McLaren Automotive’s boss retraces his steps from fitting parcel shelves in a Ford factory to being the driving force behind a world-class supercar maker
Mike Flewitt, boss of McLaren Automotive since 2013, is a rarity among car company CEOs as an instinctive and passionate lover of cars both at work and when his time is his own.
Many contemporaries seek the ‘car guy’ label, but few can justify it to the extent that Flewitt does, reading and researching car stuff for fun, racing his classic Lotus collection on weekends or supporting his wife Mia’s ever-more remarkable progress to the top step of the podium in the British GT Championship.
It wasn’t always like that. Nobody in Liverpool-born Flewitt’s family had any special love of cars. His father was an academic and his mother a teacher. Neither of his siblings (the elder brother who is now a judge and the younger sister who got into teaching) showed much automotive interest. Mike, although always mechanically interested as a child, was more likely to be fettling bicycles than dreaming of cars like many of his contemporaries. But a saffron-yellow Triumph Herald changed all that.
1962 Triumph Herald 13/60 Convertible
Young Flewitt was working in a local sports shop to earn pocket money and unexpectedly came into a £200 insurance payout when his best bicycle was stolen. To replace the bike, he bought the Herald for £250 from a lady who also worked in the sports shop – because it seemed “kinda cool”. An Austin-Healey Sprite Mk4 would have been even cooler still, he recalls, but a teenager’s insurance premiums would have cost more than the car. Still, the Herald played the key role of getting Flewitt into cars.
“I absolutely loved that car,” he says. “It was pretty decent to drive and dead easy to work on because of the separate chassis and the way its whole front body section lifted away. I enjoyed solving the sort of problems you could see and touch – still do. I had an extremely oily Haynes manual that I used to follow religiously. Working on that Herald taught me to love cars, and now they’re my whole life.”
The Herald took 19-year-old Flewitt off to the University of Liverpool to study economics, but he soon found the experience “lacked relevance” so after a year he started work in the Ford factory at Halewood, 10 minutes from home, at first fitting rear parcel shelves on the production line. Soon he was accepted as a technical apprentice, which involved regular trips to Ford HQ in Essex plus college training on day release. That set him on a 12-year Ford journey from trainee through foreman, supervisor and manufacturing engineer (he began studying again at the University of Salford in his late twenties) to area manager.
1972 Lotus Elan +2S 130/5
Early in his Ford phase, Flewitt developed what would become a lifelong love of the Lotus marque, aided initially by the launch of the magazine Practical Classics and by a well-thumbed Chris Harvey book on the Elan (he still has it). What would become a lifelong itch to know more soon led to more reading; he became captivated by the unique aura of Lotus founder Colin Chapman.
“He was an inspired engineer, a great leader-businessman and a brilliant driver,” says Flewitt, “much the same as Bruce McLaren was. These days, those would be three distinct jobs, but these guys managed to do them all.”
Flewitt also fell under the spell of the incomparable Jim Clark, whose ability behind the wheel was so immense and so natural that the shy Scot simply couldn’t understand why everyone couldn’t do it. It seemed natural that the Herald should give way (via a Mini) to three years’ ownership of an old Lotus Elan +2S 130/5, yellow with a metalflake yellow top.
“In the magazines, and especially Practical Classics, all you ever read was how wonderful the Lotus Elan was,” explains Flewitt. “It always sounded like the best car in the world. I read myself into wanting one, and then, as now, the Lotus bargain was the +2. Mine was a 1973 five-speed model, about 10 years old, and I really loved it. There was just so much to admire. I used to drive it back and forth from Liverpool to Dunton [in Essex] and work on it in the street, because there was almost always something that needed fixing.”
1996 Volvo C70 Coupe
Flewitt’s Ford phase ended in the mid-1990s, when he took a job with Rolls-Royce in Crewe, tasked with revolutionising the manufacturing system for the forthcoming Silver Seraph (and Bentley Mulsanne Turbo). He made such a good job of it that he was promoted rapidly to production director – and that new prominence also brought an offer for him to run his own carmaking operation, the revolutionary Autonova business set up to build the Volvo C70 Coupé and Convertible at Uddevalla in Sweden.
The business was jointly owned by Volvo and Tom Walkinshaw of TWR fame, and Flewitt grabbed it with both hands. The “life-changer” for him was that he met his wife there; she had started as a line worker, trained as a manufacturing engineer and landed a key production role.
“We made a good car,” recalls Flewitt, “a decent, comfortable kind of GT built off the V70 platform. We had some early problems, but volume eventually reached a healthy 15,000 a year. We owned two, first a Coupé and then a Convertible after it was launched late in 1999.”
2003 Ford Focus 1.6
Flewitt ran Autonova for four years, but when Ford took over Volvo and bought out TWR’s stake, he elected initially to stay with Walkinshaw. Mia worked on the first-generation Renault Clio V6, another TWR programme, while Mike tackled various other contracts with the likes of Holden and Renault. But when, after 18 months, TWR struck the buffers (overextended by its involvement with the Arrows Formula 1 team), he returned to Ford of Europe in 2003 as quality director. That led to the choice of his fourth significant car: the no-frills 1.6-litre first-generation Ford Focus.
“That car really made me respect Ford,” says Flewitt. “It was simply light years ahead of anything else in its class. The control weights, the steering, the simple experience of driving the car: they were all on a new level. The Focus was a very pivotal car: it made me realise how appealing a car like that could be. I still keep thinking I should buy one…”
1965 Lotus 38
During a visit to Ford’s home town of Detroit, Flewitt visited the famous Henry Ford Museum, an experience that he says causes this list of a dozen cars to take “a big step in a strange direction”. Among the exhibits he spied was the famous Ford V8-engined Lotus 38 single-seater in which Jim Clark won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, comprehensively beating all of the traditional Offenhauser front-engined Indy ‘roadsters’.
“I was simply blown away by that car,” says Flewitt, “to the extent that if you asked me today to pick one car in the world, that would be it. Between them, Clark’s skill and the performance of the Lotus 38 simply turned the Indy world upside down. I don’t think a traditional roadster ever won there again.”
1964 Lotus Elan S1
Back at Ford, Flewitt’s accelerating career trajectory couldn’t curb his love of Lotus. In 2005, he bought an original Elan, yellow in colour, with the aim of “restoring it as if it were just driving out of the garage in 1964”. That meant no radio, standard 4.5in rims and even the optional Irvin seatbelts made from parachute webbing (extortionately available at £300 per set).
This purchase introduced Flewitt to Lotus expert and subsequent racing partner Neil Myers, whose father Ken ran a Lotus dealership in Northampton for many years. Neil, a successful kart and Formula Ford 2000 racer, restored the Elan over about a year, and it still holds pride of place in Flewitt’s garage.
“The Elan is the last car I would sell,” says the proud owner. “It’s magnificent to drive – light, agile, perfectly balanced – and the ride quality is amazing. But it’s not a pampered car. I’ve driven it quite a lot this year. We’ve done track days, driven it to Belgium, used it as we want to. It’s still in great condition but, as Neil says, we can always restore it again.”
1963 Lotus Elan S1 Racer
The Flewitts’ love of Elans and their Myers connection moved them into racing, with a beautifully restored lightweight Elan, a year older than that original S1. “It has a Bourne-built lightweight body,” explains Flewitt, “which we restored to road specification, then evolved into a race car along lines defined for Lotus dealers before the much better-known 26R appeared. It’s earlier than a 26R and, to me, more special.
“What’s significant is that it got Mia and me into racing – my first race was on the Silverstone National Circuit in 2015 – which was something I had always wanted to do, and it was wonderful.
“It’s not the quickest Elan out there, because it was made to road spec with changes. It’s a bit heavy and the engine isn’t tuned like some of them. But we’ve won races. And when people ask me why we don’t make it quicker, I just tell them that if Jim Clark had stepped into this car, he would have won. We’re improving and there’s enough left in us…”
2015 McLaren 675LT
Mike Flewitt left Ford of Europe to join McLaren in 2012, leaving a position as manufacturing vice-president with responsibility for 23 factories and two joint ventures (Russia and Turkey) plus his own office at Ford’s global headquarters.
But the lure of McLaren was strong, and the new company, which had a great product dogged by nagging difficulties, needed his expertise in manufacturing. He arrived as chief operating officer when sales of the original 12C were slowing and was made CEO the next year. He soon launched the 12C Spider, P1, 650S and 650S Spider in a bit of a rush.
“We were praised for making good cars,” he recalls, “but criticised because they weren’t seen as very engaging or emotional. One car I really wanted us to do was the longtail 675LT and, although it wasn’t in the plan, we eventually built it. I’m especially proud of that car because it was my idea; it was the first project I ran from start to finish. We took weight out and added a bit more power and aero, but what came out was so much better than expected: our first really engaging car – what a McLaren should be about.”
Flewitt bought a prime example with his own money and still owns it.
2013 McLaren P1
Flewitt admits that the P1 is “a bit more significant for McLaren than me”. It was well under way when he arrived, although many programmes had been shelved because of the challenges being faced with the 12C.
He says: “We got our focus back, sorted the 12C then delivered the P1 project – and it was a car full of character. We were also the first of the so-called hypercar holy trinity [P1, LaFerrari and Porsche 918 Spyder]. It was highly significant for our company: three years in, we were being viewed on the same level as Ferrari and Porsche. That was massive. The fact that the P1 sold out and was financially successful only made it better.”
1967 McLaren MP4A
Having discovered Elan racing, Flewitt saw one possible extension as competing in a Formula Junior single-seater, perhaps a Lotus 18, 20 or 22. To test the plan, he tried a Junior at Blyton Park, “loved the immediacy” and started hunting. But before a Lotus could be found, he was offered an ex-Piers Courage McLaren Formula 2 car, complete with 240bhp Cosworth FVA engine in a 470kg body. He tried the car and bought it.
“It was thrilling on the Hangar Straight at Silverstone,” he recalls. “I raced it a couple of times, including at Oulton Park in the Gold Cup. I came ninth out of 18 starters. But it was so fast – my limit, really. I just knew I would have to push harder to get better, and that would involve risk. I thought about Jimmy Clark: if he could race a car like this and die, so could I. So I sold the car. It was an interesting chapter and I’m glad I did it, but sports cars are my passion.”
2017 McLaren 570S GT4
The GT4 racer pictured above is the Flewitts’ own car. Since they started racing, Mia has shown a remarkable aptitude for high-powered cars: in five years, she has become a top-level amateur racing driver, winning the in-house Pure McLaren GT series twice. She’s now a top contender in the British GT Championship and has a full-time focus on racing with special fitness, test and sponsorship programmes. Lockdown has curtailed her progress, but when racing gets back to normal, she will be a rising star.
“We were thinking of buying another classic, but Mia wanted more power,” explains Flewitt. “She loves power and performance; a decent V8 will fix anything. She started talking about racing a CanAm car – as far as we know, no woman does so – but that didn’t strike me as very safe. So I came up with the GT4 idea, and Mia hasn’t looked back since. We love the racing, and although the GT4 is seriously fast, there’s a strong connection to McLaren’s road cars.”
1955 Lotus Mark IX
Flewitt’s love of Lotus – and his continuing research into its history – has led to the recent purchase of his oldest and rarest car, as only 27 examples were made over a two-year period in the mid-1950s.
The Lotus Mark IX is in effect an aerodynamic version of the Mark VI, Lotus’s first real production car. Flewitt’s is entirely original, was a championship winner in 1956 and was even the brochure cover car (naturally he has a copy). In period, the power output of its Coventry Climax FWA engine was 75bhp. That’s not so bad for a car weighing 420kg, but it has since been boosted to 95bhp, because it now has a steel-forged bottom end and can rev higher.
“It’s geared for 130mph and incredibly stable,” says Flewitt. “Our plan was to race at Classic Le Mans this year, but that wasn’t possible [due to the pandemic], so we have an entry for 2021. My car is road-registered but feels a bit weird on the road. For one thing, it looks so extraordinary that people think a spaceship has just landed. For another, you can’t really push it on the road, so it feels a bit clumsy. But on the track, it’s lovely.”
That makes a pretty eclectic dozen cars, I observe at the end of our long talk. Does Flewitt still harbour other burning ambitions? “Not really,” he says after taking time to consider. “A few years ago, I might have wanted a Lotus 25 or Lotus 49 single-seater, but the McLaren MP4A F2 car changed my ideas on that. I sometimes wonder about the Lotus 30, the unsuccessful V8-powered sports car that only won one race. Could Neil and I make one of those work? Maybe, but I’m not sure we’re going to get the chance.”