Commissioning a bespoke car might be said to be the masculine equivalent of purchasing a wardrobe worth of couture dresses, except for the fact it takes significantly more time and money and unlike the seasonal couture shows is an extremely rare occurrence. In the case of the McLaren X-1, the first and only 100% unique automobile created by the English supercar manufacturer, that meant three years of design and engineering for an anonymous client at an undisclosed but eye watering cost (McLaren “ready to drive” models begin at $231,400).

“One of our clients who already owned a McLaren F1, a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and now a 12C, wanted a unique car,” says McLaren Special Operations (MSO) Programme Director, Paul MacKenzie, of the beginning of the story that resulted in the X-1. “The conversation began with our Executive Chairman Ron Dennis. The client wanted a machine that had all the capability of the 12C but wrapped in a unique body that reflected his needs and personality.”

The brief from the client was for a car of “timeless and classical elegance”. The MSO division – which launched 12 months ago and is dedicated to personalisation from colour, trim and engineering tweaks to creating one-off cars – first reacted by compiling hundreds of images from the worlds of automobiles, architecture, fashion, design and even film, which the client then selected from to create a mood book. Next, designers from both inside and outside of McLaren were invited to enter a competition before the client chose the drawings of McLaren’s Korean-born RCA graduate Hong Yeo.

When the X-1 was revealed in Pebble Beach, California, in August, the client’s wishes had evidently been fulfilled. The sculptural work of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture which was found in the mood book can be seen in the car’s sweeping lines, as can the glamour of the black and white photos of Audrey Hepburn. There is a touch of old world elegance in the unusual enclosed wheels (which are dramatically revealed by hinged panels) and the carbon body is painted in gleaming piano black as specified by the owner. Inside, a cocoon of red Napa leather is punctuated with nickel-coated aluminium bezels.

Rather than being a fragile one-off destined for a collector’s garage, the X-1 was designed to be used by the client who wanted to enjoy it at supercar speeds. And so just like the hidden, genius corsetry inside a made to measure dress, the McClaren X-1 is filled with unseen, tailored mechanics including the twin-turbo 625PS engine that was specified in the owner’s brief. It is the mix of bespoke driving and a unique design that make the McLaren X-1 the ultimate couture car.

What is your definition of luxury?
This is a difficult question, I think luxury means different things to different people and different cultures, if luxury is the ability of an individual to personalise their vehicle to their own taste – whether that be a simple trim change or to fully developed a personally designed vehicle then MSO is able to support your dreams.

If luxury were a place, where would it be?
The cabin of any McLaren! Luxury is a place where you feel comfortable and relaxed at the highest level, with no compromise, which is exactly what we at McLaren Special Operations aim to offer to all customers.

If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
In the context of the X-1, the moment was when the client saw the 1:1 styling model for the first time.

If luxury were an object, what would it be?
For the client of the X-1, the car itself.

If luxury were a person, who would it be?
The client of the X-1, it is how he feels when he drives the X-1 to opera for the first time.

The X1 brief was for a car of “timeless and classical elegance”. What makes a car just that? Which particular classic models were cited or discussed in your meetings?
The customer gave us a brief which presented a new type of challenge. The qualities of being ‘timeless with a classical elegance’ were outlined by the customer, but they wanted a car that had all the capability of the 12C but with a unique body that reflected his needs and personality. The design team brought together hundreds of images from the world of automotive, architecture, fashion, design and even film. These were then presented to the customer, and were then narrowed down to a mood book, full of inspiring images from which the design spirit of this unique car would be derived. Inspirational cars included a 1961 Facel Vega, a 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance Ghia, a 1959 Buick Electra, a 1939 Mercedes-Benz 540K and a 1971 Citroën SM.

What can you tell us about the anonymous owner in terms of their collection of cars and passion for automobiles?
The client is a great fan of McLaren and has an F1 road car, SLR and 12C in his collection.

A mood book was produced that included everything from images of the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao to a black and white photo of Audrey Hepburn – what specific parts of the X1 reference images included in this book?
It is very difficult to specifically references details on the vehicle against images within the mood book – however everybody who has seen both the car and mood book together have agreed that if the mood book were a question then the X-1 is the answer.

McLaren is a supercar brand – to what extent did your pioneering technology dictate the look of the car?
A full CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) aerodynamic testing schedule ensured high-speed stability, and the car also completed approximately 625 miles of testing including two intensive testing stints at the Idiada circuit in Spain with chief McLaren test driver, Chris Goodwin. The X-1 had its own development programme because crucially, this wasn’t to be a fragile concept car that would never see tarmac. It was to be a usable car, road legal and capable of travelling at supercar speeds. After testing, the whole car was meticulously rebuilt, by hand to concours standard.

The design itself was open to competition – who did you invite to participate?
The client wanted a competition between external designers – some outside the automotive world – and McLaren’s own designers. In the end, a design by McLaren’s Korean-born RCA graduate Hong Yeo was chosen, and completed under the direction of McLaren Automotive Design Director, Frank Stephenson.

Why did the client select the design of Hong Yeo? How closely did they work together on the final design?
The customer was heavily involved in all stages of the design of the X-1, and was very clear in his own mind what he wanted. The styling took 18 months to sign off but the result is a design that in a few decades time will be hard to pinpoint exactly when it was created ... timeless, therefore, exactly as the client requested.

Is this the first bespoke car project that McLaren has worked on or just the first that we know about?
This is the first fully client commissioned car by McLaren Special Operations, but it certainly won’t be the last. However, The carbon fibre MonoCell chassis used in the 12C is not only stiff and light, it allows for great flexibility in body styling and provides an affordable structure from which MSO can develop unique cars.

How rare is it – not only at McLaren but at all the top carmakers – to receive a bespoke commission such as this? Who are the clients?
The X-1 is the most ambitious example yet of MSO’s expertise, and this is the first bespoke commission on this level. However, more and more luxury customers want bespoke or individual features, whether it be specific stitching on the interior, a different paint finish or, in the case of the X-1, a completely unique design for the entire car. Currently around one in every four 12Cs built has an element of MSO modification.

McLaren Special Operations is a dedicated personalisation service that is only one year old. Aside from the X1 what have been the most interesting projects you have worked on?
The bespoke McLaren Special Operations (MSO) division was launched at Pebble Beach in August last year. It offers a personalisation service that varies from simple trim changes to a whole new car – as showcased by the McLaren X-1. MSO grew out of McLaren’s Customer Care programme, which goes back 20 years to the days of the McLaren F1 road car. It looked after servicing and maintaining cherished F1s for owners. It also undertook personalisation when cars changed hands: new owners often wanted to put their own marks on their vehicles. This continued during the production period of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, and the Customer Care department moved into personalising new cars for owners. Today, MSO continues to service and look after F1 road cars around the world. It also travels to destinations around the globe, to service and maintain cars.