Home Car News Special Report: Talking Form and Function With McLaren Chief Designer Rob Melville

Special Report: Talking Form and Function With McLaren Chief Designer Rob Melville

In an industry where so many manufacturers compete to impress and entice a small collection of wealthy individuals, car design has never been of such paramount importance. The entire ethos, attraction and image of any automobile is the result of the arousal of the senses.

That is not to say that there is a correct or incorrect route to success – there numerous examples of cars that set out to achieve similar results, all in very different ways, that have drawn order lists multiple times greater than their production numbers. What better example of this than the Ferrari LaFerrari, Porsche 918 Spyder and McLaren P1, three cars that have so much in common but vary in a number of ways. This is something to be admired and we as enthusiasts and people that dream to drive such machines, should doff our hats to the genius designers that breed competition and constantly push the boundaries of what we thought was possible.

The legendary McLaren F1 aside, McLaren’s production road car series launched just six years ago with the MP4-12C in 2010. The car caused quite a stir and upset in a world where Ferrari were always deemed to be the kings of the hill. That is not to say it was perfect, there were issues and kinks that somewhat plagued it. The 650S was unveiled in 2014 and this was the car that really changed the game and rectified all of the niggles that 12C customers had identified with 25 percent of the parts being new. With this car came new styling features that we have seen flow through the entire McLaren range in every car that has followed.

McLaren have split their model range into three categories, Sport, Super and Ultimate – each class aims to appeal to a different audience and are all suited to different situations. The McLaren P1 is the ultimate hypercar that aims to be a weapon on the circuit in race mode, but a car that is suitable to be driven hard on the road, the P1 GTR takes track driving to another level and is not road legal. At the other end of the spectrum is The Mclaren Sports Series. This sector currently comprises of two variants of the 570S the coupe and the recently unveiled 570GT which is the most road friendly with more luggage space than a Ford hatchback and the best qualities of any GT car.

Having to cover such a spectrum of cars and buyers and still maintaining a consistent brand image is no easy task. This is the challenge that Chief McLaren Designer Rob Melville has to address every day. Over the past few months we have been privileged to discuss a number of design features and the ethos that Rob applies to each and every project that he has influenced.

‘I am in the perfect marriage with McLaren’

Rob joined McLaren in 2009 and the MP4-12C had already been designed. The feedback was that the looks may have been slightly conservative and could have had a little more road presence. He looked again at the P1 and thought the car presented the perfect ‘family face’ looking like no other car in existence and the lights being fantastic for aerodynamics. As previously mentioned, this feature was introduced into the 650S and since the 570S. This ‘strong face’ has led to visual familiarity that has proven to be very well received.

Rob and the team were kind enough to give me access to a McLaren 570S at McLaren’s Technology Centre to discuss the design philosophy of the car that is the base of the Sports Series. I began with one of the unique characteristics of the 570S, the gorgeous door panel that features a cut into the door that resembles the shape of a feather that led to the idea of the ‘Black Swan Moment’ that McLaren used to build anticipation prior to the launch of the car in New York 2015 – an event I was privileged to witness and where I first met Rob.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ff_kV1wqYE[/youtube]

The inspiration behind the feather door design is not one that was created for aesthetic purposes. Rob went on to explain to me that had been designed to direct dirty air from the wheel-well and channel it using the door streak to be used efficiently. This element not only functions, but looks beautiful at the same time. Finding the balance between something that is purposeful but also aesthetically pleasing is what Rob conveyed to me as being the ‘puzzle’ that he must complete.

The 570S has a very clear design split, something Rob described to me as a ‘very clear logical story’. From the front end there is a crosshair that splits the air into four areas that starts the aerodynamic journey. The shape caused a problem as there was not enough downforce, something that was rebutted using another key and very aesthetically pleasing flying buttress. This is yet another prime example of form following function.

With the a number of manufacturers from Bentley to BMW and everything in between, we see concepts of cars that often never translate into reality and the cars drive on the road a few years on. McLaren never show us wacky and crazy concepts. Rob went on to tell that this was due to the the designers having a holistic approach of being able to understand the engineering and aerodynamics in addition to their abilities to design and create cars that are still able to stand out and look great on the road.

From the start there is no conflict of interest, what they are designing from the start will be beautiful and functional. Technically he is far more involved in the engineering as well as the design to give him an understanding of materials, aerodynamics and the general requirements and dynamics of a vehicle to be able to design around it from the outset. This is something the Rob described as ‘the most fun part’ and I do not for a second doubt that. The passion and enthusiasm that he has at every stage of design and execution is clear to see.

‘There are not many designers in the world, not even our own, that are able to say 100 percent that every line that they draw has a specific job or function – that is our target and I believe we are the nearest to that – beautiful and functional’

Looking to the future is something McLaren are always doing. There are two levels, ‘Vision Work’ – 20 years into the future, and ‘Advanced Design Work’ – 10 years ahead. This is not just a case of being as wild as possible, but need to be justified by the proof that technology can support the designs and the thinking and reasoning must also be tangible. This is another challenge that Rob explains helps his creativity to be satisfied and fulfilled. This means that the concepts he creates translate to the road, something he felt in the McLaren P1 with its radical door design and low rear end.

When quizzing Rob on how he started his journey as an automotive designer he told me of his childhood in rural England. When he was very young he would journey through the fields around his home and find a quiet spot to sketch and observe how things worked, from water flowing over the rocks of a stream to boats, planks and even animals. This is something he never told anyone else, particularly not his friends, in fear of being labelled a ‘nutter’. The passion he had inspired his enthusiasm and now at McLaren he has found the perfect relationship where he is free to apply his knowledge to engineer each and every line he applies.

‘Breathtaking products that tell a visual story of their function’ is McLaren’s design slogan. Having spent a couple a couple of hours around the McLaren Technology and with Rob it is apparent that McLaren are currently in a very important period of time. The company has cemented itself in a space with names such as Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche. The cars they currently offer are game changers and undoubtedly have created an identity for the brand courtesy of a culmination of sensational performance and jaw dropping design. None of us are able to predict the future, but what I can say is that the products McLaren launch in the coming years will continue to push the boundaries. For that we should all be grateful.

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