September 28, 2012

How Elon Musk crashed his McLaren F1

This article is a chapter from the book The Engineer - Follow Elon Musk on a journey from South Africa to Mars, which is the world's first biography on Elon Musk. If you haven't heard of him before, he has founded (or co-founded) companies like PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity. This is the first chapter in the biography and it tells the story of Elon Musk and his McLaren F1.

Chapter 1. Sand Hill Road

You can find several stories about the engineer Elon Musk. One of them took place on and around the Sand Hill Road in California. It goes like this:

A 28 year old Elon wanted to buy a new car. The price of the car wasn’t important because he didn’t need to think about money anymore. He had just made $22 million from selling his company. His garage had already included a 1967 Series 1 E-type Jaguar, which is considered to have the best car design ever made. Now he wanted the fastest car he could find.

A magnesium silver McLaren F1 met his requirements. The British made McLaren F1 is essentially a road-ready version of a racing car from the Formula One World Championship. With a top speed of 231 mph [372 km/h], it set a record in 1998 as the fastest road car in the world. It only takes 3.2 seconds to reach 60 mph [100 km/h].

It was a close call when Elon bought his dream car. The fashion designer Ralph Lauren tried to buy the same one, but Elon signed the deal one hour earlier. When McLaren began selling it, the fortunate customers paid one million dollars to get one. But since only 106 cars were ever manufactured, the price of the car today can be as high as four million dollars. Elon bought number 67.

A large black truck delivered the McLaren F1 to Elon’s home. He was now famous in Silicon Valley, so a film crew behind the documentary Silicon Valley Gold Rush followed each step. Like a boy before Christmas, Elon jumped around the truck while the car was unloaded. The first person who walked by said, “Is that a McLaren F1? Oh my God. That’s unbelievable.” Elon was happy. “Wow, I can’t believe it’s actually here,” he said. “That’s pretty wild man. Just three years ago, I was showering at the YMCA and sleeping on the office floor, and now I got a million dollar car.”

Enthusiasts described the McLaren F1 as the purest super car ever manufactured. This may sometimes be a drawback with owning one because enthusiasts are known for chasing them like a paparazzi chasing a movie star. “I lined up next to one at a light in Palo Alto a few months ago,” a proud enthusiast said. “I think it was the one that belongs to the founder guy [Elon Musk]. Made my day.”

Seeing the car in Silicon Valley wasn’t anything unusual. The region has the largest density of McLaren F1 in the world. “I’m more excited about seeing this car than I have ever been about anything else,” another enthusiast said. “Nothing else compares at all. As he [Elon Musk] braked for the 90-degree right to get on the freeway, the rear diffuser popped up exposing its gold foil covered underside. That sent a chill up my spine – go ahead – laugh all you want. When he decided he’d had enough of me tagging along beside them he practically disappeared down the FWY. Considering he’s got about five times the power of my car, I just let him go.”

In 2000, Elon drove his McLaren F1 along Sand Hill Road. Located in California, the Sand Hill Road has the same appeal as Wall Street in New York. The road is flocked with venture capitalist companies, and the road provides easy access to the Stanford University and Silicon Valley. During the height of the tech bubble – when the difference between being the next big thing and looking like it didn’t matter – the commercial real estates on Sand Hill Road were more expensive than almost anywhere else in the world. The prices were so high it would be less expensive to live on Manhattan in New York. It was impossible to find vacant office spaces or any legal places to park. Those who could afford to live in the area accepted the cost of parking tickets as part of the high price of living there. But money wasn’t a problem for most people. You could hear comments like, “Let’s call our team Gold Rush because we all want to make a lot of money.”

Together with Elon in the car sat his friend and co-worker Peter Thiel. They were on their way to the famous venture capital firm Sequoia Capital where they would brainstorm fund-raising strategies together with Michael Moritz. Thiel sat in one of the two passenger seats. The driver in a McLaren F1 is sitting in the middle of the car in a seat personally customized for each owner. Slightly behind the driver, there are two passenger seats on each side of the driver’s seat.

“So what can this do?” Thiel asked Elon after a fifteen minute demonstration of the car.

“Watch this,” Elon replied and floored the gas pedal.

The McLaren F1 has no traction control because the car is designed for maximum performance, so the car began to spin after a lane change. Elon did what he could to avoid the other cars driving on the same road while he at the same time tried to control the spinning car. After some terrifying seconds, the McLaren F1 slammed into the embankment of the road. The car lifted from the ground and began rotating like a discus flying through the air. They finally crashed down on the ground.

When the dust cleared, Thiel heard how Elon laughed. Thiel asked him why he laughed when he had just wrecked his new dream car. “You don’t know the funny part, it wasn’t even insured,” Elon replied. It’s unclear exactly why he laughed. One reason might have been because of the shock from the traumatic event that had just happened. Another reason can be explained with the new word “muskitude,” defined as a supercilious attitude caused by having made too much money too young. It might have been a combination of both.

Elon and Thiel survived the crash without any major injuries. “The first woman who saw us thought we were dead, and the whole thing felt like a roller coaster gone a little bit out of control,” Thiel said. Before the emergency services arrived to the scene, Thiel opened the gull-winged door, stepped out of the car, and hitchhiked a ride to not miss the meeting with Sequoia Capital. Elon also hitchhiked a ride to the meeting once a tow truck arrived to the scene.

Despite the dramatic accident, the McLaren factory could repair the damaged car. The main body of the car had survived, but the front and the suspension were damaged. After the brief detour to the workshop, Elon began using the McLaren F1 as his daily driver to and home from work.

Another unfortunate McLaren F1 driver was the British comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson, also known as Mr Bean. His black McLaren F1, number 61, has crashed twice. Luckily he survived the accidents without any major injuries, but his insurance company had to pay the most expensive insurance payout ever recorded in Britain. In favor of Atkinson’s driving skills, he has driven the car since 1997, covering a distance of 37 000 miles [60 000 km]. It’s probably a world record among McLaren F1 owners.

While Atkinson competes with other sports cars on a race track, Elon never participated in a race with his car. Elon, however, once tried to see how fast he could drive it on an airstrip, and he pushed the McLaren F1 to speeds of 215 mph [346 km/h].

In 2007, Elon felt he had to sell his beloved McLaren F1. As the manager of a company manufacturing environmental friendly cars, he wanted to improve his image. “It was an environmental decision,” he said. “My McLaren F1 was a great car. It was a work of art, really, but it’s not good for the environment and I didn’t want people always writing that I have a high-performance gasoline sports car, so I decided to sell it.”

Number 67 wasn’t more safe with its new owner. After six months of winter storage in a garage, the new owner wanted to take it out for a spin. A passing onlooker alerted the driver that smoke came out of the rear engine compartment. As the owner jumped out, the fire spread quickly, destroying large parts of the car. Since the car is a collectibles item, it had to yet again be saved by the McLaren factory. But there’s no need to feel sad for the owner while the car was repaired – the owner had one McLaren F1 in reserve.

So who said it was dull to be an engineer?

You can see the video from when the McLaren F1 was delivered to Elon Musk here (begins at 9:55). The video will also show early images from that would later become PayPal.

If you want to read another free chapter, the story of Tesla Motors's first small steps, click here The Electric Stars. It is available for free here:

"I doubt anyone, even Musk's employees, will get through it without some big insights about Elon and his companies."
- z940912

"Good shit."
- Cornucopia

"It serves well as a first pass on the story of Elon Musk. I actually learned quite a bit."
- Chad Kohalyk

"The Engineer is loaded with clues as to what comprises such a hard driven visionary. The research Erik Nordeus did to write this book is remarkable."
- Heavy Duty Insight