Editor's Note: This is the third of eight automotive fantasies from our November 2013 print issue. We'll be publishing the fantasies over the next few weeks on automobilemag.com. Look for the issue on newsstands now or download our iPad issue to read them all.
Though it has fallen out of fashion, the epic cross-country drive remains one of the great set pieces of American letters.
Kerouac, Steinbeck -- I well remember reading their road novels as a schoolboy -- and, in a more extracurricular vein, Brock Yates of "Cannonball Run" fame. Crossing our country's vast and varied topography by automobile, each of these storytellers taught us something we didn't know about a land whose frontiers had long since disappeared but which still seemed mighty big.
Here at Automobile Magazine, the flame never went out. Our literary aspirations are more humble than the aforementioned masters, but we're certain that nothing compares to a good 3000-mile drive for getting to know a car.
So one day recently, I got in my car and drove home. Except that it wasn't my car. It was a $272,230 MP4-12C that belonged to McLaren Automotive -- and I was in L.A., more than 3000 miles from home.
This periodical's motto, pledged by our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., is "No boring cars." No boring destinations and no boring people is implied. With a plan of visiting a few interesting characters on the way back to my very fascinating family at home, photographer Martyn Goddard and I had our bases covered as we embarked on a rapid continental crossing in a machine most un-boring. Home cooking, regional dialects, and indigenous music are swell, but some truths can only be truly elucidated by traveling very fast.
Now that there is a million-dollar-plus McLaren P1, the 12C may only be the champion Formula 1 constructor's cooking-grade road car. Before you start feeling sorry for us, remember it's still one of the most exciting horizon-pulverizing devices known to man. It's a machine so new, so exotic, and so rare that, so far as we could figure, no one outside of a few lab-coated McLaren employees had ever attempted such a long journey in one.
Approaching the sleek and dramatically low 12C, I flashed back to something I'd written in an otherwise glowing report on this mid-engine holy roller after driving it at its 2011 introduction in Portugal. I loved the performance of the 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8 (592 hp, since bumped up to 616). Loved the carbon-fiber tub at its core. Went wild for its ride and handling, which come courtesy of a brilliantly effective, gas-controlled active suspension, advanced stability controls, and the kind of mega-downforce only F1 constructors can imagine. It was the 12C's styling that, at the time, struck me as unremarkable, supercar generic.
However, before Goddard and I left California, in a parking lot in Monterey Park, we received vivid, instant proof that in real life, out among the masses and far away from jaded car-writer cloisters, the MP4-12C is a stone-cold style monster.
For the next seven days, we would be swarmed with admirers, bombarded with their questions and thrusting camera phones. A big part of the journey was going to involve community relations and posing for pictures. For 3336.6 miles and across fifteen states, our transportation, born black on black at McLaren's futuristic factory in Woking, England, but treated to a disposable wrap in Hot Wheels blue for a just-completed Bay Area promotion, was an infinitely popular smartphone photo subject. Clearly, I'd miscalculated the power of generic supercar styling.
My initial time with the 12C had been mostly on the track, but even there I was impressed with its potential for practical use. Here was that rare mid-engine conveyance that, like an Acura NSX or an Audi R8, might make some sort of sense for long-distance transportation. The first day's drive, a little over 400 miles to Phoenix, didn't disabuse me of the notion. Despite its fundamentally weight-saving outlook, accommodations proved reasonable for two persons with soft luggage and a fair sampling of modern photographic equipment. The 12C is no Mercedes-Benz S-class, but being quiet, comfortable, and airy, it's no torture chamber, either.
As the traffic heading east on I-10 toward Arizona thinned out, I was reminded of the 12C's substantial performance envelope. This car is so fast it's sick. However famously terrific its most direct competitor, the Ferrari 458 Italia, may sound, the sweet noises of the McLaren's twin turbochargers spooling up and down, plus an exquisite exhaust burble as gearchanges are popped off during mad dashes to its race-bred, 90-degree, dry-sump V-8's 8500-rpm redline, will not grow old for any enthusiast, ever.
It was not yet 9 a.m., but the sun burned brightly as we traversed the surface streets of the greater Phoenix cement-o-plex. For all its natural beauty, no one does sprawl better than the Copper State -- mile after mile of it, its appeal presumably explained by car-centric suburban convenience combined with the sunshiny warmth and wonder of the surrounding environs, which is quite unlike anything we have back east. The same goes for Local Motors, where we stop to meet with John Burton "Jay" Rogers, Jr., the charismatic co-founder of what claims to be the world's first crowd-sourced automobile company.
A Harvard MBA, Iraq War veteran, and grandson of a guy who once owned Indian Motorcycle, Rogers explained that by keeping production low, building locally, and selling cars uniquely relevant to a local population, LM can avoid the pitfalls of would-be volume makers like Fisker. Local Motors manufactures the Rally Fighter, a $99,900 V-8-powered off-road coupe with a sturdy spaceframe and extravagant suspension travel. Customers do much of the assembly work, which exempts the Rally Fighter from DOT crash and airbag regulations because it's a kit car. Buyers show up on their own dime and are given tools, detailed instructions, a jig-welded chassis, and enough subassemblies to build a car. Friendly advice is available.
The perils of small-volume vehicle manufacture are too numerous to list, but McLaren appears to have sidestepped many of them. Performance aside, the 12C's number-one party trick -- the way its dihedral doors scissor forward from the A-pillars -- is hard to pull off, but they work exceptionally well, opening and closing easily and sealing properly, and they work like umbrellas in a downpour.
That wasn't much of a concern as we drove through the desert, where the air-conditioning system, a traditional minefield for smaller carmakers, kept us cool and didn't stop working. McLaren makes good use of the 12C's wide sills by placing individual ventilation controls on the doors' interior panels, limiting clutter on the slender, Volvo-esque, "floating" center stack, where the straightforward, fairly old-school controls of the Meridian sound system reside, along with a passable navigation system. Goddard noted with irritation, though, that the digital displays on the door-mounted controls can be hard to read in certain light and that the white stitching adorning the dash top reflects in the windshield at night. He was also less impressed than I with some of the interior materials.
If the Dos Equis guy is the most interesting man in the world, our host in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Denise McCluggage, is the most interesting woman. Born in 1927, McCluggage was raised in Topeka, the daughter of a Kansas lawyer and a homemaker. "I was a daddy's girl," she recalled over breakfast at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa in Santa Fe. "I mowed the lawn. I washed the car. Because that's what Daddy did."
When she went away to Oakland, California, for college, she spied an MG TC in Kjell Qvale's sports car showroom on Van Ness Avenue, across the bay in San Francisco. "I was overcome. I had to have it. I'd never had to have something so much as that. And overnight . . . it was so intense, my desire . . . the British pound was devalued and they dropped the price to $1800. So I called my daddy, a long-distance call to Kansas, only death or whatever. He lent me the money to buy it. I paid him back."
She moved to New York in the early 1950s to work for the city's Herald Tribune as a reporter for its women's pages. She parked her next MG TC on the street outside of her Greenwich Village pad. "I was covering things like the introduction of new washable suede gloves, new refrigerators and ranges," and although she had the freedom to write a column a week on a subject of her choosing, McCluggage soon worked her way over to the sports pages, a rarity for a woman then. "I said I wanted to cover this new sport that they were doing -- sports car racing."