- Why a supercar?
- Which supercar?
- Shopping and buying
- How much performance can you really use?
- Why the McLaren was a perfect fit
- Costs and Burdens
- To the photos
Why a supercar: In 2014 I’d completed my rebuild of my Lotus Elan. It had taken the better part of 2½ years and cost upwards of $65K, not including labor. While not doing a majority of the work myself, it was my car and my project. We made sure the right decisions were made. Everyone touching the car was the very best person for the job. The rebuild could not have gone more perfectly. The Elan emerged better than it came from the factory, a superb driver’s car taking nothing from what Colin Chapman envisioned and built, but adding important features to improve safety and reliability. While successful, it still wasn’t a car to jump in and drive regularly without thinking. It has no air conditioning, the soft top is not automatic, and climbing in and out was easy when I was younger but no longer much fun. I’d never owned a Supercar. It occurred to me I could afford one and when my heart health appeared to be putting an expiration date on my days on this planet, an attitude of Supercar now, die later became my mantra. (Hint: To understand the difference between Sports Cars, Super Cars and what they’re now referring to as a Hyper Car, go here.)
Which Supercar: I’ve always been a car show and Cars & Coffee sort of junkie. I’d drive the Lotus or NSX, park and immediately begin wandering amongst the cars, admiring and talking with owners of various makes and models. Over the years I flirted with owning a supercar. While not technically a Supercar, I loved the Arial Atom because when equipped with a 350 HP Honda VTEC engine it made Supercar performance on a budget. But frankly, it was purely a race car and had zero creature comforts (such as doors, luggage compartment, windows or even a windshield). But I sure had fun with one at a track! The new (at the time) Audi R8 caught my eye and I was close to making a deposit, but frustrated they wouldn’t give me a ride in one, much less let me drive it first. So, I found a friend who had one, and after a few miles in his, I realized it was heavy and without the magic handling of my Lotus Elan or NSX. Damn! In early 2014, I began investigating in earnest as I’d decided I really did want to buy one of these “over-the-top-crazy” cars. While totally unscientific, I arrived at some conclusions regarding super car owners based on my conversations with several of them:
- Ferrari owners had a rather tight club but if you weren’t in it, had little time to discuss their cars with you. Emphasis was on style, sound, low miles, history and class. The Ferrari owners I spoke with had little interest in a car’s performance and most had never considered taking their cars to a track day. I spoke to several Ferrari owners who bought the same car repeatedly. For one gentleman, it was the Ferrari California model, and he upgraded to a new Ferrari California every couple of years.
- Lamborghini owners are an eclectic lot. A good many are former racers and entrepreneurs, and certainly more off-beat than the Ferrari owners, funnier and self-deprecating. They seemed most keen on a car’s performance. They also tended to change cars more frequently, switching among brands and models.
- Audi R8, Aston Martin, Veyron, and Ford GT owners –– this lot also had very different personalities, and tended to be non-joiners. Some were horribly stuck-up, thinking owning the particular car they did made their poo not smell, while others were down to earth and friendly.
- McLaren owners tended to drive their cars a lot more, not just to auto shows and car events, but often on longer trips and to the track as well. Although unsure I would wish to track my own personal McLaren, should I own one, it was appealing how often they were used in this manner. While a friendly and welcoming group, they were not particularly well organized, but seemed pleased by the interest in their cars and jumped at the chance to extoll its virtues.
This was my impression of people who owned new supercars, NOT for owners of 25-year old classic super cars. Guys with these older cars were an entirely different (far smarter and more fun) species. Many of them had managed to find and acquire their cars when they were at the low point in value and then held onto them. The range of interesting and sometimes conflicting opinions among all of these owners and drivers was immense, and I took it all in. Having genuinely expert friends like Philip Richter (SCM writer and proprietor of the highly regarded Turtle Garage website) and Keith Martin (writer, publisher, television commentator) to discuss ideas and options, helped a great deal.
The comment most responsible for pointing me toward McLaren came from the owner of a new Lamborghini Aventador after I helped him into a parking spot at the Gainey Ranch Cars & Coffee in Scottsdale. We chatted and I asked about his current ride. He admitted he’d only put about 700 miles on the Lamborghini since trading in his McLaren so his opinions were still forming. But then he flooded me with a host of impressions on his twenty-five years owning over 15 supercars, including many Ferraris, Aston Martins, other Lamborghinis and a Veyron. He said, “I call my new Aventador ‘my Audi’ as it is so unlike my previous Lambos,” giving a nod to Audi’s purchase of Lamborghini. “It is an amazing car, but has become so civilized it is now less of an adventure to drive. The McLaren was the supercar I drove the most. It not only would outperform every car here, it was a delight to drive with awesome visibility and comfort. While ‘my Audi’ is a great (pointing to the Lambo), it’s not a McLaren. My wife and I thought nothing of throwing a couple of bags in the McLaren and driving to our condo in San Diego. I would never do that in one of the others. The McLaren is all about the driver, and they do a better job of it than anyone else.”
So, I began researching and looking at ads for the new McLarens. They did look nice and ticked all my “high performance” hot buttons. I’ve summarized the Top Ten Reasons I went with a McLaren over an Audi R8, Ferrari or Lamborghini here: Plus, adding a McLaren to the NSX and Lotus would almost constitute a “collection.” They had some real similarities – primarily the focus on low weight, putting driver needs at the center of things and a willingness to try alternative materials to achieve performance goals – glass reinforced plastic (fiberglass) on the Elan, aluminum on the NSX and carbon fiber on the McLaren.
Shopping and buying: During the summer of 2014, McLaren was wrapping up several years of production of their first mass-produced supercar, the MP4-12C. First offered in 2011, like the F1 introduced in 1992, it set new standards of performance and reliability in the Supercar world, integrating a host of F1 originated features and putting them in a street car for the first time. For instance, this was the first entirely gear driven Supercar – no belts, no pulleys, nothing to wear out or break in high stress, just like an F1 car. The result is that most McLaren owners find their cars go tens of thousands of miles will no more service requirements than changing the fluids. Jay Leno owns a number of McLarens including an F1 and says all he ever does on any of them is change fluids. I’ve always found it odd that amongst his 300 cars, he owns not one Ferrari.
I loved the look of the MP4-12C and when rumors of a new McLaren model, the 650S began circulating, I panicked, as the new design did not appeal to me. Thankfully, McLaren indicated the two models would co-exist. While this ended up being untrue, it led to one of those magic moments in time in the fall of 2014. Brand new 650S’s began arriving in McLaren showrooms. Buyers who’d purchased new MP4-12Cs earlier and were of the “must have the latest and greatest” ilk, were trading them in for the new 650S. And of course, with brand new, unsold MP4-12Cs on the showroom floor, too, it was the perfect storm for someone like me. When calling dealers around the country, looking for a new MP4-12C I found I had several highly compelling cars to choose from with healthy discounts. With the stars so well-aligned, I found the exact McLaren I wanted, a new Spider model, with volcano yellow paint, the sport exhaust, upgraded wheels and the full carbon fiber interior package – and at a discount. I flew to Dallas and Park Place McLaren, picked up my new car and drove it the 1,100 miles back home to Phoenix, 16 hours of intense nervousness, high anxiety, pure adrenaline and absolute fun.
The reality of high performance cars: Automobile manufacturers early on discovered success on the race track translated to sales in dealer showrooms. (Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday!) With few exceptions, modern cars have little in common with what is circling a professional NASCAR, F1 or road racing course — until you reach the Supercar and near-Supercar category. Manufacturers like Aston Martin, Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche, Lamborghini, Pagani and others, sell cars to the general public which have a substantial amount of performance and in many cases, track-like capabilities. But, in reality, that is one of the problems of these cars. My experience is one look through this lens:
- My Elan: From the first time I drove it, it was unlike any other car I’d driven. It was exceptionally fast with its twin overhead cam engine and unusually light weight. It was so quick around SCCA and Gymkhana amateur race tracks, first place trophies became almost expected. Once I took it to a genuine track school, with classroom instruction and timed practices around a real race track, receiving coaching from genuine, experienced professional race drivers. Toward the end of the class, as I was working hard to shave hundredths of seconds off each lap, I estimated I was extracting, from my Elan, 90-95% of what the car was capable of on that day on that track. Until, of course, the professional driver and instructor jumped into the driver’s seat, drove my Elan around the track with me in the car, talking the whole time, pointing to areas where I could improve and turned in a time 2-3 full seconds better than my very best time. And he was penalized by having my passenger weight in the car. Reflecting on this, I changed my number to maybe 80% of what the Elan was capable of and maybe, on my most perfect run, 85%.
- My NSX: While never tracking my 2002 yellow NSX, I did track my previous one, a red 1997 model. The NSX is amazingly easy to drive at speed. Even someone with moderate or intermediate skills feels they’re an expert driver because the NSX is so predictable, so precise and quick. Again, it’s light. Within a few laps at the open track day, I was passing most of the other vehicles on the course. And it wasn’t hard. The NSX had nearly 300 HP and weighed just 3,000 lbs. Add near-perfect balance and by the end of the day I was thinking my extraction percentage on the NSX was certainly over 75% and maybe close to 80%. Ah, but then it happened. I saw a video of legendary F1 driver Ayton Senna driving an NSX on a race track. With the grace of a ballerina, the car danced around the track while interior shots showed his hands smoothly moving from the shift lever to the steering wheel and back. Another camera captured his unbelievably mastery of clutch, brake pedal and accelerator (watch it here). Okay, okay, another downward revision on how much performance I was extracting from my NSX. Giving myself every possible benefit of the doubt, I would say, on my best day, with a great deal of practice and coaching, I may be close to 60% and I’ve no argument for those thinking I’m delusional. See, the NSX is a 179 mph car. I’ve never driven it over 155, and never faster than 100 mph through a turn on a track. 60% is exceedingly generous, but I need to leave some room for what is coming next. To be fair, Senna was deeply involved in fine-tuning the NSX chassis and played a key role in the car’s performance and he knew it very well.
- My McLaren: Again, my yellow McLaren Spider has never been on a racetrack. In fact, while it’s embarrassing to admit, I’ve never even tried the built-in launch control feature, which allows the car computer to take over and manage the engine and transmission shifts to give you a maximum quarter mile speed. The driver’s only task is to keep it pointed straight, don’t lift off on the accelerator or touch the brake. It does everything for you. Even more embarrassing is the fact my car has its original tires and they still have plenty of tread. I’ll need to replace them based on age, not because they’re worn out. How horrible. But I did rent a McLaren and took it for a few laps on a race track. Wow! It was amazing. With my driving experience in the same car and a decent coach beside me, I could see my speeds going up and my lap times falling. But the McLaren is full of F1 features that reward someone really pushing this 640 HP and sub-3,000 lbs. car. Capable of reaching speeds over 200 mph with no trouble and a vast amount of downforce, I only scratch the surface of its capabilities. But to what degree? After some contemplation and a few circuits on curvy roads between Phoenix and Prescott, I began thinking I was pretty good and perhaps getting over 40% of the McLaren’s capability. But that was before McLaren’s event where I got to go for a ride in a new McLaren with Chris Goodwin at the wheel. Goodwin is McLaren’s top test driver (full title on his card is “McLaren Chief Test Driver”) and a highly regarded former race driver. He’s so one with McLaren cars, they become almost an extension of himself. After only a few miles on city streets with Mr. Goodwin, I dropped my performance extraction estimate to 30 – 35%, at best. So, you see, the better the cars perform, the greater their capabilities, the less the average person is able to take advantage of them.
- The one bright spot: As McLaren approached me several times to trade in my MP4-12C for a newer, faster, more capable model, with the goal of extracting more money from me, I counter with “What? And go from maybe exercising 35% of my current car’s capability to 30% of a new one? You are making no sense!”
A Perfect Fit: Lotus/NSX/McLaren: Seeing my three “collector” cars, all yellow, even casual observers guess at a connection and they are right. Some are obvious and others more subtle, but the connections are several and they go well beyond just the color.
Weight: The first common attribute and value begins with Colin Chapman of Lotus and his thing for weight or to be more precise, the absence of weight. He is famous for saying “Simplify, then add lightness.” Chapman is to light-weight cars what Houdini is to magic. He pointed out that adding power makes you faster on the straights, but subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere. He said that any car which holds together for a whole race is too heavy and was heard to complain when leaving the factory for a few days he’d return to find his cars had all gained weight. When I rebuilt my Elan I found the frame weighed just 76 lbs. The body, all fiberglass, is around 200 lbs. The entire car weighs under 1,500 lbs. The McLaren’s frame, all carbon fiber, is 275 lbs. and the entire car without fluids 2,868. Watching the BBC documentary on the creation of the MP4-12C you hear repeatedly the fierce commitment Ron Dennis (McLaren CEO) and his team had to make the car as light as possible. Frank Stephenson, the 12C designer said, “Weight is the enemy.” Sometimes it seems almost silly. For example, the McLaren has no gas cap because, well, it adds weight. And of course, the Acura NSX was designed with a similar emphasis on being light. The car is all aluminum, from the engine to the chassis to the body. It weighs just 3,000 lbs.
Senna: Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time, may be one of the strongest connections between the three cars. Senna drove for Lotus between 1985 and 1987 before moving on to McLaren in 1988, winning many Formula One races with his outstanding driving skills. In addition to his driving, Senna was renowned for his ability to provide very specific technical details about the performance of his cars on the track long before the advent of telemetry. His sense of the car under racing conditions was unequaled along with his ability to convey that to the engineers at Lotus and McLaren. So it’s extra special that Senna played a key role as a test driver for the NSX. In 1989, when Senna was in Japan testing his Honda-powered McLaren, he drove and evaluated the NSX prototype for Honda. His feedback resulted in the chassis being fine-tuned and stiffened by over 50%. Later, at the first dedicated Japanese test facilities at the Nürburgring, he provided further input to help Honda’s engineers tweak the NSX. Senna’s perfectionism helped create a masterpiece and Senna ended up owning several NSX’s personally. But that isn’t the end of it. Senna convinced Ron Dennis and Gordon Murray to come to Japan and see the NSX, which they did. Murray, who was just beginning his design work for the McLaren F1, has spoken about how influential the NSX was in his thinking, especially the suspension design, driver comfort and road visibility. Murray has said that from the moment he drove the little NSX, “all the benchmark cars – Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini – that he had been using as references for the development of the F1 just “vanished from my mind.” In the BBC documentary on Gordon Murray and the F1, he reveals that other benchmarks discarded included the Ferrari F40, Lamborghini Countach, BMW M1, Porsche 959 and the Bugatti EB110 as he felt the NSX stood head and shoulders above them. Of course, the McLaren F1 would need to be faster than the NSX, but the NSX’s ride quality, driver visibility and handling would become their new design target. He copied the NSX’s aluminum suspension and drive-by-wire for the F1.
Gordon Murray: Renowned as a car designer (McLaren F1) and for a string of Formula One title wins for Brabham and McLaren, when Gordon Murray was asked about his dream car, said: “I’ve actually got my dream car, a Lotus Elan. I’ve never driven a better sportster. It’s just what I like in a car, and has the best steering feedback ever. The F1 was close, but the Elan nails it. It looks pretty, too, and makes a nice noise. I had one in 1970 when I first got married and I’ve had two since.” Murray grew up in South Africa where he first fell in love with the Elan. When he immigrated to Great Britain, his goal was to work for Lotus. Lotus had no openings and so he went to Brabham, the British racing car manufacturer instead.
Murray as “gateway drug”: Jay Leno, as you know, is a truly knowledgeable car guy and really respects the Elan. Leno owns a McLaren F1, too, and knows designer Gordon Murray. He says Murray’s praise for the Elan convinced him to buy one. He quotes an interview where Murray is asked the question, if it were his last day on earth, to name the car and the road he would drive. He says, “That’s easy, it would be a Lotus Elan on the Scottish Highlands.” Leno’s first Lotus was a 1969 Elan, the same year as mine, and he actually ended up buying two of them. Later he got another, a factory lightweight Elan 26R intended for racing. He now owns three. He’s extensively rebuilt two of them. His well-documented rebuild of the two Elans on his Jay Leno’s Garage YouTube channel served as a video blueprint when I rebuilt mine. Although I don’t think it took Jay Leno 3 years to rebuild his.
How these cars are different: The Elan is just about half the weight of the other two. The Elan has a fiberglass body, the NSX is aluminum and the McLaren is carbon fiber. Two of them, the NSX and McLaren, were designed to be daily drivers while at the same time offering the option of some pretty incredibly high performance on tap any time you want it and succeeded quite well at that. One just happens to have more than 350 horsepower than the other. And of course they’re very different ages and as much as I love older cars and the ability to work on them, the handling, performance, reliability and comfort of newer cars is very pleasurable. The Elan provides an exhilarating driving experience. The steering is almost magically precise and the car eagerly consumes all of your attention. Then you get in the NSX and you appreciate things like air conditioning, a bit more room, not having to check the oil and water levels all the time. Plus, you can take off on a 2-3 day drive and be totally comfortable the whole time. The NSX, until you put your foot in it or take it on the track, handles just like a Honda Accord in some ways. While the McLaren has many of the easy-to-live-with comfort boxes checked, the performance is so intense it’s hard to describe and you’ll never mistake being in a Honda Accord or any normal car. It’s the first car that has ever scared me, like someone strapped me to the back of a hungry cheetah chasing an antelope.
Yellow: Okay, okay, I just like yellow cars. But that’s another connection. According to Frank Stephenson who designed the MP4-12C for McLaren, the volcano yellow color on the 12C is taken from Ayrton Senna’s helmet. If you look closely you can see a bit of green inside the yellow, which is a tribute or nod to Senna.
Costs and Burdens: There is no getting around the fact that 70-year-old guys shouldn’t be driving around in McLarens. I think I look good driving a Lotus Elan (we’re closer in age) but they’re too hard to get in and out of. The NSX is the one I’ll keep as we downsize; the other two will need to go. Supercars like the McLaren are expensive to buy, cost a massive amount of money to insure, and depreciate at an astounding rate. My car, which has been driven just a bit over 10,000 miles, is very much like the day I drove it off the showroom floor. In some ways, it is better, as I’ve added paint protection and carefully taken it back to the dealer to have the factory mandated updates done to it. And yet, if I were to sell it now, I’d get roughly half of what I paid for it. The window sticker on the car was $311K, and I suspect I could sell it for $150k. That is the biggest downside to Supercars and they all do this, to one degree or another. If you have the patience to wait for 25 years and you’ve picked a classic, like I did with the Lotus and NSX, you will get all your money back and then some. The real payback, though, is the invisible, immeasurable, irrevocable joy of ownership and driving exhilaration. What a blast!