The Evolution of Automotive Passion: From Triumph Spitfire to McLaren

Last year, in 2023, I sold two iconic collector cars, my 1969 Lotus Elan and 2002 Acura NSX. The Lotus I owned for 50 years, purchasing it when I was just 21. The NSX I held for just 18 years. I’ve written about both of these cars in detail here [https://stevelarsen.net/cars/].

Of course, I miss them, but the one car I decided to keep falls into the NSX and Lotus category, and it’s the McLaren MP4-12C.   Helping my good friend and neighbor purchase a new car in the Ferrari, McLaren, Lamborghini, or Aston Martin category brought into focus for me how different people are drawn to these sorts of vehicles for different reasons.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, a part of owning them is the visible announcement, “I’ve enough money to afford this.”  Beyond that, it’s far more complex. Many enthusiasts acquire, store, and maintain a fleet of vehicles in this class, rarely driving them. They derive great joy in just having them, looking at them, and perhaps maintaining the good looks through regularly detailed cleaning and waxing. But driving them, not so much. At the other end of the scale, I know those who work hard to exploit every ounce of performance the engineering of these cars promise, taking them to track days, going to driving schools to improve their skills, and racing them. There is an almost infinite number of spots between these two opposites, and it’s just one factor or lens in which to view these sorts of cars that I’ll not go into here.

My automotive life began with large, heavier, American-built 4-door sedans my father bought to fulfill the transportation needs of his family. They never much appealed to me. Older cousins were in the generation of acquiring, tuning, or building hot rods, like in the movie American Graffiti. I was drawn to “those foreign cars,” reading magazines featuring them and hanging around the one car shop in Fairmont, MN, that had an old Jaguar XK-120 in its showroom. When in high school, Dad bought a new 1965 red Volkswagen Beetle. I was smitten. Its handling was so much better than the lumber wagons I was used to. While Dad bought it for the mileage, my brother and I loved it for its genuine manual transmission, quick cornering, and off-road prowess. No, VWs weren’t known for that, but the underside was sealed, and this meant we could get away with a lot when driving in rough terrain.

Sadly, few photos of my Triumph Spitfire exist.

Everything changed when I was no longer dependent on my parents and could choose a car for myself. The first to grab my heart, second only to my cousin John Gravley’s Austin Healey BN-6, was a Triumph Spitfire sitting in a snow bank in Iowa City, Iowa. It was mine for $600, and I loved it. Low to the ground, light at just over 1,600 lbs, it wasn’t fast but handled in a way I intuitively appreciated. While never considered quick, it was nimble, and the turning was pretty good. Plus, it was easy to work on, even with my early mechanical skills. And then came the Lotus.

From the first drive, I knew there was something remarkable about this fiberglass-bodied skateboard of a car. I remember buying it instantly after that first 3-4 mile test ride, not knowing who or what a Lotus was, ignorant even of its country of origin.

Learning to drive the Elan took practice at track days.

Yes, it was yellow, but at that time, no cars were yellow; it was an annoyance – but something I would grow to love, witnessed by my yellow NSX and yellow McLaren years later. What was tapping into the deepest recesses of my subconscious was how it felt. And every car in the “extra, non-daily driver” category purchased over the next 50 years was acquired by how close it felt to my Lotus Elan. This lightness, precision, and quickness made the car feel more like a piece of clothing you put around your body than a vehicle you were piloting.

I’ll never forget the quote that Jay Leno relayed from arguably the most outstanding car designer of all time, Gordon Murray, when talking about his iconic McLaren F1, “Yeah, we got a lot of things right on the F1, but we never got the steering as good as a Lotus Elan.” Leno owns 3 Lotus Elans at the last count, and his steps and process for rebuilding his 1969 were the exact ones I followed when rebuilding mine.

Although often used for regular driving, most of the cars I’ve owned in the “non-daily driver” category were attempts to have something that handled like the Elan but bigger and more practical. The rotary-engine Mazda RX-7 was neat, and I owned two; a Nissan 300ZX was good, too, and several others came close. While not as light and nimble as an Elan, the NSX was surprisingly light (all aluminum) and mid-engined for perfect balance and Honda reliability. I owned two. It’s in a category all its own, and few cars compare to this design and manufacturing quality levels. It was the first true supercar that was reliable and faster than any competitor (including Ferrari or Lamborghini) in the early 1990s when they were released. Unfortunately, they were discontinued in 2022, and though they’ve made some stellar efforts, Acura/Honda have been unable to surpass the original NSX design, and used models of the 1990-2002s now sell for more than when they were new.

When financial circumstances aligned to put me into the “you can afford to buy a Supercar, you have a place to keep it, and if you don’t, you’ll never own one” spot, I investigated all the usual prospects. I spent a year driving and reading about every model Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and even a Lexus LC500 I could find, nearly pulling the trigger a couple of times. I’d spent a few years with a BMW M-5 (E39 – “the beast”), and although not a supercar, it certainly informed my search.

As one of the first registered McLaren’s in AZ, I got a prize license plate.

Late in 2012, I heard McLaren was on a mission to build the greatest supercar ever, planning to price it at about a quarter of the price they’d charged for their legendary F1; I took notice. The McLaren F1 had brought a $1.2M price tag, with over 100 produced. McLaren had found (and patented) a way to reduce the time it took to make each carbon fiber chassis from 4,000 to just 4 hours. This carbon fiber chassis is the structural core of every McLaren and a good reason why they handle the way they do. The MP4-12C was the first car to offer this amount of tech for less than a million dollars. By then, I’d learned that a good part of the reason my Lotus Elan handled the way it did was its 78 lbs. chassis. The McLaren’s chassis was just 140 lbs. Lotus designer and owner Colin Chapman was famous for “getting the lbs. out,” so I was entirely on board with a light, high-performance chassis. But there weren’t McLaren dealerships in my area allowing test rides, so I began following a new bulletin board run by and dedicated to following this latest entry. The comments of these owners got me to commit to buying a new MP4-12C from the McLaren dealer in Dallas, TX. Here is an edited, more recent post from the McLaren Life bulletin board:

After listing a large number of cars he’s owned and currently owns, this writer posts the following:

“Nevertheless, it’s the McLarens that consistently stand out as the quintessential all-around driver’s cars. They effortlessly blend aesthetics, precise handling, impressive speed, and sheer comfort. Among the realm of exotics, they unquestionably rank as the most practical and user-friendly, except for Bentley and Rolls Royce, which cater to distinct needs. Every car brand masterfully carves out its own identity, boasting different personalities. This approach is strategic; it aims to deliver a driving experience like no other. McLaren, in my opinion, exemplifies this philosophy wonderfully.

The McLarens’ mastery at performing every task and their ease at high speeds can make them appear uneventful to some. Their perfection is so seamless that speed can feel surprisingly unnoticeable; you might be cruising, assuming you’re well within the speed limit, only to glance down and realize you’re effortlessly doing 120mph. In contrast to other supercars, McLarens handle the racetrack with unmatched grace, unlike certain other brands, like my Lamborghini SVJ, which endured brake problems on the track due to non-racing brake fluid. Manufacturers like Lamborghini prioritize the preferences of their typical customers, and that’s perfectly reasonable; they focus on creating experiences rather than mere sports cars.

Every car brand boasts its quirks and delivers unique experiences. People who hold reservations about McLarens usually fall into three distinct categories:

  1. Some may find McLarens dull, often novices behind the wheel who are more interested in loud, flashy cars for casual use than in high-performance vehicles.
  2. Then, some individuals yearn for obnoxiously loud and flashy cars, ideal for drag racing and producing sensational YouTube content. Unfortunately, they often miss out on appreciating McLaren’s true racecar capabilities.
  3. Finally, we have the purists, often seasoned individuals and automotive experts like those from Road and Track. They treasure a pure, unadulterated driving experience. It’s undeniable that driving an old Ferrari with a gated shifter and inhaling the aroma of gasoline from Weber Carbs is genuinely captivating. However, classic cars tend to struggle in terms of practicality and are riddled with constant repair issues. They are far from ideal for everyday use. [I sure found this to be true with the Lotus]

In contrast, McLaren’s design philosophy doesn’t seek to replicate the vintage driving experience; they aim to create precise race cars that achieve maximum speed with minimum effort. With a Porsche, Ferrari, or Lamborghini, you need to work to coax the best performance out of them, and this challenge can be satisfying. But when your goal is to conquer a racetrack with the shortest lap time without fearing for your life, McLaren emerges as the undisputed champion. You don’t have to wrestle with the car; it’s inherently capable, and while that may seem less exhilarating, it’s precisely its purpose.”

Once past the fear and trepidation of cracking up a quarter of a million-dollar car faded, I knew I’d made the right call. Even though it outweighs the Lotus Elan by 1,500 hundred lbs., it still weighs less than 3,000 lbs., which is fantastic for a car putting out over 640 HP. McLaren also packed it with all the neat tricks the F1 sanctioning body had declared illegal, as it disadvantaged other teams. Fortunately for McLaren’s commercial car division, F1 has no say over what you put into cars sold to consumers. As a result, the McLaren’s performance surpassed other vehicles in the class. But I didn’t care as much about that. I cared about how it felt. While I may understand only a bit of what they did to make it handle as it does, I know and can feel the same precision, lightness, and agility that hooked me on my first ride in my Elan many years ago.

My friend will no doubt love his new McLaren when it comes. My appreciation for my MP4-12C grows each time I drive it.

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One Response to The Evolution of Automotive Passion: From Triumph Spitfire to McLaren

  1. Robert Kost says:

    A very enjoyable read. What about the cup holders on the McLaren? How many and do they hold a Big Gulp?

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