Words by Nick Hendrix
The old adage ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ struck a chord with me when trying to decide what to do with the bright orange McLaren 720S I’d been loaned by the British brand.
Initial ideas obviously gravitated towards the great drivers’ roads of the continent; Alpine passes, the French/Italian riviera, or even the iconic Transfagarasan Highway. I’d be whipping around switchbacks and drinking in stunning vistas before pulling up to sup on genteel cocktails over-looking the sea – lovely.
However, like a proverbial Russian doll, each grand idea was quickly thwarted by global complications, rapidly being replaced by a smaller one. And then a smaller one, until I was eventually left looking at the outside lane of the M25 as if it was Route 66.
With the newly minted pragmatism we’ve all developed, I decided to accept my options; play the way I was facing, and do something closer to home. I could do this content in the assumption that the majority of McLaren owners drive them from their hermetically sealed garages, round to Daylesford Organic Farm Shop for a flat white and then home again. This would be a true-life road test of a car with the potential to hit 212mph that often spends more of its time in Zone 1 than on the Nürburgring. Very much ‘joining them’, unable to ‘beat them’.
As I don’t have a 12 million pound townhouse in Notting Hill or a penthouse in Mayfair, where a car like this would naturally reside, I felt the next best place was visiting a five-star hotel – a home from home for any £270,000 supercar. (Base price is £219,000 but adding a few cup holders and a little leather really adds up.) Although to normal human beings that’s a staggering amount of money (for anything), I have to say that both the interior and exterior feel like they should be worth that much – the cockpit is a cocoon of quality and a beautiful place to be.
As a sucker for the endless layers of London’s history I chose The Wellesley as our hotel of choice. Built on and above the former Hyde Park Corner Underground station, it commands amazing views of Hyde Park, and the dark red tiled frontage feels special and unique. Yes, there are more famous and more obvious luxury hotels in London, but I’ve always felt that McLaren lives in a niche of its own – away from the more mainstream powerhouses of Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche. The Wellesley has character, style and nestled next to the bigger Lanesborough Hotel, feels like the young upstart trying to take its ground – much like McLaren who, only having made road cars since 1985, is still the new kid on this automotive block.
I collected photographer Michael Shelford from his home in South East London and delivered the news that we would be travelling IN to London instead of OUT. With Boris’s infamous second lockdown all around us I have to say his response was less than emphatic. However, trying to see the positives, he asked if he could at least, ‘pop his dog on the back seat’ – thinking it’d save him getting a sitter for the weekend. I quickly explained that ‘back seats’ were not really a feature supercars were known for – it’d be like Ronaldo playing with a backpack on.
However, in the name of automotive journalism, I embraced this unconventional method of measurement. In the absence of rear seats, a one-year-old Labrador could probably tuck onto the McLaren’s useful rear parcel shelf. Whether or not you want to risk muddy paws clambering all over the soft cream leather is up to you. The 720S also comes with a generous front boot that could certainly fit a Labrador and probably a couple of Pugs; although the RSPCA may have something to say about it.
Loaded up (sans Fido) we headed off on our exploration – time to see whether this 4.0L twin-turbo V8 could supplant the Smart Car as an ultimate city run-around.
I, like many people, live in the greatest city in the world and yet never look at it, never treat it as a tourist would, so I was excited to take it in. However, I was slightly concerned that we’d be recreating scenes from Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson got a Lamborghini stuck in an Italian village. I was predicting scraped noses, bent wing mirrors and eight point turns in front of mocking pedestrians. Thankfully I was spared all that. Although not your typical urban hatchback, the McLaren felt suitably small and nimble – deftly negotiating London’s busy city streets.
The nose lift function dealt with the speed bumps, 360-degree cameras saved me running anyone over and I didn’t have to lean out of the door to parallel park. As for the sight-seeing, the cockpit has these wonderfully dramatic windows in the roof, perfect for giving you a clear view of the city’s skyline. In terms of driving experience, did I wish I was on a German autobahn? Yes, however trundling along behind a double-decker was actually quite a palatable experience – time to soak up the classy cabin and wave to appreciative passers-by.
After many a traffic light, zebra crossing, and roundabout we finally arrived at The Wellesley, as fatigued as we would’ve been having traversed the Pennines. We parked up outside its impressive façade and found a well-dressed butler waiting by the door. With appropriately theatrical names I found my way to the Ivor Novello suite and Michael to the Noel Coward. The rooms are lavish and well-appointed, channelling an Art Deco-meets-modern-luxury design ethos. If Gatsby were alive today, had married a Saudi princess, and ran a hedge fund he’d probably book a room. Or buy the place. Exhausted, I smothered myself in the endless Hermes toiletries before sinking from sight into the marshmallow pillows and passing out – ready for another day of ‘sightseeing’.
Feeling rested we stepped out to be reminded of how we got there – the 720S is a spectacular looking car, it has to be reiterated, and once you open the dihedral doors it turns from a mode of transport to a work of art – Michael couldn’t stop taking pictures of it. We channelled a bit of ‘when in Rome’ and had breakfast on the go – coffees and pastries collected in cosmopolitan haste en route to more of London’s great locations.
From the City to Mayfair, Greenwich to Canary Wharf, we darted around town. I say ‘darted’. It was more of a stagger or stutter really. This is where my love for the compact supercar as an alternative to public transport began to wane – there is a reason that tourists use the tube to see London and it’s not just because it’s the first, oldest, and most famous underground in the world – it’s because it is a hell of a lot quicker. I think if I have to go round the Bank one-way system one more time to try and find somewhere to park, I may throw myself off a bridge.
Having exhausted his patience for pedestrian crossings and lycra-clad cyclists I finally delivered Michael home – his parting words may have included a polite suggestion of getting back to nature next time. On this I have to agree – the McLaren 720S is clearly not a car for traffic jams and 20 mph zones, it’s an elite athlete of the highest level. Using it on anything other than a winding alpine pass is like giving Michael Jordan a basketball and asking him explicitly not to bounce it.
So, in the name of ‘consumer advice’, was the McLaren a capable city car? Of course, it was, it can go from 0-62mph in 2.9 seconds – covering a mile in about half-hour wasn’t exactly a challenge. The surprising silver lining of crawling through gridlock was that it allowed the general public a chance to take in this stunning car and grab that all-important photo. I have to admit that sharing this work of mechanical art made me feel pretty good about life.
Let’s hope the world opens up again soon so I can have another go in this staggeringly capable, tastefully theatrical, British supercar.
With thanks to:
All photography by Michael Shelford for:
(@therealdriven @mrnhendrix @michaelshelford)