McLaren Automotive uses cutting edge technology to build some of the most powerful and beautiful sports cars on the planet. However, the decades-old McLaren F1 still holds a special place in the hearts of many car buffs. It’s essentially a Formula One race car that you can buy (if you’re very rich). However, servicing this work of automotive art requires technology that is anything but cutting edge. In fact, your smartphone is considerably faster than the Compaq LTE 5280 laptop McLaren uses to interface with the F1.
The McLaren F1 was released in 1992 with a price tag north of $800,000. All that coin bought you the most powerful supercar in the world with 630 horsepower and a raft of sophisticated proprietary technologies. McLaren would eventually build 106 of these cars, 100 of which are still in existence today. Anyone who owns one of these vehicles is sure to want to take proper care of it as the value has skyrocketed to more than $10 million each.
Even with all the racing-grade cables, carbon fiber chassis (a first when it was released), and custom BWM V12 engine, it was still designed in the early 90s. That means the car’s brain is forever stuck in the past. When the time comes to have the McLaren F1 serviced, owners go straight to McLaren. You’d never let some random mechanic root around inside your $10 million supercar. In order to access the diagnostic systems of the F1, McLaren needs to speak its ancient language with the aid of an equally ancient laptop, the aforementioned Compaq LTE 5280.
The Compaq LTE line of laptops were introduced in 1989 and were some of the first computers that were truly portable. The 5280 came with an 11.3-inch color LCD with a resolution of 800×600, and unheard of luxury in its day. Inside was a 120MHz Intel Pentium chip, 16MB of RAM, and a massive 1.35GB hard drive. It was really top-of-the-line in its day, much like the McLaren F1. The Compaq hasn’t aged as well.
McLaren is stuck using these archaic laptops because they run a completely custom CA card that acts as an interface between the car and the laptop’s DOS-based software. When one of its old Compaq laptops dies, McLaren has to find another. You can pick up a Compaq LTE 5280 on eBay yourself for around $100. It’s getting harder to find reliable hardware, as you might expect.
The automaker is working on a new interface for the F1 that will allow the cars to speak to modern computers, but it’s a complicated endeavor. Until that’s done, McLaren will need to keep its cluster of ancient laptops running to service one of the most valuable supercars on the planet.