Rob Melville – The Man with a Dream Job



If your job allows you to do the things you were passionate about as a child, then you’re in the right business. And if, like Robert Melville, your job is building some of the fastest sports cars in existence, then your job is definitely out-of-this-world amazing.

“I’m in heaven,” Robert Melville says with a laugh. Yet while Rob – as everyone calls McLaren’s English chief designer – adopts a self-deprecating undertone, we feel as though we’ve entered a parallel universe. The McLaren Technology Center is an impressive combination of ultra-modern white spaces with huge glass expanses and a multitude of incredibly cool cars in bright colors. Even if we’re not in heaven, it certainly feels as though we’ve been beamed into the future. Located in Woking, 25 minutes outside of London, the McLaren Technology Center is much more than simply the McLaren headquarters. It is a state-of-the-art technology hub, initiated by Ron Dennis, former McLaren team leader and now group partner, who wanted to create a base for every one of the make’s business units. A place where passion fuses into cars and people are given the necessary space to realize the highest achievements in the world of sports cars.

But it’s not just about racing cars. A lesser-known fact is that road cars are created and produced here as well. In 1993, the company built its first road car, the McLaren F1. 106 cars were manufactured before production ceased in 1998, and the rare vehicle is still sought-after among car connoisseurs and enthusiasts. Both Tesla founder Elon Musk and “Mr. Bean” are rumored to own one. Between 2003 and 2009, McLaren Automotive collaborated with Mercedes and built another model, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren; the model, however, never became very popular and so the collaboration was dissolved. Ever since, road cars have been developed, produced, and marketed under the name McLaren, and the new models are extremely successful. The MP4-12C – the production model to ring in the new era – was presented to the public at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show, with a delivery date scheduled for two years later. The model was a great success, and the product family has grown constantly ever since. While other makes name their car models after women, cities, or winds, McLaren simply refers to the horsepower and adds a couple of letters, depending on the edition. The company only manufactures limited series, in part because the available resources are finite but also out of a desire that a McLaren should remain an unusual sight on the road.

The little boy who loved to look

Many of the models, with an asking price of approximately 180,000 euros, can’t immediately be identified as a McLaren, but Rob doesn't consider that a bad thing. The chief designer sees this more as a challenge and an inspiration: “We’re a young brand when it comes to road cars. But the make has a long history, international prestige, and above all, buckets of reputation. A good foundation to build on.” He sees his role as his personal dream job or, as mentioned at the beginning, his heavenly job. And Rob takes his job – seriously, very seriously. Nevertheless, he doesn’t take himself so utterly seriously. While others in his position might slightly lose their grasp on reality, Rob comes across as a totally normal guy, with both feet planted firmly on the ground. He is fun to interview, especially as his answers have obviously not been rehearsed. And Rob doesn’t categorically refuse to speak about his personal life either. Which is a good thing.

After all, this is where everything started some 40 years ago: Rob’s passion for detail, his curiosity to find out what makes things work. “As a small boy, I remember spending most of my days outside observing and watching things,” he tells us. “The way water flows, how animals move, – I’ve just always been extremely interested in how things work.” Later he started taking a closer look at cars, planes, and motorbikes. Clearly, his future course to study design was set early on – and it was also no great surprise that his career path led to the automobile industry. Prior to signing with McLaren in 2009, Rob was employed at General Motors, where he worked on their Hummer and Cadillac models. “However, I always wanted to have more freedom in my designs, so the offer from McLaren was like winning the jackpot,” is how he explains his decision to switch. But the career move certainly was also because, at McLaren, he can celebrate his passion
for functionality.

This is evidenced by a glimpse in the car’s interior. Absolutely anything that is not strictly necessary has been left out. This allows new drivers to get in, have a look around, and they’re ready to go. Whereas other sports cars first have to be analyzed in terms of thousands of buttons, umpteen levers, and a touch (and sound) display, effectively ruining the driving pleasure before starting the engine, in a McLaren, drivers have everything they need at their fingertips. No more, no less. To quote Rob: “Our road car is easy and quick to understand. After that, there’s nothing to hold you back from having a carefree driving experience.”

A small team that delivers great things

Rob Melville’s workplace is also at the Technology Center, but there are no individual offices in sight. “We’re a big family. Everybody communicates with everybody,” he says. “We all work with the same passion and do everything to make the personality of the McLaren brand come to life in every single detail of the car itself or in our marketing.” He explains that the team members don’t keep secrets from each other – just from the public. And that only until they are truly convinced that everything is as it should be. As a team, they discuss all aspects of a car – the shape, the material, and every single curve. For instance, the desired feel of acceleration demands that the materials are as light as possible. Which is why a huge amount of effort was put into making the car seat, which now weighs only about five kilos. Currently the main materials they’re using are titanium and carbon, but Rob is sure “that many new materials will still emerge that are even better.”

The moment when he, as chief designer, finally gets to see the final version is always an emotional occasion for him. “Actually, it’s not a moment; it lasts longer,” Rob says. Just as he allows himself time during the development phase, he allows himself the time to savor this pleasure. “You walk around the car, you touch it and feel extremely proud,” is how he describes the experience. “It’s not just the wow effect, because obviously I also observe the reactions of the others. It’s a unique moment.” When asked about his contribution, what you might call the Melville stamp, Rob says his focus lies on giving each car its individual psychology. This comes to the fore through the functionality he values so highly.

The man with an incredibly cool job

Rob Melville has no fears that car fans or his superiors won’t like his designs. “As a designer, you always want to deliver the best. And you are your own biggest critic,” he says. “A new model every year is certainly a big challenge. But one that I’m happy to take on.” Not least because he still hasn’t lost his childlike enthusiasm for how things work. It’s a passion he appears to have passed onto his three children. Rob believes it is very important to ensure that the “gang,” as he calls his children, learn to live and experience life fully. And this includes visits to Dad’s workplace. “Yes, my kids think I have a cool job and they like coming here and looking around.” At home he doesn’t have a McLaren parked in the garage. “To drive my family around, I’m better off with our Honda,” he says and laughs. “I get enough opportunities at work to step on the gas pedal.” Which brings us back to the start of the interview – when he said he felt like he was in heaven. A statement most people would concur with.

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