The McLaren way: How one of the last British car brands conquered the world

Story highlights

  • McLaren Automotive was established in 2010
  • Success in racing and F1 prompted a profitable commercial arm
  • Producing 3,000 vehicles in 2016, its CEO sees owners as a family, not consumers

(CNN)Rolls and Bentley are owned by Germans. So too, Mini. Jaguar and Land Rover are in Indian hands. Lotus is Malaysian. And Aston Martin, the favored ride of a certain British secret agent? Mostly Italian.

It's partly this sort of foreign takeover of what were once considered British heritage brands that arguably fueled the ire of Brexit's supporters. And while few would deny that outside investment helped save some of these marques from uncertain futures, they could now be facing some of the same problems.
    For one thing, the British auto industry "is highly integrated into an international spider's web of suppliers," The Guardian wrote recently, and "more than three-quarters of firms believe Brexit would harm business, a survey by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders found."
    The Guardian was wrong in stating that the industry is "entirely foreign-owned", however: McLaren Automotive, the modern maker of sports cars born of McLaren Racing, the company founded by race-car driver turned manufacturer Bruce McLaren in Surrey, England in 1963 and still located there, can uniquely claim majority British ownership --and is one of the last real British car brands, in fact.

    The last manufacturer standing

    McLaren's cars, stunning and astonishingly fast, are 100% designed and built by hand in the UK, with as many British components as possible -- another factor which sets it apart from the rest of the pack.
    Far from being an encumbrance, McLaren has thrived, first in the realm of Formula 1 and other racing series, and more recently with road cars including the groundbreaking McLaren F1, launched in 1992. That car, now worth millions to collectors, eventually spawned the new McLaren MP4-12C almost 20 years later in 2011, for which McLaren Automotive was established.
    The MP4-12C, introduced in 2011, heralded the new era of McLaren sports and supercars under the McLaren Automotive name.
    Within three short years the new offshoot had achieved profitability, thanks to strong demand for the MP4-12C and the arrival of the limited-run, million-dollar McLaren P1 "hypercar", which went into production in 2013 and quickly sold out. That was followed by the 650S, which garnered stellar reviews worldwide.
    Keeping up the pace and its promise to produce a new car or derivative every year, the marque debuted its new, lower-priced Sports Series range in the form of the McLaren 570S and 540C in 2015, rounded out most recently with their first grand tourer, the gorgeous 570GT, which will help establish them in the luxury world, once and for all. Sales may increase, but McLaren's "Britishness" and independence will not change.

    Family values

    "I feel a big part of McLaren's charm is our approachability as a brand and our relationships with our customers," CEO Mike Flewitt tells CNN. "The company staff has a relationship at a personal level with many of our clients, and we welcome our owners to events as a part of the brand family, rather than hosting as a for-profit marketing exercise. .
    "We anticipate production of around 3,000 cars this year, and with this level of volume we can really be connected with the McLaren brand family at a personal level, something our competitors cannot really offer. Our manufacturing ceiling is 4,500 cars, so we don't need to dilute the brand's values or focus by creating an SUV or leaving the realm of mid-engine sports cars."
    Each McLaren model manages to exude exotic appeal, with unmistakably bespoke looks and an air of well-engineered exclusivity. That's largely down to Frank Stephenson, McLaren's Director of Design.
    The McLaren Technology Center in Woking, Surrey, UK designed by Foster + Partners is one of the world's most advanced car factories as well as an architectural masterpiece.
    "We have a small team, an approach that cuts out a lot of red tape and the dreaded 'design by committee'," he tells CNN. "This also results in faster turnaround times and a laser focus on the mantra that form follows function.
    "A shrink-wrapping effect ensures that every design element on a McLaren car has a purpose and that the packaging is as condensed and compressed as possible.
    "Our cars have countless details in their designs that one may never even notice, but the important thing is that they are there and they are functional, while of course still being easy on the eye."
    An understated way to express it to be sure, but exactly in keeping with the ethos of a truly British car brand.