PistonHeads Expert Opinion
Like Gordon Murray’s 1992 F1, the first all-McLaren road car had to appeal to aesthetes as much as to those who wanted super-sports levels of performance. Like the F1, it had to be exotic and special in technology as well as looks and heritage, but unlike the F1 it had to achieve all that at a price as close to £150,000 as possible – and then sell in high enough numbers to generate a profit.
The conflicts kept on coming. On the styling front, newly hired designer Frank Stephenson (of MINI fame) was asked to come up with something that would be modern but evocative, standout but also elegant and discreet. The mid-engined layout meant that sportiness was a given, but to prevent the car falling into a ‘high days and holidays only’ niche that would have restricted sales, there also had to be good space for both passengers and luggage. It had to be compact on the outside but roomy on the inside. It had to be light, with a class-leading power to weight ratio, but also well equipped, which added weight. Nothing was to be borrowed from another car. It really was the first all-McLaren McLaren. Everything was going to be purpose-made, with no shortcutting. ‘You get it all,’ said McLaren Automotive’s then MD Antony Sheriff in 2009. ‘This and that, not this or that.’
McLaren couldn’t find an existing engine that was small or light enough for the car, so in cahoots with Ilmor and Ricardo they made their own extremely compact, all aluminium 3.8-litre dry-sump twin-turbo V8. It weighed just 150 kilos and produced 592hp. At this point let’s get the naming sorted out. At the end of 2012 the Formula One-y ‘MP4’ bit of the MP4-12C name was dropped, leaving just the 12C part. The 12 is a reference to the company’s internal performance-measuring index, while the C refers to the extensive use of carbon fibre. So even though the first cars were MP4-12Cs, the post-2012 ones were badged 12C.
1,700 orders were placed before the MP4-12C even appeared in dealerships, and nearly all of those orders were fulfilled in the first full year of production. It eventually became the world's best selling carbon fibre-based car. It was up against the 570hp Ferrari 458 Italia, which at £172,000 was around £4,000 dearer. In terms of engineering, build quality and detailing, the production-run 12C didn’t compromise the glorious memory of the hand-built, no expense spared McLaren F1, but how would it do against the Ferrari 458, then the benchmark for instantly accessible fun?
The high-speed handling of the first 12C wasn’t an unqualified success. road testers and early-adopter owners expressed doubts about the on-the-limit behaviour of the 12C. That’s why the launch of the £195,000 12C Spider in 2012 was significant, and not just by virtue of it being a convertible. McLaren had listened to the early misgivings and incorporated big improvements into the Spider that were also passed through to the coupe.
The engine was recalibrated and the throttle control refined not only for more power – up from 592hp to 616hp, lowering the 0-62mph time to 3.1sec – but also for more driveability. Now the car could be drifted out of a corner with much less fear of a grip-delivering power-chop just when you didn't want it. The exhaust note became programmable too, which went some way towards resolving complaints about the flat-plane engine’s ‘boring’ (to some) sound. In April 2014 production of the 12C was stopped. It was replaced by the substantially revised and upgraded 650S.