Icons of Speed: McLaren F1

Once again, McLaren have created the sort of car that will have six year olds adorn their bedrooms with posters and toys of for generations.
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Once again, McLaren have created the sort of car that will have six year olds adorn their bedrooms with posters and toys of for generations.

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When it comes to being a speed icon the top speed of a car isn’t just important, it’s critical. Talk about acceleration and ‘in gear’ performance all you like, but for the inner eight year-old, it’s all about the big numbers: ‘what’ll it do mate?’. And McLaren’s first road car, the F1, had it all sewn up in that department.

The Gordon Murray-designed masterpiece, in the hands of test driver Andy Wallace, clocked a whopping 243mph (or 391kph) in 1993, leading to the rather excellent understatement on the on-board footage of the run ‘It will not go any more than 391. But anyway, 391’s quite fast isn’t it?’. Yes Andy, it certainly is. The 231mph it achieved with the rev limiter re-instated was a new world record, and one that stood for 12 years.

But, despite this incredible performance and the fact that there’s no doubt this is what the F1 will be remembered for, the F1 was (and is) so much more than a top speed record. It is a detail fetishist’s dream machine, created with the kind of dictatorial passion and single-mindedness that can only be achieved when you have a visionary with total control at the helm. The F1was a car that was intended to be nothing more or less than the finest drivers’ car ever built. No ABS, no power steering, no traction control: Marketing? Fashion? The only place they had in the F1 was if they arrived by happy coincidence.

In some ways the rarity and top speed that afford this car it’s ‘speed icon’ status are rather a shame, since there are so many interesting aspects that will continue to be overlooked in favour of those headline figures and still-unique three-seat arrangement. Things like the fact that in order to sufficiently reduce the weight of the exhaust system, stainless steel of such a high grade was used; it ended up costing more than the engine itself. Or that despite its ‘supercar’ status, the F1 has more boot space than a BMW 5 Series from the same era and the benchmark for the car’s ride was a Honda. And, even though it was never intended to compete on track, when customers persuaded McLaren to build a racing version, it won Le Mans outright at the first attempt.

It was, and still is, the purest driving machine ever to wear number plates and a tax disc.

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