Car of the decade. Supercar of the century. The GOAT. Every possible accolade that can be heaped on a car has been heaped on the McLaren F1.
You know the story: The F1 was the brainchild of Gordon Murray, who had become bored with Formula 1 racing because the cars he designed for McLaren just kept on winning. He wanted a new challenge: to create the ultimate road car. Bold, yes, and maybe even a little arrogant. But he actually did it.
Unveiled in Monaco in 1992, the F1 carried a price tag of £520,000, which is equivalent to about $1.3 million in today’s dollars. For that sum you didn’t just get the greatest, fastest car the world had ever seen, you also got the world’s most exquisite automobile owner’s manual.
As you’d expect, the hardcover F1 Owner’s Handbook displays the same perfectionism and analog sensibility that makes the F1 still so tantalizing today. Sadly, since only 106 F1s were ever produced, only a wealthy few have ever seen these books up close, but legend of their beauty has spread in McLaren circles far and wide.
We recently spoke to Mark Roberts, a founding member of the F1 design team, and the man responsible for the manual’s look, who agreed to share some of his art gallery-worthy illustrations.
“Gordon [Murray] basically said, ‘Go out and look at what the competitors are doing for the owner’s manual and do something significantly better,’” says Roberts. He was employee number nine at the fledgling McLaren Cars operation, hired as a technical illustrator.
“The owner’s manuals for other supercars at that time were pretty conventional; it was just like you were buying a normal car,” says Roberts. “I thought, since these cars are hand-built, we should do pencil sketches, we should do watercolors and make the handbook like art.”
No expense was spared. The hardcover manual is like a small coffee table book you’d find in the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel. “I almost shouldn’t say, but it kind of makes no sense to do,” says Roberts. “It was so expensive, [made] with every single printing process known to man.”
The illustrations inside bring to mind Bob Ross if he drove a BMW V-12-powered supercar with a gold-lined engine bay, rather than the old paperback tome in the glovebox of your jalopy.
“The watercolors [pictured above and below] were pencil drawings sketched from the car, and from Polaroid photos. Polaroids gave a slight fish-eye perspective that suited the subject matter. These were transferred to heavy stock watercolor paper, then gouache color-washed,” explains Roberts.
“They typically took half a day to sketch in pencil, then, if it went well, the other half of the day to color wash them.” Roberts only used a ruler occasionally. A mistake in the painting meant starting the whole thing over; there was no “undo” button.
The crash test dummy in these illustrations was actually Roberts’ friend, an avid cyclist. “The skinniest guy, bald as well, wearing Lycra so he actually already looked like a crash test dummy. I got him to get in and out of the car a few times and took photos, then did the sketches based on that. Every time I look at those pictures, I can see his face.”
“F1 was the last kind of analog car, even in respect to the way it was designed,” Roberts says. In 1990, Computer Aided Design (CAD) software was still rough. “Clunky,” is how Roberts describes it. Photoshop 1.0 only launched that year. “That makes me feel incredibly old now,” he laughs.
Above is a hybrid illustration, created from many, many layers of pencil illustration on transparent paper. “The overlaid pencil drawings were either highlighted or minimized,” he says. “The final illustration was then digitally ‘inked’ in an early version of Illustrator software.”
McLaren Cars being such a tiny company, Roberts ended up doing much more than drawing. He went out and bought drafting tables for the office. He came up with the parts numbering system for the car. He helped orchestrate the launch event in 1992. And, he designed the “functional jewelry,” including the pedals, handbrake, and photo-etched aluminum instruments. He still gets carried away even now, more than two decades later, talking about the typography.
“Gordon just left me to do [the 260-mph speedometer]. That design was all Letraset—rub-down letters, like temporary tattoos. It was pen artwork, scribing the circles and sub-dividing all the little chaplets (as we call the lines). These Rotring pens could get down to zero-point-whatever of millimeter. Then with a scalpel blade, I’d be taking the edges off and just making everything crisp and absolute perfection.”
It’s miraculous and almost frightening that such a small team designed a 240.14-mph supercar using, by modern standards, not much more than pen and paper.
Roberts is still with the company, now McLaren Automotive, as head of design operations.
“We all knew we were doing something special, but we had no idea how legendary [the F1] was going to become,” says Roberts. “It was such a special moment in time that I feel I was really lucky and privileged to be a part of. It would never happen again.”