For most of us, good design is summed up by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s observation on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” We know a perfectly spec’d supercar when we see one, but tricking one out ourselves is deceptively challenging. Most carmakers have gutter guards firmly in place, simultaneously preventing us from throwing a gutter ball and protecting us from the manufacturing complexity of unwanted options. Unfortunately, those same guards can be constraining. McLaren’s Colour and Materials department is determined to strike the perfect balance.
For its Speedtail supercar, McLaren Automotive wants to let customers unleash the flair of Jesus Quintana in John Turturro’s The Big Lebowski, who spins his ball provocatively from one side of the lane to the other. Each of the 106 Speedtails McLaren builds will be entirely unique and built exclusively to the tastes of each client who orders the car. In the future, each of these cars could become desirable for collectors given its fingerprint combination of design cues.
But. Gutter balls. McLaren doesn’t want to sully its good name with any $2.1 million mistakes, and even customers who order bad combinations could realize their error upon delivery and thus cause headaches for buyer and builder alike.
Hence McLaren’s Colour and Materials department, led by senior designer Joanna Lewis. Part of the reason for the guidance of Lewis and her team is to ensure pleasing color combinations for the bodywork, wheels, seats, carpet, dashboard, and other parts. The other purpose of the department is to encourage customers’ awareness of an amazing palette of available options they probably didn’t know existed.
While McLaren hot rods like the Senna are the automotive equivalent of performance sportswear, “the Speedtail’s design aesthetic is akin to that of a Savile Row suit,” Lewis explained, referring to the area of London’s Mayfair neighborhood that is home to the most renowned tailors. The customizing choices should be in line with that, she added.
Most cars use tiny metal flakes suspended in their paint to add sparkle. The McLaren Speedtail can wear a layer of titanium flakes deposited on its carbon fiber, with the titanium anodized with color to provide an effect that Lewis describes as “chromatic.” “This is next-level luster,” she enthused.
All the leather used inside each car is dyed in a single batch, ensuring that every piece matches as perfectly as Quintana’s purple jumpsuit and jacket. There are no pre-set color choices, so buyers can pick from the entire spectrum of visible light. Some parts can be wrapped in leather that has had air injected into it to create a cowhide puff pastry, which reduces mass by 30 percent.
Thin Ply Technology carbon fiber trim provides a textured appearance, since the layered material is machined to reveal the layers of color embedded within, creating an oyster-shell effect wherever the customer might choose—the shift paddles, for example. The layers in this material are only a few microns thick, and the result is an organic-looking object from a very synthetic source material.
Here is where Lewis’ expertise and background in the textile industry comes into play. Customers sit down at a computer with McLaren experts and describe what they have in mind so they can see renderings of what their suggestions would look like. McLaren also provides shoppers with a variety of physical visualization aids in addition to the virtual depictions, so they can feel various leathers, fabrics, and other materials and look at colors sprayed onto actual body molds.
Using a customer’s request as a starting point, McLaren’s designers suggest alternatives and combinations that they feel capture the customer’s intent. Often, catering to a customer’s wishes includes this sort of artistic intuition on the part of McLaren—a client’s initial request might not work as well as he or she had imagined.
To illustrate this point, McLaren hosted a clinic in which teams of journalists tried designing their own customized Speedtails, while professional design experts tried with varying degrees of success to save us from ourselves.
We specified paint and leather colors, plus the color of the front splitter, engine bay trim, and various other parts. Ultimately, my team of taste-setters produced the unquestioned best combination of distinctive design and timeless style.
Lewis inexplicably saw things differently, choosing a more daring combination than seemed prudent to us. Meanwhile, another team of our colleagues produced an appalling purple design with a teal interior that appeared to follow Quintana’s jumpsuit to the letter.
“What were you doing?” Lewis asked, eyeing the associate who had been tasked with babysitting that group’s choices.
Indeed, this will be the challenge. Ultimately, money talks, and surely design counselors will be anxious to avoid insulting customers with more money than taste. The challenge for them will be to let automotive Quintanas express their individuality without straying into the grotesque hip-thrusting that Justice Stewart would flag as obscene.