No Parking

The first McLaren badged road-legal car built in series production wasn’t named F1.


Mrs. Muscat had a parking problem: it was not a case of a lack of available spaces at the Ford Motor Company offices where she worked, but the company’s strict ‘no foreign vehicles’ policy meant that she was not allowed to park her car, a R107 Mercedes-Benz SL, on the premises. Having to find a parking space within a reasonable distance each day was of course an inconvenience, but she loved her SL and its al fresco option for sunny days. Thus she asked her husband, Maltese born engineer Peter Muscat, to come up with a solution. Peter Muscat owned a popular car custom shop in Detroit and was therefore literally well equipped to tackle the problem.

What his wife had in mind was a Ford Mustang convertible, but equipped with a convertible top neatly stowed away under a hard cover when not in use as per her beloved SL. At the time – early 1982 – Ford had not offered a convertible Mustang for almost a decade, although an open top version of the popular Fox platform Mustang was in preparation. Muscat created just what his wife desired, and the resulting Mustang convertible was deemed by Muscat to have the potential to be more than just a special order one-off. With a little help from his wife, Muscat arranged for the car to be presented to the powers that be at Ford Motor Company.

As a convertible Mustang had already been readied for introduction within months (although with a traditional folding top) Ford had no use for the car, but Muscat was directed to sister division Mercury whose Capri – a slightly restyled and somewhat more upmarket variant of the Mustang available in three-door hatchback form only – was not selling nearly as well as its Ford cousin. Indeed, the people at Mercury quite liked the idea but, since Muscat’s design would be difficult to integrate in the regular Dearborn production line of Mustangs and Capris, it would have to be built elsewhere. Muscat’s Detroit custom shop would of course be unable to produce the cars in any meaningful quantities, so an outside specialist had to be contracted.

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Enter the American Sunroof Company (ASC). A logical choice(1), because ASC had already developed a limited edition Mercury Capri with a special body kit, painted in a distinctive blue and orange colour scheme. ASC enlisted McLaren for the refining of the car’s construction details and the actual production; the American branch of McLaren was part of McLaren Engines and shared a common ancestry with the famed company established by Bruce McLaren. McLaren engines was founded in the late sixties to provide engines for Bruce McLaren Motor Racing but was a separate entity from the McLaren F1 team. ASC had a licensing agreement with McLaren and was thus allowed to use the McLaren name and its associated trademarks; the car would therefore be christened ASC/McLaren.

ASC executive Horace Klose was confident Muscat’s convertible would find its way in the market: “Lincoln-Mercury dealers normally sell Town Cars and Continentals but they have nothing to offer the wives or girlfriends of those customers to go to the country club in. Those people are mostly buying the Mercedes-Benz SL; so now here we offer a car that is Mercedes-like, you might say, but costs less than half.”

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By the time construction of the first ASC/McLarens started in 1984 in the 35,000 square foot Livonia factory, a regular convertible had already become part of the Mustang lineup; contrary to what one might expect, however, that convertible did not serve as the base for the ASC/McLaren. It transpired that it was more labour and cost-effective to use the hatchback Mercury Capri and remove its roof.

Most of the ASC/McLaren’s body from the A-pillar backwards was new and hand-built(2). Speaking of the A-pillar: its rake was increased by one inch(3) and a massive welded-in backbone reinforced the transmission tunnel to aid body stiffness. The canvas roof folded neatly away (manually) under a fibreglass cover flush with the body when closed. As per its original inspiration, the ASC/McLaren was strictly a two seater: two luggage compartments replaced the rear seats.

Mechanically, there were no changes to either the tried and tested 175bhp 5-litre V8 engine or the suspension apart from gas-filled shock absorbers and a lowered ride height. A bodykit and special alloy wheels completed the package; for those who preferred a steel roof above their heads the ASC/McLaren was also available in the standard hatchback configuration.

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Car and Driver magazine tested the car in its March 1985 issue and, while the handling was described as “a bit rough around the edges at the limit” and body stiffness could be better, delivered a mostly positive verdict. Under normal driving conditions, the handling was deemed good and, although it was manually operated, the top mechanism opened and closed very easily, the gearbox was smooth, brakes stopped the car with authority. Fit and finish were judged to be much better than the standard cars, which was something the Dearborn factory where the bread-and-butter Capris were made was probably not happy to hear

It needed to be too, as the ASC/McLaren cost more than double the price of the Mercury Capri on which it was based. The hatchback coupé version was only about 35% more than the standard vehicle but even so, most ASC/McLarens sold were convertibles. In the foreshortened first model year 1984, just 50 convertibles and 10 coupés were sold, but in 1985 and 1986 this increased to 257 convertibles and 150 coupés and 245 convertibles and 161 coupés respectively.

Over the three years it was offered, the ASC/McLaren received a few augmentations; a different camshaft gave the V8 some more horses (180 for the automatic version and 210 for the manual gearbox equipped cars), tie-rod ends from the Ford Thunderbird were used to quell the bump-steer the early ASC/McLarens originally displayed and an Alpine stereo system plus under-bonnet mounted radar detector were added to the specification. The final 1986 cars were fuel-injected.

Ford Motor Company discontinued the slow selling Mercury Capri after 1986, but this did not mean the end of the road for the ASC/McLaren- it was from then on based on the Ford Mustang. Again, the standard convertible was passed over and Mustang notchback coupés were used as the base for the transformation. The method of construction was mostly the same as before; benefiting from further development the power output of the V8 engine rose to 225bhp. “Fast, fun and for adults only” was Musclecar Review’s verdict in its November 1987 road test. In the four model years between 1987 and 1990, 1806 ASC/McLarens found owners – all of them presumably adults.

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The relationship between Peter Muscat and ASC soured in 1989 due to disagreements over licenses and royalties, and McLaren did not renew its licensing agreement with ASC, so the rather unique collaboration came to an end in 1990(4). Together with the famous Shelby derivatives of the mid- to late sixties, ASC/McLarens were the only cars to be specially prepared for aftermarket conversion by Ford: they received a special tag on their radiator support bar stamped ‘D32ASC MCLAREN’. They will likely never achieve the high-end collectibility status of the Shelbys, but an ASC/McLaren makes for a rarely seen(5) beast with an interesting background.

(1) ASC also built convertible versions of the Buick Riviera, Cadillac Eldorado, Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Firebird and Toyota Celica.

(2) The bootlid however came from the Mustang Convertible.

(3) This necessitated the installation of side windows unique to these cars.

(4) Fittingly, at around the same time, the long running R107 SL was also discontinued.

(5) On top of that, casual observers will often mistake it for a run of the mill Mustang convertible.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

16 thoughts on “No Parking”

  1. Thank you for another interesting discovery Bruno. Though to be irritatingly pedantic ……

    1. Hello Bristowfuller,
      Nothing pedantic about it- you’re technically correct although the M6GT is (to me at least) more akin to the handful of road-legal Dauer Porsches. Perhaps the opening paragraph of the article should be amended slightly to reflect the fact that the ASC McLaren was the first McLaren badged car in series production…..

    2. Or first practical McLaren badged roadgoing car. Though it does appear that the M6GT had excellent headroom.

  2. Good morning Bruno. Another intriguing automotive artefact unearthed, thank you. My goodness, doesn’t the standard Mustang convertible top look unsightly when folded, even with the tonneau cover fitted:

    Those external boot lid hinges don’t help matters either.

    Your piece reminded me of the manual work involved in raising and lowering traditional convertible tops, particularly the sometimes fingernail-breaking process to popping the tonneau into place. In a country like Ireland, where the weather can often deliver four seasons in the same day, the ability to raise the hood quickly and easily from inside the car is essential for getting the best use out of a convertible. (Yes, I know this is absolutely a first-world problem!)

    It’s just a shame that the ASC/McLaren version wasn’t electrically operated. That really would have been worth the premium. I wonder if there was no longer sufficient space for rear seats, or was their deletion intended to make the car feel more like a ‘coupé’ in the literal sense?

    1. Daniel, the beige thing is not a tonneau cover, someone just threw a horse blanket over the car.

    2. Hello Daniel,
      Yes, the manner in which that top is “covered” is quite -to use an American term- crappy. Fred found the perfect description 🙂 On the other hand the Mustang was dirt cheap for what it offered. Yes it looked and felt cheap in several areas but the basic car wasn’t bad.

      As for your question about no rear seat in the ASC/McLaren: I wondered about that too; since the wheelbase was not shortened and the slightly “faster” inclination of the a-pillars did not necessitate moving the front seats back I think it was done to make the car look and feel more exclusive, while at the same time copying another aspect of the R107 SL that was its inspiration.

    3. As much as the ASC conversion is superior aesthetically with the roof lowered, all that is completely negated and then some when the roof is intact to these eyes; I’m not keen on the triple window look as it is even before those plastic sides begin to distort, and the construction method chosen that leaves a 90 degree angle seam aft of the passenger side window is criminal. It looks like a poorly done patch on the cheap.

  3. It’s astonishing that they made about 2,000 of these cars when the conversion cost 11,000 to 13,000 US$ against the base product at less than 10,000 US$.

  4. Hello Bruno, I would say that the first series produced McLaren road car was the also Fox Mustang based McLaren M81 of 1981(or was it 1980?). Only 10 were built out of an initally planned 250 though

    1. Hello Mazda 323,
      Yes, it would indeed appear you are correct, thank you for this- I did not know about the M81 so every day is a schoolday for authors as well 🙂
      In light of this and Bristowfullers comment I will amend the headline to “The first McLaren badged road-legal car built in series production wasn’t named F1.”. Thanks again for you contribution!

  5. I have a former co-worker who has one of these. He daily drives it in the summers. It’s a ‘pile of rust that drives’ as he puts it. It may have been coach built, but it shows why my friends and I call them ‘Rustangs’.

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