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Design is 'key element' for future McLarens, says boss, including incoming SUV

CEO Michael Leiters says the new 'shared performance vehicle' will still be a McLaren through and through. Pointy and light, then

Published: 21 Mar 2024

McLaren makes brilliant supercars. Everyone agrees. They're light and staggeringly fast, and have wonderful engaging steering and handling. But they're too similar to one another. And besides, wouldn't some of the McLaren magic go down well in different sorts of cars?

Actually, the company's own boss agrees. Michael Leiters has been CEO for one year, and has already overseen major changes behind the scenes, which have squared up the finances. That's pulled McLaren out of the mire – more on that in a minute.

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He's also launched three cars. The Solus GT was a sell-out (just 25 cars admittedly), a track-only monster with a race-bred V10. The GT has been upgraded to become the GTS. The improved Artura and new Spider version are on sale.

With the company on an even keel, he's ready to talk about broadening its range beyond mid-engined supercars. "I think it's a very positive opportunity to extend the lineup, to avoid depending too much on a few products."

No surprise. Previously Leiters was chief technology officer at Ferrari, so he led the engineering of the Purosangue. Before that, he worked at Porsche on the Cayenne and Macan. Leiters refuses to be drawn on whether the new car is more like the Cayenne or the Purosangue.

The only clue is he calls it a 'shared performance vehicle' and 'a lifestyle vehicle', not 'an SUV'. And of course by the time McLaren launches such a car there will be electrified propulsion to consider.

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It would probably be a joint venture, to save development and manufacturing cost. "I think having a partner is a good thing, to unlock the full potential of this brand."

He says he's not being secretive about who to partner and what sort of car will result, just that those things aren't decided. "There are many, many factors we have to consider. Right now we are going in parallel to understand several scenarios. And it depends whether we go into a partnership." There has been speculation that McLaren has talked to BMW. Is this the partner? "The only comment is that we are open to that."

I put it to Leiters that because there's no clarity yet about the partnership, the type of car or its production site, this car must be at least three years in the future. "That's a fair comment," he replies.

"Partnership for me means first there have to be synergies. But also secondly, is this in line with our DNA? We want to be proud of saying this is a McLaren, and customers will love it because it's a McLaren."

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OK so what makes a McLaren? "Light weight, aerodynamics, vehicle dynamics. That's it. Those are the attributes." So he defines the vehicle by its attributes rather than the substance – the engine, structure or suspension? He replies: "But as an engineer I'm convinced we would need some typical substance from McLaren to achieve these attributes."

Design is critical. One of Leiters's first acts at McLaren last year was to bring in Tobias Sühlmann as chief design officer, from Bentley. He had been at McLaren previously and designed the Solus GT hypercar back then. Leiters put him on the board, on the same level as the head of R&D. "I believe that design is a key element why customers buy a car and what shapes brand."

Will the design of the new cars change radically or does Leiters want evolution? "I want to change and he [Sühlmann] wants to change. But this brand has developed a lot of heritage and treasury around design and product. We would be stupid to forget about it." You will always recognise a McLaren, he says. "Some design signatures are very, very important and we would definitely bring them into the future. Not in a nostalgic way but in a futuristic way."

These brand signatures will go into the new two-seaters too. Insiders say that a 'new P1', a top-level hypercar is coming. It will use a brand-new V8 engine and hybrid system. It will be shown late this year.

The GTS successor will still be a mid-engined two-seater. But expect something more different from the other supercars, he says. Design will communicate what the car is about: "Design has to underline the product positioning."

Leiters acknowledges drastic behind-the-scenes financial action was needed in the past year at McLaren Automotive. It was building the cars too fast, so stocks were building up in the dealers. Discounts and distress selling resulted. Inevitably secondhand values fell, and from that it followed lease rates went up. "It was strategically wrong. So we don't want to do that again."

Because profits collapsed, it was hard to bring investment into the company. The only way to tempt new investors was to give them various levels of preference shares, with voting power above their actual financial stake. Decision-making became bogged down in arguments between those groups.

Following a reorganisation of finances and governance, now there are only ordinary shares. This simpler, transparent structure, Leiters says, will make it easier to manage the company. Plus, crucially, easier to make those partnerships needed for the 'shared performance vehicle'.

He has also been improving production and reducing costs. "We are pretty sure if we go only with our core segment supercar, we can turn this company into a sustainably profitable company."

But ideally this would be the jumping-off point for partnerships to broaden the range. "We need a place of stability and robustness for our business, and then extending our lineup with something more lifestyle. We are open to that and that would then be the icing on the cake."

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