Customization: NO IS NOT AN OPTION

As long as it doesnt break the law, you can personalise your Mclaren or Aston Martin any which way you want. Thanks to their customisation programmes.

A 1,000bhp P1 GTR. Too much power for you? Don’t worry—the P1 GTR development programme will help you get to grips with it

McLaren’s Unit 1: no moat, gym or swimming pool. Not even a negative air pressure canteen to keep cooking smells from escaping. There’s no trophy wall either. No, Unit 1 is somewhat different to McLaren’s famously obsessive Technical Centre. There was some suggestion that we’d be blindfolded to keep its location secret, but as there’s a McLaren logo among the many others on the Woking industrial park’s signage it wouldn’t require too much sleuthing to find it. Once the Formula 1 team’s skunkworks division, Unit 1’s role is now that of HQ for McLaren Special Operations (MSO), the people responsible for adding even more specialness to McLaren’s product range.

Today, instead of off-the-radar Formula 1 projects, MSO’s staff deal with customer requests for personalisation. “It’s a company within a company,” says Paul Mackenzie, executive director of  SO. “We have 60 staff who operate independently but have access to all of McLaren’s resources and expertise.” Launched in 2011, just a year after McLaren Automotive was officially founded, MSO’s official recognition is predated by the firm’s Customer Care programme — set up to look after the iconic McLaren F1 road car. The approach, foyer and building might lack the drama of the Technical Centre, but what goes on in here is just as interesting as the Formula 1 operation. It’s more than just servicing and customer care though; MSO is involved in fulfilling the dreams of McLaren’s clients.

That manifests itself in personalisation, from something as simple as a change in the stitching inside or paint schemes outside, to completely bespoke one-off cars. “There is a clear desire for drivers to personalise their cars,” says Mackenzie. “We can go much further than most other car companies’ bespoke programmes. MSO offers something closer to the grand coach building traditions of the past, creating cars that are instantly and strikingly different.”

Helping delineate its services is MSO’s five-tier service, encompassing MSO Defined, MSO Bespoke, MSO Limited, MSO Heritage and MSO Programmes.

Defined delivers off-the shelf styling revisions for customers looking for tick box changes in the showroom. Bespoke allows individuals the opportunity to completely fulfil their dreams, creating exactly what they want. With Bespoke, Mackenzie says the potential is unlimited: “We asked ourselves if we should ever say no and we decided we’ll not be the style police. We won’t say no, we simply say how much?” Nowhere is MSO Bespoke’s abilities better demonstrated than in the McLaren X-1. It’s a one-off customer commission that took inspiration from sources as varied as a 1963 Facel Vega, a 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance Ghia, the Citroën SM and other non-automotive influences like Guggenheim museums, an art deco clock, Airstream caravan and, bizarrely, an aubergine.

The X-1 took 18 months for the styling to be signed off, the design itself put out to competition — though McLaren’s own team won. It’s entirely bespoke, with every single body panel changed; even the lights and the wheels are one-offs, so the cost of tooling and homologation requirements are unimaginable. McLaren has not disclosed the cost of the two-and-a-half year project, but as Mackenzie says, “the McLaren X-1 demonstrates we can provide the ultimate personalisation service, no matter the desire”.

In the workshop are three McLaren P1s getting some finishing touches prior to reaching their new owners. One is being finished in the same colour as its owner’s F1, complete with the same graphic detail on its flanks. There’s an exhaust heat shield to be fitted to another, covered in gold, as a reverential nod to the heat-reflecting gold that lines the F1’s engine bay. They sit alongside racks of bicycle frames, as MSO’s paint shop is responsible for the light paintwork on Specialized’s McLaren S-Works Tarmac bike, a 250-run collaborative project that brings McLaren technology to two wheels and the human engine. The ultimate bicycle alongside the ultimate cars, it all rather makes sense.

There are a few examples of the McLaren 650S parked in bays in the workshop, the majority demonstrating MSO Limited changes. Cars like the Limited Edition celebrating a Le Mans victory, and the 50th Anniversary, both built in limited-series runs with unique styling and technical revisions. MSO Heritage continues the work of MSO’s root operation McLaren Customer Care, offering a rebuild and updates for any car — one customer recently arrived to pick up his P1 in his F1, leaving it behind to be repainted to match the latest acquisition. Heritage also does good business making technical revisions to the Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR, improving areas like cooling, performance, steering and suspension; this service alone keeping the MSO Heritage garage busy, with cars booked in right through to 2016.

MSO Programmes gives the McLaren owner the sort of immersive racing experience that’d usually be reserved for the company’s F1 and GT racers. Price of entry is a McLaren P1 GTR, a track-only 1,000bhp version of McLaren’s 375-run P1 hypercar. Chris Goodwin, McLaren’s chief test driver, says, “Built to a small double-digit series, the P1 GTR programme is a driver development like no other.” Its drivers will have access to McLaren’s Human Performance team, can drive McLaren’s simulators and have their cars run on iconic circuits around the world with McLaren’s former and current racing drivers coming along as driving coaches. The ultimate arrive and drive package? Goodwin believes so, and with interest in the GTR very high it seems customers think so, too.

Mackenzie says that, on MSO’s inception, the thought was that only, around 10 per cent of production would come to MSO. The reality is somewhat different, with at least 20 per cent of cars getting the MSO treatment, that rising to 95 per cent when looking at the limited-run, super-expensive P1.

That desire for the different and the extraordinary isn’t unique to McLaren, with all its British compatriots offering some sort of personal, bespoke service to its customers. At Aston Martin it’s amusingly bundled under its Q division — a nod to Aston Martin’s most well-known celluloid owner, James Bond — while Bentley offers changes via its Mulliner department and Rolls-Royce defines itself as Bespoke.

Marek Reichman, Aston Martin’s head of design, admits there are times that his, and his team’s initial reaction might be one of shock, but colour has the power to surprise. “Go to India for instance; you can just happen to be driving down a road and see an array of saris hanging up to dry and they look fabulous — and you would never imagine those colours would work together, so it’s quite often working with the designer to put a nuance on the colour, and as I say there are so many tonal differences in a specific colour that you can always get them to blend to match. The only limit is your imagination.”

That sentiment is echoed by James Banks, head of commercial operations, MSO, who says, “One of our key mantras is ‘never say no’ wherever it’s possible, ultimately if it’s within the law and within the budgets available then we’ll do what you like.”