An Inside Look At McLaren’s Special Operations Historical Division
Photography by Ted Gushue
McLaren had produced extremely limited road cars prior, but it was not until the exalted. McLaren F1 that the company became synonymous with blurring the lines between road and race cars that could be driven to the store and back or win the 24 of Le Mans. As the values of these cars have been pulled ever upward, they’ve already long since passed the point of being nigh impossible to total—dump your F1 into a ditch and the whole thing now looks like a bunch of tiny shards of carbon? It will be rebuilt.
By whom? By McLaren Special Operations. Whether for routine servicing or full-on resurrections, MSO Heritage is the outfit that keeps out-of-production McLaren cars more than just roadworthy. To learn more about what goes on at such a place, we had a chance to talk with the department’s manager, Henry Winkworth Smith.
Ted Gushue: Henry, can you tell us about your title at McLaren, and what the job entails?
Henry Winkworth Smith: My title is MSO Heritage Manager, and I look after any cars coming back to MSO that aren’t in production anymore. Obviously that started off with the F1 and the SLR, whether it’s servicing, upgrades, different specs, or restorations, which we’re now getting into with the F1s.
We’re starting to see a lot of P1s coming back already too. Usually for upgrades—we’ve got carbon fiber bodies, different interior trims, and we’re looking at following the F1 way of doing some upgrades on the P1. Even now we’re getting LT bodied cars coming back in, putting roof scoops on them, doing crazy liveries, all that kind of thing. A smaller part of my job, which is now growing, is also looking after some of our VIP customers. They started off years ago having work done on their F1s.
TG: When one of these cars comes back to you then, what kind of work are they here for typically?
HWS: Often it is for routine service. For instance, you’ve got two levels of service: you’ve got a single year and a two-year. They are, to be honest, what you would expect with any other car. On top of that though, you then have longevity upgrades, so things like a fuel tank. The F1 has a rubber FIA spec fuel cell, which we replace after five years. Frequently we’ll take it out and it will be fine, so we can certify it for another two years or so, frequently adding up to seven years of life for a cell. But it’s quite a production when it does need replacing. With an F1 you have to take the engine, gearbox, rear bumper, all of that off to get to the fuel tank.
TG: The owners of these cars certainly seem to make sure their cars are taken care of—how many F1s are still on the road today?
HWS: All of them but four. I’ve been at McLaren for 10 years now and I reckon there’s more F1s being driven now then there were a decade ago.
TG: Why do you think that’s the case?
HWS: Because the values have gone up. A lot of the cars have moved on to a different type of buyer. I think it’s more a function of different people owning them and wanting to drive them and having them as a new-to-them car, and they want to drive it.
TG: What would you say is the most driven F1 on the road? Is there one champion human out there that just daily drives it?
HWS: When they were new, yeah. We had a guy that would do 200+ MPH every morning, on the way to work, and on the way home, totally legally in Germany on the autobahn. There’s a guy in the UK that’s got a lot of miles on his car, used it a lot, and he’s not precious about it. To be honest actually, there’s a couple of guys in the UK that do that. Then obviously you do have the guys that just will put 14 miles a year on it, taking it out very occasionally because they have 200 other cars that they want to exercise.
TG: So let’s say one is driven, and maybe not so successfully; how little of an F1 could come back into the shop that you could fix?
HWS: Almost nothing.
TG: The Rowan Atkinson car famously came in just completely totaled, right?
HWS: We still have every single piece of tooling. We could—we wouldn’t, but we could—effectively build an entirely new car. We might not have every single part in stock, but I’ve still got all the tooling, all the drawings, everything to do it again.
That example that you mentioned, the tub came back and we stripped it down to, basically, two tunnels on either side of you, and the front and rear bulkheads, and that was it.
He was very passionate about it being original though, so we said to him “We’ll make a new tub”. He was very very keen on keeping as much of the car original as possible. It was actually more difficult than making a new tub, to repair it to that level.
He really felt a connection with the interior of the car too, as it was, so things like where the tree had hit, just behind that spot there was a bit of leather and alcantara that had been ripped, and we said “Yeah, we’ll refinish that.” “No, no, no. That’s original,” he said “I’ve had Prince William in one seat and Prince Harry in the other seat at a track day. Don’t change the interior.” Those are the memories of our customer’s cars that we value hugely.
TG: There’s definitely an argument for visible originality vs a glossy restoration. Are there any other examples of this kind of balance that stick out in your mind?
HWS: We had another car that was unfortunately in an accident, and he was very different. He said “No. I want it to be the full package.” We have just finished a monumental restoration on it. It is easily the most restored car we’ve ever done—it was beautiful, before it was in an accident, and is again now. The insurance company was on board and we just did it again. As new.
TG: So it seems this may be difficult, but if you had to pick one unifying trait that an F1 owner has, what would you say it would be?
HWS: Car guy. It amazes me how many of them have the same interests as me. We’re on different levels in terms of our purchasing power, but I can sit with them and have a coffee, a beer, or go out for dinner or whatever, and we’ll just chat cars. Yes the F1 is now an investment piece, but I’m certainly still finding the guys that are investing 10, 20 million dollars into them, are still into cars.
They’re not just interested in them casually. They’re still excited by it like I am. Many of the buyers of our product today, whether it’s an F1 or newer, grew up with the car on their wall when they were younger. They aspired to it, they’ve done well, and now they’re able to afford it. At the core level, an F1 owner is a massive car dude.
TG: That’s great to hear in an age when so many supercars are parked in front of nightclubs. On the other side of the products made by McLaren, do you look after any of the older Formula 1 cars?
HWS: No, the Formula One cars are looked after by our Heritage Department within McLaren Racing.
TG: Okay, very cool. It’s interesting how everything is so specialized. Is there anything else we should know about what your job entails?
HWS: We also did quite a lot of work on the Mercedes SLR McLaren, as it was officially called. We do an upgrade package called the McLaren Edition, which is a series of modifications to take the car kind of closer to what we would of maybe done if we hadn’t been in cahoots with Mercedes when we built it.
We make it lighter, and we change the suspension and the steering, amongst other performance and aesthetic modifications. With the original car you find that on the highway, you might find the steering a little bit nervous at certain speeds, so we reinforce the whole steering linkage, make it a little bit more relaxing to drive. Simultaneously we make it more of a GT car with higher performance. We changed the panning in the seats and all of that. Exhaust for a bit more noise, all in all just a much tighter package.
TG: You’ve certainly driven an F1 at this point in your career: what’s it like?
HWS: Analog. You get in it and actually it’s quite a drivable car. It’s not scary and it takes a few minutes to get into the central driving position and then all of a sudden it makes sense. It’s like, I was tying to explain it to someone the other day funnily enough, and the way I came up with it it’s like driving with “Wide screen high definition.” You can just see the road so well.
TG: The joys and logic of a central seat! So, I have to ask, how fast did you go in it?
HWS: Luckily on a test route, I think I’ve done 215, 220, something like that. Which we just managed to stop from before the end of the runway!
The F1 is quite a physical car to drive. Non-assisted brakes and that much power coming down from 220mph is mega. It feels alive.