The McLaren F1 Handbook

The McLaren F1 is still widely considered to be one of the most beautifully engineered cars of all time. But Carlton Boyce explores the one aspect of its design that escaped almost everyone’s attention…

When Mark Roberts, McLaren Automotive’s design operations manager, studied technical drawing at college he fully expected to end up having to draw domestic appliances for a living, not cars; so joining Lotus and thereby thwarting the drudge that dogged so many of his contemporaries was rare good luck. And make no mistake; Mark is a lucky man. Because after moving from Norfolk to Woking, he was asked to design the owner’s handbook for the McLaren F1…

The production of the owner’s handbook for any other car would scarcely ripple a designer’s CV. But the F1 was McLaren’s Statement of Intent and as Mark himself admits: “we knew it [the McLaren F1] would be special but even we didn’t know quite how special it would be.” I caught up with Mark in the building that used to house the Formula One team and which is now home to McLaren Special Operations (MSO). I started by asking him what the design parameters for the 120-page handbook were.

“The brief [from Gordon Murray] was go out, see what the contemporary competitors were doing – Porsche 959, Ferrari F40 and so on – and do something considerably better. As a design brief, it was out of this world.” So cost wasn’t a factor, which was just as well because it wasn’t cheap to produce: “there isn’t a printing process we didn’t use,” laughs Mark.

“Only 300 were made but I don’t know where they all are; probably in some printer’s backroom covered in dust. They cost us several hundred pounds each to make but we wanted a real sense of occasion; a visual and tactile joy. It’s the attention to detail, the craftsmanship, which went through the whole programme. He [Gordon Murray] wanted, and I wanted, to get the same message across, even with the handbook. To turn it into a sense of occasion, like the car.  People talk about the car all the time, even now, but nobody really knows about this book except for the owners.“

Mint copies now command a healthy four-figure sum when they come into the market. However, if you factor in inflation it’s doubtful whether they actually cost appreciably more now than they did when Gordon settled the printing bill twenty years ago…

“We thought it would be really special for the customer, rather than having something typed in here, to have it hand-written. So Gordon [Murray] volunteered to do it. As each car was sold, I’d drop one of these on his desk and he’d fill it in. His handwriting was immaculate and at the end he’d put his signature.”

“We put an F1 repeat pattern in spot UV in here, which gives a nice texture. Carbon fibre was unique for a road car at that time; it was something very, very special and this pattern mimics the carbon fibre weave. In fact, when we were doing the handbook we discovered that it is quite challenging to do carbon fibre in watercolour without it looking like a gingham table cloth.”

“We put in some very specific spot colours. So where we have a blue warning light we’ve actually used spot blue and the same logic for all the other warnings. It could be considered madness, but we thought no, we’re going to do it. Normally you’d put this into the brief and it would go through a budget review and they’d say: ‘you’re not having that. This is ridiculous!’ But with this car we were actively encouraged to make it special. It’s probably a bit passé now but that process at the time was quite an indulgence.”

“My background, my training, is technical illustration, so it was a dream for me to do this sort of work. I love that ‘flicked out’ pencil style, the watercolour wash that was technical but had an artistic, almost Leonardo [da Vinci] feel to it. You concentrate on the area with a detailed colour wash and it focuses you in on the detail, the bit you are interested in. It’s art, that’s what I love about it.“

“I hate to see hands and humans in manuals, it’s all a distraction; I like to see the technical details of the design of the product. So I thought a crash test dummy would be perfect. It’s a figure and it’s anonymous and it’s technical.“

“The instrument pack is one of my favourite illustrations. I did the actual production artwork for the instrument pack in the cars too and it just shows the age and the technology at the time. Adobe Illustrator was probably around but I had these photo typeset and cut them all out with a 10A scalpel blade before sticking them down in place. The thing is, and typographers will all know this, there is no mathematical way that you can balance the spacing; the kerning of the letters and the layout just has to be done by eye. In fact, even if you were doing it in Illustrator now, you’d have to manually adjust it, nudge it around. I like that, it typifies the whole human element that went into the car; it’s a mixture of high-technology and the art of the human being.”

“This was lovely to do. In the Porsche 959 handbook – and I remember this vividly – every clock was set to nine minutes and 59 seconds. So I thought: ‘we could do that!’ Mika Häkkinen had just managed to do 231mph in XP3 (we hadn’t done 240mph at the time), so the total trip was 231 miles and then 6.1 for the 6.1-litre BMW engine.”

“Behind the service panels, wherever there was an opportunity we’d anodize things. It made sense for oil to have the yellow cap – which was machined from solid aluminium, rather than made from plastic – but it was actually anodized not painted. It’s little bits of jewellery; even stuff that is under the skin, the handbrake and gearshift assemblies, the castings, the bits you wouldn’t normally see, are anodized gold or purple or something. It only needed to be hard anodized, so it could have been black, but we chose to do it a colour so that if you did see it, it was another lovely moment.”

“The design, the square format, followed on from the original brochure from Monaco, which was unusual at the time. We then did this handbook and a service and warranty book, both of which have the same linen-back, the same enamelled F1 badge on the front. We even embossed the spine, which is blind embossing, very McLaren, very understated.”


Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno