Bespoke Living

Go Inside McLaren with Design Director, Rob Melville

Ahead of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on August 15, McLaren’s Rob Melville shares his design insights—and how top car events help to keep his automotive passion alive

As Design Director at McLaren, Rob Melville has the dream job for anyone who’s ever idly doodled their perfect sports car on the back of an envelope. But the 43-year-old graduate of London’s prestigious Royal College of Art is responsible for a range of supercars, which must unite exciting visual design with McLaren’s single-minded focus on technical and functional perfection—a demanding task. The job has its compensations though, including an annual pilgrimage to see the world’s finest cars up close at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Here, he talks exclusively to Christie’s International Real Estate about his guiding principles as a designer, McLaren’s newest models, and the joy of seeing great cars in the steel.

Portrait of Rob Melville Director of Design McLaren
McLaren Director of Design since 2017, Melville has led some of the brand’s most iconic designs, such as the McLaren Senna, Speedtail, Elva, and 765LT.

What guiding principles do you set for design at McLaren? What makes your cars visually distinct from their rivals?
One of our main guiding principles is purity. You can see it in the new Artura, which is very clean and very sculpted. Look at the rear clamshell: it runs the full width of the back of the car, seamlessly. There’s a beautiful amount of sculpture in it and it delivers this very pure aesthetic.

Another guiding principle is what we call “functional jewelry.” We don’t decorate our cars. We simply take what needs to be there and make them beautiful, inside and out. We never add trim just to “lift” the car. It should be designed in if it’s required, but to an absolutely exquisite standard.

The Artura is an amazing all-rounder, it’s superb at everything

The final principle is technical sculpture. I think the Artura’s door is a great example of this. It looks like a sand dune—as if it’s been blown and shifted by the wind. It communicates visually the way in which our designers and aerodynamicists guide the air around the car.

The McLaren Artura on an open road
The high-performance plug-in-hybrid Artura pairs a powerful 3.0-liter V-6 engine with a battery-electric powertrain—all within brand-new McLaren Carbon Fibre Lightweight Architecture.

So, what’s new about the Artura from a design perspective?
There’s a British saying: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” We’ve spent a decade establishing a look and feel for McLaren, and with Artura we wanted to distill that design thinking, with an even cleaner interpretation of what we’ve done so far. So, all those guiding principles are still there, and we’ve made a step change only in certain areas.

Perhaps the most obvious is the more aggressive look of the front end. When you stand right in front of an Artura it has the “hammerhead” line from our more extreme P1, which flows into deeply rebated headlamps that look like eye sockets.

McLarens have always had relentlessly modern, forward-looking design. The new, open-top, screenless Elva is inspired in concept by Bruce McLaren’s flamboyant 1960s racers—is there also a hint of retro in its visual design?
When we got the chance to do an open, screenless car, there was definitely a dose of influence from the past—especially in the way that the bodywork kind of rolls into the interior. It was just too good an opportunity to miss. It really changes your perception of the car: there’s less of a distinction between exterior and interior. It feels like one continuous volume. It’s unique, and very special.

A blue and orange McLaren Elva
The Elva embraces the principles set down by Bruce McLaren’s original open-top sports cars of the 1960s, and is designed to “build the closest connection between driver, car, and the elements” the brand says.

On the other hand, the soft forms and very full side sections are directly inspired by the side-pods on our current Formula 1 cars. They have an amazing fuselage that runs rearwards and then kicks down, so we decided to see how closely we could replicate that on a road car. Of course, it has a functional purpose too, sending air to the mid-mounted radiators without the need for an intake in the body side.

I get inspired by talking to customers and enthusiasts, and events like Pebble Beach are as much about the people as the cars

How do you ensure the design of each of your models is recognizable, while staying true to the McLaren DNA?
Most car companies can use the Russian doll approach. They take one design and scale it up or down to create a range of cars. But cars like the Artura and Elva use similar platforms and are similar in size. So instead, we use what I call “physique differentiation.” It’s like you have three brothers. They’re clearly related, and identical in terms of their skeleton. But one—our Speedtail—is an Olympic swimmer. One is an Olympic sprinter, which is the Senna. Then one is an amazing all-rounder, trained for decathlon. That’s the Artura, which is superb at everything.

McLaren cars drive down a Las Vegas street
Since 2015, McLaren owners have had the chance to experience Pebble Beach Concours Week from the driver’s seat, with an owners' rally that begins in Las Vegas and winds through the mountains of central California before arriving at the event.

How important are the great car events like Pebble Beach to you as a designer? Can they make you fall in love with cars all over again?
Oh absolutely. We live in a digital world, which is great up to a point. But with cars, and in fact with most products and design, you can’t beat seeing them in the flesh. One of my favorite cars is the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale from the 1960s. When I saw it for the first time at a show it literally blew my mind, and I spent the next hour sketching it. I just fell in love. That was an important moment for me, and it only happens when you get to see these extraordinary cars up close, as you do at Pebble Beach.

Will car events like Pebble Beach replace conventional auto shows for very high-end marques like McLaren?
It’s definitely something I’ve already seen happening in my time at McLaren and I think that trend will continue. I think we’ll always be present at these very premium, luxury events now. I don’t think we’ll treat them like an auto show and have our entire range there. It will be about showing one or two special new cars, as we have in the past, but more importantly about building relationships. I get inspired by talking to customers and enthusiasts, and events like Pebble Beach are as much about the people as the cars.

Banner image: McLaren’s Elva models