The Octane Interview. Gordon Murray, a man at the cutting edge. After 50 years in design that have brought motor sport glory, speed records and acclaim, this man is still at the cutting edge of his trade. Words Richard Bremner. Photography Howard Simmons.
For 50 years, Professor Gordon Murray has been carrying the intimate details of motor cars in his head. Their mechanical layouts, their suspension geometry, their mass apportionment, the width and height of their tyres, the nature of the materials from which they’re constructed, their occupants’ environments, the envelopes within which their innards are contained. All this, and more, he is deeply acquainted with. Lately – well, lately within the span of half a century – he has been busying himself with the nature of a car’s construction and the methods of constructing it as a single, integrated concept called iStream, which draws on what he has learned during those 50 years of race and road car design.
‘ALL I SAID OF THE F1 WAS THAT WE WERE STARTING AT THE TOP, TO MAKE THE BEST DRIVER’S CAR AND THE BEST-ENGINEERED CAR THAT WE COULD’
For many years, the function of all these intimate details was subsumed to one superficially simple mission: to go faster around a racetrack. Or more specifically a series of racetracks, as part of the Formula 1 World Championship, Murray having been the chief designer at Brabham from 1969 to 1986. His designs won 22 Grands Prix: the BT49 collected the F1 World Championship in 1981 and the BT52 in 1983, with Nelson Piquet driving on both occasions.
Besides these, Murray became well-known for his radical 1978 Brabham BT46B ‘fan car’ (in which Niki Lauda won the Swedish GP – the only one it was entered in), and the 1986 BT55, the lowered ride height of which was intended to generate downforce. It was not effective but for reasons, it transpired, related to the architecture of its BMW engine rather than a flaw in Murray’s concept.
‘I was happy in F1 – you could be very inventive,’ says Murray. ‘But I could see the writing on the wall in the regulations – it was getting very narrow. I was going to stop after 17 years at Brabham, but [McLaren boss] Ron Dennis was very persuasive. I said I will, but the maximum is three seasons.’ In the event he moved to McLaren and stayed for four years, contributing to the design team headed by Steve Nichols, whose three-time-winning MP4/3 was followed by the fantastically successful MP4/4 that gave Ayrton Senna his first World Championship in 1988. During the 1988-91 period McLaren won four consecutive Championships for both constructors and drivers.
As someone who was at the heart of Formula 1 for 21 years, what does he think about it? At the nub of the sport lies a choice, he reckons: ‘Freer regulations, versus the spectacle. It’s a bloody difficult balance.’ The regulations were certainly much freer when Murray entered the F1 world in 1969, having emigrated from South Africa. ‘There were gas turbines [the Lotus 56B] and wings on struts when I started,’ he says. The gas turbine Lotus went nowhere, ‘but whoever gets it right, then everyone has to follow. Too much freedom, especially with the powertrain, can lead to tears [of boredom]; too little, and the cars are the same.
‘There are five elements that you need to win in a car: the chassis, driver, engines, tyres and aero – and you can add money, the team and the organisation. But in the cars the emphasis has changed dramatically. In the 1950s it was all about the chassis and power, but aero was nowhere. In the ’60s it was chassis, lateral acceleration and some aero; in the ’70s aero became much more important and today it’s virtually all about powertrain and aero. So it’s a complex one – there’s a huge interrelation between the rules and what makes a spectacle. That’s the balance poor old Bernie [Ecclestone] has been trying to find.’
It was a world Murray left in 1991, but he didn’t go far. ‘I was already thinking about the next challenge but I got very engrossed, so I only applied myself in 1989.’ His efforts were directed at what would become the McLaren F1 road car. ‘The fairytale story is to be given the budget to do it properly,’ he says of this project, and that was provided by long-time McLaren shareholder Mansour Ojjeh. ‘He was the prime mover behind the road car company.’
Murray’s small team, which included designer Peter Stevens, famously produced a mid-engined three-seat supercar, its driving seat positioned front and centre, its specially designed BMW V12 developing 618bhp, its weight just 1138kg. It was also notable for its dihedral doors, the use of heat-dissipating gold leaf in the engine bay, its lack of any aerodynamic addenda, and the fact that it was intended to be the best supercar in the world.
‘I had zero idea of how it would be received,’ says Murray. ‘We were very cautious about not claiming the fastest car. All I said was that we were starting at the top, to make the best driver’s car and the bestengineered car that we could make. We had six designers and 30 people with their heads down. We got stuck in and did the job. The styling was soft and classic and for that there was some criticism – there were no fins or wings. You have no idea how it will be seen, or be valued. When you look at it, most iconic cars are one-person cars, but we didn’t realise that at the time.’
Murray cites a few highlights of a car now 25 years old: ‘I was a race car designer, so it wasn’t going to have poor suspension geometry. There were many firsts. It was all carbonfibre, it was the first groundeffect road car when the technology had only been in race cars a decade and a bit. And it had active aerodynamics and cooling.’ All of which made for a two-way average of 240.1mph (peak speed was 243mph) in 1998, a record not broken until 2005’s Koenigsegg CCR. The McLaren F1 is the car Murray is most famous for, but there are several roadgoing machines besides that string of Formula 1 cars, including the brilliant Light Car Company Rocket (a tiny tandem two-seater resembling a ’60s F1 car and propelled by a 1.0-litre ’bike engine), T25 and T27 city cars and the freshly unveiled TVR Griffith.
‘I look back at 40 cars – 60 including those not produced – with a mix of pride and of seeing the flaws,’ says Murray of his substantial back catalogue. To the obvious, cliché question about his favourite he gives ‘a cliché answer – the obvious pick is the McLaren F1, because I didn’t design it as a racer but it won Le Mans. I’m the only person to design a winning Le Mans car and a winning F1 car.’
The T25 and T27 city car concepts might appear polar opposites of the F1, but they share plenty of the same philosophies, including Murray’s obsession with reducing weight and the use of Formula 1 technology. ‘Gordon Murray Design became known as a city car company because of these,’ he explains, ‘but really it’s about a new way of making high-volume cars. We’re really an intellectual property company.’ These projects explored GMD’s so-called iStream process, described on the company’s website as ‘a fundamental re-think on the way cars are designed, developed and manufactured. Holistic in its cradle-to-grave approach, it combines lightweight Formula 1 technology, low-carbon propulsion, excellent safety standards and unprecedented manufacturing flexibility’.
‘A HYPERCAR IS IMPORTANT AND INTRODUCES NEW TECHNOLOGY, PLUS MAKES A SMALL NUMBER OF PEOPLE VERY HAPPY, BUT AGAINST THE OX, IT PALES’
This car creation system is the culmination of all that Murray has learnt since he was a teenager reading car magazines in Durban, South Africa. They came by sea mail, articles on the Lotus Elite, Elan and the E-type providing inspiration and a lifelong admiration for Colin Chapman’s ‘add lightness’ philosophy. ‘From about seven years old I wanted to be a racing driver,’ he says. ‘I designed my own car’ – the IGM (Ian Gordon Murray) Ford – ‘and I crashed a lot.’ But he won his class on both circuits and hillclimbs in South Africa. The car was sold when he came to Britain, but he has recently built a replica of it.
In 1971 Murray briefly became a small-scale carmaker and ‘sold four stressed-alloy coupés’, and in the ’80s he developed a mid-engine version of engineer Harold Dermott’s excellent Midas kit car powered by an Alfasud flat-four. Murray would later hire Dermott for the F1 project. After the F1 came the Woking-built Mercedes-Benz SLR, another supercar but very different to the F1. ‘I was going to go before the SLR, but we won the contract so I couldn’t really leave. I’m proud of the engineering, but it’s not my sort of car. It was the strongest and stiffest Mercedes,’ he adds, praising with faint damns, one suspects.
Murray is considerably happier about a vehicle wildly different from the SLR, however. ‘The most important car I’ve ever designed is the Ox,’ he says. This flat-pack truck designed for Third World use couldn’t be more different from an F1 Brabham. ‘I designed it with Jim Dowle,’ a GMD colleague now working for Apple. ‘It’s going to help a lot of the world’s population,’ says Murray. ‘A hypercar is important because it’s a poster car for children, it introduces new technology and it makes a few people very happy. But against the Ox, it pales.’ The Ox is the vision of philanthropist Sir Torqil Norman, a truck that’s purpose-designed to provide reliable, easily maintained, adaptable transport in the variable and often difficult conditions of Africa. Though it doesn’t look it, it’s part-inspired by one of Murray’s favourite cars – the Renault 4. This famous French front-wheel-drive budget hatchback is excellent off-road with only two-wheel drive and decent ground clearance, just as the Ox has. A crowd-funding campaign aims to propel its development to the next stage.
The Ox demonstrates the impressive breadth of Murray’s automotive design odyssey, so much so that it might seem rather scattergun. But there is a strong thread to it, driven by Murray’s interest ‘in structural composites and chasing lightweight’, which stems from that boyhood admiration for Lotus. ‘I have a history of using composite technology,’ he says. During his Brabham period there were ‘carbon brakes in ’1976, a carbon chassis in ’1979, the BT52’s carbon roll-over bar. Then the F1’s carbon monocoque in ’1992…’
Not that Murray’s knowledge-gathering was always painless. Of the Brabham BT49 he says: ‘I did it wrong. John Barnard [with Ferrari] did it right two years later, with a stabilised skin, and a core frame of honeycomb composite between two panels. It’s a good crash energy absorber. I learnt my lesson for the F1, which had a three-part stabilised skin structure.’ At the F1’s price level such an expensive monocoque was viable, but Murray adds that ‘during my time at McLaren Cars I thought there must be a way of getting the price down, so it becomes available to everyday cars. The F1, McLaren, Lotus – they all used the same hand-laid carbon technology. The Mercedes-Benz SLR was more mechanised because we were making 700 per year. iStream is on another scale altogether,’ he says of the vehicle construction and manufacturing system that GMD has devised.
‘In race cars carbonfibre manufacture is very expensive, with a long process time. We’ve now got the cycle time down to 100 seconds and €20 per honeycomb panel. iStream 3 [the latest iteration of this system] is the ultimate body-in-white. It’s still honeycomb but uses aluminium instead of steel tube. It’s 35% lighter and solves buckle and bending problems.’ GMD has so far sold this versatile technology to Yamaha and TVR, the requirements of the reborn British marque very different from those of the high-volume, low-cost carmaker.
Equally adaptable is Murray’s ability to design cars. ‘I’ve got the best, most competent prototype shop, management and design. Like Chapman, I’m surrounded by very good people.’ Despite the sizeable team, he adds that ‘I’ve never stopped designing, I always get handson. Buildings, guitars – I’ve never stopped.’
Murray on his love of the lightweight ‘I hate to say this, but I find modern cars boring…’
Murray has admired the Lotus Elan ever since he read about it in Durban as a teenager, and its concept has informed his work since. ‘It has the right footprint, weight distribution, tyre sizing, engine, great styling and aero, excellent ergonomics, packaging and the best steering in the world.’ Even the 6ft 7in Murray doesn’t need to push the seat all the way back. ‘I’ve still got one,’ he says. Does he like modern cars?
‘Not a lot. I hate to say this, but I find moderns really boring. The product and platform strategy is driven by accounts and marketing. Packaging is terrible compared with F1 cars. Safety regulations are constraints on weight and packaging, but you should see them as part of the challenge. It’s a pain, but you just get on with it.
‘Occasionally there’s a milestone car. It’s about clever packaging. I had three of the original Renault Espace – only 4.3m long, three rows of seats, weighs 1300kg. But the latest Espace is a big monster, and steel instead of composite. ‘The Renault 4 is the granddaddy of the MPV – what a design.
The Ox is a big R4, which is why it’s so competent. Today’s equivalent is Renault’s Kangoo – I’ve got three, including a Kangoo 4×4 in Scotland. In a simple way it’s a milestone car. The original Mini and Fiat 500 were all about packaging, like the first Mercedes-Benz A-Class. That was a watershed car; it threw the rulebook away. The new Mini and 500 are examples of bad packaging. For me, design is packaging.’