Every road car that McLaren has ever developed has been a bracingly capable performance machine. The storied motorsport outfit launched its first street-legal vehicle back in 1992 with the introduction of the ultra-rare McLaren F1, though serial production didn’t really begin in earnest until 2011 when the newly-formed McLaren Automotive launched the MP4-12C.
Each model that McLaren has introduced over the subsequent decade has been a sleek, mid-engined machine with hair-raising acceleration and incredible handling, but the LT models have always stood for something particularly special. First introduced back in 2016 with the 675LT as an homage to the McLaren F1 GTR “Longtail” race car of the 1990s, the LT, or Long Tail designation, philosophically represents an offering where the balance between track capability and road-going civility has been shifted in favor of the former.
And to that end, the 765LT Spider picks up where last year’s 765LT coupe left off. Like the coupe, the 765LT Spider is based on the 720S—a highly capable supercar in its own right, albeit with a comparatively broader scope of purpose. The 765LT fixes its sights more intently on outright track prowess, an approach that often comes with some drawbacks in the pursuit of maximum attack. But as we discovered over the course of a few days with the Spider, McLaren didn’t ignore the realities of the real world in order to hone their latest supercar.
The Long Tail formula
“There are several common themes in all of our LT cars,” McLaren Automotive chief engineer James Warner tells Popular Science. “Increased engine power, light weighting, improved aerodynamics, improved driver engagement, and limited [production] volume.”
In the simplest terms, that basically boils down to sharper handling, quicker acceleration, improved high-speed stability, and exclusively. In terms of that exclusivity, and as with the 765LT coupe, only 765 examples of the 765LT Spider will be made available worldwide, which makes this already-exclusive drop top that carries a starting price of $380,500 a rare thing indeed.
As for the engineering side of it, McLaren says the engine output, which has been increased from 710 horsepower in the 720S to 755hp in the 765LT, comes largely from technology that was first introduced in the McLaren Senna hypercar of 2018. “We were effectively fuel limited with the 720S,” Warner says. “So we needed higher flow rates of fuel to allow us to increase the power. Once we had that, we brought in some of the Senna’s piston geometry and cylinder head gasket technology to deal with higher in-cylinder pressures.”
But in a two-seater supercar that tips the scales at just over 3,000 pounds, the difference between 710 horsepower and 755 is arguably negligible; both offer face-contorting power-to-weight ratios. Warner says that it’s the changes to the gearing that really shift the experience behind the wheel. “The final drive ratio is shorter than the 720S, and that means that all of the transient characteristics of the car are sped up overall.”
McLaren also recalibrated the seven-speed dual clutch gearbox to bolster that increased sense of urgency, though Warner says that some of the work done in that regard was aimed more toward stirring emotion than reducing lap times. “When the powertrain is in Sport mode in the LT, we do ‘ignition cut’ gear shifts—we keep the fuel going but cut the ignition. That provides very sharp, quick shifts while also adding a lot of pops, bangs, and other acoustic drama to the shift.”
That acoustic drama is aided by a new lightweight quad-tipped titanium exhaust system that pumps up the noise from the 765LT Spider’s twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 while also occasionally spitting flames out of the back car during spirited driving sessions. “With LT cars, we want customers to feel encouraged to push to the top of the rev range, so we want those acoustics to crescendo as you head up toward redline,” Warner says. The exhaust, along with thinner glass and other weight savings measures, combine to make the 765LT Spider 176 pounds lighter than the 720S Spider. It’s worth noting, however, that a significant portion of that reduced poundage comes from the 765LT’s standard omission of the air conditioning and audio systems, but these features can be added back to the car at no cost.
Either way the result is the fastest accelerating LT Spider that McLaren has ever produced. Nail the launch just right in this rear wheel-drive rocket ship and it will reach 60 mph from a standstill in only 2.7 seconds. Just 4.7 seconds later and 124 mph arrives on the way to a quarter mile time of 10 seconds flat, and the 765LT Spider won’t stop pulling until it reaches a top speed of 205 miles per hour.
Supercars aren’t just about straight-line speed, though. To sharpen the 765LT’s reflexes, McLaren developed unique LT springs and dampers for the suspension, increased the car’s front track width, lowered the ride height at the front end, and reprogrammed the car’s Proactive Chassis Control II system, a setup that replaces conventional anti-roll bars with a trick hydraulic system that crisscrosses the undercarriage of car to mitigate body roll without sacrificing ride quality. The company paired the suspension tweaks with ultra-sticky Pirelli Trofeo R track tires that were developed specifically for the 765LT.
The car’s wild assortment of vents, scoops, and spoilers significantly ratchet up the visual aggression when compared to a 720S, but the changes aren’t solely about curb appeal. The new aero bits also provide the 765LT Spider with twenty-five percent more downforce than the 720S Spider, which in turn yields more stability in high speed cornering and under hard braking.
“Efficient downforce is what we’re after,” Warner says. “The aerodynamic drag of the car is higher than the 720S, but the relationship between downforce and drag is more efficient in the 765LT to keep that drag to a minimum. The key goal here was about making sure that the downforce was consistent and usable at the point where the driver actually needs it.”
He cited the front splitter as an example. “We spent a lot of time managing how the downforce changes when you stand on the brakes and the car is pitched forward just before you turn into the corner. Any separation of the leading edge of the splitter can affect that downforce at the front of the car at the moment when you really need to make use of it.”
To achieve the aerodynamic targets that they set for the car, McLaren’s initial development work was done in computational fluid dynamics simulations to set a baseline. Then they produced prototypes to collect real-world data in order to further refine the setup.
The retractable roof: Unlimited headroom in 11 seconds
There are a number of subtle tuning tweaks on hand to account for this car’s retractable roof, but the differences between the 765LT coupe and 765LT Spider aren’t as big as one might expect. Compared to their coupe counterparts, convertibles normally take a performance penalty on two fronts: The first is a significant reduction in the vehicle’s overall structural rigidity due to the roof no longer being present, and the second is a substantial weight penalty brought on not only by the mechanical hardware associated with the roof, but also the additional structural bracing that’s typically required to restore some of that lost rigidity.
Yet the 765LT Spider is only 108 pounds heavier than its coupe counterpart, a feat made possible thanks in part to the inherent qualities of the vehicle’s platform, which utilizes a race car-style carbon fiber monocoque tub rather than the unibody architecture more traditionally found in road cars. “Essentially all of the car’s torsional stiffness comes from that monocoque,” Warner pointed out. “So in taking the roof structure off of the coupe, we don’t change the overall stiffness of the chassis when we go to that Spider configuration. And that means that we can effectively replicate the feel and performance of the coupe in this configuration.”
The design of the retractable roof plays a role here as well. “There were two key things that we were looking to achieve here,” he says. “We wanted to have a very lightweight system, and we wanted to have a design that didn’t compromise customer usability. We wanted to achieve the same headroom that we had in the coupe so a customer could still fit in the car comfortably with a racing helmet on.”
While older models like the 650S Spider and 675LT Spider used a hydraulically-operated top design, Warner noted that the 765LT Spider utilizes a system that’s simpler in terms of the amount of pieces involved. It’s also electronically operated. “Instead of this sort of ‘sequential’ operation of the hydraulic design, having all of these separate electric actuators on these different axes of movement means that the next step can begin before the previous one is finished.” That in turn allows the 765LT Spider to raise or lower the roof in just 11 seconds, making this one of the quickest retractable tops currently available in the industry. And because the system is electrically powered, the top operates in near-silence and can do its thing even when the engine is turned off.
Even before sliding into the carbon fiber bucket seat, it’s clear that the 765LT Spider is a focused driving machine. The Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel is devoid of knobs and buttons, which naturally redirects one’s attention to the big carbon fiber shift paddles and the digital gauge cluster behind them. That display offers an especially cool bit of theater: Press the Active button on the center console to bring the 765LT Spider’s adjustable performance parameters to life and click the powertrain knob over to Track, and the dash display folds down to reveal a separate, simplified readout with only the real-time vitals that you need to be aware of while out on a circuit: speed, engine RPM, and the gear currently selected.
A press of the start button brings the flat-plane crank V8 to life with authority. McLaren engines have never been known for delivering particularly memorable soundtracks, as their turbochargers tend to dull a lot of the aural nuance, but the 765LT’s new exhaust system adds significantly more character to the mix without venturing into obnoxiously-loud territory.
Out on the streets of Los Angeles it’s immediately evident that the suspension is stiffer than the 720S’s, but the 765LT Spider never feels crashy or overly abusive. Our tester was outfitted with both air conditioning and a 12-speaker audio system, both of which are well worth the negligible weight penalty that they demand. Although the 765LT Spider’s track tuning isn’t necessarily ideal for LA’s imperfect roads, the revised gearing makes the car feel noticeably more responsive at lower speeds, and it’s still surprisingly usable thanks to its vehicle lift system, which can raise the nose of the car on the fly for things like speed bumps and steep driveway aprons. The cabin also offers remarkably good outward visibility in nearly every direction—a rare attribute for a mid-engined car.
While the dose of civility is welcome, it’s clear that this car is close to its element out in the canyons. The grip offered by the Pirelli track rubber is seemingly endless while the power on tap is simply awe-inspiring. More often than not, it feels like the 765LT Spider’s capability far exceeds what our roads were designed to handle. Straights come and go in the blink of an eye, corners are dispatched at an eye-watering pace, and excess speed is scrubbed off with unflappable predictability thanks to massive carbon ceramic discs and a brake pedal with motorsport-style progressiveness. It all seems effortless for the 765LT Spider. If any car is begging for serious track time, it’s this one.
The road ahead
Heading back home from the hills we pulled the switch to lower the retractable roof, which operates at speeds up to 31 mph. We started the process just as we pulled up to a three-way stop sign and it was finished before it was our turn to proceed. With the exhaust humming, the tunes cranked up, and the top tucked down, the 765LT Spider fulfills the track-tuned supercar promise without making you feel like you’re being punished for the indulgence.
Yet we can’t help but wonder where McLaren goes from here. Warner says that electrification is on the way for the successors to Super Series cars like the 720S and 765LT, a change that in some ways stands in opposition to performance applications where lightness is a core priority.
“The launch of the new Artura is essentially our first step into ‘mainstream’ hybridization, but our intent is that all of our cars will feature a hybrid powertrain of one flavor or another by 2026,” he says. “I think that some of the performance attributes that you can get out of a hybrid powertrain really suit a sports car if it’s done in the right way.” He also cited ongoing improvements in battery technology that will continue to reduce weight and improve their efficiency. While Warner admitted that these upcoming changes might make the development of new Long Tail models trickier, this sort of work is nothing out of the ordinary for McLaren.
“I think it puts more of a challenge on us in other areas to find new technologies, new materials, and new processes that will allow us to lightweight the rest of the car to counter that. It’s an iterative process—every time we re-engineer something, we’re always looking for ways to make it lighter and better than the last time.”