Apple in talks on McLaren supercars takeover

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iPhone maker’s approach to British supercar group signals automotive ambition


Apple has approached McLaren Technology Group, the British supercar engineer and Formula One team owner, about a potential acquisition, in the clearest sign yet that the iPhone maker is seeking to transform the automotive industry.

The California technology group, which has been working on a self-driving electric vehicle for more than two years, is considering a full takeover of McLaren or a strategic investment, according to three people briefed on the negotiations who said talks started several months ago.

A tie-up with McLaren, whose expertise ranges from automotive engineering and on-board computer systems to novel chassis materials such as carbon fibre and aluminium, could accelerate Apple’s secretive automotive project.

Apple’s interest in the Woking-based company centres on its technology, engineering prowess and patent portfolio, said people briefed on the talks. However, those people cautioned that it was unclear if a deal would go ahead following a recent shift in Apple’s car strategy.

Apple declined to comment. After publication of the Financial Times report, McLaren issued a statement saying “McLaren is not in discussion with Apple about any potential investment” but did not say whether it had been approached.

The lossmaking automotive group was likely to be valued at between £1bn and £1.5bn, the people said.

That would make it Apple’s biggest acquisition since the $3bn purchase of Beats Electronics, the audio group founded by Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, in 2014.

Apple invested $1bn in Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-hailing company, this year. That deal was Apple’s largest equity investment to date, as chief executive Tim Cook gradually breaks with the Silicon Valley company’s longstanding aversion to large deals.

McLaren produces luxury sports cars that can cost as much as $1m apiece and owns an advanced technologies group, as well as the eponymous Formula One racing team. The owners of McLaren Technology control 80 per cent of McLaren Automotive, which produced 1,654 vehicles last year, generating revenues of £450m. The company has pledged to invest £1bn in the next six years on research and development.

McLaren: at a glance

● Headquarters Woking, South-east England
● Likely value £1bn-£1.5bn
● Assembly line Produced about 1,500 cars last year, which retail for as much as $1m each

McLaren Technology reported revenues of £265m and pre-tax losses of £22.6m in 2014, its last published accounts. It is owned by Ron Dennis, its chairman, Mansour Ojjeh, and Mumtalakat, Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund.

Since 2014, Apple has built up a team of hundreds of engineers and designers to work on the electric car venture, including recruits from companies such as Tesla and Mercedes-Benz. Its original team leader, Steve Zadesky, left this year, and Apple veteran Bob Mansfield took over the project.

In recent weeks, dozens of employees have departed, people familiar with the changes have said, as Mr Mansfield refocuses Apple’s efforts on the underlying systems that would power a self-driving car rather than building an electrical vehicle itself.

Despite recent reports of those changes, some Apple analysts have questioned whether the company would depart from its traditional strategy of controlling both the hardware and software in its products.

Some investors have hoped that Apple would make a move on Tesla, the Silicon Valley electric carmaker led by Elon Musk. At its annual meeting last year, Apple shareholders peppered Mr Cook with questions about whether he planned to acquire Tesla, which he carefully sidestepped.

Mr Cook has never publicly acknowledged Apple’s automotive project, but many of its top executives are car enthusiasts. Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, is said to own a McLaren, and Eddy Cue, its services head, sits on the board of Ferrari, while top designer Sir Jonathan Ive has expressed his fondness for Bentleys and Aston Martins.

Apple executives’ affinity with cars goes beyond automotive engineering and into aesthetics and materials, said Ben Bajarin, analyst at Creative Strategies. “Apple likes to translate innovations across categories, so the car [research and development]could translate back into other new products.”

He added: “The things McLaren are investing in aligns with what Apple is interested in holistically. If you’re reading between the lines on a lot of Apple’s moves, it’s clear that new materials, new manufacturing processes and new techniques across the board are a huge part of Apple’s strategy.”

While McLaren’s production is at a far smaller scale than Apple’s ultimate ambitions in the car market, the potential tie-up recalls Tesla’s early partnership with Lotus for its first electric vehicle.

The founders of Tesla met Lotus, another British sports-car maker, in 2004 and the two companies pooled their expertise on project management, manufacturing and safety. The result was the $100,000 Tesla Roadster, an all-electric car based on the shell of the Lotus Elise — but without its predecessor’s roaring combustion engine.

Tesla has sold fewer than 3,000 of its Roadsters since 2008, but the partnership paved the way for its Model S, a luxury sedan that has sold more than 100,000 units since its debut in 2012. Next year, Tesla hopes to release its Model 3, costing a far more affordable $35,000 and completing Mr Musk’s initial “master plan” to bring electric vehicles to the mass market.

“Tesla started in the high end, which I think would be our expectation with Apple,” said Mr Bajarin.

Horace Dediu, a tech analyst who has tracked Apple’s automotive moves closely through his podcast Asymcar, has speculated that the iPhone maker would need to sell at least 2.5m cars a year to meet its internal criteria for making a “meaningful contribution” to an industry.

Nonetheless, Apple’s entry into the automotive industry had not been expected until the end of the decade. An early report of its car’s design by the Wall Street Journal suggested that it resembled a “minivan” — a far cry from McLaren’s sleek sports cars. Nonetheless, the two companies share a design lineage: Sir Norman Foster, the architect behind Apple’s new campus, also designed McLaren’s Surrey headquarters, while in August, the automotive group also joined an amicus brief in support of the iPhone maker’s patent case against Samsung in the US Supreme Court.

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