Features - Technical

FEBRUARY 16, 1996

Gordon Murray


The number of automotive designers who have designed successful Grand Prix cars, and been able to turn their hands and minds to the creation of vehicles for road use can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The number of automotive designers who have designed successful Grand Prix cars, and been able to turn their hands and minds to the creation of vehicles for road use can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Ettore Bugatti, Vittorio Jano, Ferdinand Porsche and Colin Chapman. Often working on racing and road cars simultaneously, the designs that came off their drawing boards bore the individual stamps of their creators and each have left their indelible mark on history.

It is within the companies that these men either created, or of which they ran the technical department, that the engineering lessons learnt in motor racing start to trickle down to the benefit of the man in the street and the cars that he needs.

Since Chapman, there have been a few engineers who, after a career in Grand Prix racing, have applied their accumulated skills and experience to the development of road vehicles: Tony Rudd, Mauro Forghieri, Francois Castaing; but only one can truly be said to have designed road cars - Gordon Murray. It would be as fruitless, and probably as enjoyable, to compare Gordon with Jano or Chapman, as it is to try and compare Senna with Nuvolari or Fangio. The eras are so different and it is perhaps too early in Gordon's career to make judgements about his long term contribution to car design. It is no longer possible to produce a new road vehicle each year or so as the pioneers did; the regulations and expected standards of reliability demand a process that can take at least 5 years.

Born in South Africa in 1947, by the age of seven Gordon was immersed in a car and motor racing environment. During the 1950's, apart from a few rich people who imported pre-war ERA's or Maseratis, the only way to go racing in the Colonies was to make your own racing car - anything with a ladder frame had the body removed, an ERA look-alike body bolted in it's place and the engine tuned. Gordon grew up with his motor mechanic father working weekends, building these cars for local people to race at the Durban round-the-houses track, speedway and grasstracks. He wanted to be a racing driver from the age that most small boys are still dreaming of being train drivers.

A 5-year mechanical engineering sandwich course at Natal Technical College provided the real world design and engineering skills, and the earnings, to enable Gordon to build his own car and engine and go racing. The photograph of this first Murray car, hanging in Gordon's office at McLaren Cars, shows a Lotus 7 clone (the nose and wings were moulded from one), but as low as a Mallock U2. In Gordon's hands it could see off the Lotus 7's during the mid-late 60's and was instrumental in firing his ambition to be a designer, rather than a driver. This, coupled with his other great love - rock music - made him determined to go to the UK, the centre for both at that time. He wrote to Colin Chapman, sold everything and left South Africa. The year was 1969.

Arriving at Lotus Cars a few months later (Gordon did not consider that there was any point in him applying to Team Lotus) he was greeted by the news that Vehicle Engineering had just laid off 40 people, and the sight of over 1000 Elans and Europas standing unsold on Hethel airfield. There was a recession in full swing, and the following 6 months were a frustrating period of job seeking, during which time he still did not consider himself experienced enough to apply to racing teams, until someone suggested he try Brabham.

Ron Tauranac offered Gordon a job, and over the next 15 years he established himself among the elite few who have designed Championship winning Grand Prix cars. In the first couple of years at Brabham, apart from his day job, he designed and built himself a Formula 750 racecar, complete with pullrod suspension, and a Mini-based road car of which four were built. Turning down an offer to move to Italy and design a Formula 1 Techno for the Pederzani brothers (an offer which still amazes him, and which he regards as a narrow escape), he shook hands with Alain de Cadanet to design an all British Le Mans contender.

At the end of 1971 Ron Tauranac sold Brabham to Bernie Ecclestone, and Ralf Bellamy, then Chief Designer, moved to Lotus. Firing everyone else in the Drawing Office, Ecclestone appointed Gordon Chief (and sole) Designer of an all new Brabham for 1972. The dilemma of having already committed to do a Le Mans car was brushed aside by Ecclestone: "Fine, you can do that as well, but I want a new car."

Working 8 am to 4 am most days, with trips to London for Rock concerts on odd evenings off, both cars were completed, but at a price. Gordon: "I fell over. Total collapse".

From 1972 until 1978, when David North joined him, Gordon was on his own in the Brabham Design Office. During this time he penned a series of neat cars that began to reveal his free thinking nature (see sidebar), eventually rivalling that of the one designer Gordon has looked up to: Colin Chapman. The period from 1978 to 1983 with David, Gordon considers to be his most productive:

"I had somebody to bounce ideas off; somebody to generate new ideas. We could argue about things. That period, with just two of us, was really good. But then we grew, as you do in Formula 1, and we soon realised we had to take on some juniors to help with the drawing.

"I began to become more of a technical manager than a designer. During the last few years at Brabham it became necessary, but I would never let go of the design. I like working on a board - it's good therapy - but it is no longer a necessary part of being a designer. Even now I see all the drawings, over 7000 on the McLaren F1; I argue about every last nut, bolt and washer. That's what is necessary to keep control of design."

Stepping into John Barnard's shoes at McLaren at the end of 1986, Gordon entered one of the best funded, staffed and facilitated teams in Formula 1. Aware that the era of innovative and risk taking design was drawing to a close to be replaced by super-teams of technical specialists, Gordon committed to a 3 years maximum contract, insisting that Ron Dennis threw him out at the end of that time. Charged with restructuring the design and engineering departments, the McLarens of that period are not instantly recognisable as Gordon Murray cars, though their performance undoubtedly bears testimony to Gordon's racing instincts.

The late 80's was the time when computers began to dominate the engineering process as well as the cars. Gordon has very definite views on CAD and CAE:

"I think computers are grossly misused in engineering offices and particularly racing engineering. If you analyse the current problems of many Formula 1 Teams' cars and their procedures, you will find that a lot of the problems boil down to the fact that they have over computerised the process.

"I almost made that mistake at McLaren when I went there. I had a free hand to restructure, and we introduced too much CAD too quickly and got our fingers badly burned. I learnt from that and when I came to McLaren Cars I was much more balanced and aware what computers were actually good at doing. We drew the car full size and could get 8 or 9 people around the board to discuss it; we only used computers where their power was useful. Obviously we digitised the body, and FEA'ed some components. But apart from the composite body/chassis structure, which had to be analysed by FEA, only about 5% was done that way. The other 95%, I looked at and used my judgement and experience. That's the way I'm happy with."

Inevitably the discussion came around to young, up-and-coming designers and engineers, and their level of experience:

"I think we've got a problem. Look at Formula 1. If John Barnard or Patrick Head decided to go and grow coconuts in the Bahamas, who would Ferrari or Williams get to replace them. We are in grave danger of introducing young specialists into design offices, and pigeon-holing them. We don't let them get the broad-brush, car design experience you still need if you are going to have 30 guys in the D.O. - and mark you, I don't like big D.O.'s. There must be someone with the broader experience supervising the whole thing; good with people; seeing what not to do, as much as what must be done. They will need a feel for materials and the stiffness of designs, an understanding of load paths. The number of young engineers who do not know what a load path is, is absolutely horrifying.

"I was in a D.O. recently - it shall remain nameless - where they drew the car, they didn't design it. There were no assemblies, no concept drawing. They just drew bits and then built the car. It's just crazy. As the sport grows, and more money becomes available, it is easier to fall into the trap of more computers and more specialists. If the structure isn't in place, with the gut feel to control it, you're dead. That's happening more and more.

"Formula 1 teams should be asking themselves, when planning for the future, where they can best spend their money. They tend to budget for the best and latest facilities and they're wrong. They ought to be investing in the human resource. When we did the GT car from the road going F1, we did it with a small bunch of guys - a small, tight, well controlled group of experienced, hands-on guys - and we turned it into a reliable racer. The speed was probably inherent in the car, but reliability, in the hands of racing customers, that's another thing all together. We did it with a tiny budget, about what a Formula 1 team spends on a good lunch."

Being in a unique position to observe Formula 1 from the outside, and yet, as part of McLaren, from the inside also, Gordon is diplomatically careful with his comments on McLaren's performance in Formula 1 over the last couple of years. Without saying so directly, one gets the impression that his views on how a Design Office should and should not be organised and run apply to McLaren International as much as anyone else.

"The problem is in layers, and some you can fix. The over technology bit is fixable. If Ron asked me to go back, maybe, if it was to just analyse and advise; but to run it - no. Doing the F1 has opened my mind and there are too many new, forward steps to be taken, and I am the sort of person who needs new steps to climb. Mark you, if it was like the Ô70's again, with freedom to innovate, that would be different. I'd still cut down the size of the D.O though! We did the road car with 8 people - it can be done."

So, we have probably seen the last Gordon Murray Formula 1 car. It was hard to persuade Gordon to look back and judge the one that meant the most to him. He is much more affected by the McLaren F1 - there is more of him invested in it - and next comes the Rocket. He finally admitted however that the BT44 was his favourite, closely followed by the BT49 and BT52 - his two Championship Brabhams. And yet Gordon is a racer, as is shown by the racing innovations, such as tyre warmers and strategic refuelling pit stops, that he introduced into Formula 1.

"I like winning, but had got it out of my system with the F1. If I could go on with that sort of work I wouldn't need to win, but there won't be another F1. Yet, winning Le Mans and the GT Championship was great for everyone involved and for me personally as I hadn't been back to Le Mans since 1972 with the de Cadanet car. GT racing is friendly and fun, and one is in complete control. It gave me a real buzz - better than the last couple of World Championships. The F1 was specifically not designed for racing as it would have compromised the ultimate road car.

"With a road car it is totally different. You have to wait and see what the customers and journalists say about the car. Now I have the BMW Touring Car programme. Winning will again be important to me, but I will be in control of it, and that's where I want to be when racing."

"The satisfaction I derived from doing the F1 was a bit of a surprise. The thing that really threw me was that so many people came up to me when they heard I was going to give up racing and said: "You'll really hate it. There are so many regulations, you're going to die!" In the end I nearly got cold feet. Then, when we started, I have to say that it was totally the opposite. Once you have it in your mind that the headlights have to be so high, the bumpers so high, and the wiper has to clear so much screen, those regulations are peanuts. I could still design the worlds weirdest windscreen wiper system that doesn't squeak when the screen is dry. I could exorcise all those things that I hate about normal motor cars. When it actually comes to designing the car, it's exactly the opposite to Formula 1. There are no performance regulations that I can find. You want moveable aerodynamics - you can have them. You want active brake cooling - let's do it. I loved all the hard bits like HVAC and the doors. We were pushing so hard on weight we had to do our own everything. We knocked over 50% of the weight out of the exhaust system - more than 50 kg. I didn't know how a fly-off handbrake worked until I started investigating how to lighten one. Getting all the little details right is just as fascinating as doing the same in Formula 1.

"Formula 1 is performance restricted, but not cost controlled. Production cars are cost controlled, and that is really the only performance restriction. The F1 was restricted by neither."

The future for the team that Gordon has put together looks good: the involvement with BMW ensures continuity for them. Beyond that, and on a personal level, there is one project left that Gordon would like to do. Since college days he has carried with him three dreams. The first was to realise all the sports and GT cars he has drawn since those early days - a "British Ferrari". "I never thought I would get the chance to do it, not at this level. It's like a fairy tale come true. That's it. I wouldn't try to do it again, even if I got the chance, which is unlikely now."

The second was the Rocket. "That was a Chapman thing. I think Colin would like it. To go back to 370 kg again, 12,500 rpm and a 10-speed box. The Lotus 7 was as much fun as you could have on the road, short of getting on a motobike. The Caterham is too heavy, and nothing else has replaced it."

The last one is something Gordon first sketched when he was 15. "I have an idea for a really radical small car. Not a small, big car. It's a totally new package. It involves a really complex, but easy to get up and running environmental package. Mark you, it needs the co-operation of governments to make the whole thing work.

"I've been working on it seriously for about three years and I've got it to the point now where if I don't start making a prototype this year it'll be too late. I'm writing a paper laying out all the issues as a basis for discussion with interested parties.

"It's ultra-simple, ultra-radical and a totally new way of looking at small cars. Most importantly, it is something that could give a measurable difference in pollution, congestion and parking problems within about 8 years from starting the project."

It is a long way from Formula 1, but maybe this is how motor racing will make the contribution to ordinary road cars that would help justify it's existence. The sort of mind that can create the world's fastest cars is quite likely to have the attributes necessary to revolutionise road car design, and solve the problems that the motor car has brought upon the World. If anyone of the current crop of Formula 1 designers can do it, it is likely to be Gordon. He has the track record.

Talking about cars or design, Gordon uses measured words, softly spoken; every now and again a subject comes up that brings a light to his eyes. The McLaren F1 and the Rocket. Colin Chapman and Bob Dylan. Motorbikes and fine wines. Music and architecture. Only once did he consider giving up motor racing to pursue one of his other enthusiasms. After a week, while having a month's holiday in France to cool off after leaving Brabham and consider the future, he found himself sketching suspensions.

Fast cars, whether competing on race tracks or in the Salons around the world, entered his blood at an early age. With it being virtually impossible nowadays to be as prolific as Jano or even Chapman, Gordon has emerged at the top of his generation of Formula 1 designers as the most versatile. Just starting in Super Touring Cars and at the same time tackling road car environmental issues, the best may be yet to come.

"I've had a lot of luck. I was in the right place, in the right era."