We meet members of McLaren Special Operations to find out how far they go to turn a customer’s ideas into reality. 


All McLarens are low volume. Some of our cars, such as the iconic F1, are among the rarest in the world. But if a McLaren customer is looking for something really special – something personal, something bespoke, perhaps something completely unique – we can cater for that too. For such a job, the customer would be referred to a department specifically set up to satisfy such demands: McLaren Special Operations, or MSO. Located just over a mile from the main McLaren Technology Centre, MSO is based in what was once the headquarters for the McLaren Formula 1™ team in Woking, England.

Our mission is to give customers a very high level of personalisation,’ says James Banks, Head of Commercial Operations for MSO. ‘Anything the factory can’t do, we do on request. We aim to never say no,’ he adds with a smile. ‘About 20 percent of all McLarens sold have MSO content, although with the McLaren P1™ that figure is more like 95 percent.

Besides adding a personal touch to the current Sports, Super and Ultimate Series models, MSO also looks after customers with heritage McLarens such as the F1, and it handles the tailored Driver Programme developed for the McLaren P1™ GTR track car.



MSO’s services are divided into five tiers: MSO Defined offers optional exterior and interior options for series production cars, such as the 570S and 650S, which can be ordered through your McLaren retailer. MSO Limited covers our special-edition road cars, such as the 12C 50th Anniversary of 2013, or the 650S Le Mans, 50 of which were made to celebrate the 20th anniversary of McLaren’s record-breaking victory at the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans. MSO Bespoke goes one step further, inviting customers to become more involved in the creative process. This can range from a special paint to the mouth-watering possibility of developing a completely unique car. MSO Heritage supports McLaren’s past models, providing servicing and personalisation for cars such as the legendary F1 and reaching back to historic racing cars from Formula 1, Indy and Can-Am. Finally, MSO Programmes is handling the development and co-ordination of the McLaren P1™ GTR track car and its exclusive Driver Programme.

Of these, MSO Defined is probably the most relevant to the majority of customers. The catalogue of MSO options enables you to upgrade your Super Series model with features such as a weight-saving carbon fibre rear diffuser or extended door blades, while inside you can specify many personalised touches including extended carbon fibre gearshift paddles or a redesigned instrument cluster featuring Formula 1™ inspired gearshift lights. Even the track-focused and limited-edition 675LT Coupé can be customised with options including an MSO roof scoop and louvred front wings.

A new range of MSO Defined parts have also been developed for the recently launched Sports Series, including a carbon fibre roof panel, front splitter and rear spoiler. 



MSO Bespoke is more ambitious. ‘The majority of suggestions start with different colours and different interiors, but some are completely bespoke cars,’ says Peter Colombus, a dedicated MSO designer. ‘The majority are about personalisation and creating a car that no one else has – customers come to us for exclusivity.

That can extend to customers designing their own cars, as James explains: ‘Our MonoCell carbon fibre “tub” makes a wonderful platform – literally.’ The immensely robust structure at the heart of every McLaren provides an ideal base on which to mount a bespoke body, designed and engineered in close collaboration with the customer. ‘We’re in dialogue with a number of clients on such projects.

How deeply the customer gets involved varies. ‘One customer was after more aggressive styling and improved aerodynamics for his McLaren 12C,’ says James. ‘He was probably on the phone twice a week for two hours for the duration of the project.’ This is certainly no issue for MSO.

‘After we delivered the car, the customer rang up and sounded a bit disappointed. I asked him why, and he said: “I don’t play golf, working with MSO was my hobby and now I’ve got less to do!” We get to know our customers very well indeed, and often build lasting relationships.’



Whatever the scale of bespoke content, the process starts with understanding the customer’s passions and tastes. Peter explains: ‘I try to make their ideas real, so they can see what they have in mind before the car gets into production. It’s like being a human configurator – it’s their idea and I guide them.

‘We start with a list of specifications, then build a virtual car using special software. If the customer requests a wing, we design it and render it to show them how it would look.’ 

That’s where McLaren designer Esteban Palazzo comes in. Esteban works in the McLaren design studio with Frank Stephenson, Design Director. He also works closely with MSO developing what he calls the ‘geometry’ of new parts: drawing the piece, computer-modelling it in 3D, building it, then fine-tuning. ‘At McLaren this is a challenge because the part has to perform meticulously, and we’re working with a car that’s optimised already.’ But within the technical limitations there’s still plenty of scope for creativity, especially when the team is building a one-off bespoke car. ‘We get to do things that the production team would normally say no to because we’re only building one example – like machining an exhaust from solid titanium, which we did for one project.’



Even if your ambitions don’t extend to the creation of a completely new body, one of the most dramatic ways of personalising a car is with paint. Darren Townsend produces bespoke paints for MSO customers, and his skills have been in particular demand with the McLaren P1™. ‘Over a third of McLaren P1™ orders were configured with special paint, and some are one-offs,’ Darren explains. He says the inspiration for a new colour can be anything, such as a picture, a personal item, or perhaps another car in the customer’s collection.

MSO has created well over 200 special colour variations in the last two years, and the team is developing new finishes, most recently a paint containing microscopic diamonds for a sparkling effect.

Working with Darren is Cam Austin, Project Engineer at MSO. Alongside a team of around 25 engineers and 10 technicians, he helps design and develop all MSO parts to McLaren’s high standards. One example is the McLaren F1 inspired ‘snorkel’ air intake, seen on the limited-edition 650S Le Mans, and now available on the 675LT. This generates a different engine intake airflow pattern, which needs testing as rigorously as standard parts. Such rigour is also applied to one-off parts, and customers are given the choice of sharing development costs, or keeping the part unique.



Cam provides an example of a customer who wished to gold-plate the titanium exterior parts of his McLaren P1™. ‘We did all the durability tests that would have been required for a production part, including a 700-hour salt spray corrosion test’. Incredible lengths to go to, but the customer was delighted with the result.

And it’s not just new cars that get the MSO treatment – despite rising values, customers frequently personalise their McLaren F1. ‘Once a new owner has bought a car, we can tailor it,’ explains Henry Winkworth-Smith, Operations Controller at MSO, and the main contact for F1 owners. Annual maintenance is also taken care of, and MSO’s unrivalled experience with the F1 means it can offer a number of updates.

This level of capability has been extended to McLaren P1™ clients. ‘A number of cars have already returned to MSO for new paint and a range of additional options that we have developed since launch,’ says Henry.

With so many facets, it’s easy to see why MSO is, as James Banks puts it, a microcosm of McLaren. It may be small, dedicated and personal, but MSO draws on the skills, resources and expertise of the company as a whole. And this is all opened up to customers who want to step into McLaren and create something unique. It’s not called Special Operations for nothing.


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