1/1/2001 | 10 MINUTE READ

Powertrain Performers

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Here's a look at a company with its roots in racing and a fast-acting staff of 90 people that are able to transform powertrains into works of manufacturable engineering art when the pressure is on.


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There is a zealous contingent of auto enthusiasts out there who are obviously indebted to Wiley R. McCoy and his Livonia, Michigan-based colleagues—those who are fans of one of the best muscle cars ever to roll out of General Motors starting in the late '70s: the Buick Grand National. This car was powered by a V6 engine that was produced in what was then known as Buick Plant 36. But the folks at that plant, as McCoy recalls, had a bit of a problem vis-à-vis the turbocharged version of the engine that they were producing for the Grand National along with the engines that were being made for the run-of-the-mill Regals: It took too long to test. Which is where McCoy and his coworkers came into play.


The 580-hp Northstar LMP Twin Turbo engines
The 580-hp Northstar LMP Twin Turbo engines that ran at the 2000 Le Mansrace as part of General Motors return to that venerable venue were assembled at the McLaren Performance Technologies facility in Livonia, Michigan. The company has a long association with GM and racing. For example, in 1970-72 it modified Chevy V8s to run in the CanAm series.

Some 20 years later, McCoy is president and chief operating officer of McLaren Performance Technologies, a company that has been at its same site since 1969. (Why there? Apparently, they figured it was about half way between Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus and the GM Technical Center in Warren.) Originally, the company was part of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing. Its role was powertrain. They built engines for running at the Indianapolis 500 (e.g., modifying Offenhausers and Cosworths; engines it built won two 500s); they transformed Chevy big block V8 engines for the CanAm series (two championships). They knew engines. They knew racing. (They even worked with GM and Mercury Marine on transforming 454-in3 Chevy V8s into powerboat racing engines.) And the issue was with the engine for what is essentially a street racer. So, they were called into Plant 36 and asked to figure out how to test the engines—”They had to be 100% tested on a dyno, under load,” he recalls—and to do it within a four-minute cycle. Which they did.

This bit of history is telling of various aspects of the company as it exists today.

  1. They began life as a powertrain company; they continue as a powertrain company. “We've developed the ability to do the complete engineering, validation, and certification of niche powertrains,” McCoy says. During the past 20 years, he explains, “We've become a product and process engineering development facility for powertrain.” They don't exactly make them (e.g., they're not casting blocks or even producing all of the components). They make them better. Or assure that they're good.
  2. They specialize in doing niche work for OE manufacturers. This makes them different from what are known in the business as “tuners”—companies like Saleen and Callaway. That is, those companies can take production cars from the end of the line and make modifications to them. They become the manufacturers of record. But at McLaren Performance Technologies, the work is typically done in concert with the vehicle manufacturer: “We have developed the ability to take what's now called ‘overflow' or ‘leveraged resource' type work.” They are called in to assist the OEM engineers whether it is for a prototype or show car or for limited production programs.

    The powertrain may be transformed by McLaren, but it is the OEM's engine at the end. 

  3. They know what it takes to actually manufacture engines. McCoy says that there are two distinct approaches: An engine will be a prototype engine or there will be production intent. If the former, then, as he puts it, “We go hog wild and produce it—fabricate pieces by hand that no one could make. . .” but then he notes that the unmanufacturability of things like complex intake manifolds have given way to the capabilities provided by new technology, such as injection molding: “You can now make pretty much anything a fabricator can dream up.” If the answer is that there will be production intent: “We understand tooling. If we make a new manifold, we understand whether it can be manufactured. Can it be made on a transfer line? Or is it a job for a machining cell?”

A difference between the past and the present comes out in one thing that McCoy stresses: the company is no longer owned by the same firm that fields the impressive Formula One motor racing team. That company—McLaren International—is actually a company within TAG McLaren Group, which is based in Woking, UK. (And as if anyone needs to be reminded that the auto world is a comparatively small planet, here's another bit of evidence: DaimlerChrysler bought a 40% interest in TAG McLaren Group last January; DCX and McLaren Cars Ltd. are building a super sports car, which will be labeled the Mercedes-McLaren SLR, and is anticipated to be on the market in 2003.)

Which is not to say that McLaren Performance Technologies—which consists of four business units: McLaren Engines, McLaren Traction, McLaren Vehicle Development, and McLaren Manufacturing—is no longer associated with exotic cars and racing circuits. The four Cadillac Northstar LMPs that raced at Le Mans in June, 2000, were powered by the Northstar LMP Twin Turbo V8 engine. Yes, turbocharged. As in one of the areas of expertise of the people at McLaren Engines. And as McCoy leads me through the maze-like hallways of the 66,500-ft2 facilities (many of the areas are where development work is being done with co-located engineers from various car companies, secure areas that are not on the tour), we come into a brightly illuminated room where those Northstar engines were assembled.

A few days prior to the running at Le Mans, Engine Program Manager for the Cadillac team, Dave Spitzer, stated, “I am very lucky to have an experienced and devoted team of engineers and technicians based at McLaren Engines, and we are working very efficiently at the moment. Our rate of progress is very high right now. We have improved both horsepower and fuel consumption between the Le Mans test and the race, and will continue to do so throughout the summer and the rest of the year.” And although Team Cadillac didn't do as well as had been hoped (22nd, 24th and 25th), after the race, Cadillac Northstar LMP program manager Jeff Kettman stated that the engines “raced along with near flawless perfection.” He noted, “As certain ancillary aspects of the car suffered failure [clutch and gearbox], the Northstar engine performed up to Cadillac's ultra-high standards. Sure, everyone here is disappointed that we didn't finish higher, but we are extremely pleased with the durability of this engine.”

McLaren Performance Technologies is still in the race.

Another recent example of engine-related work that they've done in Livonia was revealed last October at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas, when Ford Racing Technology rolled out the Focus FR200, a 304-hp, turbocharged version of the Focus ZX3. In introducing the vehicle, Dan Davis, director, Ford Racing Technology, stated, “We want people to say this is the best high-horsepower, best handling, front-wheel-drive car they've ever seen.” McLaren personnel worked with Ford Racing on the development of the FR200, just as they had on the Mustang-based FR500, which was introduced at the 1999 SEMA show.

The level of commitment of McLaren Performance Technologies to work on projects of this nature is reflected in the creation of the McLaren Vehicle Development Center, 15,200 ft2 at its site with the equipment necessary to develop complete prototypes and concept vehicles. The center is dedicated to doing work for Ford Racing Technology and other Ford programs.


Wiley R. McCoy
Wiley R. McCoy, president and chief operating officer of McLaren Performance Technologies, says that a real benefit that his organization provides to OEMs is the ability to rapidly handle powertrain-related programs in a way that accomplishes the mission while still staying within the requirements of the automaker's system.

What It Isn’t

  • A volume producer. It is all about niche programs. So, say, there is a program that calls for 10,000 special engines. What the McLaren people would likely do is to make or source the necessary parts, and then bring those parts into the OEM’s system, understanding what’s necessary from the standpoint of procedure and quality.
  • An R&D facility. They’re not doing theoretical work or basic research. It is more practical. “When you’re really in a panic and two years from production, when your design is supposedly frozen, your tooling is going forward, and you’re finding problems, we’re talented at fixing those problems on the fly,” McCoy says.

What It May Become

  • A volume producer. At least in some aspects:

1. Engine part production. In August, 2000, McLaren signed a letter of intent to acquire Dart Machine Ltd., a volume machining source of powertrain components including heads, manifolds, and blocks (both cast iron and aluminum) that’s based near Windsor, Ontario. McCoy posits that it would be possible to produce a bigger number of engines—he uses 50,000 as a number that’s being more frequently bandied about as a potential niche platform annual volume. They could do that number with the facilities that would be provided by Dart.

2. Component producer. For the aftermarket, an area where McLaren Performance Technologies currently doesn’t compete. The company has a hydraulically actuated limited slip differential technology, brand named Gerodisc, that it currently licenses to Tier-One suppliers, including Dana, New Venture Gear, and Steyr-Daimler-Puch. So if you’re rolling in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a Pontiac Aztek or a Buick Rendezvous, know that within the Quadra-Drive and VERSATRAK systems, there is Gerodisc technology. According to McCoy, they are working to develop an aftermarket version of the technology that they would produce themselves. As well as to develop an electronic version of Gerodisc.


Although McLaren Performance Technologies is fundamentally a service organization, it does have a tangible product, traction control technology named Gerodisc. McLaren licenses this technology to Tier-One suppliers, and it is used in all-wheel-drive systems for vehicles including the Buick Rendezvous. The company is working to develop an aftermarket version of Gerodisc, which it would then manufacture.

Extreme. No Games.
“We don’t stand on any protocol here. If there’s a team that needs to be quickly put together, we put it together without any bureaucracy,” McCoy says. “We put together cross-functional teams”—engineers, model makers, machinists—“constantly.”

“The term ‘simultaneous engineering’ is created at places like this. We don’t wait for a drawing. We create and make at the same time.” If the engine in question is not going to go into production, then they won’t even create the drawing. Speed counts.

“It’s rapid prototyping to the extreme.”

Biggest Change: Product
“I’d have to say that one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the last 30 years is going from the carburetor to the totally controlled electronic engine management system. Electronics are the biggest thing from the product standpoint,” McCoy says. He goes on to note that from the standpoint of making small volumes, software makes it much simpler than having to produce special carbs: creating code takes the place of building components.

Biggest Change: Process
Flexible machines, such as machining centers, McCoy says, are responsible for a big change in the way work is done. And as is the case with the change in going from carbs to electronic control units, he says of this flexibility: “and I have to put that down to software.” Not only is McCoy impressed with the capabilities that the machines provide in terms of being able to make components that would otherwise make even the most talented machinist wince, but with the fact that the McLaren Technologies designers are actually able to go from CAD through tool path generation to the machine tool for a finished part.

Biggest (Non)Change: Materials (So Far)
“We’ve had aluminum in racing forever,” McCoy notes. And the familiarity in mainstream auto is common. He sees there a potential for metal-matrix composites (MMCs)—”But when it will appear in a street car, I wouldn’t venture a guess.”

He does think that MMCs are more likely to appear in diesel engines first, explaining that the need to improve efficiency is greater there than it is for the gasoline engine people. The anticipated application is for internal parts, such as pistons and valve train components.

Although ceramic engine parts have been talked about for a number of years because of their efficiency regarding heat management, he believes that the huge remaining hurdle is one of manufacturability.

Although one might assume that what McLaren Performance Technologies is all about is finding the new limits of performance for engines, that it is all about prototype or advanced engineering, or about just doing the very low volume engine work, there is one important part of the business, one that runs 24/7 about which McCoy says, “The quality guys drive it for getting an outside source.”

Engine audits. Production engine audits. A certain number of engines are taken off the line, shipped to Livonia, and within a 24-hour turnaround, there is a full functional test—run under load—for the engines.

“It’s a niche we found that needed to be done. We helped develop the test.”

Still the niche. And always the engine.


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