Flurries were flying in Woking, Surrey, two weeks ago, the morning I visited the McLaren Technology Centre for a briefing on project Elva. This stunning 804-hp two-seater—with a form language like Usain Bolt’s quadriceps—is the latest in McLaren’s Ultimate Series, joining the Senna and 250-mph Speedtail. If the former is the ne plus ultra of customer racing cars and the latter the nth-degree GT, the Elva means to carve out an experiential space in between, said Ian Digman, McLaren head of global product planning. In fewest words, a sort of radical transparency on both road and track.
Which is how Elva came to be missing its windscreen.
This is new. This is different. For as long as motor vehicles have moved fast enough to need them, automobiles have had windscreens, or windshields. What we might think of as the exceptions—open-wheel competition cars, dry lakes speedsters, certain classes of endurance prototypes—generally aren’t. Almost all such machines, past and present, had some sort of wind blocker, if but a curved bit of Perspex for the driver to huddle behind.
The Elva joins a recent group of multimillion-dollar mega-sports roadsters sans windshields, including the Ferrari Monza SP; the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Stirling Moss edition; and Aston Martin’s V12 Speedster. Each outrageous, each as phallic as Roman statuary.
But each has a problem so deep as to have gone unrecognized until the Elva. At speeds above about 30 mph, occupant comfort requires the use of helmets to cope with buffeting. It’s not mandatory, of course, if you don’t mind looking like you’ve been blown out of an airlock. But helmets are hard on hairdos too.
The Elva is the first production road car I am aware of that has attempted to evolve past the confinement of helmets and the visual obstruction of windscreens. “It’s about bringing the outside in," said Mr. Digman, noting the bodywork flowing up and the doors. Groovy.
In place of a windscreen, Elva will debut a technology called Active Air Management System (AAMS). When engaged, it generates two air flows streaming over the cockpit: One glances off the low, curvaceous wind deflector rising out of the front bodywork, with an energy proportional to vehicle speed.
The other airflow is scooped up in a low-mounted grille intake and turned 135 degrees. Now ducted up and slightly forward, this high pressure flow intercepts the deflected airflow, bending the combined flows over the cockpit.
Meanwhile, streaming air clinging to the hood wants to be drawn down, below face level, following the Elva’s curving scuttle and dash.
And so the Elva’s historically unique, eye-of-the-hurricane gestalt: Driver and passenger motoring at highway speeds, talking at normal volume, as warm or as cool as desired and, looking out, seeing nothing... but scenery. No helmet limiting their peripheral vision as if looking through a well-padded porthole, stifling breath and sense of smell. And no heavy, roof-supporting “A" pillars either, which clumsily bracket existence in almost all modern cars.
The Elva is the motoring equivalent of a horizonless pool.
Under the right conditions the Elva’s system can billow precipitation out of the way, over the car, so the occupants stay dry. Heading up the mountain to Gstaad? With the AAMS active, falling snow will swirl past but never settle. As described, it’s the snowman’s view from inside the snow globe.
What about bugs? I asked. Will they be deflected too? “It depends on the mass of the bug," said Andrew Kay, Elva project chief engineer, being completely serious. What about stones thrown up by trucks? Overtalk…inaudible…. In any event, McLaren expects all occupants will be wearing helmets on piste and will only engage the AAMS bareheaded at moderate speeds.
When activated the AAMS significantly increases the car’s drag and alters the front-to-rear aero balance, said Mr. Kay. The Elva’s hyperkinetic rear wing compensates, instantly and automatically, according to the car’s multi-mode control algorithms.
I hoped, for snow-globe-viewing reasons, that the flurries would continue for my test ride at Dunsfold Park. But the skies cleared and the temperature rose to a balmy 2 C. Also, the prototype’s climate systems weren’t connected, so no warm air was blowing through the low-mounted, fit-for-purpose registers.
Test driver Gareth Howell and I bundled up and took off in the test mule for several highway-speed passes down the runway, first with then without helmets. With no cover to protect me, and a 15-knot headwind, the chill factor on the surface of my face was something like -9 C, or 16 F. Tears streamed from behind my mirrored aviators and my smile was frozen in a numb, dumb rictus. I could hear Mr. Howell laughing.
After a quick pit stop to allow technicians to position the active-aero surfaces, we returned to the circuit, this time enveloped in an invisible but strangely tangible bubble. At 60 mph, the wind was so still I could have lit a cigarette. I could hear Mr. Howell speak in a normal, non-shouty way. I raised my arms and felt the air around me, trying to locate edges of the bubble, like Marcel Marceau doing “Man in a Box."
Could this technology be applied to other cars, other kinds of vehicles? “It’s not something we have looked at," said Dan Parry Williams, McLaren’s director of engineering design. But it’s such a motoring pleasure, I offer. It should be shared. I wonder: Would McLaren vigorously defend its intellectual property should imitators come along?
The answer was a gentle but firm yes. So much for transparency.
THE AIR OF MY WAYS / HOW A CAR WITHOUT A WINDSHIELD REALLY WORKS
1. The McLaren Elva’s powered wind deflector rises out of the vehicle hood in operation.
2. Multichannel air scoop in the hood pressurizes and reroutes airflow, turning it around and upward at 135 degrees, creating an area of low pressure in the cockpit.
3.Aero-shaped dash draws air “attached" to Elva’s hood down below the occupants head level, increasing comfort, reducing noise levels and helmet buffeting.
4. Windowless doors conceal tubular plenums that supply cooling air and charge air to the twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.