Nature and technology meet at Woking.
Huddersfield, set in the old West Riding which is now plain West Yorkshire since the 1974 border alterations, is a former mill town. In the very heart of England’s Backbone, the Pennine Hills, it’s a welcoming place. At times (locals say Always) the weather can prove bleak and those surrounding millstone grit hills can make for an ominous backdrop – when the rain isn’t horizontal.
Folk round here are rounded as well as grounded. They’ll call a spade a shovel and are open with advice and generosity. Patrick Stewart and James Mason were born and raised here – a few silver screen appearances between them. And a fellow named Wilson went on to be Prime Minister. So the place has form. And now, it has style.
Step forward Robert Melville, currently McLaren’s Automotive Design Director. Born not in Huddersfield but nearby Leeds, a Northern financial powerhouse, Melville attended and graduated at Huddersfield University in 2001 with a first BA (Hons) in Vehicle Design. The youngest of three sons, his childhood spent sketching that odd combination of nature along with cars. Something along the way must’ve clicked for Robert left his northern roots after university and headed for the the Royal College of Arts in London. Gaining a Masters in Automotive Design proved a fortuitous move and doors began to open.
To England”s Mid-shires; a role with JLR’s Advanced Design team where he helped with the Evoque. 2006 saw him join GM, though stationed here in Blighty as Senior Creative Designer, with his input adorning the Corvette, Hummer, items for Buick and the Cadillac Converj, or as we all knew it, the ELR.
A mere eight little years had passed since his graduation and the lure of McLaren was too tempting to avoid. Recruited as Senior Designer McLaren Automotive, he was promoted to Chief Designer four years ago when Frank Stevenson left for ‘personal reasons‘. The 570S and GT were his first attempts for the Woking based firm, with the 720S for 2017. Not a bad portfolio.
That Yorkshire grit and fresh air has made its mark. Fluid shapes abound and not a rock in sight. And his inspiration is biological. “When growing up, I had that intuition for why a bird’s wing works or the shape of a teardrop, or stones being hydro formed – shaped by the sea or formed by the air. With the P1, the 570 and the 720, the chassis is the skeleton, the radiators are the lungs. The skin is the cars aerodynamic profile, and here at McLaren we analyse aerodynamics pretty closely which help us understand and inform our styling decisions.”
Whereas previous McLaren incarnations had side air intakes, Melville has chosen to smooth these over for cleaner flanks. But observe the many channels and gullies to aid air-flow and heighten driver engagement. Those dihedral doors (when closed) carve the air as an athlete would on track.
Speaking of athletes, Melville took heed of other environments to assist with his style. Of all things, the training shoe. Nike looked into an ultra lightweight concept track shoe, with a ‘bone structure’ to the shoe; it fits like a glove, a biological addition to the actual foot.
And of course the world of architecture is never far away when designing motor vehicles. Melville states his admiration for Zaha Hadid with her buildings of fluidity and beautiful depth. “In Baku, the cultural centre is a favourite of mine with those curving steps which become the building itself. The cultural context with its italic, religious script is incredibly strong yet just flows into the landscape. Using thin LED’s, now the floor seems to rise, seamlessly, blurring boundaries and makes you go “Wow!””
But Melville also states he’s never been as he never leaves the office (and laughs whilst saying this); well, McLaren are keen to bring more models to the market – fourteen more and in quick succession.
“There are two ways to design a car. Here at McLaren we need high downforce, great feedback, grip, dynamics and a beautiful design. That design can be made by drawing something wonderful and working out how to engineer it. Or, to blend art and science, plan a complete package and quickly envision what the best attributes are. Both ways work, both ways appeal. Sitting right besides the engineering department makes it holistic, easier to sort a problem and define what’s right for that particular supercar.”
Using technology exclusively made for McLaren is their own version of Virtual Reality and which Melville staunchly advocates. “Plug in and you get the 3D engineering package, down to the last nut, bolt or screw. You can go through the steering column, delve into the brakes, orientate the radiators for maximum air-flow, build up lines, curves, minute sections of the car. A click and you’re outside looking in, at full size or back to the details. I can get happily lost in my own little world…”
McLaren have often been vilified as stuffy, lacking character, possibly a little glib. Not all their cars have been beautiful or successful (but then whose has?) though with Melville at the creative helm and yet another Yorkshire connection with McLaren recently opening a facility to create carbon fibre chassis on the outskirts of Sheffield, more characterful and hopefully beautiful shapes will flow from the pen and electronic wizardry of this inspiring young man. Plus, you don’t want to mess with a big lad from Yorkshire; they can be quite forthright when necessary.
Data source: Gear nation.com