 Prior to joining McLaren Automotive in May, 1999, where he is now the chief engineer on the tour de force of design and engineering the McLaren MP4-12C, Neil Patterson was principal design engineer. At Daewoo. Which leads to a simple question: What’s the difference between working on a car like, say, a Leganza and something extraordinary like the MP4-12C?

And he responds: “When engineering a low-cost, mass production vehicle, the focus is so much more on cost.” (It should be noted that a base MP4-12C has a recommended retail price of $229,000. The price can be quickly walked up—via an array of carbon fiber accoutrements, such as engine cover and mirror casing, diffuser and spiller, seat backs and wheel arches, as well as special paint, wheels, etc.—to +$289,000.) He continues, “McLaren cars are different because we are never satisfied, so we organize the structure of the business to allow us to change and adapt very quickly so that if we see something in the marketplace that’s better, we try to remain adaptable to change things continuously. Wherever you sit in the organization, if you have an idea of how to make a product better, no one will stand in your way. Or if it is improving the process, no one will stand in your way.” He adds, “It’s quite great.”
You may still be wondering about that price.
It is no ordinary car. Not by the wildest stretch of the imagination. What’s more, this is a car that is predicated on design and engineering performance in a way that some cars in this commercial stratosphere aren’t. Although the country of origin doesn’t make this metaphor quite work, as the 12C was conceived at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, UK (which is where the cars for the championship-winning McLaren Racing Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Formula One team come from), the 12C is Bauhaus to their Baroque.
Everything works. Works hard. The approach at McLaren isn’t simply to do new things and to do them better, but to, as one employee at the Technology Centre put it, “optimize everything.”
Here’s something that is nothing short of astonishing: every switch and knob in the car, anything that the driver sees and touches, is specifically developed for McLaren. These switches aren’t carryovers from another vehicle.
That’s how detailed the design and engineering are for the 12C.
As a result of that, the 12C, with a McLaren-developed 592-hp twin-turbo V8 mounted behind the driver, will go 0 to 100 kph (62 mph) in 3.3 seconds, and 0 to 200 (124 mph) in 9.1 seconds. If you fully depress the accelerator—and you firmly grip the steering wheel, a steering wheel that is based on a CAD model that includes data from the grips of McLaren Formula 1 drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button—you can reach a top speed of 205 mph.
About the aforementioned optional carbon fiber elements.
It should be known that McLaren intro-duced the carbon fiber monocoque to Formula 1 in 1981. McLaren has built nothing but carbon-fiber-based cars ever since, and not only for its race cars. In 1993 McLaren introduced the McLaren F1 sports car, which had a carbon-fiber chassis. Then there was the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, which had a run from 2003 to 2009. During that period, McLaren built 2,153 cars.
It took about 3,000 hours to hand craft the carbon-fiber chassis for the F1. They were able to develop a process that allowed them to build a bonded carbon fiber chassis for the SLR in a tenth that time.
They are now producing what they’re calling the “MonoCell” for the 12C in four hours.
The production process for the MonoCell—resin transfer molding—is this: dry carbon fiber is loaded into a 35-ton steel tool, pressed, heated, then injected with epoxy resin. The component is cured then machined. The MonoCell weighs 75 kg (163 lb.), which they reckon is 25% lighter than a comparable aluminum chassis but 25% stiffer than an all-metal structure.
The MonoCell is produced for McLaren by Carbo Tech in a specially built facility in Salzburg, Austria.
Aluminum—extrusions and castings—are attached to the carbon fiber structure, forming the front and rear structures for the car. In the event of a collision, the aluminum structures absorb energy and crumple. They can be readily replaced.
Carbon fiber is for more than decoration in the 12C.
(The body panels are aluminum (fenders, hood, roof) and SMC.)
Development work on the car was done in a wide array of geographies. Think Italy, Sweden, Bahrain, the U.S., and South Africa. And especially the U.K., Spain, and Germany. This is pretty much par for the course of the development of any performance vehicle today: Which OEM doesn’t tout its testing at the Nürburgring?
And one place that OEMs tend not to do any development work: the Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, England. It is better known as the place that the Stig races cars for Top Gear. (The Stig did take out a production 12C and turned a 1:16.2 lap.)
One interesting thing that the development engineers did was duplicate the conditions that would be experienced at the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit at the Applus IDIADA proving ground in northern Spain, thereby providing the opportunity to test—sometimes 24/7—even during months when the German track was closed due to winter weather. According to Dick Glover, director of Research at McLaren Automotive, who’d come over to the Automotive side from the McLaren Racing side, by taking data such as lateral g performance, vertical road inputs, engine throttle position, and gearing, they were able to create a program for testing at the Spanish track that they called the “Idi-schleife Concept.”
Another means by which they developed the 12C was through the use of the simulator at the McLaren Technical Centre (conceived by Glover) that was developed for the Formula 1 cars. There is a 180° screen in front of the driver who is sitting in a full carbon-fiber monocoque. The driver interacts with pedals and the steering wheel. This is no gaming system on steroids, as there is comprehensive 
data related to such things as aerodynamics, engine mapping and tire mapping so that the simulation is exceedingly close to reality.
Patterson recalls that during the 12C development, “We found a particular handling characteristic where the ESC was intervening, our test drivers though, a bit too early, which is never good because that robs you of track time.” The discovery was made by drivers in an actual chassis mule vehicle. “They came back to the simulator to try to recreate the condition and were able to do so consistently.” So the data was analyzed, design modifications were made, and then the change was loaded into the simulator. They ran the simulation with the modification, then without, with, then without. They wanted to make sure that the change was effective. “Then and only then did we cut metal to put on the car,” Patterson says. “A lot of other companies wouldn’t have had enough time to do it iteratively, or they would have given up. We take advantage of the technology around us.”
And it is probably more than slightly convenient that what’s around them is 
a world-class racing team.
The V8 in the car was developed by McLaren with powertrain engineering specialist firm Ricardo. While it might seem odd that the company create a 3.8-liter, V8 with an aluminum block and heads rather than sourcing it elsewhere (after all, special knobs are one thing but a complete engine—which, incidentally, is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission made by Italian supplier Graziano, a transmission which can be switched between Normal, Sport and Track modes, which adjusts the shift points—is another), but Patterson says it simply made sense.
“When you start taking a base engine and adapting it to suit the needs of a particular vehicle,” he explains, “you soon get to the point where every element is changed. We had looked at other engines, but when you consider the cost of the investment for a carryover, it was better to do our own engine program that met our needs from the start.”
There are office buildings. There are factories. And then there are the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC) and the McLaren Production Centre (MPC). McLaren has spent approximately £800 million (say around $1.3-billion) since 2005 in establishing itself as a global car company; of that investment, £40-million was spent on the MPC. Both buildings were designed by Foster + Partners, headed by the legendary 
Sir Norman Foster.
These two buildings are tucked away in the landscape of Surrey; the build-ings are nothing short of architectural marvels in and of themselves. McLaren has been described as “75% NASA and 25% Disney”; the glass and alumi-num and white paint and grey tiles bring to mind NASA and Disney in the 22nd century. The 32,000-m2 MPC—a two-storey facility—is connected to the MTC via an underground tunnel. Of course.
Some automotive manufacturing plants let the assembly line workers wear whatever. Some automotive manufacturing plants have the assembly line workers wear uniforms. The MPC is probably the only automotive manufacturing plant where the assembly line workers wear black Hugo Boss outfits.
And “assembly line” isn’t precisely the right term, as the vehicles move through the facility on manually moved wheeled carts.
Lee Boyce, head of Operations Engineering, says the approach to producing the 12C is “Philosophically different than any car plant in the world.”
When we visit at the end of April there are about 400 people working in the MPC. “We didn’t want any industrialization,” Boyce says. “We want every individual to feel part of assembling the vehicle.” They are producing eight cars per day. A vehicle is in station for 45 minutes. It is nearly silent in the factory: No sound of compressors or welding. There are no robots. Painting is done manually. 
The plan going forward is to have the ability to build 4,000 cars—not all 12Cs, but variants, predicated on the MonoCell—by about 2015. That would be about 3 to 4% of the global premium sports car market.
“It sounds very romantic, but it is damned hard.” That’s Greg Levine, McLaren Automotive director of Sales and Marketing, talking about creating a whole new car company.
And the MP4-12C and the entire operation are damned amazing.