Precision and a McLaren MP4-12C

This morning I drove the McLaren to the dealer for its annual service.  Not having driven the McLaren in awhile, I became aware of its precision in a way I’d missed before.  When attempting to justify how and why a car like this is worth double what cars with similar performance numbers, I realized that precision is a factor I’d heard mentioned regarding McLarens, but not something I’d personally noticed until now. Now I understand.

The PerfectionistsNot too long ago I read a wonderful book by historian and New York Times bestselling author Simon Winchester titled The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World.”  Winchester looks at history beginning in the Industrial Age until recently through the lens of precision. He is a master story-teller and once started, I found the book impossible to put down. Since completing it, I’ve recommended it to several friends who’ve thanked me profusely for the suggestion after they read it as well.  Chapter 1 of the book is titled: “Tolerance 0.1” and Chapter 2 is titled “Tolerance 0.0001” and Chapter 3 is titled “Tolerance .000001” and on it goes. The book came up in conversation the other night and some ghost of that conversation must have been going through my head this morning. Okay, now back to the McLaren.

Driving the McLaren this morning north bound on Hwy 51 in Phoenix, I noticed how precise the steering was.  This car goes exactly where you point it, absolutely straight, with no appreciable deviation in either direction.  It does not move a single degree off center. My good friend David Barnett’s 1948 MG-TC is at the opposite of end of this spectrum.  He let me drive it once and with his coaching I learned to turn the wheel in the general direction of where I wanted the car to go and then to wait a bit, to see if it would head in that direction before making any further adjustments to the wheel.  That was an acceptable level of precision when this car was built.  Nearly all modern cars have vastly improved steering over the MG-TC.  But what I wish to make clear here is that the McLaren is noticeably better in this respect than my Acura NSX and I now suspect it is probably better than an entire host of higher-end, truly wonderful automobiles built by Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lamborghini, among others.  Why? The first thing that comes to my mind is that designers and engineers conceptualizing and building my McLaren MP4-12C had taken on the project after their roles in building McLaren’s F1 cars. Precision requirements for F1 cars are, I suspect, a tad stricter than cars targeted for public road use.  Next was McLaren’s price target, which at the time (2014) was around a quarter of a million dollars for a base model (with options the prices generally ran a bit over $300K).  As Winchester points out in his book, highly precise machines come at a price and until the new level of precision is amortized over a large number of pieces, it costs a lot of money. The 12C engineers had the budget and know-how to introduce a level of precision in this automobile that even someone like me can notice and appreciate.  That says a lot.

What I experienced this morning was this: with no idea of “precision” in my conscious mind, I began to notice how precisely the steering wheel worked.  Not just on the straight, but when corning too.  Then it was the accelerator and the brakes conveying the same precise and highly accurate response to every input.  I was not on any mind-altering drugs! My friend Clayton is an engineer and knows what I mean.  There’s nothing that doesn’t register somewhere in his mind.  Precision – or lack thereof – is everywhere.  Start looking for it.

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