A Conversation With McLaren Special Operations Director Ian Gorusch
It’d be difficult to find anyone working for a major supercar manufacturer that wasn’t happy with his job, least of all Ian Gorusch who gets to head up McLaren Special Operations. The division, MSO for short, is effectively the top secret arm of McLaren that specializes in making impossible requests possible for an insane range of customers from around the world. I had a few minutes to catch up with Ian at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed and I’m glad I did, he’s a tremendous chap.
Ted Gushue: Ian Gorsuch, what is the first car that you ever remember driving?
Ian Gorsuch: First car I remembered driving was our very own 1926 Alfa Romeo Zagato, it was my father’s. He let me sit on his lap and drive it just for a few meters. The next time I drove a car, it wasn’t so good. I’m trying reverse a Porsche 356 at the garage, age about nine. I thought my father wouldn’t mind. I did it by letting off the hand brake and drove it inside the garage.
Photos by McLaren and Ted Gushue
TG: Back up for a second. What do you remember about that Zagato? That’s a pretty special car.
IG: Oh, it’s actually fantastic. My father actually loved it but the problem was that when my parents married, my father was given by his father a big old Rover. A brand new Rover for a wedding present. They went to on honeymoon. First day back from honeymoon, my father went out all day and came back without the Alfa having swapped fully to the Rover.
TG: What year is this?
IG: This would have been back in the mid 50s.
TG: A car like that now is priceless, no?
IG: Yup, and my father gave it away.
TG: As so many people did. So you crashed a 356 at nine years old?
IG: Well, it gently glided or, whatever the phrase is. It gently went into the garage wall.
TG: By the time you start crashing Porsches, did you realize that you were obsessed with cars?
IG: Yeah, I think it was because my father loved them as well. He was always bringing me dinky toys and old models and particularly old Bentleys and it was always a part of the family.
TG: How often do you find when you work with McLaren customers that they talk about their family when they order special operations vehicles?
IG: Not so much about their family per se, but they often talk about what they have within the fabric of their character. A love of cars and individualization.
TG: Can you give me your history before you joined McLaren?
IG: I have a very eclectic history. After leaving school with inauspicious academic qualifications, I then became an …
TG: Wait, hang on. What does that mean?
IG: Pretty much failed my A Levels and I was told by my father that I was too thick to go to university. Like him, I became an army officer for a bit and then joined a national shipping and trading company in South America and Asia. Then I joined the champagne and cognac business, through that …
TG: Hang on. Expand on that for a second. Booze business?
IG: Yeah, Rémy Martin and Krug. Then through Champagne Krug, I got to know the people at what was then called Rolls-Royce & Bentley. They approached me at the launch for their Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph at the Dorchester Hotel and asked if I’d be interested. I then move to what was then Rolls-Royce Bentley. Then I was with Bentley when the split happened. I had a brief time with the Intercontinental hotels. While I was at the Intercontinental Hotels, McLaren was setting up and wanted someone to run the Middle East for them and so I thought that cars were more interesting than the hotels.
TG: What was the energy like at Rolls-Royce Bentley just before they split?
IG: It was, I wouldn’t say an exciting time. There was a lot of debate going on. Of course the CEO at the time, Mr. Morris, was saying adamantly the brand wouldn’t be split up and then when they were, he resigned. There’s a period of insecurity but I think it was pretty much a feeling that the Crewe factory we were Bentley, we were going to make a go of it.
TG: What did you learn from your time at Rolls & Bentley that you’ve brought to McLaren now?
IG: I think what I learned is that you keep your foot on the accelerator. You just keep pushing and pushing and pushing. The other thing is that on the more commercial stuff is that when you say to the dealers and partners. “Right, we are going to expand, we’re going to grow.” They say, “What’s the implication?” and rub their hands hands and go, “Well that’s great. That’s more profit, more revenue.” Then you have to say, “Hold back. That’s more servicing things. That’s more cash lines here. More customer service.” It’s making sure that you put the structure in place that when you grow, you don’t fall down because you are going to keep your foot on the accelerator.
TG: What are some of the more ridiculous requests that you’ve seen from customers when you’re around Rolls-Royce and Bentley back then?
IG: Because I was looking after the Middle East for them, there’s quite a few armoring requests from governments. Loads of requests to build gun cabinets into particular models. I remember once we were sent some 1:1 fluorescent orange replicas of the weapons that have to be built into a perfectly custom gun vault inside the passenger cabinet. Those requests were actually quite cool, if a little scary, but they did represent interesting challenges for our craftsmen.
TG: What does it mean when you say you, “Set up the Middle East for McLaren”?
IG: Basically to identify who our retail partners would be. Set up the team to run them and make sure that the cars were appropriate to the region.
TG: This was what year?
IG: This would be in 2009.
TG: What was your offer then? That was the MP4-12C.
IG: Yes, it’s for 12C.
TG: How were they received at the time?
IG: They were initially cautious because they were very brand sensitive but then of course, they were very aware of the history of McLaren and its success. There were several of them that owned F1s. We had credibility in the market. That got the interest and then I think bringing them MTC (McLaren Technology Centre) they realized how serious we were in our commitment to the 12C.
TG: What was the reception of the MP4-12C with McLaren F1 owners when you first brought the car to the Middle East?
IG: Well, luckily, it wasn’t just F1 owners otherwise we would have failed. I think what people forget is that every McLaren sold in the early days of the MP4-12C was conquest but wasn’t just a conquest customer from some little brands here and there, we were fighting tooth and nail to win over powerful customers from the biggest and most respected brands on earth. We were going toe to toe with our German and Italian colleagues and it wasn’t easy. Sun Tzu said in the Art Of War that if the enemy is strong in the middle you go around, well, we tend to not read Sun Tzu because we went straight at them and got a little battered up.
TG: Where did you go after the Middle East?
IG: I set up the Middle East and then I set up Asia.
TG: What surprised you about China and Asian markets?
IG: I think it’s quite disciplined. Some markets, very very brand conscious and brand sensitive. Other markets, it’s all about the engineering and that type of thing. For example, in Korea, they ask what’s the weight difference between satin carbon and high gloss carbon because there must be weight difference because of the lacquer. Some of them are absolutely intrigued and involved in the engineering detail, others are more interested in the brand.
TG: Is that an obsessive quality that you see unique the the Asian market?
IG: No, it’s actually that focus on engineering is something that I think differentiates a lot of McLaren customers from other customers. They understand the carbon tub. They understand the different suspension systems. They understand that engineering. They are looking beyond the badge. They engage with it. They engage the with engineering and technology that is in McLaren rather than just looking at a badge or in the bonnet.
TG: When was MSO launched?
IG: MSO was born 25 years ago as the customer service team for the F1 Road Car.
TG: What was it like back then?
IG: What happened then was that the cars were serviced by the customer service teams. Teams of engineers flew to customer’s garages if they had the right facilities there, or we would fly the cars back to Woking.
TG: Ralph Lauren was famous for having his F1 serviced by MSO guys flying out to see him.
IG: If they want to, we can do that. Well, some really cool things about working at MSO is you look down at the shop floor, for instance when I was there on Friday morning, there were three F1s sitting there, and a couple of weeks ago, we had eight F1s in the service there. That’s really cool.
TG: Is it a bit like a supermodel returning to her childhood home when an F1 comes in?
IG: Yeah, as they say. You’ve got to be pretty thick-skinned and cold hearted to not be turned on when you look at these cars. That’s our DNA though. MSO really wants to take these already fantastic unique cars and just add that extra level of personalization. That could be completely unique paint or interiors or it could be someone while specifying a car in the dealership wants to just make his car a bit more individual but doesn’t want to spend the time coming to MSO, so they can select from what’s called the MSO Defined Range, which we would personally see to on the production line.
TG: Was the Rowan Atkinson maroon-colored F1 an MSO option?
IG: It could be, but it would be a bespoke order.
TG: What do you drive personally?
IG: I have a Morgan. It’s the anti-thesis of McLaren. It is just the 4. My wife is not too keen of it. Particularly when it’s raining.
TG: Do you get to have access to McLarens whenever you need them?
IG: Not whenever we want them. I think, there are two dynamics. First of all, we have to remember the tax man, but secondly, I think while our customers are waiting for their cars, it would be inappropriate if they see directors of the company such as ourselves whipping around in a car they are salivating over.
TG: Oh, very cool. Which one would you own if you could out of any car that McLaren have made?
IG: Well, if I can own one. The bank management would say, own an F1.
TG: But what would your heart say?
IG: I’ve really taken to the GT. 570GT, I think, given that I am portly dispositioned in mid length. I think the GT would be very cool.
Special thanks to Ian Gorusch for taking the time during the busy Goodwood Festival of Speed weekend to speak with me about the fascination MSO division.