Q&A with Gordon Murray
Hillman Minx to Brabham BT52, Beach buggy to McLaren F1, Rocket to Yamaha city car – guess whose picture wall this is. Yes, there’s half a century of Gordon Murray here. From lanky 18-year-old with his first car, the Minx, in South Africa, to elder statesman of going fast via assorted motor racing and supercar icons. And now city cars. What’s all that about?
Time for a GRR catch-up with the great man. Get his take on sports cars, motor racing and everything. It won’t be one everyone will agree with (you can say what you think in the comments below…). Recently he has been a tad rude about certain ‘megacars’ and has even gone public about doing a follow-up to his McLaren F1. Just to show ‘em how to do it right, is the unspoken sub text.
All that, and he’s meant to have gone green and embarked on a mission to revolutionise car-making. How does he squeeze it all in? So to the Gordon Murray Design Ltd nerve centre in Shalford outside Guildford, tape recorder primed.
We decide to start gently…
What’s in your garage at home these days?
Ten cars, all of them under 900kg (light weight is a theme of this interview). Two Lotus Elans, Frogeye Sprite, Rocket, Smart Roadster, Porsche 550 Spyder Replica, Fiat 500, Renault 4 and the Ford Cortina MkI I drove today – bored and stroked to 1700cc, twin Webers, Lotus Cortina suspension. Sideways all the way to work. Brilliant.
And in the workshops at Gordon Murray Design Ltd?
Currently seven projects for iStream (his F1-inspired honeycomb manufacturing process for everyday cars, including a now-confirmed city car for Yamaha). Plus about 70 people – up from 30 a few months ago – and all the work that we can handle right now.
Who is Gordon Murray in 2014: high performance hero or eco warrior?
More than anything he is someone who loves driving, and wants to protect that. With bigger and heavier cars we are heading into oblivion. Finding more and more power can’t go on for ever. The big frontier is weight. I have always been into light weight, it’s just that now I have changed from racing and high performance to cars that everyone can enjoy.
So no more sports cars?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Gordon Murray Design became known for city cars because that’s what we did first. But now we are working on big cars, saloons, even an off-road truck – as well as a pure driver’s car, a proper little sports car that’s fun and affordable. Nothing like the monsters that some companies are building.
Do the McLaren P1, LaFerrari and Porsche 918 represent a natural progression from the McLaren F1?
No I don’t think so. They have gone in a completely different direction from the F1. I see these cars more as a technical exercise. I am not saying the P1 is not a good car but it is 180 degrees away from what the McLaren F1 set out to do. The F1 was a pure driver’s car, a piece of engineering art and also a car you could use every day. It was always going to be quick but we never set out to achieve 240mph. The most important thing was that you could take it to the track and be able to slide it around a little. We could easily have given it three or four times the downforce but what would have been the point?
If you were doing the F1 today what would it be like?
Still a pure driver’s car in the mould of the F1 but with more modern technology, brakes and tyres. If you look at the acceleration figures – it’s very easy to do the calculations – an F1 on modern rubber, with traction control, launch control and seamless gearchanging would be as quick as LaFerrari.
I have a hankering to do one more supercar, and I wouldn’t have unless these one-and-a-half-tonne hybrid monsters hadn’t come out. I would have left it with the F1. But now there’s a point to be proven: that you can still do a great driver’s car with an internal combustion engine and pure engineering.
What is there that you would adopt from a modern Formula 1 car for such a new supercar?
Absolutely nothing. They are such extreme animals now and dominated by their aerodynamics. Nothing in F1 aerodynamics today translates to the road.
Do you enjoy today’s Formula 1 racing?
If I’m at home I will watch it. Because I worked in F1 for 20 years I get frustrated with it. One thing I am pleased about is that my record (15 out of 16 GP victories with McLaren and Ayrton Senna in 1988) can’t now be broken this year. Mercedes has such an advantage in 2014 I really thought they were about to beat the record.
What’s so special about your iStream way of making cars?
Some sports cars made today with a single-skin carbon chassis boast about using F1 materials – people do tend to have a fixation about carbon-fibre. But this is completely the wrong way to use carbon. It’s not F1 materials that are important to iStream but F1 technology in the form of composite structures – two skins and a honeycomb. That’s how you get light weight and strength. iStream makes these structures without using expensive carbon in a way that’s easy and affordable for mass production.
Your revolution has been a long time coming…
It’s the first change to mass motor production for 100 years. It’s disruptive technology and hard to sell. However any start-up company wanting to make cars has no option but to leapfrog traditional stamped steel manufacture and adopt a disruptive technology. We have seven different projects under way at the moment, all very different; Yamaha is the only one that’s gone public with its Motiv which will be in production in 2018.
What’s still on Gordon Murray’s to-do list?
I am desperate to get my affordable sports car to (low-volume) production. There’s such a gap in the market for it. What is it like? Simple, normally aspirated, light weight, rear drive, very stiff and strong with its composite construction. It’s the antidote to the P1 or LaFerrari.
QUICK FIRE ROUND…
Your biggest achievement?
Winning Le Mans with the F1 GTR in 1995. It’s much harder to win Le Mans than it is a grand prix.
Jim Clark who I saw race in South Africa many times. In my working era Senna without a doubt.
I love driving in Scotland. Around here it has to be very early in the morning. A Rocket is the ultimate track car for me – great fun around Goodwood.
Road cars you admire?
The purest new sports car for me is the Ferrari 458. And the best is the Porsche Cayman S. Among old cars, the (original) Lotus Elan is the ultimate, better than the F1. We tried to get its delicious steering feel in the F1 but we just missed it.
Favourite motor sport?
My favourite event in the whole world is the Isle of Man TT. I can’t keep away, it’s like a drug. I went on my Honda bike this year but I would love to take my Rocket (the motor cycle-engined lightweight road/track car Gordon made with Chris Craft in the 1990s) and drive that around the TT course.
Hybrids, electric cars, autonomous driving – all taking us in the right direction?
With everyday road cars there is a place for everything. We have to keep experimenting because we can’t yet say one thing is the answer. I wouldn’t want to pick a winner at the moment.
What you would most like to drive up the Hill at FoS?
I have been up in an F1 and an SLR, but now I would most like to drive the unborn sports car I am developing. It’s not far off…
Festival of Speed fan?
Yes, I always go. Often as a concours judge but not this year so that will give time to see people and talk. I love wondering around the paddock talking to the drivers from my era.