The location is a closely guarded secret, and only a handful of people outside of the McLaren staff have ever been allowed through the door. Since Ron Dennis took control of the team in 1981, no McLaren Formula One™ car has been sold on the open market. Instead, those that completed the season's racing have been stored here, in a former factory building somewhere in the south of England. It's known simply as Unit 2, and the reason for the secrecy is apparent as soon as you enter. At its peak, Unit 2 held around 75 of the world's most historic racing cars: the McLarens which, over almost half a century of racing, have won twenty drivers' and constructors' world championships. Their combined value is simply incalculable, but also irrelevant, as they will never be offered for sale.
The atmosphere inside is oddly still: racing cars are all about speed and noise yet they are held in suspended animation, looking almost ghostly under their plastic shrouds. Together, they're an astonishing sight for any McLaren enthusiast, or simply for any sports fan. They're painted in some of the most instantly recognizable, genuinely iconic sporting liveries, and their air intakes still bear the names of the greats who drove them, from Senna and Prost to Hamilton and Button.
Around them is arranged everything the McLaren engineers need to get them running again: neatly stacked rows of period wheels and tyres; the jacks made to fit each successive design of car, and even long-obsolete laptop computers needed to run the software that some of the cars require. It's a treasure trove, an Aladdin's cave: any McLaren enthusiast simply wouldn't know where to look first.
So it wouldn't be fair to keep such extraordinary cars locked away. Some are on loan to the Donington Grand Prix collection at the famous circuit in the English Midlands, scene of many a famous McLaren victory. Others are seen on display and in action at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed. And if you're fortunate enough to be invited to the McLaren Technology Centre, the jewels of the collection are arranged along the building's stunning central boulevard.
Now, with the launch of the 12C, more of those dust sheets are being pulled off and the treasures of Unit 2 will be seen far more widely. McLaren is opening 35 showrooms by the end of 2012 to supply its new sports car and every one will have a Unit 2 car on display when it opens: not a plastic dummy, but a genuine race car: one that bites.
The first to be sent out was Lewis Hamilton's 2008 championship-winning MP4/23 which was hung over the entrance to the London showroom at One Hyde Park. Every other McLaren retailer has been allocated a car and McLaren's team of historic experts led by Ian Gosling has prepared them. In some cases the cars are in perfect condition and only need a polish and to have their fluids drained before they can be freighted to their new home. For others, the years have started to show, so the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes paint shop has, with sensitivity, helped to restore them to their full former glory. Ian and his team ensure that they are not just aesthetically perfect but complete, and just as they were when racing. But he admits to a few tricks of the trade: the quick-release steering wheels are well-secured so nobody takes an unauthorized souvenir while they're in transit, and sneaking in an inner tube helps to keep porous old racing rubber at the perfect pressure while parked.
In many cases, the cars have a specific link with the location. The dealership in Brussels will get a 2004 MP4/19: Kimi Raikkonen won the Belgian Grand Prix for McLaren that year in that car. Ayrton Senna won the 1993 Monaco Grand Prix in the MP4/8, so that's what you'll see in the principality. James Hunt won the 1976 US Grand Prix in a McLaren M26, you'll find one in the Philadelphia dealership. Not all heritage cars are from Formula 1 competition: Dallas gets a McLaren M16 from the same era, one of the greatest-ever Indy cars with three victories in the legendary race.
The importance of some of the cars you will see in the dealerships is magnified by the fact that they may be the sole surviving example of their type; not only are these cars real, but in some cases utterly unique and irreplaceable. For others, the attentions of Ian and his team are an extraordinary reawakening; some cars went straight into Unit 2 after the end of their season and haven't emerged since; the car you see might barely have turned a wheel since it took its last chequered flag. As they emerge, the number of cars kept in storage back at Unit 2 will dwindle to the twenties. But we still can't tell you where it is.
To find you local McLaren retailer visit www.retailers.mclaren.com