Cars and Trucks

McLaren Parts Company with CEO Flewitt, Who Promised No SUV Was Ever Coming

  • After eight years at the helm, CEO Mike Flewitt (pictured with the 765LT) is leaving British supercar company McLaren.
  • During his tenure, Flewitt was plain-spoken with media, and one of the things he made plain was that McLaren was not going to follow other elite carmakers such as Ferrari and Aston Martin in building a sport-utility vehicle.
  • With the company’s financial challenges and amid disappointing results for the GT and Elva, Flewitt’s abrupt departure now seems to leave the door open for a super-SUV that could be a savior.

    The soap opera at the top of the auto industry is frequently fascinating, but we’re here for the cars. So you’ll rarely finding us reporting the details of executive arrivals and departures. But sometimes a change of leadership can indicate a much bigger switch, and although we only have half the story so far—British supercar maker McLaren confirming that CEO Mike Flewitt is leaving, but not who is set to permanently replace him—we suspect there’s likely something more happening in the background here.

    Journalists tended to like Flewitt, a no-nonsense Liverpudlian who spent most of his career at Ford before joining McLaren. He spoke his mind and was happy to venture further in interviews than his PR managers wanted him to; his confirmation to Car and Driver that there would be an LT version of the 720S on the same day the basic car made its debut was a fine example of this engaging enthusiasm. But he also made an oft-repeated promise that McLaren would never build an SUV, or anything like one.

    That pledge won plenty of positive reaction. It seemed like a low-risk strategy in the era when sales of McLaren’s carbon supercars were riding high and the company was still expanding. But as rival luxury makers started to launch their super-utes, Flewitt’s promise started to look more like a hostage to fortune, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and McLaren’s global sales collapsed. The company narrowly survived a cash-flow crisis, one that forced it to cut 1200 jobs and to raise cash against its space-age headquarters.

    McLaren’s crisis found a parallel in the one being suffered by another British luxury player, Aston Martin, which had also been suffering from falling sales and revenues. Aston had nearly run out of cash developing its first SUV, the DBX, and was also trying to raise the funds necessary to build a series of mid-engine supercars intended to take on McLaren, Ferrari, and Lamborghini. But Aston also had a relationship with a much bigger automaker in the form of Mercedes-Benz, one that has grown much closer in the last year with the arrival of former AMG boss Tobias Moers as Aston’s CEO.

    Aston Martin DBX.

    Dominic Fraser/Aston Martin

    McLaren doesn’t have any such relationship. Company insiders have told C/D a technical alliance with a major German automaker, believed to be BMW, was being discussed some time ago—but this never happened. Meaning McLaren and the company’s suffering shareholders have had to bear the huge costs both of developing its next-generation models, which will use a new carbon-fiber architecture, and of the hybridized V-6 engine that will power the first of these, the Artura.

    mclaren artura

    The Artura was originally scheduled to arrive in 2020, but its launch has been pushed back into 2022 seemingly due to the engineering challenge of bringing such a complicated car to market. Sales have been disappointing for both the McLaren GT, a fine car which is categorically not the Bentley Continental rival it was originally described as, and the roofless, screenless Elva. These failures seem to have played a significant part in Flewitt’s abrupt departure from the company, with technical leadership passing to McLaren Group director Michael Macht, former Porsche CEO, and other functions to executive chairman Paul Walsh while a permanent full-time successor is sought.

    It seems likely the choice of new boss will signal a change of direction. Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, and Aston Martin have all launched SUVs, all of which are currently their respective companies’ bestselling models. Even Ferrari is set to create something very similar in the form of the Ferrari Purosangue. We can respect Flewitt for holding out against this trend, but we would be very surprised if his successor doesn’t choose to reverse that decision, especially given the possibility of moving straight to a fully electric SUV using somebody else’s platform. (Lotus has explicitly said it wants to license its forthcoming “lightweight” EV platform, which will support 800-volt architecture and produce cars able to go from zero to 62 mph in under three seconds.)

    By happy coincidence, McLaren has recently poached Aston Martin’s chief chassis engineer, Matt Becker. The man who led development of the DBX would seem an ideal candidate to introduce another British luxury brand to a more sports-utilitarian future.

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