The CAR Inquisition: Gordon Murray on motorsports, McLaren and manufacturing

Published: 26 August 2016

► Fabled designer Gordon Murray succumbs to our Q&A
► 'I get a bigger kick out of driving a Sprite than any supercar.'  
► Why motorsport matters and what’s next for manufacturing

If common threads bind Gordon Murray’s myriad towering achievements, they’re a tireless dedication to simplicity and an undimmed love of driving, specifically that magical and rewarding sense of connection that flows between man and machine in any truly great car, be it a Mini or a McLaren.

For the incurable South African-born petrolhead the two go hand in hand – add to the car and you’ll detract from the drive. Which explains his fondness for classics – his McLaren F1 sits among a motley fleet of British old-timers, an absence of weight, bulk and superfluous systems their common ground – and equally minimalist soapbox racers.

‘I take part in an annual soapbox event in the South of France – we’ve been doing it 24 years,’ says Murray. ‘The tracks we run on are steep and rough, with barbed-wire fences and stone walls for run-off. We hit 50mph at times. I’m sore afterwards but it’s always worth it – last time I won by one point.’

2015 marked the 20th anniversary of another on-track triumph by a Murray-penned racer: the McLaren F1 GTR’s against-all-odds win at Le Mans. He was at La Sarthe in June, and remembers the F1’s hurried transformation from game-changing supercar to prototype-beating endurance racer with a wry smile.

‘I can’t believe it was over 20 years ago! We didn’t have much time – two or three months,’ he recalls. ‘I had one day in the wind tunnel to do the aero kit. Most of the drawings for the GTR, like the fuel and oil systems, were just pencil sketches.

‘We drew plans straight from those and made the parts – it was such a short programme. It was good to be there last year, to see the drivers again. The race too was very good, with Porsche winning. Certainly it’s a lot more interesting than Formula One…’

Zeitgeisty small cars are all well and good but the world’s waiting for Murray’s next sports car – it should be a TVR, due 2017

Murray may have bowed out of Grand Prix racing in the early 1990s but he still follows the sport, his brain idly dreaming up technical regulations to add more sparkle. Mainly, as with his road cars, they’re about adding simplicity.

‘When you spent 20 years of your life in a sport, you never lose interest,’ he admits. ‘I’d get rid of all the telemetry, the backroom staff and the overhanging front wings that are forever getting damaged when someone tries to overtake.

‘I’d tuck the wings right in and put back a central piece of ground effect, to reduce the understeer the drivers get when they follow someone onto the next straight. I’d reduce the size of the tyre contact patches too, so that the compounds have to get harder and the braking distances longer – again to encourage overtaking.’

Murray on his latest venture, iStream

Murray’s working days are all about iStream, his low-investment car-building system that’s garnered interest from established names, newcomers and resurgent legends, notably the reborn TVR. Murray believes iStream can deliver the performance TVR requires, both for its road cars and Le Mans ambitions, while also handing upstart disrupters a shortcut into the game.

‘Cars from non-established manufacturers excite me,’ he says. ‘We’re in a position where we can offer start-ups a manufacturing system that leapfrogs stamped metal.’

Murray’s projects require him to drive current cars, for benchmarking, so does anything out there warrant his seal of approval? The Alfa Romeo 4C perhaps, with its carbonfibre tub and unassisted steering? 

‘One of the worst engines I’ve ever driven – just awful,’ he laments. ‘It’s got absolutely nothing under the boost. That’s using turbos the wrong way, chasing a marketing horsepower figure and not considering drivability. That said, turbocharging generally is getting better, because of the electronics, and it’s about the only way manufacturers can get the power and torque they need without outrageous emissions.

‘The other interesting thing about the 4C is that the tub’s handmade. The problem with hand-making carbon tubs for a road car is that the only way to increase volume is to have multiple toolsets. Do that and you get flush and gap quality issues, which is why we used a single toolset for the F1. It’s exciting that you can get carbon in a more affordable car but it’s still very low volume. It’s the same with BMW; their use isn’t truly high volume.’

Still innovating, still pushing, and still getting his kicks in old British sports cars so simple that 43bhp is more than enough. 

CAR’S Curveballs: six questions only we would ask

About your first car…

‘My first road car was not my choice – my dad paid for it, a heavy and slow ’56 Hillman Minx. I didn’t have any money to tune the engine but I took the hubcaps off, put on go-faster stripes and fitted a noisy exhaust – that was as far as the budget went.’  

Which achievement makes you proud?

‘The McLaren F1 winning Le Mans outright in 1995, without doubt. Designing my first Grand Prix car was special, and the F1 is something I’m very proud of, but it then going to Le Mans and winning is the thing I’m most proud of.’

What’s the best thing you’ve done in a car?

’My dad used to take me to the Burman Drive hillclimb every year. In its last year I won the sports car class in a car I built – they let me keep the trophy.’

Tell us how you screwed up…

‘I’ve fallen off a few motorbikes but in design terms it’d be the Brabham BT55. I tried to do too much with a tiny team in too little time. Every year, instead of trying to look for one good advantage, I had so many ideas I used to try to squeeze four into a car. With the BT55 we were trying to do a laid-down four-cylinder engine, which needed a Z-drive gearbox to get the drive back to the middle of the car. It was also the first time we’d done the full carbon tub and the first time we’d done the laid-down driving position. It was too much in too little time, where as when I took that exact architecture to McLaren, with the MP4/4, those ideas were vindicated.’

Supercar or classic? 

‘Oh classics, every day. Mine are mainly summer cars, because they don’t have heaters or de-misters, but I love them. I get a bigger kick out of driving a Frogeye Sprite than any supercar.’ 

Company curveball… when can we drive an iStream car? 

‘We’re a long way down the road with some big manufacturers but it’s looking like TVR might overtake them. If the programme is successful it’s looking like 2017, which would put it ahead of two or three others.’ 

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By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three

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