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.”
“I’d met Briggs Cunningham at a children’s yacht race I was covering at his yacht club.” Thanks to Cunningham, an instant admirer, her entrée to the sports car world was assured. “I started a column, the first anyone was writing [on sports car racing].
“Briggs was just the greatest guy ever. Suddenly, I was driving his race cars. My first was a Jaguar, a gift . . . I drove his OSCAs, his Porsches. [Alfred] Momo liked me, too, which was handy. I didn’t race the D-type, but I drove it. Of course, it was a relatively simple thing to do in those days. You drove your cars to the races, you slapped numbers on them, you raced them, and sometimes you left the numbers on to impress people driving home.”
McCluggage quickly improved an already skilled game, trying everything from Ferraris for importer Luigi Chinetti to rallying in Europe for the British Motor Corporation. A class victory at Sebring in 1961, while driving a Ferrari 250GT, was one career highlight that saw her pairing up with a rank amateur for a co-driver, her then-boyfriend, the tenor sax player and jazzman Allen Eager. It spoke to her ability — and likely his — while telling us plenty about a more relaxed time and a more easy-going sport.
After breakfast, McCluggage joined me for a ride in the McLaren. She was duly impressed but not as much as I was with her tale. While writing, racing, and arranging to ski most everywhere, McCluggage also managed to find time in 1958 to help start Competition Press (precursor to Autoweek, where she still writes a column). She left the newspaper game and circumnavigated the globe in the employ of the Fuller Brush Company, for whom she’d write a catalog. She dated a dashing cast of writers, musicians, millionaires, Formula 1 drivers, and, yes, even Steve McQueen. Let that sink in.
Deeply knowledgeable about cars and the automobile industry, McCluggage is well-read; politically outspoken in a retiring, jolly pinko sort of way; and a fine writer to boot. Rarely stooping to convention, she has led the sort of charmed and full life that many would wish for themselves. Not that it didn’t surprise me, but it made a strange kind of sense when she added as an aside that “fulfilling men’s fantasies insofar as I was able” was very important to her. Maybe so, but in my book, as a feminist, she’s tough to top. She didn’t confront a male-dominated society; she just went around it.
The gearhead sophisticates of Santa Fe turn out in numbers for a weekly lunch, the Tuesday Car Table, which McCluggage graces whenever she’s in town. One of my tablemates, Dean Rogers, owns an MP4-12C that was in Houston having its cracked windshield replaced. He’d driven it 3000 miles so far and loved it. John Paul Gonzales, young son of a family whose Santa Fe roots go back hundreds of years, loved it, too, but believes early customers are involved in the model’s “beta-testing phase,” whether they want to be or not.
Goddard and I started agreeing with Gonzales when our car’s audio system went on the fritz in Texas. Suddenly, the radio (or iPod) would go silent and the touchscreen would freeze. Rebooting would restore function, but then it would crash again, usually sooner than later.
Although Goddard’s legs are long and mine are short, we agreed that there was something wanting in the seat bottoms where long-distance comfort was concerned. On the other hand, we were seeing fuel economy in the neighborhood of 22 mpg, even with plenty of full-bore acceleration.
In Amarillo, Tyler’s Barbeque had sold out for the night, but we begged them to let us stay and, sure enough, they found a sublime end of beef brisket to share. The McLaren we’d parked outside didn’t hurt our credibility. Texas-born Tyler Frazer, the award-winning pit master, revealed himself to be a young man of no mean sophistication, once again puncturing the tired notions I am embarrassed to say many Northeasterners have about the rest of the country, especially the South, a place some speak foolishly about, typically because they’ve spent no time there.
Not that we could stay in Amarillo, or Dallas, or anywhere too long. Select sport mode on one of the 12C’s two console dials (one chooses suspension and stability control settings, the other engine/shift algorithms) and the acoustics get even more ferocious. A centrally pivoted paddle behind the steering wheel lets you shuffle through the seven speeds of the dual-clutch automatic (located immediately behind the engine located immediately behind your head), so you can play each cog for all of its musical worth. With due credit to the MP4-12C’s relatively low weight — 3200 pounds — the Ricardo-built engine you’re thrashing feels like the original Marshall stack of horsepower.
Zero to 60 mph comes up in three seconds. You’re barely into second gear. Hitting 100 mph takes four more seconds, and you’re at the top of third — with four gears and three digits’ worth of additional top speed left to go, all the way to 207 mph. The quarter mile has come and gone in less than eleven seconds. Holy Schmidt’s (beer)! The reality of the road and the reasonable desire to remain outside of the criminal-justice system frustratingly limits manic blasts through any of gears two through overdriven seven.
For professional reasons, we found ourselves duty bound during our first few days with the McLaren to verify, vigorously and over and over again, that it is indeed blindingly fast and always ready to accelerate some more, from as low as 1500 rpm. It is also steely-eyed and stable at triple-digit speeds. We saw an indicated 148 mph on a lonely two-lane that will not be named, and the 12C was just getting started. By the time we got to Montgomery, Alabama, we’d slowed down considerably. I’m against all regional stereotypes, but you know what they say about New York Jews in exotic cars driving double and triple the speed limit. I’m not religious, but I’m pretty sure it’s in the Bible somewhere.
In downtown Montgomery, we left the car at a parking meter and were ready to immerse ourselves in some national history that predated McLaren’s arrival on our shores. We’d been invited to the state capitol by Josh Segall, a thirty-four-year-old lawyer and one-time Congressional candidate born to an old Montgomery family, a Jewish one with roots in the area that go back 100 years. I’d fortuitously become acquainted with Segall, a history buff and kindred spirit, during a business call. He offered a visit to Alabama government buildings in the company of Dr. Edwin Bridges, director emeritus of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Bridges showed us the rooms in the capitol where the Confederacy was born. He showed us the First White House of the Confederacy across the street. Deep in the bowels of the state archives next door, he and archivist Ryan Blocker allowed us to inspect the remarkable, restored flags of local militias, Bull Connor photographs, and the clothes Alabaman presidential candidate George Wallace was wearing when he was shot in 1972. A fascinating figure — and a physically smaller man than you’d expect — Wallace would after his shooting renounce his past of racial hatred and begin to mend fences with the African-American community. As if it were a Hollywood movie set, from the capitol’s front steps we could see the church, just a couple hundred yards away, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had preached. Because he was not allowed to speak on the capitol stairs, King orated from a podium placed on a trailer pulled in front of the legislature’s great home. So much history in such a small space.
You might say the same thing about our MP4-12C, but you’d say it only if you were talking to serious gearheads. Fortunately, Segall had arranged for us to meet local McLaren and Automobile Magazine fans at Mitchell Classics. Bill Mitchell is a friendly old-car dealer and retired psychological counselor who may, like us, have occasion to ponder the Freudian underpinnings of why he owns so many cars that he needs a warehouse. Two of the attendees told us that David E. Davis, Jr., had stayed at their homes. It’s not too soon to hang those David E. Slept Here plaques, folks.
I tried to give them an idea of the sensation of driving this car. Blasting off is electrifying, but so is stopping quickly when you’re running hard, such as when the back road we were hammering down turned to crumbled-up poo during a high-speed run. Or each time the Escort radar detector tipped us off to an imminent appearance by the state police. Nail the binders and a huge body-colored air brake rises suddenly from the rear of the car, like the tail of a scared cat.
Which is pretty cool. But once the inevitable paranoia of driving a supercar on public roads sets in, it’s easy to suddenly mistake an air brake, or anything else that pops up suddenly in your mirror, for a cop who’s stapled himself to your heinie. When you get over the shock and realize it’s just the air brake you’ve spotted, there’s the fear that behind it still lurks a cop, one who’s been tipped off by its deployment. It’s a rich person’s problem. Call it Carbon Fiber Handcuff Syndrome.
You’re handcuffed or liberated by a supercar, depending on which kind of weirdo you are. But everybody’s always staring at you. A sizable percentage of restaurant staff left their stations at an Atlanta rib shack to gawp at the McLaren out front — in the rain. Then there were the surprisingly arch artiste types we saw in downtown Richmond, Virginia, who paused with nonironic fascination for an unhipsterly number of seconds outside of their loft spaces and galleries simply to take in this most impressive machine. The night we reached New York we stopped for a time-lapse photo along the Jersey-side shores of the Hudson River. Our biggest problem, it soon became clear, was going to be shooing away the young people who surrounded our car.
As I’d assured the assembled that night in Montgomery, our experience proved that the great American road trip is alive and well. Americans loved the McLaren through and through, exhibiting all the unexpected insight, blinding ignorance, and 1000 percent enthusiasm that any supercar driver gets to know in a hurry. Two days earlier, in Mississippi, a family abandoned their dinner in a nearby restaurant to come chat us up at the filling station across the street while their meals grew cold.
Like the cross-country car journey, a supercar is one of those things that never goes out of fashion. And we had to admit that for an awesome machine, the McLaren was pretty decent.