PAHRUMP, Nevada — It’s a sunny Friday afternoon at Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club and I’ve just been tossed the keys to a McLaren. But this time I’m not lined up with the usual herd of peripatetic auto writers, nor am about to cane a typical, manufacturer-owned fleet car. The occasion is an almost cult-like gathering of hardcore McLaren enthusiasts for the unveiling of 10 bespoke cars, a meet-up that opens a rare window into what happens when a boutique carmaker goes out of its way to satisfy its most loyal clientele.
McLaren Special Operations (MSO) is a tiny division responsible for the manufacturer’s individualist offerings like custom order trim and upholstery, as well as more grandiose projects like the X1—the controversially styled one-off that was commissioned for a Middle Eastern client. MSO also quietly undertakes ventures like painstaking rebuilds of $12 million McLaren F1s that have been wrapped around trees, but it’s the custom work that earns it the most notoriety.
This particular project was dubbed ‘MSO X’ because MSO took 10 standard McLaren 570S cars and heavily modified them, drawing from McLaren’s 570S GT4 race car as the primary inspiration. The venture was hatched at Monterey Car Week in 2016 following a conversation between MSO boss James Banks and a Southern California collector named Dan (who preferred not to disclose his last name but happily shared his Instagram handle @dan_am_i). Because the rich are (mostly) different from you and me as they travel the world feasting on automotive experiences, the conversation picked up again at last year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed and triggered vehicle renderings incorporating cues from a hypothetical F1 homage—specifically, the 1997 F1 GTR.
“The first year or so was about exploring the art of the possible and setting boundaries,” explains Banks. “Developing modern cars is a huge undertaking with massive amounts of legal implications, and homologating a race car would have been excessively raw. We elected to use a 570S as a donor car with a lot of the brief being to make it scream ‘race car.’” The scale of the venture was considered, and Dan’s connections to fellow brand enthusiasts through the McLaren Newport Beach dealership led him to believe that 10 was the magic number for production. He took the leap and ponied up a deposit for the complete run of unique cars.
“I don’t like one offs because I’m more of a social person,” Dan tells me between the searing din of McLarens blasting off for hot laps. Dan’s social aura is palpable, commanding an air of jocular reverence from this tight coterie of enthusiasts. “I have a group of friends and it keeps growing. How cool is it to have the engagement of 10 people together and have 10 cars that were made for us but are very individual at the same time?”
Dan’s charisma rings clear as a bell, as does his desire for social connection (156,000 Instagram followers and counting can’t be wrong, right?) But his ravenous appetite for unusual hypercars makes me question his comment about one-offs. He owns multiple Paganis, Lamborghinis, and Koeniggseggs (including a BC, a Centenario, and a Thor, one of the final two Regeras), and has earmarked new high-dollar toys like a Gunther Werks 400R he commissioned with an exposed carbon-fiber skin, and of course, a Senna. Dan does admit his relationship with McLaren started on a rocky note. “When McLaren arrived in the U.S. I had one of the first MP4-12Cs, and I remember it was not the best car,” he reveals. “Some first iteration details needed some work, but in terms of the engine and how it performed, it was incredible.” He’s since owned spyder and coupe versions of the 650S and 675LT and three P1s, and has orders for several future models including the Speedtail.
The MSO X cars, which met their new owners for the first time in a low key unveiling at the paddock garage before the lapping sessions, are decked out in racing homage liveries and incorporate mods that necessitated a bit of in-house engineering. For instance, a hood-mounted carbon-fiber vent was designed to push high-speed air up past the windscreen and into the roof scoop, jamming the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-8 with fresh atmosphere. “You can’t just put the bonnet on a standard car without having to reiterate the aerodynamics,” explains Banks. “It took a little bit of wind tunnel and a lot of CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics calculations].” The work required modifying the engine’s fuel mapping to cope with the beefier intake pressure and revising the rear wing, which now produces 220 pounds of downforce. Sound spits through a lighter titanium exhaust, and the carbon roof, hood, side skirts, and engine cover shed weight (McLaren doesn’t disclose exactly how much). Stripped sound insulation, headliner material, and trim bits reveal the raw mechanical fittings beneath the pretty trim. “At McLaren we want to do everything for a reason,” says Banks. “We’re not prepared to put pure jewelry on a car.”
Attending the unveiling of the MSO X didn’t ensure seat time in a customer car, but one kindly owner opted to share his precious steed and allow me a whirl around one of Spring Mountain’s multiple layouts, a 3.4-mile configuration. While I cinch the racing harness, the owner leans over and urges me to select ‘Dynamic’ mode, “… so you can get enough power coming out of the corners.” Fair enough, I think to myself, noting it would be best to keep this generous gentleman’s just-minted Macca out of the gravel. Though there are a few incidental interior bits that seem to have been removed purely for dramatic effect, the unfiltered sounds set the car’s purposeful mood in a way the off-the-shelf 570S simply can’t. The MSO X cars transmit the intake whine, the turbo whistle and the wastegate whoosh loud and clear, making the modded entry-level car feel far more soulful than stock, echoing aesthetic bits like the graphical treatment and the wheels, which were painted and clearcoated to customer spec. With the engine creating incrementally more oomph but the suspension unaltered, the 570S holds its own around Spring Mountain as its Pirelli P-Zero Corsas claw the tarmac; a few laps in the 720S reveal gobs more power, but the MSO cars exude their own personality as their colorful forms slice through the desert landscape.
Though McLaren won’t disclose what the small batch production cost its clients, one official hinted that the price wasn’t far off double the standard 570S’s $186,600 starting price. Why spend 720S money on a tricked out 570S? For buyers wishing to differentiate themselves from the supercar crowd, the answer is simple according to McLaren Newport Beach dealer principal/general manager Pietro Friegerio. “In Newport Beach if you’re driving a 911, you’re one of a million.”