ART IN MOTION: Talk by McLaren’s Mark Roberts
On Friday 19 May, Mark Roberts, Design Operations Manager at McLaren Automotive, gave the third talk of the Voices of the Future series – an integral part of our Art in Motion; Knowledge and Design exhibition that runs throughout May.
Mark has been at McLaren Automotive since its beginning in 2010 and started earlier, when the Company was in its prior incarnation as McLaren Cars, the organisation that famously produced the fastest and most exclusive super-sports car ever – the McLaren F1 in 1992 – and also the Mercedes-Benz SLR after that. In fact, Mark joined McLaren during the very first week of McLaren Cars, when the company’s co-founder and design visionary, Gordon Murray, was building his team from scratch. That was 27 years ago and Mark has been there ever since, employee number 9 of over 2500 today. As Design Operations Manager he is near-unique at McLaren having seen the company grow into the UK’s most successful super-sports car manufacturer.
Appropriately, Mark’s talk started with the beginning of the F1 project (the last prototype of which is on display throughout May at Messums Wiltshire): he described the unprecedented scenario that saw designer Gordon Murray and the Company’s joint financier, Ron Dennis, decide to build a car that incorporated McLaren’s formidable experience in Formula One motor racing together with Murray’s vision for ultimate road car design. He showed the processes through which the F1 car was conceived, made and developed; he championed the great protagonists in the processes, not least the formidable engineering talent of Barry Lett, and designer/stylist Peter Stevens. Mark’s recollections, wonderfully illustrated with drawings he salvaged from Peter Stevens’ waste-paper basket at the time (apparently Peter didn’t regard his sketches as having any value at the time…) served as a fascinating insight into the evolving design process of the F1: a car that was so far ahead of anything produced before, that even today it is the fastest car of its kind in the world.
Mark described how the F1 was perhaps the last car at McLaren to be drawn in all its elements, and how it was put together by individual teams in the classical, low-production fashion. It was a very small team that created it, and that ethos survives at McLaren where a similarly small ‘family’ produces all McLaren’s current cars. There is a resulting efficiency and integrated methodology that allows McLaren to design and complete a car in just 14 months from initial sketch to production. Something larger companies could only dream of.
The second part of Mark’s talk focused on the evolution of the current range of McLaren cars, part of a process called Track 22 which saw 22 cars designed and put into production in the current expansion phase. Referring to the P1 on display at the foot of his stage –essentially the spiritual successor of the F1 – Mark walked round the car and showed how every little aero-detail was exactingly considered. He showed how airflow worked over the car, how the trim details deflect air to do different jobs, and how nothing on the entire car is superfluous to exacting requirements.
From his walk round the amazing P1, Mark took us through McLaren’s pillars of design philosophy. He showed us how McLaren tried to ‘shrink wrap’ bodywork around the mechanics to create the leanest possible cars and looked to nature, in particular the shapes of sharks, falcons and the male human body, for inspiration.
He also explained a process called ‘layering’ to allow air to flow freely through the car and the use of natural prototypes to create a sinewy, muscular and organic aliveness to their designs. He focused on certain areas which showed the complexities of, by example, brilliant door-hinge design, together with other elements of automotive ‘jewellery’: how all individual parts of McLarens are carefully considered. He described how important is was to be brave and to sprinkle in a dose of ‘magic’ in every part of the process – that all these elements, together with a cohesive team approach, rather than individuals working alone, were core to the creation of all McLaren’s products.
For the last part of his talk Mark took us through the current design processes at McLaren Automotive: from technical worksheets, to the creation and editing down of multiple themes; from 2D into 3D renderings and then CNC-cut clay modelling and how the models are then modified by hand. He showed how adding a silver finish to models allows the designers to work better with light and optimise the ultimate muscularity and compound curves of the cars. Mark described how the design team might walk around a clay model for 2 weeks, changing the tiniest details that might look right one day… but oddly not the next – such are the processes of honing great design. And finally Mark described how Virtual Reality in design now contributes and how ‘computer gamers’ are employed to create realities and tools previously beyond their wildest dreams.
All in all, Mark’s talk was a gripping and unprecedented insight into McLaren’s modern car designing process, and the near-200 strong audience loved every minute of it. We are enormously grateful to both Mark and to McLaren Automotive for their time and supplying their precious F1 and P1 prototypes for the Art In Motion show.
See the current McLaren range at: http://cars.mclaren.com