In days gone by a whole host of coachbuilders would ply their trade on the world’s best motor car chassis. This was the era, in the first half of the 20th century, when a wealthy buyer would purchase a Rolls Royce, Delahaye, Hispano-Suiza or one of the many other thriving specialist motor manufacturers, and specify a body from a specialist: Mulliner, Figoni &Falaschi, Zagato and Saoutchik are among the names that were big in the world of elite car body design, yet today the practice is all but extinct. Yes, there are some craftsmen who will – for a price – build you a one-off body for you Ferrari or Bentley, but they are not the same. That’s why, when a mystery buyer – clearly a very wealthy one – approached McLaren a few years ago asking for a one-off, special model that exuded, and I quote, “timeless elegance”, they could not resist the challenge.
McLaren X-1: Timeless Elegance – or a Missed Opportunity?
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you the McLaren X-1. Now, we are not here to judge, but this is a car that – when it made its debut at The Quail motor show, an annual gathering of exotic and expensive machinery at Pebble Beach – instantly divided opinion. To understand how this weird and quite startling machine came about, you have to look at the brief the team at McLaren Special Operations (and if that sounds like a government secret service division, think ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies and you have the right idea) were given. The client, in his quest for ‘timeless elegance’, was given a selection of inspirations put together by the McLaren team, including: Audrey Hepburn; an Eggplant; the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao; A Grand Piano; A Montblanc Pen; an Art Deco clock by Jaeger. This was presented to the client in what the team charmingly referred to as a ‘mood book’. They also, rather sensibly, included some automotive designs, among them the Mercedes 540k, Facel Vega, and the Citroen SM. Does this all sound rather mad, eccentric and off the wall to you? Have a look at the result!
McLaren X-1: Truly Unique Design
So, the idea is to bring all of those influences, and more besides, together to build a car that evokes the spirit, elegance and age of the 1950’s and 60’s, the last bastion – in many ways – of outlandish car design. Did it work? That’s personal opinion, but this writer still cannot decide whether it looks sensational, or silly. Based on the brilliant McLaren MP4-12c, and using the same monocell carbon-fibre construction, as well as the same engine, this is no show car; it is being delivered to its owner as a fully developed, road-going car. A unique one, it must be said. From the front the X-1 has shades of Audi RS8 to it, with aggressive swept up lights and huge air intakes either side, but in profile, and from the back, there is quite simply nothing else like it. The sharp silver slats along the side that lead to the rear intakes are clearly influenced by the age of chrome that dominated US car design in the 1950’s, while the covered rear wheels – a clear reference to the Citroen SM – add a space-age look to the design. Oddly, the car it most reminds me of is the equally mad Panther Six, that crazy six-wheeled oddity of which only two were ever made in the late 1970’s. There are also hints of Bertone’s celebrated ‘BAT’ series of Alfa Romeo design studies. From the rear, well, make your own mind up: all I can say is it’s an acquired taste!
McLaren X-1: A Limited Audience
Of course, what we have to remember is that the McLaren X-1 has only to satisfy its undoubtedly very wealthy new owner. He, or she, asked for something unique, and clearly got it. From the stunning piano black body colouring (remember that Grand Piano? There it is!) to the amazing attention to detail in the interior, this is an exercise that demonstrates McLaren Special Operations’ ability to craft something that is truly different. In a nice detail touch, the car features two special engraved panels: one is replete with the signatures of the engineers responsible for vehicle, the other gives a reminder of McLaren’s copious success in motor racing. The company also claims that the X-1 has reached 230mph on the Nardo test circuit, not surprising given that the racing division had a strong hand in the aerodynamic properties of the car.
McLaren X-1: Showcasing Talent
Whether you like the X-1 or you think it hideous the fact remains it is very, very different, and in an age when even supercars are becoming anodyne and repetitive that should be applauded. It is to McLaren’s credit, and equally to the individual that commissioned the car, that they dared to be so different: who else would try to incorporate the sweeps and follies of 1950’s design into a mid engine supercar? McLaren has shown that with commitment and invention it is entirely possible to craft one-off, truly individual cars. Indeed, McLaren says there is another, similar, project already underway, and it is using the X1 to show what it can do. It has said, also, that they could make five more X-1’s, if the demand is there. The problem is finding people who can afford one. After all, who is the mystery buyer, whose love of eggplants has led to the most outlandish car for many years? There are clues: the buyer is said to be a friend of McLaren boss Ron Dennis, and also owns a McLaren F1, McLaren MP4-12c, and a Mercedes Benz SLR-McLaren. Several names spring to mind, not least that of Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 chief. Personally, my guess is it is someone with less of a public profile, someone who collects cars and enjoys them, an international businessman of some repute, and someone who has been involved with McLaren for a long time. I’m not here to name names because, to me, anyone who wants a car that looks like an eggplant deserves his privacy.