As a child, I was famous for my love of smashing up toy cars, as they careened around a shag-rug raceway while my parents tried to watch Dallas. The faster a vehicle looked, the more likely it was to be driven at full hand-speed into the marble fireplace.
So you can imagine how worried my mother was when I mentioned that Formula One giant, McLaren, were lending me one of the world’s most advanced sports cars, their 570GT. But as a novelist who is always eager to get behind the wheel of any interesting mode of transport and then write about it, this was a unique opportunity to drive a vehicle that people actually have fantasies about.
I was asked to collect the car on the far west side of Manhattan. It was located in the Classic Car Club, which is headquartered in a former docking-pier with its own restaurant and lounge.
Of all the other gleaming automobiles at the club, from a 1956 Porsche Spyder to a 2015 lime-green Lamborghini Huracan, the smoky gold McLaren stole the show. Even when parked with the engine cold, one’s gaze simply gets sucked into the slipstream of the McLaren’s viciously elegant angles. I had driven the odd Ferrari over the past several years, but never borrowed anything of this caliber—let alone parked it outside my apartment in Brooklyn.
My assignment was to drive the McLaren out to the Hamptons for the weekend with my wife, to enjoy the car, and write about the experience of getting around in it. (Tough duty, I know.)
Before you read any further, I have to confess something. I don’t know anything about engines. Also, statistics put me to sleep. I can tell you that the McLaren can go from being parked outside Starbucks to sixty miles per hour in about three seconds, and that its top speed is somewhere over two hundred miles per hour. But living in New York City where pizza and Chinese food travel faster than most supercars, such feats of engineering mean nothing.
Thankfully, the acronym GT stands for ‘Grand Touring.’ In other words, this particular addition to the McLaren family is designed for seeing the country, driving around daily—even running errands. To that end, suspension on the 570GT has been softened by 10% – 15%. The steering is apparently softer too. The interior is beautifully wrapped with smooth, sumptuous leather, accented with carbon fiber racing panels. It’s still loud enough to pull stares—but not as loud as its more sharply tuned counterpart, the 570S.
While the 570GT has been designed with passenger comfort as a priority, it’s still a racing car at heart, and quick enough to get you on the nightly news. If you’re wondering what 570 stands for, then it’s brake horsepower (bhp). But that’s enough about engines. Let’s talk about the wild and crazy things that will happen when you’re driving one of these in public.
My trip from the Classic Car Club back to Brooklyn taught me two things. First, leather-soled Oxford shoes are good for meeting the in-laws, but not good for driving supercars. Secondly you don’t have to make-eye contact or even acknowledge every person who stops what they’re doing to stare at you. Driving a vehicle like this in a city, one simply has to be prepared to interact. At the first red light for instance, work ceased on an adjacent construction site as the McLaren’s low growl had workers in hard hats pointing. Then one of them hopped the concrete barrier and came over to ask about top speed.
“I don’t know,” I told him, “I’m too afraid to find out.” What I didn’t say was that I’d only be driving the car for five minutes and was too freaked out to even adjust the radio.
The level of attention this car generated genuinely surprised me. In New York – just like London, Miami, or Shanghai – expensive motors are a normal part of the urban landscape. So what made the McLaren stand out so much? After learning how to open the window without ejecting myself, I was able to chat to other drivers and cyclists. Half the people I spoke to recognized the brand, but as a racing team, not a company that makes cars for driving to the post office. One man refused to believe the McLaren 570GT costs less than a million dollars (it costs around $200,000). He must have taken me for your regular, humble, supercar driver, trying to downplay something that could pass as a spacecraft.
Taking the GT out on the Long Island Expressway for the Hamptons trip was going to be fun. The open highway would give me a chance to really test out the handling, and give me some freedom with the rocket-style acceleration. I wasn’t going to switch it into Sport mode – I knew that disabled the electronics that protect neophytes like me – or go near the button marked ‘Launch.’ The gentleman at the Classic Car Club who gave me the key fob had pointed at it and said flatly, ‘don’t push that button.’ I agreed that I wouldn’t.
“We’ll know if you do,” he said.
Before taking the McLaren out to the East End of Long Island, I promised my teenage daughter a spin around Brooklyn which would have been the most exciting vehicular experience for her this summer, had I not been in the car at the same time.
For the 90-mile drive to Hamptons the next day, I wore my Nike Machomai boxing shoes, which strangely resemble racing boots, flat and rubber-soled with ankle support. When I looked up boxing and racing footwear on the Internet, however, I found one very important difference, racing shoes are fire retardant.
My wife, who is no stranger to supercars having once dated a racing enthusiast, found the interior of the 570GT to be comfortable and luxurious. It wasn’t just the panoramic roof, and unlimited choices of seat position, but the buttery leather and cloud-like cushioning.
After driving north on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway then merging onto the Long Island Expressway, it seemed that on the freeway we blended in with the steady stream of cars. But once traffic thinned out, I noticed people riding alongside for twenty or thirty seconds, filming our discussion on gluten-free snacks for road trips. Halfway through the journey, a man pulled up alongside us on his motorcycle and with one hand on the handlebars, whipped out his cellphone to take a selfie of himself with us in the background. Stuffing the phone back into his pocket, crumpled-up dollar bills flew out across the highway.
When it was time for a break, we stopped in a town called Babylon on the south shore of Long Island just over half way between New York City and our destination. What was once a small, swampy village in the 1700s is now a bedroom community for wealthy Long Islanders who love boats. I was reluctant to parallel park the McLaren, as turning around while reversing is basically futile. You can’t see anything except a bespoke luggage rack big just enough for a pair of Speedos. There is a back-up camera, but the instinct to turn around is too strong. Luckily we found a space big enough to pull into. I pumped a quarter into the meter, as cars slowed to watch my wife raise the scissor door like she’d done it a million times.
Despite catching my finger in the door’s air channel the day before, no amount of searing pain could lessen the thrill of getting in and out of a car with doors that swing up. It’s by far the coolest thing I’ve ever seen on any vehicle, ever. For bona fide McLaren owners, knowing the width of the doors when parking is probably something that becomes second nature.
The key fob for the car is so understated, that if you lost it, no one would imagine it belonged to anything resembling the Batmobile. Perhaps that’s the idea.
This motif of understatement is something that’s distinctly British.
Despite the explosive power of the vehicle, it comes across as elegant – a supercar with manners. Although I wasn’t born when Jaguar’s most famous sports car hit the market in the early 1960s, I imagine it was greeted with same reception then as the McLaren 570GT is today. The E-Type was devilishly fast, but its dominant characteristic was elegance. That rare blend of raw power and poise.
In reality, while this car might be driven by people who use real money to play Monopoly, the gallant, self-assured dignity of the McLaren suggests a driver who is cool, calm, and collected… like a cucumber, a very, very rich cucumber.
Perhaps that’s why the respective drivers of a black Maserati and white BMW M5 just waved magnanimously when I declined to accept their offers of a drag race. Gentlemen prefer McLarens, or so the saying goes.
After another blissful hour behind the wheel, we reached our destination. Not some exclusive Southampton restaurant or a century-old, ten-acre horse-farm off Sagg Main, but a small house in a newer development just outside the Village of East Hampton. It was the home of 90-year-old American artist, Hilary Knight, best known for the Eloise series of children’s books, which first came out in 1955.
I’ve known Hilary Knight and his dear friend Willy for about seventeen years. Hilary is not only an iconic illustrator, but also a World-War II veteran, who served in the Pacific theater at the end of the war. When Hilary and his fellow Marines opted to get tattoos on the verge of their deployment, a teenage Hilary chose Tinkerbell from Peter Pan.
The four of us enjoyed a supper of orange pasta and home-grown golden beets. Since I’ve known Hilary, he has always enjoyed creating meals where all the food is the same color. The last time we dined al fresco, it was pink. Nearing his 91st birthday, Hilary tells us he’s never felt so creative. He is working on an illustrated autobiography. This is in addition to the Eloise murals that people hire him to paint in their homes. He uses the Internet every day, posts things on Twitter, and wakes up at 3AM to start drawing. “I don’t feel sorry for anyone under 80,” he says, and then goes on to tell us about a major Hollywood actress who called him recently at 1:30 in the morning just to talk.
When Hilary comes out to the driveway to say goodbye. His eyes widen at the gleaming machine parked behind his Ford Focus.
“Marvelous,” He says quietly, “Is it yours?”
I want to suggest a spin around the block, but the McLaren is so low, and Hilary likes it so much, I worry that I’ll never get him out of it. As we say goodbye, neighbors start appearing. They want to know about the doors, what kind of car it is, how fast it goes.
Heading home to New York City that night, I forgot I was in a racing car, but not that I was in something very expensive, a vehicle that exudes luxury. The digital dashboard glowed in vivid colors and on stretches of highway without lights, I was able to look up and see stars.
Andy Warhol famously said that ‘In the future, everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes.’ Driving a McLaren 570GT, that fifteen minutes lasts as long as you’re behind the wheel, which is fine, because this is a supercar that fosters admiration rather than resentment.
Anyone for tea?