A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10

| 20 Dec 2021
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10

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This year is a significant milestone for McLaren, marking a decade since the launch of the MP4-12C.

While the British firm had produced the seminal F1 many years before, not to mention Bruce McLaren’s wild M6GT proposal and the construction of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren at its Woking headquarters, the 12C represented its rebirth, as the first supercar from the freshly minted McLaren Automotive.

And today represents the perfect opportunity to measure just how far McLaren has progressed in that time, by driving the MP4-12C back-to-back with its spiritual successor in the current range, the 720S.

Not just any old MP4-12C, either, but ‘Job 1’, the very first production car.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The family lineage is clear, despite the curvier lines of the 720S

Many thought the Frank Stephenson design generic at the time, but it looks strikingly pure outside the McLaren Technology Centre in the morning sun; it has matured well.

A dihedral door swings up, you drop down into the leather sports seat and press a starter button to wake the V8 – guttural and industrial, this soundtrack lacks charm but it sets the scene for a serious driving experience and is now instantly identifiable as a McLaren sound.

A flimsy ‘D’ low down on the centre console selects first gear, release the brake and soon memories come flooding back of the early preview former McLaren boss Ron Dennis gave me.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The 12C’s cabin looks good for its 44,000 miles

The company hadn’t announced the name by then, and most were taken aback by how perfunctory it was when Dennis revealed it to be MP4-12C.

It was soon shortened to 12C, but the full name was idiosyncratically and perfectly Ron Dennis – logical in its way, but impenetrably so.

(For the record, MP4 refers to the merger between McLaren and Dennis’ Project 4, and 12 denotes the car’s Vehicle Performance Index).

He was particularly proud of the carbonfibre construction – the ‘C’ in the name – which is noticeable as soon as you lift the door and glimpse the ‘MonoCell’ around which the entire 12C is constructed.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The MP4-12C’s 3.8-litre, twin-turbocharged V8

It’s the perfect reference to McLaren’s pioneering use of carbonfibre in Formula One with the MP4/1, and it helped make the MP4-12C stiffer, stronger and a little lighter (1336kg compared to 1380kg, dry) than its Ferrari 458 rival, if also costlier to repair.

Dennis’ fastidious and at times obsessive attention to detail shines through in the 12C, including blade-like rear lights that were hidden until lit and touch-sensitive doorhandles that many struggled to operate.

He was pleased, too, with the low scuttle and how the wings peaked exactly in line with the front axle – drive it today and the forward vision remains exceptional, and the tops of the wings make it incredibly intuitive to place precisely on the road.

This is not an intimidating beast to just jump into and drive.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
‘The 12C was a 90% car: one that deeply impressed, but didn’t have that final level of calibration to knit everything together’

The suspension used dampers that were hydraulically and diagonally interlinked.

The target was limousine-like ride quality, which explains why Dennis claimed that his Mercedes SL was a personal benchmark, as well as the McLaren F1.

There’s no question this car soaks up imperfections spookily well, which again increases your confidence to attack the road.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
A more intricate design for the MP4-12C’s wheels (left), while the 720S has a more spidery design and eye-catching calipers

A reliable source told me that a MercedesV8 was considered, but it was 12mm too long to fit McLaren’s new architecture so a bespoke unit was designed, to be constructed by Ricardo.

With a 3.8-litre capacity, twin turbochargers and a flat-plane crank, it initially gave 592bhp at 7000rpm and 443lb ft of torque from 3-7000rpm and Dennis claimed that it had the lowest CO2-per-bhp of any car, at 279g/km – another slightly odd if laudable target for a supercar.

The engine was paired with a seven-speed, dual-clutch ‘seamless shift’ transmission.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
According to McLaren, just 9% of parts are carried over between the 12C and the 720S

The slightly lighter, more powerful McLaren had the upper hand over the Ferrari on paper, but in tests the 12C fell short of its rival, and the focus on numbers was partly to blame – perhaps a legacy of a race team obsessed with lap times.

I wrote one of the very first MP4-12C group tests for Car, and the McLaren’s trick suspension broke at Rockingham test track – “human error” said Dennis, rather brilliantly.

Even before that, the 12C felt like a 90% car: one with all the correct foundations, and that deeply impressed with its steering, ride and phenomenal thump of acceleration, but didn’t have that final level of calibration to knit everything together.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The influence of McLaren’s logo (left) on the MP4-12’s styling is clear

The power delivery was shunty, the brake-pedal feel poor, gearshifts lacked the visceral punch of the Ferrari and the clever chassis left you feeling a little seasick after a hard drive, perhaps because it didn’t behave in the way your mind expected.

But there was also a tendency for testers to focus on what McLaren had got wrong as they really put this car under the microscope.

Driving it today it feels agile and nimble, and the steering stands out with Lotus levels of feel and purity.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The high-set exhausts are neatly integrated on the 12C

The helm is incredibly light, quick enough – if more measured in its rate of response than the flighty 458 – and you communicate with the road surface with an almost naked sense of detail that stops short of intrusive noise.

The ride still impresses with its pillowy compliance and excellent control, the brake pedal remains vague, but there’s no question of the stoppers’ efficacy.

Push hard and rearward vision briefly vanishes as the Airbrake rear spoiler deploys, like a more practical dragster’s parachute. It’s an exciting car.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The 720S is the product of a decade of evolution from the 12C

McLaren offered free software updates to early 12C owners as it worked through the car’s teething troubles, and the big win was a power bump to 617bhp with improved driveability and no reduction in the official efficiency figures.

There’s still pretty pronounced lag to chew through until around 3000rpm, but the brewing boost creates a slightly ominous sense of anticipation.

When the twin turbochargers do kick in this still feels like almighty performance.

It strains at the rear tyres, pummels you down the road and thrills at high revs because by then the pace is so frenzied, no matter that the 7500rpm peak is 1500rpm lower than the shrieky 458’s. The claims of 0-62mph in 3.1 secs and 0-124mph in 8.8 secs are entirely believable.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The earlier car’s blade-like rear lights were hidden until lit

A full decade on, you still need no more performance than this, and an early 12C represents something of a bargain today, with prices now at £65k – less than most Porsche 911 GT3s.

The 12C certainly wasn’t perfect – the 650S that replaced it and particularly the 675LT made great strides in terms of fizzy excitement – but no McLaren since has strayed too far from the fundamental principles this car laid down.

The carbonfibre chassis, mid-mounted, twin-turbocharged V8, seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and rear-wheel drive all remain.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
A decade of headlamp evolution, from the 12C (left) to the 720S

By the time the 12C and the 650S had left production, McLaren was making around 1600 cars a year and had three main model lines: the entry-level Sports Series (570S), core Super Series (650S), and the Ultimate Series specials that had been introduced with the P1 hybrid hypercar.

Yet everything from the mega-bucks Speedtail to the entry-level and more comfort-focused McLaren GT is still spun from those same building blocks, so the 720S neatly illustrates just how far McLaren has come since the 12C, using fundamentally similar parts for the exact same market segment.

The 720S arrived to replace the 650S in 2017, but it looks and feels two generations removed.

The dimensions and the basic shape suggest commonality – the wheelbase is an identical 2670mm, the roof canopy flows with the same gentle arc, and even the rear tyres are the same 305/30 ZR20 specification. (The fronts are fractionally wider, at 245/35 ZR19.)

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
It was always a brave, ambitious move to enter the supercar market, but it has paid off for McLaren

For all the continuity, however, there are a few significant differences.

The 720S still employs a carbonfibre passenger cell, though the MonoCell has evolved into a MonoCage that extends further up in the vehicle structure and is reprofiled to make entry and egress easier (and with doors that remove a chunk of roof to aid usability).

The chassis features new and lighter hardware and fresh control software, but the interlinked dampers remain.

The previous M838T engine has grown to the 4-litre M840T, and a significant 41% of engine components are revised – McLaren says that only 9% of parts are carried over between 12C and 720S.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Powering the 720S is a 4-litre, twin-turbo V8 with 710bhp (720hp)

The 720S preview was held in a military hangar some 70 miles north of McLaren’s headquarters, with Dennis long since gone.

When former chief test driver Chris Goodwin roared out of the darkness, lapping assembled journalists like a shark circling a diving cage, the overriding impression was of how low the 720S looked, particularly because the engine behind the driver was so low down and tightly packaged – it had been dropped by 150mm, thanks to some reworking of the inlet plenums.

The 720S is also a more dramatic and theatrical design, this time by Rob Melville, a stylist who is obsessed by shrink-wrapping his designs around mechanical skeletons, with references to military aircraft, sci-fi, and nature’s most athletic and fearsome species.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Like the 12C, its 720S successor has high-set exhaust pipes

Even with familiarisation it’s still fascinating to pore over the 720S today and understand its details up close: the ‘eye sockets’ for headlights to generate more cooling; the apparent absence of side air intakes that makes the midriff appear dominated by sinew and muscle (it’s actually a double-skinned door, which allows air to flow through the inner and outer skins); plus the vast slashes in the rear bodywork to aid cooling that give glimpses of the gearbox casing and other mechanical components, like the exposed machine beneath a cyborg’s torn skin.

If the interior lacks some of the flow of a 12C (particularly in its blockier centre console and less attractively profiled instrument binnacle), there are still echoes of its predecessor in the flat-bottomed steering wheel, the low-set driving position, and pedals that are offset to the left.

The cabin is also more user-friendly and of higher quality – the gear-selector switches, the greatly improved infotainment system and more substantial controls for McLaren’s (still clunky) interface for tweaking powertrain and chassis modes being cases in point.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
It is evolution rather than revolution for the interior of the 720S

Before we had seen the car on its preview, McLaren’s then product development director Mark Vinnels asked me to guess at how much power the car had.

I estimated 680-700bhp, enough to move the game on beyond the 675 LT and avoid any naming confusion, and to give the 661bhp Ferrari 488GTB something to sweat about.

Then the new car appeared with a display numberplate that read ‘720S’ and Vinnels grinned.

Not only did it have 720PS (710bhp), it was also lighter again than the 650S, reduced by 18kg to a lightest dry weight of 1283kg.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
720S leads MP4-12C on track

The figures remain astonishing: 568lb ft of torque, 0-62mph in a blistering 2.9 secs, 0-124mph in 7.8 secs, and 213mph. Only now has the Ferrari F8 matched them, almost identically so.

This car is McLaren finding its mojo – still serious and mechanical in feel, but now with as much an eye on entertainment as metrics.

The handling is more playful and intuitive than a 12C. You notice this even driving moderately hard into a roundabout and backing off – it’s in the way the front bites and the back begins to benignly pivot round it.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
‘This car is McLaren finding its mojo – still serious and mechanical in feel, but now with as much an eye on entertainment as metrics’

Amplify all of that on a track and the 720S becomes sensational, feeling both keen to oversteer if you go in late on the brakes, but also incredibly stable and controlled when it does so, simply waiting for throttle instructions as you sit in the cockpit goggle-eyed – though I definitely found it more of a handful than the more locked-down Senna when I drove the two back-to-back at Silverstone.

At the time Goodwin summed it up like this: “There’s a commonality of character with the latter stages of our product line-up, especially the P1 and 570S.

“The direct turn-in, that you can trail-brake into a corner, the lateral support you get when you load the car up into the apex, the nice, supported breakaway.

“In that way the 720S is an evolution, but it’s a revolution in terms of actual performance.”

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Incremental developments have seen the 720S move the game on from the MP4-12C

Goodwin went on to say that the increase in horsepower didn’t seem a massive deal to him, but it was the delivery and how the torque came in that made it feel a massive leap.

The sound is comparably gruff to the 12C, there is still lag to around 3000rpm despite new and faster-reacting titanium-aluminide turbine blades for the turbos, but the response on boost feels sweeter and more progressive.

There’s a chunk more performance throughout the rev range, which gives the same-sized rubber even more to deal with, and the final kick beyond 7500rpm is just insane in its force and fury.

Combine that with far more incisive gearshifts and there’s no question that Ferrari has a true fight on its hands with this car. It’s sensational.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The nomenclature has simplified in the past decade

More than anything, it’s the expertise with which this whole package is woven together and deftly calibrated that puts a real gulf between the 720S and 12C, even if the earlier car remains proof that 617bhp is an obscene amount of power, and it has the better, less isolated steering feel.

A decade on since the launch of the MP4-12C, McLaren is at last moving beyond its first car’s blueprint with the Artura, which is built around a new carbonfibre architecture and a hybridised and turbocharged V6 engine

A replacement for the 720S will follow, and to be honest it’s hard to comprehend how ferociously capable that car might well be.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
‘It’s the expertise with which this whole package is woven together and deftly calibrated that puts a real gulf between the 720S and 12C’

What we do know is that by 2025 McLaren plans to use 100% hybrid technology, wants to win the supercar ‘weight race’ in the face of electrification, and to offer more than 30 mins of electric-only range on the track.

If all goes to plan, it will be selling 6000 cars per annum.

It’s all a long way from the first ever MP4-12C that set out to give Ferrari a bloody nose.

Given how far McLaren has come in such a short time, however, you wouldn’t bet against it achieving those goals across the next decade.

Images: Stan Papior


Standing on the shoulders of giants

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Two M6GTs were converted from racers, while Bruce McLaren’s prototype was built from the ground up

The MP4-12C ignited McLaren’s production ambitions, but the project owed everything to two legendary road cars that came before it: the groundbreaking 1995 F1 and the machine that started it all, the 1969 M6GT.

A change in homologation rules demanding that a total of 50 road cars be built put paid to the project, but Bruce McLaren continued to run one of three prototypes as a road car until his tragic accident at Goodwood in 1970. It’s thought he drove to the Chichester circuit in OBH 500H on the morning of the fatal crash.

As a constructor, McLaren’s greatest early successes came in the musclebound Can-Am series.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The F1 was McLaren’s ultimate driving machine © Tony Baker

The team walked the championship in both 1967 and ’68, and a year later swept to victory in all 11 races with the fearsome M6B, closing out the top three places in two of those with Bruce McLaren himself, Denny Hulme and Mark Donohue behind the wheel.

McLaren’s next target was endurance racing success, and to homologate the M6B for use in the World Sportscar Championship a fabulous prototype was built.

Low, light and blisteringly quick, the M6GT was powered by a Bartz-tuned 350cu in Chevrolet V8 that could propel the svelte supercar to 100mph in just eight seconds, and on to a top speed in excess of 165mph.

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
The central driving position (left) and gold heat-shielding were among the quirks of the no-compromise F1 © Tony Baker

The spirit of the M6GT lived on in the technologically advanced F1, when designer Gordon Murray proposed his concept of the ultimate driving machine to McLaren boss Ron Dennis.

The car that followed stayed true to the principles of light weight, high power and race-derived technologies that marked out the M6GT.

One of the first production cars to use a carbonfibre monocoque chassis, the F1 weighed just 1138kg yet boasted 618bhp from its 6064cc BMW V12 powerplant – good enough, when combined with its slippery Peter Stevens-penned bodywork, to make the 240mph McLaren the fastest car in the world.


McLaren Automotive’s motoring milestones

Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
  • 2010 Ramp-up begins for the McLaren Automotive era: £40m invested in the McLaren Production Centre, where up to 1000 cars can be handbuilt annually; 300 additional staff recruited, taking the total to around 1000
  • 2011 The first production MP4-12C is completed
  • 2012 P1 previewed, starting the Ultimate Series line. The second car of the new era is a limited-edition hybrid hypercar good for 903bhp and able to run on electric power alone
  • 2013 Managing director Antony Sheriff departs (and takes McLaren to court), replaced by COO Mike Flewitt. First year in the black: 1395 cars delivered, £12.4m operating profit
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
From top left: the P1 was previewed in 2012; when the 12C was facelifted it became the 650S; Ron Dennis was ousted in 2016
  • 2014 650S launched as a facelifted 12C, addressing various issues with the original car. McLaren Automotive increases headcount to 1283, 25% more than 2013, and posts a £20.8m operating profit, £15m profit before tax
  • 2015 570S revealed, introducing the Sports Series line. More than 5000 cars have now been produced in total
  • 2016 Track22 business plan announced, pledging £1bn investment in R&D over six years and 15 all-new cars. Fully electric Ultimate Series model evaluated. 3286 cars sold. Ron Dennis forced out by fellow shareholders
  • 2017 McLaren announces the new McLaren Composites Technology Centre, based near Rotherham, with £50m investment, 220 new jobs. 720S revealed, replacing the 650S. Rob Melville replaces Frank Stephenson as design director. Ron Dennis sells all shares. 3340 cars sold
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Classic & Sports Car – A decade of development: the McLaren MP4-12C at 10
Clockwise from top left: the Sports Series line started with the 570S; the evocative Senna; Artura is McLaren’s second hybrid; just 106 Speedtails in total
  • 2018 Kenny Brack replaces Chris Goodwin as chief test driver, as the latter leaves to head up mid-engined Aston Martin development. 15,000 cars have now been produced in total. Senna hypercar joins Ultimate Series
  • 2019 Speedtail revealed in the Ultimate Series, with its three-seater layout and production run of just 106 cars underlining its billing as the F1’s successor. At the other end of the spectrum, the new McLaren GT offers buyers a more comfort-orientated gran turismo model
  • 2020 Production temporarily halted in March due to COVID-19. Ultimate Series Elva roadster launched
  • 2021 Production due to commence of the Artura, McLaren’s second hybrid model and its first with a V6 engine

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