McLaren X-1 custom supercar makes its first, and only, public appearance

The car you see above is the McLaren X-1, a surprise revealed at The Quail classic car show in California today. It's the first time the X-1, a vehicle custom-built by McLaren over two and a half years for a wealthy customer's specifications, has ever been seen in public -- and could be the last time this multimillion-dollar, 230-mph vehicle will be seen for some time.

According to McLaren, the company was approached by one of its customers before the launch of the MP4-12C asking if it would create a bespoke car with a "timeless elegance," one that drew more from vehicles of the '50s and '60s than modern supercars. Over 18 months, McLaren designer Frank Stephenson oversaw dozens of sketches, a full-size foam model, contests among designers and even a "mood book" -- a collection of inspirational images ranging from the Guggenheim Bilbao museum to a black-and-white picture of Audrey Hepburn. Also in the mood book: an eggplant, picked because Mr. or Mrs. X-1 liked the shiny finish.

Actually building the design required another year of work, since every piece of the car had to be tooled from scratch, including headlights, tail lights, exhausts and doors. The silver lines and pop-up spoiler are single pieces of milled aluminum plated with nickel; even the piano-black paint over the carbon-fiber body panels is unique to the car. While the X-1 didn't receive any power upgrades, McLaren's racing division did help sculpt the new body so that it's properly sorted at speed; according to the McLaren executives on hand, the car has hit 230 mph on Italy's Nardo test track.

Underneath the hood there's two special engraved plates -- one with the signatures of the 30-odd designers who worked on the car, and the other listing McLaren's track history. The cowls over the back wheels -- another touch specified by the client, and inspired by the Citroën SM -- set on hinges that lift them out of the way for tire changes. The reaction among the car crowd at the Quail to the X-1 was sharply divided; no professional car designer would try to make a rear-engined car look like the sweeping, long-nosed cruisers of bygone eras. But the X-1 only has to satisfy an audience of one.

McLaren wouldn't say how much this vehicle cost, but did hint that the buyer was a friend of company chief Ron Dennis. Even with a friends and family discount, the cost of building such a car between the design, engineering and manufacturing stage easily runs to the millions of dollars, if not well beyond. McLaren says it wanted to use the car today to let potential customers know they could order a cost-no-object custom body, and another similar project is apparently underway. After today's display, the X-1 will be flown back to England for final tests, then handed over to its mysterious owner. Whoever they are, something tells me we'll find out where they live as soon as they take the X-1 for a drive.