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Made-to-order McLaren: When a standard $1M car won't do

If you're spending more than $1 million on a car, you probably don't want it to look just like your next door neighbor's.

If you're talking about a McLaren P1, though, there's no need to worry. The ultraluxury automaker's Special Operations unit will customize your vehicle any way you want. Well, almost any way.

The division was set up in 2009 to help McLaren buyers transform fantasy into sheet metal, or more accurately, into the carbon fiber used for the bodies and chassis of vehicles like the P1, and the still pricy but less expensive 650S.

A McLaren P1
Source: McLaren
A McLaren P1

Owners have shown no limit to what they ask for, said Paul Mackenzie, who oversees the customization unit. Popular changes include special airbrushed paint schemes and extensive body work.

"About 90 percent of P1 owners have ordered some level of customization," Mackenzie said.

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Though McLaren doesn't share how much revenue it pulls in through its Special Operations unit, customized carbon fiber parts can start in the thousands of dollars, while a custom paint job routinely tops $10,000.

But while there may not be a ceiling on price, there are some limits to what the Special Operations unit can pull off. Some proposed modifications would run afoul of government crash standards, or at least would require putting a vehicle through a new crash test to validate its safety.

Short of such extremes, the unit is ready to do pretty much whatever the customer wants.

"When we started [Special Operations], we decided we wouldn't say 'no,' " Mackenzie said.

The department has been far busier than McLaren executives originally anticipated. When planning for McLaren's early MP4 12C model a few years back, the company estimated it would see about 10 percent of the cars undergo special treatment.

In reality, the figure was around 26 percent, with buyers mostly asking to modify the color and trim.

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Though virtually every P1 undergoes customization, the service is not as prevalent among its lower-priced 650S models, of which about 15 percent have so far been customized.

The high profit margin for custom works is something that carmakers covet. Virtually all high-end carmakers now offer their own version of McLaren's Special Operations unit.

Daimler, for example, expects the majority of its Mercedes-Maybach S600 Pullman stretch limos will get some level of customization. If that includes heavy armoring, the total price tag could readily top $1 million.

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Bentley and Rolls-Royce boast they'll even match a car's leather or paint to a customer's favorite color, even if that means matching a shade of lipstick.

"If you get the quality right and relationship with the customer right, the price almost doesn't matter," Mackenzie said.