Before Tesla CEO Elon Musk became the head of the most valuable automaker in the United States, he was a software developer who hit it big selling his first company called Zip2 to extinct tech giant Compaq in 1999 for over $300 million. Musk himself netted $22 million from the deal, $1 million of which he immediately used to buy a 240-mph McLaren F1. This is pretty well-known by this point. Less so is what happened to the supercar: Musk actually crashed it in 2000—uninsured—while showing off to investor Peter Thiel.
After taking delivery of chassis #067, a process that was recorded by CNN in a gem of an interview, Musk drove the hell out of the McLaren, using it as his daily driver around San Francisco and the Bay Area at large, driving it back and forth to Los Angeles (a 400-mile slog), and putting 11,000 miles on the car in his first year of ownership.
But all good things must come to an end in a 627-horsepower, no-nannies rocket, especially if there's an inexperienced hand on the wheel. On the day of the accident in 2000, Musk was driving Thiel to a meeting with venture capital fund Sequoia Capital as the two sought investment in their fledgling company PayPal (which wasn't yet called that). The dynamic duo was traveling up Palo Alto's Sand Hill Road when Thiel allegedly turned to Musk and asked him what the car could do. As Musk recounted in an interview with PandoDaily in 2012, his response was one that will live in infamy: "Watch this."
By his own account, Musk "didn't really know how to drive" the F1. Sitting in the unique center driver's seat (no word on which side Thiel was posted up), Musk buried the accelerator and tried to change lanes. With no traction control, the rear wheels instantly broke free and sent the million-dollar car into a spin, its 6.1-liter V12 screaming fruitlessly as the two entrepreneurs pivoted toward doom. The F1 speared nose-first into a 45-degree embankment on the side of the road, catching about three feet of air as it bounced off and kept twirling in space "like a discus."
Finally, it landed back on the road pointing in the original direction of travel—except with a destroyed suspension, smashed windshield, and extensive body damage. The carbon fiber monocoque and BMW powertrain were reportedly unscathed, and the McLaren's two shocked occupants were uninjured.
"It was a miracle neither of us were hurt," Thiel told the New York Times in 2017. "I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, which is not advisable. Elon’s first comment was, ‘Wow, Peter, that was really intense.’ And then it was: ‘You know, I had read all these stories about people who made money and bought sports cars and crashed them. But I knew it would never happen to me, so I didn’t get any insurance.’ And then we hitchhiked the rest of the way to the meeting."
Musk himself confirmed to PandoDaily that the car was uninsured—why anyone with the scratch to buy a McLaren F1 in cash wouldn't also spring for insurance (you know, as required by law) is beyond us. It might be because when you're rich enough, you can just pay out of pocket to have it fixed. Musk reportedly had it repaired and hung on to it until 2007 when he sold it at a profit, which isn't that surprising considering the car is worth over $20 million today. Even actor Rowan Atkinson's once-wrecked violet McLaren F1 sold for $12.3 million in 2015.
So why'd Musk part with it so soon? As you might expect, he considered it an image problem for the CEO of an electric car company to drive the pinnacle of internal-combustion engineering. He also desperately needed some cash to help keep Tesla Motors and SpaceX afloat at the time. Somewhat ironically, his electric car startup-turned-most valuable American automaker has gone on to create two EVs—the Tesla Model S and Model X—with performance variants that can beat the McLaren's 0-60 mph time of 3.2 seconds.
"The McLaren is a great car," Musk said in a 2013 interview with Wheels Magazine. "It’s a work of art, a really beautiful piece of engineering, but I didn’t want people always writing that I have a high-performance gasoline sports car so I decided to sell it."
Several sources indicate that the next owner of Musk's F1 kept the car safe until it caught fire due to an exhaust issue in 2009, at which point it was reportedly sent to McLaren Special Operations for a complete rebuild. Later, the new owner who brought it to the McLaren F1 Owners Club 25th Anniversary Tour in 2017.
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