From the March 2018 issue
Twenty years after production of the coveted F1 supercar ended, McLaren will again put drivers in the center seat with its new $2 million-plus grand tourer codenamed BP23. The British racing specialists weren’t the first to literally put their customers at the center of their work, but McLaren became synonymous with the central driving position due to the impossibly long shadow cast by the F1. When it shows the BP23 later this year, the company hopes to recapture some of that magic, thanks in no small part to the unconventional seating configuration.
The Brits won’t be alone this time, though. Budding supercar constructor James Glickenhaus plans to place the driver front and center in his mid-engined $400,000 SCG 004S, and Tesla will offer road warriors a central seat in its electric Semi. According to their makers—at least one of which we trust with such projections—all three vehicles will be on the road in 2019.
Three’s a trend, even if these vehicles are so niche as to be experienced by only the megawealthy and those who work for megacorporations. Are the rest of us simply missing out? Just know that along with a central driving position’s advantages come a handful of inconveniences.
With the wind tunnel drawing aggressive tumblehome and longitudinal tapers into their cockpits, many exotics leave little headroom for tall drivers. Positioning the pilot under the greenhouse’s crown gives him more head space without actually raising the roof. The SCG 004S will also be offered in a race trim, and centering the driver in the car meant designers worried less about series’ regulations dictating a minimum distance between the driver’s helmet and the roll cage.
Gordon Murray, designer of the McLaren F1, cites the offset between the driver’s seat and the pedal box that was common in late-80s supercars as one of the key reasons for implementing the central seating position. With the driver’s feet centered between the wheel wells, he can square his hips to the car’s centerline with straight legs.
“You have a great view. You can see corners easier—the apexes—whether they’re right-hand or left-hand,” says Glickenhaus of the central seat. Except, that is, when you’re trundling behind traffic that’s almost certainly taller and bulkier than your supercar. Every inch the driver is moved toward the middle of the car is more sheetmetal that needs to be steered into the oncoming-traffic lane to match the sightlines in a conventional car.
A central seat eliminates much of the duplicate work that goes into designing both right- and left-hand-drive cars. That’s all the more valuable when a production run consists of a hundred, or even just a dozen, cars. In exchange, engineers are forced to reevaluate common components. McLaren engineers made sure the BP23’s HVAC system distributed air evenly after moving it from its usual location in the center of the dash. A central driving position is legal in the U.S., according to Sue Smith, a compliance consultant with Pilot Systems, yet McLaren won’t certify the BP23 here, likely due to challenges with crash regulations. The company will instead help U.S. buyers import the car privately.
A driver can walk through the Tesla Semi’s cabin, but a center seat makes getting in and out of a low-slung supercar even more taxing than usual. “You have to be supple, no question about it,” says Glickenhaus. Andy Palmer, vehicle line director for McLaren’s BP23, notes that advances in carbon-fiber design tools and manufacturing have eliminated the tall and wide structural elements that F1 owners have to hurdle every time they enter and exit their cars. “What we’ve been able to do with our design of the tub is put a flat floor into this car. It’s considerably easier to get in a BP23 than it is an F1,” he says.
That Special Feeling
When Ford and Chevrolet build mid-engined supercars, how are the exotic brands really to be defined? We can’t think of another automotive attribute as central as the driver’s seat. “It’s quite special sitting in the middle of the car,” says Palmer. “It gives you a good appreciation of the positioning of the vehicle on-road and on-track as well.”
As any parent knows, the center of the car is the safest place to be in a side-impact collision. Moving the driver inboard also creates a larger buffer between the driver and a front wheel during a small-overlap crash. The safety benefit is especially relevant for Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, which is expecting to sell cars without airbags, allowable under the U.S. Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act of 2015.
Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus plans to build 250 copies of the 004S powered by a twin-turbo V-8 making 650 horsepower and revving to 8200 rpm. Backing that engine up will be a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. The manual’s stick can be installed on either side of the driver’s seat depending on the market.