The secret Pennsylvania workshop where McLaren F1s get service
Of the 106 F1 supercars that McLaren built between 1994–96, none were officially sold to U.S. customers. However, now there are more than 20 of the legendary machines on American soil, one of them famously in the collection of Jay Leno. Many came stateside after the F1 was included in the “show or display” exemption on vehicle importing became law in 1999.
These cars, gold foil engine bay heat shielding and all, aren’t vehicles that go to Jiffy Lube, even for routine, mundane chores like oil changes. Were owners really supposed to ship their cars back to McLaren’s Woking, Surry headquarters in England whenever they needed service?
After all, McLaren decrees an annual service is required. The list of chores includes examining fluids and filters, replacing wiper blades, and inspecting the suspension. The company further insists that the F1 must be tested in a vehicle shakedown that includes high-speed runs on a closed test track or runway, adding that this is totally not an excessive requirement intended to incentivize McLaren technicians who want to drive the cars. They don’t actually admit to that last bit, likely as it may seem.
Every two years, the annual service includes a brake service and flush, alignment, CV joint service, and air conditioning and coolant service. Plus more high-speed joy rides… er… tests, “to assess the vehicle through its full performance envelope.”
Finally, at five-year intervals, McLaren specifies a replacement of the Aero Tec Laboratories racing-grade fuel cell, because that’s the length of the FIA certification for the explosion-resistant fuel cell bladders. For the purpose of mass centralization and to provide the most possible protection in a crash, fuel cells are typically installed in the center of the car. And so it is with the McLaren F1, meaning that the fuel cell service pretty much results in taking the entire car apart. Not the sort of thing you want done by your local mechanic, but shipping the car back to England for the work isn’t exactly an appealing alternative.
So in 2017, McLaren certified a facility operated by McLaren Philadelphia as the first F1 service center outside the U.K.
The shop is located in the Bat Cave. OK, not really, but it is a somewhat secret location in Pennsylvania, not on McLaren Philadelphia’s premises, providing an air of mystery befitting the world’s first carbon-fiber street car and longtime world’s fastest production car. (And you can’t prove they aren’t servicing the Batmobile there, too.)
It takes more than just the big rolling box full of Snap-On tools to work on an F1, naturally. McLaren has a special lightweight torque wrench for tightening the F1’s wheel nuts. And there’s a Cold Stone Creamery-looking granite slab that is calibrated to be perfectly flat for aligning the clutch with the flywheel.
The exotic-tech pièce de résistance is the 1996-spec Compaq LTE 5280 laptop computer used to talk with the car’s computers for diagnostics. That 120 MHz Intel Pentium-powered gray plastic block was cutting edge in the age of Tickle Me Elmo, but now its obsolescence makes its necessity a wonderful anachronism.
That necessity is also part myth, reports Kevin Hines, the technician who is certified to take care of American F1s for McLaren Philadelphia. McLaren naturally had somebody write an emulator that lets the ancient software run on modern computers so that it is easier to service the old cars without also becoming a certified Compaq restoration technician or running into a John Titor-like situation.
“I just use a normal Windows laptop now with that software,” he explains. The F1’s software isn’t as all-encompassing as On-Board Diagnostic II software used on newer cars, but it does capture error codes and provides status of various systems in a similar way, Hines says.
His even lower-tech source is a shelf of McLaren technical binders containing all the relevant information on the car.
“I use them constantly,” Hines says. “It is easier to know where it is written down rather than try to remember it.”
McLaren Special Operations, the department that today meets the global demand for purple-tinted carbon fiber P1s and the like, was originally tasked with maintaining F1s. That’s where Hines spent a fortnight learning how to wrench on the cars.
Back in America, most of the work he does on F1s is routine. “Like any car, [services] can run the gamut,” Hines says. “It is mainly the commonalities, like oil and filters. The normal consumables.”
The difference, when working on an F1, is the sheer significance of everything. Only 64 of the production run were road cars, making these machines exceedingly rare. These unique three-seaters originally sold for a million dollars but now trade for more than $15 million. Service goes beyond the concept of keeping the cars in good running condition and turns into a responsibility to preserve these cars for future decades. Their every service is documented for posterity in a logbook issued from the factory when the cars were built.
“The rarity and the lore that surrounds it is pretty interesting,” Hines notes. “Even though I could do a brake job in half an hour, I’m going to slow it down and pay very close attention to what I’m doing. We would want to make sure we are restoring this piece of art back to its original specification.” It isn’t routine appendix-removal surgery. It is appendix-removal surgery on the president.
Of course, it isn’t all oil and filters. The MSO department is the service center’s sole parts source, and they can provide most of what is needed. When they don’t have a replacement, MSO figures out a solution. “The part might not be on a shelf somewhere,” Hines says. “It might need to be rebuilt or refurbished.”
The owners are well aware that the F1 is no Corolla, so they anticipate that service can take time. “They are very proactive and there is a lot of foresight on their part, even more so than for the average exotic car,” Hines says.
Of course, there is seasonal demand for preparation services, too. That means not only the approach of the estival solstice, but also the automotive seasons, and events such as Amelia Island and Pebble Beach concours.
“There are ebbs and flows,” Hines notes. “Springtime is usually pretty busy. We usually know, when Amelia and Pebble are coming up, we start checking in with owners. ‘Is the battery OK? Should we schedule you for a service?’”
For such a rare car, its owners are considerate about exhibiting their masterpieces so the rest of us can appreciate them. “The F1 was, from my standpoint, there was no expense spared or thought left unthought when they were building this car,” Hines says. Indeed, its technical virtuosity contributed to its ability to hold the world speed record for a decade and to its continuing legend today. Kevin Hines and McLaren Philadelphia are helping ensure that legend is equally accessible to future fans in perfectly representative condition.