We at TopGear Magazine SA not only relish thrashing the best performance cars all in the interests of automotive journalism, but we also savour chatting to those behind producing such vehicles. Welcome to an exclusive SA interview with McLaren’s Head of Design, Rob Melville, who has designed an array of captivating vehicles from the British sportscar maker. These include the legendary P1 hypercar, the tear-drop shaped Speedtail and, most recently, the limited-edition Elva roofless supercar.
TopGear SA: Rob, thanks for taking the time out to chat to us. Looking at your resume, it looks mightily impressive, please tell us where your infatuation with design begun?
Rob Melville: Hi Lerato, thanks for the opportunity to chat to you and your audience about my journey in car designing. I guess I will have to go back to the very beginning, growing up in the North of London, where from a very young age, I discovered how fascinated I was with art in general and car designing in particular. My parents also saw the keen interest and passion in me, that they enrolled me into the Master Royal College of art, where I studied Transport Design. And as the saying goes, the rest was history.
TGSA: You have dabbled with other manufacturers before coming to McLaren and, in fact, one of those recommended you for your current position - could you talk us through traveling that metaphorical road?
RM: My automotive design journey includes a stint at General Motors where I was involved in some interesting projects including creating a lightweight version of one of the Hummer models and many a Cadillac model in-between. The latter is where I truly cut my car design teeth, working on a premium product, which came in handy in my next position with Jaguar Land Rover.
TGSA: Ahh, yes, Jaguar Land Rover. That must have been quite an interesting prospect. What projects were you involved in while there?
RM: Jaguar Land Rover was indeed a milestone in my career, where one of the projects I was involved in, under the stewardship of Gerry McGovern, was the current Range Rover Big Body (L405). I still look back at that vehicle and think, well, we didn’t do badly with that one. It was a defining moment with great learnings that have influenced immensely on my current position at McLaren Automotive.
TGSA: The transition to another British marque, this time McLaren Automotive, I understand there is a fascinating story behind that. Please can you share some of those nuggets with our readers?
RM: After leaving Jaguar Land Rover, I decided to go on a sabbatical of sorts for a few months when I got a surprise call from then CEO of McLaren Automotive, the inimitable Martin Whitmarsh, who enquired if I would like to head the company’s design studio after I was recommended to him by my former employer, General Motors, an offer I took up with little hesitation – that was in 2009. Since then, I have been instrumental in the company’s design direction.
TGSA: Seeing as McLaren Automotive has had to design its current crop from a clean canvas without a heritage of road cars to hark back to per se – save for the legendary F1 perhaps – what has inspired the current design language of the company’s range?
RM: For us, first and foremost, the mission statement is - authentic design; truth to materials; interactive; in-built intuition and a brave disposition. Then, of course, we draw a lot of inspiration from nature and our cars must epitomise dynamic design whether on the move or stationery. For instance, the Speedtail’s design was inspired by a teardrop while the Elva was to offer the purest form of automotive driver enjoyment without a roof. It was a rather arduous task to create a vehicle that can be driven in the elements all the while keeping the driver and passenger ensconced without being buffeted by the wind while also keeping a civil conversation – in the end, we’re happy with what we’ve achieved.
TGSA: McLaren has been on quite a roll with introducing new cars each year since its launch in 2011 with the MP4-12C and this has not abated. Do you feel that flooding the market with so many models will impact on future residual values?
RM: Well, this has been the perception from most corners, but for McLaren, we have always built cars to benchmark their respective segment, and I think from that aspect, we have delivered handsomely on the promise.
TGSA: Rob, we really appreciate you chatting to us and our readers, many of which are fans of the McLaren Automotive brand. We sincerely hope that you and your team continue on this trajectory of building exciting sportscars and we cannot wait to see what succeeds the Elva in McLaren’s growing product portfolio.
RM: Thank you, Lerato and I sincerely hope that we can continue to keep our South African fans and customers excited about the brand and what we have planned in the near future.