Operation Desert Storm

The McLaren 720S Spider is a supercar star that brings Robin Swithinbank some unwanted attention in the Arizona backlands

By Robin Swithinbank

July 25 2019

I have one of two recurring dreams that make me leap from my bed, yelling, at least once a week. One is about someone breaking into my bedroom; the other is about a cop who’s pulled me over for going a bit fast on the motorway.

I blame boarding school for the former, and long-held frustrations at our national speed limit – last adjusted when cars were made of tin foil and sawdust – for the latter. Thankfully, I’m not normally like this in real life, and wasn’t when I was stopped by an Arizona state trooper earlier this year for going a fraction over the limit in a McLaren supercar. As the officer stepped out of his vehicle, divesting himself of a pair of wraparounds as he approached, I thought it best to set my demeanor to ‘Hugh Grant’.

“How fast you go in this thing?” he asked, his eyes caressing the McLaren’s sinewy flanks. “Erm, good morning officer. Uh, the top speed’s 212 miles per hour. Although that’s with the roof up – I think it’ll only do 202 with the roof down,” I replied. Not strictly the answer I suspect he was looking for; and he could perhaps see I was trying to obfuscate him with detail. Besides, the so-help-me-God answer would almost certainly mean my bed for the night would be rather uncomfortable.

“How much it cost?” he continued. I tried to convert £237,000 into dollars. “What’s the exchange rate at the moment? Around 1.2, I think. Or did it go up again? I’m not sure. And I’ve not added in the extras. Maybe $300,000? “That’s a helluva lotta money.”

Yes. Yes, it is. But the brand new McLaren 720S Spider is also a helluva lotta car. The convertible version of the blisteringly brilliant 720S Coupé, the flagship in the marque’s Super Series line, has some major vital statistics.

Like the hard-top Coupé, the Spider does 0-62mph in 2.9 seconds, which is exactly how long it takes me to forget why I went into the kitchen. From there, it will go onto 120mph in just another five seconds and onto that top speed of 212mph. It is scary quick.

The McLaren 270S Spider does 0-120mph in 7.9  seconds, as highway patrol can attest...
The McLaren 270S Spider does 0-120mph in 7.9 seconds, as highway patrol can attest...

But it’s not that scary to drive. When I was a boy, there were plenty of fast cars. My favourite set of Top Trumps in the late Eighties had a Ferrari F40 in it. And that did 201mph. Part of the mystique around cars that could go that fast – the Jaguar XJ220 and the McLaren F1 had the same – was that not only were they very fast, very sexy and very expensive, they were also very difficult to drive. The story had been the same for years. You had to be a weightlifter before you could even change gear in an Aston Martin DB5.

But not any more. So many of the fastest, most powerful cars are really quite easy to drive. McLaren gives its cars huge brains, including in this case something called ‘Proactive Chassis Control II suspension’, so that every time its overconfident driver turns in that fraction late, lots of widgets kick in before the car and its human contents end up in a hay barn.

Aside from being smarter than a National Spelling Bee champion, it’s also pretty. Not necessarily girl-in-the red-dress pretty. You always get the impression McLaren’s mathematicians have had their say in the designs, and they’ve still not achieved Westworld levels of anthropomorphic beauty.

But with its body in ‘Supernova Silver’, it cuts through the Arizona desert like a rapier through silk, the sun sliding over its pen-flick panelling as it whistles through the scrub. Tucked away somewhere is a V8 internal combustion engine, one of a dying breed that McLaren will soon replace with hybrids, and it hums a beautiful tune. I fall in love.

Which I think is okay. Because with McLaren you get the feeling it likes you back. It wants to impress you. A McLaren doesn’t have the insouciance of a Maserati, or pity you like a Bentley. McLaren Automotive has only been making road cars for nine years. And because of that, and forgetting one-offs such as the F1, there’s next to no cultural baggage. No myths varnished by generations of marketing men to unravel. In May I turned 40, and not much of what makes the McLaren of today happened before I was born, or even before I was old enough and (just about) responsible enough to drive one. McLaren is a my-generation supercar. I can own it.

We fly on, passing junk yards, trailer parks and signs for the Hashknife Pony Express. A kid on a bike gives us the thumbs-up as we pass through a hicksville town. Another shouts “Gucci” as the Spider glides past.

Briefly, I contemplate stopping to find out what happens inside the rusting shack offering ‘Southwest Wildlife Taxidermy’, but think better of it. Why stop? Why would you ever stop driving this magnificent car? I’ll tell you why. Because you’ve been pulled over by the boys in desert brown. I’ve been caught doing 84mph in a 60. Not criminal, and Lordy, nowhere near what I might have been caught doing, but we’ve been warned by our minders from McLaren that the local patrols aren’t much in the mood for have-a-go-hoodlums on their highways. The officer smiles. “I’m not going to give you a ticket,” he says.
“Just a warning.” He leans in, teeth glistening in the midday sun. “Drive safe, now.”

I love this car. It’s a stretch to call it practical, but it has more than 200 litres of luggage space dotted around, and the roof whips away into the boot in 11 seconds – faster than any other supercar – and at speeds of up to 30mph. There are natty touches, too. It comes with a button that activates the electrochromic roof so that it dims on demand – an extra that costs £7,500.

If there is one drawback, it’s not strictly the car’s fault. I am a tall man, six and half feet in height, and with the roof up, my view of the road is compromised – to say nothing of my spine. The McLaren 570GT, with its glass roof, doesn’t present the same problem, and for this reason alone I would probably choose it over the 720S Spider. Unless I go live somewhere it never rains of course. Arizona, perhaps. They seem to like me over there. And my car.