Gavin Green’s unusual recipe for McLaren’s next supercar

Published: 20 July 2011

Just returned from a ride in which I took winding French mountain roads at just over 40mph. I can tell you it was way more thrilling than driving a McLaren MP4-12C or a Ferrari 458 at double that speed. 

The 2011 Etape du Tour, in which I competed alongside other keen amateurs and some professionals, is an annual bicycle race that typically uses the hardest mountain stage of the Tour de France. Alain Prost is a regular.  

As this website is called Car and not Bicycle, I will not labour the biking bit. Except to report that my 54-year old (unshaven) legs managed to get me home 1049th out of 10,000, and that this year’s stage included such mountainous monsters as the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez.  

You don’t have to go fast to have fun on the road

Rather, the point of this blog is to reaffirm my long held belief that it is not necessary to go fast to have fun on the road. My Condor – a spindly piece of lightweight carbonfibre – v-maxed at only 45mph (downhill on the Galibier). A 12C will do that in first gear, driver’s mind in neutral, revving barely above tickover, Radio 4 providing the sole entertainment. Yet 45mph on a bike gives you a kick that is almost impossible to replicate in a hermetically sealed box riding on four wheels.

To really get a high-speed buzz in a 12C, or any other mega-money hypercar, you need to be doing about 130mph-plus. Which will lose you your licence, your friends, and any pretensions you have to societal responsibility. 

Supercars are now designed to do 200mph, and are thus too serene at 70 (the speed limit). Such insouciant high-speed serenity is fine for stately saloons and gizmo-laden GTs, of course. But a supercar should be about thrills. Sadly, their 200mph-plus maximum speed potential is now irrelevant and unusable. So it’s time for a new breed of supercar – one that stimulates at 70 and still allows the odd blast to 100mph-plus when no-one is watching. Hard-edged acceleration, of course, is essential.

I got thinking about the best examples of low-speed/high-thrill sports cars as I sat on the top of Alpe d’Huez. There are Caterhams and Westfields, of course. And the Ariel Atom, which many of my keenest driving friends eulogise. Personally, I prefer the Lotus Elise, the purest driving sports car of all, and way more civilised.

Gordon Murray’s Rocket – the template for 21st century thrills

Yet for downhill-Galibier-style thrills, the greatest car buzz I’ve ever experienced was probably driving the Gordon Murray-designed Rocket, first made by ex-racer Chris Craft’s Light Car Company 20 years ago. It had a one-litre Yamaha superbike mid-engine motor that revved to the heavens, a sequential gearshift, and a body shaped like a ‘60s GP racer. Tandem seating allowed you to carry one passenger – so it had similar people carrying ability to most Ferraris, the 12C, and the majority of other upper-end sports cars.

It thrilled at 30, 40, 50 – and every other speed right up to its v-max of about 140. It was superbly agile, braked like an F1 racer, and was so small and light (less than 400kg) that it felt as nimble as a sports motorcycle. It could do 0-60, from memory, in about four seconds.

It was not a car aimed at poseurs, or those who buy cars for golf club kudos (sadly, that now includes many Ferrari owners). Rather, the Rocket – and Elise, and Caterham, and Ariel Atom – are aimed at those who put driving enjoyment above all other automotive virtues. They are very single-minded cars.

So if McLaren really wants to make the ultimate driving machine, maybe its next supercar project, after the worthy 12C, is staring them in the face. Remember the MP4-98T, the 1998 F1 car that featured tandem seating for two? Make it more street-friendly by changing to a smaller engine (a big motorcycle engine would be ideal), softening the ride, enlarging the cockpit and reducing the length and weight. The style, clearly, needs work. But surely here is the basis for the ultimate sports car for on-road smiles! And what a superb adjunct to the super-refined, oh-so-cool 12C.

And guess who designed the MP4-98T? Gordon Murray. Who ruefully observed that he was too tall (at 6ft 4in) to sit in the rear. ‘Never mind,’ he commented. ‘I am a lousy passenger.’

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience