The story of XP5 - the most famous McLaren F1

The car that changed the supercar world forever.

5d ago
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The McLaren F1 is, arguably, the greatest supercar ever made; you could even go so far as to say it is the greatest car ever made. It transcended criticism and hypnotised the car world into adoring every inch of its sleek curvatures. It's almost a rite of passage to a car enthusiast to first recount the specification of this magnificent machine: naturally aspirated BMW derived V12; central driving position; gold clad engine bay; minimal driver assists; carbon fibre monocoque. We were transfixed by each minor detail of this extraordinary vehicle.

I think the best way to show how mesmerised the automotive world was by these revolutionary features would be to recount the introductory passage of Car Magazine's road test of the F1. It was penned by Roger Bell in June,1994, and was only the second time a member of the press had tested the F1, behind Andrew Frankel with Autocar the month before.

"My mind is blown. My soul corrupted. Absolute power has cast its spell. Solo or ménage a trois, I don’t mind. Put me back in the middle, behind the central wheel of the world’s fastest driving machine. I need more, another fix. Two days on the loose in McLaren’s three-seater megacar, and I’m hooked."

The articulate wording of a small group of journalists sent the world into a supercar frenzy. Enthused buyers, who also wanted their 'fix' of the action, snatched up the mere 64 road-going examples. They raised the F1's prices so high that they now cause even the most mighty of millionaires to gawp at the number of zeros before they click 'buy'.

It rewrote the supercar rulebook and catalysed the creation of the McLaren Automotive brand that we know and love today. Though, we owe our thanks for all of its achievements to one example. I want to tell you the story of the most important F1of them all. No, it's neither the Ueno Clinic GTR which won Le Mans, nor is it the fetching maroon example that was wrapped around a tree by Mr Bean himself. The car I would like to talk about is known as XP5.

XP5 outside the McLaren Technology Centre.

XP5 outside the McLaren Technology Centre.

The Final Prototype

To create the F1, five experimental prototype vehicles of varying degrees of completion were commissioned over the course of the car's development. They have been affectionately dubbed ‘the XP cars‘ and are each as famous as the F1 marque itself. Each of these vehicles have their own miraculous stories that tie in well to the overall narrative of the F1. XP1, for example, endured a fast and fiery crash in Namibia during its hot weather testing. XP2 suffered a similar fate as it was used for crash testing. All of the prototype vehicles were configured by the F1's creator, Gordon Murray, who actually owned the silver XP3 after the project was finished due to a clause in his contract.

XP5 is the most important of the quintet as it is the closest to its roadgoing counterparts and symbolises the end of the development journey in a number of ways. This Dark Metallic Green spaceship did more to embed Gordon Murray's automotive titan in our minds than any other F1.

XP5 demonstrating the F1's dihedral doors

XP5 demonstrating the F1's dihedral doors

XP5's black interior with a green centre seat insert. Gordon Murray wanted a black interior with only minor colouring because it made the centre seat layout stand out more.

XP5's black interior with a green centre seat insert. Gordon Murray wanted a black interior with only minor colouring because it made the centre seat layout stand out more.

The record breaker

One of the F1's most notable achievement is being the fastest car in the world at the time of its release. The world first knew of its potential when, in 1993, XP3 clocked 231 mph on the Nardo oval track in southern Italy with test driver Jonathan Palmer piloting. A few years later, in 1998, McLaren pursued this objective again and tried to extract every ounce of performance from their now legendary vehicle.

On a brisk Spring day in March, McLaren wheeled XP5 out of a garage in Volkswagen's Ehra-Lessen Proving Ground with one goal in mind: solidify their car as the fastest production car of all time. After a few test runs and a change of trousers for driver Andy Wallace, the final combined speed was recorded at 240mph. It's worth taking a moment to highlight how special this achievement was; it's impressive by today's standards - just imagine what it was like in 1998.

Wallace, who gave a running commentary whilst doing said 240mph, concurs that the F1 is the greatest car ever built and appeared adrenaline enthused throughout the whole test. I would advise watching the video linked below which was commissioned by McLaren Automotive to commemorate the F1's 25 year anniversary.

the press car

Despite its later antics in Germany, the XP5 started its rise to fame as a test car for various members of the Automotive press. It was registered as K8 MCL in April of 1994 and began to make the rounds with various publications beginning the following month. McLaren had made it explicitly clear that only one organisation would be allowed to gather performance statistics; those figures could then be standardised across all reports.

From left: Jonathan Palmer, Andrew Frankel and Gordon Murray with some fantastic hair

From left: Jonathan Palmer, Andrew Frankel and Gordon Murray with some fantastic hair

"It was another level, unimagined by the likes of me until that very moment it exploded forward in a haze of tyre smoke, howling V12 powertrain and snatched gearshifts."

Andrew Frankel - recounting his first drive of XP5 back in 1994.

It would be Autocar that eventually got the privilege of producing the first published road test of the masterpiece that came out of Woking. After years of negotiation, they would be allowed to test the F1 in May of 1994 with the road test editor at the time, Andrew Frankel, behind the wheel. He later stressed that it was the whole Autocar team that worked hard to foster the relationship with Gordon Murray and McLaren, which eventually allowed them to take control of the test.

The test, which took pace at the Millbrook Proving Ground and the Bruntingthorpe aerodrome, was hindered before it even began by the death of Ayrton Senna the day before. The legendary driver had close personal ties to the McLaren team and those involved with the F1 project. Though, the devoted engineers and team members were still present at the test the following day. If there was ever an example of a group of individuals who were loyal to their work, this was it.

It's safe to say that the Autocar review laid the foundation for a flurry of praise which was hurled at the F1 in the following months; journalists from every organisation that you can think of raved about this £540,000 supercar. They loved every meticulous detail, every minor idiosyncrasy - it was in another league from its supposed competitors from Bugatti, Jaguar and alike in terms of performance, quality and overall feel. It's low weight made it nimble and agile like a desirable sports car, but when it unleased its 627bhp, it pounced like a lustful animal. The design team had masterfully paired their elaborate chassis to a jaw-dropping powertrain; however much manufacturers try, even today they cannot replicate the feats accomplished by this car.

XP5 (second from left) outside the McLaren Technology Centre with its automotive peers.

XP5 (second from left) outside the McLaren Technology Centre with its automotive peers.

The permanent boulevard resident

The job was complete. The F1 was critically acclaimed and its creator had driven off into the sunset (for now) with the wind in his stereotypically nineties hair and a smile on his face. As the chapter closed on Gordon Murray's vision, XP5 was left alone. Like the project, its toils and strains were over. The prototype was drafted into McLaren's private heritage collection and today it resides next to its successful automotive peers on the famous McLaren Boulevard at the McLaren Technology Centre. The multitude of test drivers and journalists who had gripped its Nardi designed alcantara wheel and nestled into its centre-mounted carbon fibre driver's seat had left it behind with only the memory of what an extraordinary machine it was.

XP5 present at the EVO analogue supercars group test (2013). Credit: EVO Magazine

XP5 present at the EVO analogue supercars group test (2013). Credit: EVO Magazine

So what now? Does this iconic machine sit dormant watching Lando Norris walk by it every once in a while? For the most part, yes; it has deserved a well earned rest after its rigorous testing and the 98,000 miles (as of 2013) that have been logged on its odometer. Though, every so often the public is treated to an appearance of that phenomenal green machine, such as when in issue 186 of EVO Magazine, it appeared in their ultimate analogue supercar test. It won, obviously. But much more than that, it proved once again that it was still the benchmark - the Porsche Carrera GT and Ferrari F50 got close, but the cigar was still somewhat out of reach. An interesting anecdote that I read about the test from its participant, Henry Catchpole, stated that then McLaren CEO, Ron Dennis, was unaware of XP5's temporary procurement by the EVO team until he first read the group test a month after it had been conducted. I pity the employee who had to talk his way out of that conundrum. The video of the test is linked below; somehow, Henry manages to masterfully describe the whole group of cars from behind the wheel of XP5.

In more recent years, it saw an appearance on Autocar when it was reunited with its first critic, Andrew Frankel, 25 years after their first encounter. He and his journalistic colleagues (some of whom were young enough to have not driven the F1 before) each tried the car at the same Bruntingthorpe aerodrome that had seen the car be pushed to its limits back in 1994. The article, which I will link below, is wonderfully conceived as it presents the views of both first time XP5 drivers and the original crew who tested the car. Had they not been credited excerpts, I would have sworn that they were copied and pasted; even 25 years on, these few lucky writers and reviewers had recounts that mirrored each other almost perfectly. It solidifies just how special the F1 is to drive - they cite everything from the car's power delivery to the masterful construction and packaging as a reason for their enthusiasm.

Frankel and co. demonstrating just how small an F1 actually is. Credit: Autocar

Frankel and co. demonstrating just how small an F1 actually is. Credit: Autocar

If you want a clear idea of just how valuable this car is, simply look at the insurance costs: EVO insured the vehicle for £5 million back in 2013, which they thought was ridiculous back then. Autocar, on the other hand, were quoted five times that just six years later.

Dario Franchitti in the T50 XP5 at Goodwood. Credit: EVO Magazine

Dario Franchitti in the T50 XP5 at Goodwood. Credit: EVO Magazine

The Next XP5

If this article has taught you anything, it should be how delightfully absurd the F1 is; it's abundantly clear that McLaren's dream project is the definitive performance car. Bar none. And it was XP5 which showed this to the world. In the modern era, the F1 is illogical by all standards, but somehow the most sane thing ever created. With our new nonsensical world of double-clutch gearboxes and hybrid-assisted hypercars, it goes to show how building cars in a simpler way isn't the worst idea.

That same ethos is being channelled by its creator. Years after its original fabrication, the soul of the F1 lives on in Gordon Murray's newest project: the T50. With a slightly different approach to his prototypes this time, Gordon Murray Automotive (GMA) has budgeted 13 XP cars into their production plan. This does mean that the legendary XP5 nameplate has returned and is currently being worn proudly by the latest test car to make a public appearance - at the Goodwood members meeting last October, specifically. Indycar legend Dario Franchitti demonstrated the Cosworth-engined evolution of the F1 formula to the roar of the enthused crowd. Since then, they have continued production on their simpler, more analogue supercar ready for full production in 2022. The F1 showed us that automotive norms can easily be countered with enough work and a light sprinkling of engineering genius; we may yet see it happen again in the form of the T50.

XP5 looking radiant in all its metallic green glory. Credit: Autocar

XP5 looking radiant in all its metallic green glory. Credit: Autocar

On that final positive note, I wrap up my official time writing on DriveTribe. With the recent announcement of the website's shutdown it means that I, like many of you, will no longer be able to share my passion on this platform. My last formal article is one of my best, which is a poignant thing to end on. I will write a short piece in the coming weeks to clarify what's next for me as it seems that most creators are doing that of late. But for now, thank you for reading over my last six months of positing. As a 15 year old automotive fanatic, the readership, enthusiasm and insightful responses to my work have spurred me on; I only hope to carry on what I’ve learned to future endeavours.

The links to my sources are below: I highly advise perusing them. Enjoy.

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      5 days ago
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