1-to-1 with McLaren's Rob Melville

BY Azfar Hashim

We spoke to McLaren's Director of Design to find out his inspirations and ideas behind some of the brand's sports cars

Photos by Marcus Lim & Burnpavement archive

The F1 circus was in town over the weekend and to soak in the atmosphere, McLaren had invited yours truly over for brunch. This, however, was no ordinary brunch – besides McLaren owners, also going to be present was Zak Brown, the CEO of McLaren Racing and Rob Melville, McLaren Automotive’s Director of Design.

Sounds like a good time to catch up with the man in charge of design at McLaren. You see, McLaren had undergone a huge change in terms of design; case in point, the difference between the MP4-12C and 650S. Basically the same car but with significantly different faces; plus it is only after the 650S that you’d notice a more uniform face across all their models.

This design boss has an impressive CV; notably, he played a role in designing the highly popular Range Rover Evoque during his stint with Jaguar Land Rover.

It has been slightly more than a year since Rob was promoted to Director of Design at Woking.

Rob has, all along, been involved in future planning of products. So when he was promoted from Chief Designer to Director of Design, his first task was to build a new team of people who could ensure the design philosophy and culture that cascades. “For me, it was a natural transition — I’m just lucky to have this position and represent the team,” said Rob. He wants all designs produced by McLaren continue to be breath-taking and stick to the brand’s design keys. But most importantly to him, as Director of Design, is that he not only represent the brand and himself; but also McLaren’s ‘great team’ of designers and engineers who work very closely on a daily basis.

I then asked him a little bit more about his background. His dad was an engineer while his mum an artist; so which one influenced him more while growing up? “My natural tendency was towards the art, and I would always doodle; just last year, my mum sent over some pictures of my doodles done when I was a 5 year-old boy, which I then used for a presentation.”

To Rob, drawing things, making models, looking at and understanding how and why things work is equivalent to living life and being open. “It’s not just putting things in a box and go ‘I like this, I like that’ — you must always look beyond. So yes, arts were the bigger driver.”

“But to begin with, it was my dad who’s the big car fan so I guess that was where the car part came from.”

So on to my next question for Rob. As Chief Designer of the 675LT, 570S and 720S, what were his inspirations? “Well for the 570S and 720S, I wanted to create a form language that is both functional and beautiful; it had to be authentic as well, so their designs were pulled together for a reason. It also differentiates the Sport Series (570S) and Super Series (720S) as two products, albeit through a familiar design language: 570S the everyday sports car, while the 720S the definitive sports car. The 570S is a beautiful, elegant compact sports car you can drive around town and then take it to the track for some fun; the 720S is more exotic with a ‘tight’ cabin and is an amazing piece of sculpture, I must say.”

He continued on as he stared into the distance, “The 675LT is a different kind of motivation and inspiration; obviously so because it is a higher-performance version of the previous 650. So the base car was already there, hence the 675LT is a derivative. We had to change lots of panels, upgrade the mechanicals, the powertrain; lots of upgrades which you can see and couldn’t see.”

Taking a quick sip of water and with a short smile, Rob went on, “The inspiration and aim was to end with a product that is huge fun, a real show of passion that was within the brand, which could engage people. Everything just clicked — the way it looks, the power, handling and the way it engages the driver. You go with a huge smile on your face.”

We moved on to the topic of the road-legal track car, the McLaren Senna. A tribute to legendary F1 driver Ayrton Senna, this has to be one of the most controversial car ever produced thanks largely to how radical it looks with all that bombastic bodywork. The shine on his eyes when I brought up the topic was akin to an excited child waiting to enter Toys R’ Us. “For me, the Senna is everything it needs to be — no more, no less. If it’s an athlete, the Senna would be the 100-meter sprinter. It has the gnarliest physique in the McLaren range; a stunning car that’s both brutal and functional. The physique of the car matches its purpose, completely.”

The controversial McLaren Senna

The controversial McLaren Senna

His answer was full of passion and pride. This man had stuck to his gun with the Senna, believing in function over form to the point it got the approval of the entire board of director. And it looks like he is right: With production numbers of only 500 units, all of them were already spoken for. With the Senna aside, the next question begs an answer: How about some insider info with regards to the upcoming Speedtail, also known as the BP23?

“I can only give you a little bit of that,” followed by a chuckle. Taking a deep breath, he said, “I can’t reveal all. Ok, I’ll do my best. What I can say is it’s a three-seater with a central driving position: A hyper GT, if I may. You can cover long distances at speed, in ultra-luxury. It has a long and lean body, full of muscle. Some great technology that will surprise you is on that car, and there’ll be a first… nah, that’s all I can say for now.” Across the table, I could see McLaren Automotive Asia’s PR representative smiling nervously, probably worried Rob might accidentally reveal more than he should.

An early sketch of the BP23

An early sketch of the BP23

“But I can say how proud I am of the car. No one has seen it yet, you know. And I’m proud of all the teams that worked together for the Speedtail; it’s a real example of McLaren. Best engineering, design, marketing, product; the whole story of the car is really strong.”

Here is another interesting fact about Rob: He was part of the team that worked on the successful McLaren P1. Which then begged the question: How does it feel to have worked on such a visionary car?

“During my job interview, they told me they are going to build the replacement to the iconic F1 and only told me it’s ‘a sort of hypercar’. I went ‘wow!’ because this is going to be another modern British icon, just like the (Land Rover) Defender and (McLaren) F1; and if you were to go back slightly further in time, the (Jaguar) E-Type. It felt like a huge responsibility.”

Another sip of water, and Rob continued with his face gleaming, “I was already in the mentality of ‘everything for a reason’. It shouldn’t be built just for the sake of it — if we stick to this belief, we won’t go wrong; keep it authentic and beautiful. Was a huge learning curve for me, and I embraced it. Didn’t thought of failing at all, but just how great it can be.”

Twenty minutes flew by and the interview came to an end. Making the trip down from the 40th floor of the CapitaGreen building together with Rob, we talked about favourite cars and what’s parked in his garage back home. “I have a Range Rover and, don’t laugh, a Ford KA.”

I’m not so concerned about him driving a Range Rover as - standing at probably 2.1-metres tall - it suits him very well. But that Ford KA — if a designer of such stature like himself has a soft spot for a car like that, I can safely say McLaren’s design team is in good hands.