This ancient and museum-worthy 20-year old Compaq laptop is still crucial to maintaining £10m McLaren F1 supercars

Did you know that a 20-year-old Compaq LTE 5280 plays an important role in maintaining multi-million dollar McLaren F1s?

Yes, that’s right. McLaren Automotive, one of the most high-tech car and technology companies on the planet, still uses the Compaq LTE 5280 laptop from the early 1990s to service the McLaren F1 that was launched in 1992.

The McLaren F1, which was one of the most technologically sophisticated and fastest road car ever made with a top speed of 240mph, is now becoming one of the most expensive, with the value of each surging from £640,000 when new to almost £10m today.

Car blog Jalopnik visited McLaren’s Special Operations workshop recently where McLaren is still servicing the existing 100 F1s with a Compaq laptop from the early ‘90s.

The division that helps keep the F1 roadworthy, explained: “The reason we need those specific Compaq laptops is that they run a bespoke CA card which is installed into them. The CA card is an interface between the laptop software (which is DOS-based) and the car.”

CA means Conditional Access card. Modern PCs use smart cards or USB keys with special access codes to access sensitive systems, and the CA card was used as custom hardware as part of an integrated system for security and copy protection.

Even though the Compaq LTE 5280 is usually worth just £200 with it running MS-DOS along with a thickness that measures in inches instead of millimetres, yet it is still plays a key role in running the 100 surviving F1 cars.

Jalopnik on their trip to the McLaren headquarters in Woking, Surrey discovered that the company’s own Compaq 5280s feature a custom CA card that only the F1’s onboard computer can talk to.

Each time the remaining F1s that are left on the road need a service or repair work, they are shipped back to Woking, or whenever the owner decides they feel the need to change the car paint, wheels and interior, or they want parts, like the lights, upgrading to modern standards. Every time an engineer needs to talk to the car’s onboard computer, the Compaq laptops are removed out of storage.

The company is now looking at a 21-century substitute due to the constant use of the old Compaq. As the MSo worker said: “We are currently working on a new interface which will be compatible with modern laptops as the old Compaqs are getting less and less reliable and harder to find.”

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