Musings on the Past

Here are the convoluted origins of McLaren’s signature design

With Europe tightening the thumbscrews on emissions, McLaren has taken the hybrid-pill with its first series-production hybrid, the McLaren Artura. And no, it isn’t a 720S stuffed with a big battery. The Artura features a smaller 430kW 3-litre twin-turbo V6 with a 70kW electric motor. Other all-new technical bits include its twin-clutch, differential, and carbon-fibre chassis. Best of all, the Artura wears what is possibly the best iteration of McLaren’s signature design. And it only took them a decade to get here. 

If you are wondering what McLaren’s signature design is, on the Artura it is exemplified by its “eye sockets”. See those sculpted swoops. It is the embodiment of the brand’s “Speedmark” logo. A design trademark of McLaren Automotive since its first model, the MP4-12C. (Note: The McLaren F1 was a McLaren Cars’ product, which McLaren Automotive replaced in 2010.)

Originally appearing as the MP4-12C’s front indicators, the swoop gradually grew in prominence. With the P1, the Speedmark manifested itself in the headlight design. A design detail that McLaren worked onto the MP4-12C’s facelift, the 650S. And it eventually became McLaren’s signature design for its road cars, like the 570S Sports Series and the Speedtail. By the way, what is the origin of the Speedmark logo?

Origins of McLaren’s Speedmark

Unlike many of its performance contemporaries, McLaren’s founder, Bruce McLaren, had no hand to play in the Speedmark’s design. Sadly, Bruce never lived to see what his racing outfit would become, perishing in a tragic testing accident in 1970. Leaving the company to others to build the McLaren we know of today with its racing achievements and road cars.

McLaren’s first logo appeared in 1964 sporting a traditional European coat-of-arms emblem design – a far cry from the minimalist Speedmark. Designed by Bruce’s close friend, Michael Turner, the crest featured a Kiwi bird, which was a homage to Bruce’s homeland of New Zealand.

McLaren dropped the logo three years later, in favour of a more stylised logo of the Kiwi. The new logo, nicknamed the “Speedy Kiwi” stayed on till 1980, a decade after Bruce’s unexpected demise.  

Smoking origins

It wasn’t until 1981 that the earliest progenitor to the Speedmark came about. And you can thank cigarette producer Phillip Morris for it. Being a sponsor of the McLaren Formula One team, Phillip Morris commissioned renowned American designer, Raymond Loewy, to design a new logo for the company

The new Loewy designed logo featured a chevron motif that resembles a stylised chequered flag. But everyone could see the blatant resemblance of the motif and that of the iconic Marlboro logo. It is hard to not connect the dots with its obvious shape and colours.

But before pearl-clutchers start getting flustered thinking about the children, it wasn’t a nefarious subliminal messaging scheme. Not only was it conjured up in a different time than our own, but by 1980, McLaren had a fruitful five-year relationship with the cigarette brand as its title sponsor. Furthermore, the red-white Marlboro livery had become emblematic of the team’s Formula One cars since the 1979 M29. It was only natural for McLaren to adopt the motif. 

Speedmark takes shape

It was only a decade later where the Speedmark really started to take shape, with McLaren merging the chequered flag motif into a single chevron. Six years later, with Marlboro parting ways with McLaren to become the title sponsor of its nemesis, Ferrari, McLaren kept the general design but smoothened out the chevron. Turning it into the streamline swoop that we know today. 

Ever since then, McLaren had kept the Speedmark swoop as part of its logo. Only doing minor adjustments to its font to “keep up with the times”. And in keeping with the times, McLaren has moved away from any allusions to the cigarette producers. Instead, the Speedmark is said to be inspired by the aerodynamic vortices created by a Formula One car’s rear wing. Strangely, the Speedmark resembled the dash of red lipstick on the front wing of its McLaren-Mercedes Formula One cars.

Others have theorised that the Speedmark itself is a neat tribute to McLaren’s original Kiwi logo. One could say there is a passing resemblance to the fat, nearly extinct, flightless bird. Though that origin story is quite unlikely. 

Even for a company as sentimental as McLaren, who religiously holds onto its past race cars, Bruce’s influence is barely present. While he was a successful racer and race car builder, the company that bears his last name owes its successes and ethos to Teddy Mayer and Ron Dennis.  

When McLaren entrusted Frank Stephenson to set the styling direction of McLaren Automobiles he wisely chose the Speedmark. Even though working the Speedmark into McLaren’s signature design for its road cars, has been challenging. However, if the Artura is anything to go by, it shows that McLaren’s designers are getting the hang of it. 

Owning up to its past

Considering the Speedmark’s past relation with cancer-causing sticks, should McLaren cancel it? At the end of the day, a logo is just a logo. An immediately identifiable signifier of an organisation. Much like any flag, coat of arms, or symbol you see representing companies, governmental bodies, or prestigious families. It changes and reshapes itself over time, bearing the marks and influence of key events. 

These events might not come together for the perfect fairy tale story that every PR manager would kill for. And even with today’s Cancel Culture looking to erase every morally egregious act in history, it is great that McLaren acknowledges its past link to cigarette producers. It is an integral part of its story, even if it came from a different era to our present. Like it or not, it is here to stay, not least because McLaren is finally nailing the design language of its cars.