Here’s a surprise. For the first time in more than 50 years, it is not only true to say that Britain makes very good cars but, today, we can also legitimately claim that a British-owned company makes the best car in the world. Might that be a glow of pride we begin to feel?
For Britons who lived through the second half of the 20th century, the drawn-out death agonies of this country’s car industry were among the most distressing (and personally maddening and expensive) elements of Britain’s post-imperial decline.
Anybody who was suckered by sentimental patriotism into buying a Mini, a Maestro, a Rover or – God help us – a Jaguar was confronted with painfully costly proof that our car industry was as riddled from top to bottom with incompetence and negligence as its products were shot through with rust.
Every single ingredient, from its 600 bhp twin turbo 3.75 litre V8 engine to the switches and dials on its dashboard, has been individually considered and commissioned
Now Britain has ultra-efficient factories from Sunderland to Swindon mass-producing hundreds of thousands of cars that are as good as any in the world.
National pride in this development may be muted by the recognition that, for Nissan, Toyota and Honda – the owners of these plants – Britain is merely a production platform which, in itself, is no more important in their plans than Azerbaijan. But the excellent cars that stream off those production lines prove that British managers and workers are not necessarily lazy, venal and neglectful by nature.
That may not be much to shout about. By the same token, the achievement of the tiny Woking-based McLaren Automotive – creating a car priced just shy of £170,000 that will only ever sell in a few thousands worldwide (and then only to the insanely rich) – may be hedged with reservations.
Even so, you’d have to go back to 1958 and the introduction of the then-sensational and glorious Aston Martin DB4 to find a purely British-made car that was as overwhelmingly desirable as the new McLaren MP4-12C.
Like that fabulous Aston, the rear-engined, two-seater McLaren is a bespoke creation. Every single ingredient, from its 600bhp twin turbo 3.75 litre V8 engine to the switches and dials on its dashboard, has been individually considered and commissioned.
Even the concept of the door handle has been re-thought. Opening the gull-wing doors on the MP4-12C is like starting up an iPod. You slide the tips of your fingers along the underside of the sculptural cut lines on the door and a hidden electronic button pops the locks. (Would-be thieves will be saddened to hear that this system only works for the owner with the car’s remote-control key on their person.)
Switches on the centre console regulate the set-up for the suspension, the seven-speed semi-automatic, dual clutch gearbox and the volume of engine noise that can be heard in the cabin.
Turn this switch to the ‘Track’ setting and stand by to blast off from the launch-pad. No road-going car ever created comes closer to the pure adrenalin charge of a single-seater racing car than this two-seater from the company that has won the F1 constructors’ championship seven times.
At the same time, miraculously, the MP4-12C is comfortable, tractable and biddable on the road to a degree that no supercar in existence can match. Given the choice of any Porsche, Ferrari or Lamborghini to drive across Europe, I prefer the MP4-12C any day.
It is rather wonderful to have lived long enough to be writing such words about a British car. Almost like a little rebirth in itself.