Gordon Murray: Reinventing the car

Gordon Murray, chief executive officer of Gordon Murray Design Ltd., stands next to the T.27 in Surrey, U.K. Photo / Bloomberg
Gordon Murray, chief executive officer of Gordon Murray Design Ltd., stands next to the T.27 in Surrey, U.K. Photo / Bloomberg

A one-time racing car designer is aiming to revolutionise not only the cars we drive, but also the way they're made

Gordon Murray's quest to reinvent carmaking started in a traffic jam.

Murray, the legendary former designer of Formula One racing cars, was driving to work in the London suburbs in 1993 when he hit gridlock. Surrounded by fuel-guzzling sedans, he vowed to someday make small, efficient vehicles that would ease congestion and become stylish objects of desire.

On a misty morning 19 years later, he swings open a metal door in a gymnasium-sized workshop south of London.

"There they are," Murray, 65, says with a fatherly smile.

Murray's cube-shaped city cars, parked in the middle of the floor, look like oversize toys: At 2.4m in length, they are 28cm shorter even than Daimler's tiny Smart microcar. Sporting chiselled side panels that swoosh back from the front wheels like air currents, they exude speed and agility.

The matte-black T.25, with a 51-horsepower, three-cylinder engine, can reach 160 km/h. It travels 100km on just 2.94 litres of fuel, compared with 3.9l/100km for the Smart Pulse coupe in Europe. The cobalt-blue T.27, propelled by a lithium-ion battery and a 25-kilowatt electric motor, can go 160km on about US$1.06 ($1.40) of power.

Murray built these prototypes in an audacious bid to overturn the way cars have been designed, assembled and sold for the past 100 years.

As rising oil prices and tightening carbon emission rules push manufacturers to make smaller cars, they are saddled with what Murray calls an outdated and costly system of turning sheets of steel into vehicles.

Carmakers have long lost money making small vehicles because they have to invest just as much capital in the metalwork for a cheap compact as they do for a luxury sedan, says Eric Noble, president of The Car Lab, an Orange, California-based consulting firm.

"Essentially, we've been making motorcars the same way since the Model T, and that model is breaking down," says Murray, whose swept-back mane of greying hair suggests he has just emerged from a wind tunnel. "I want to bring Formula One technology to the everyday motorist, with all its advantages."

Murray, who shuns computers and draws his designs by hand, makes his cars out of a lightweight composite material similar to carbon fibre used in racing cars.

That allows him to jettison the robots and machinery that stamp and weld about 300 pieces of metal together in a typical car body. While automakers such as the Ford Motor Company are developing models that use more lightweight materials and less steel, Murray wants manufacturers to make all of their cars with as little metal as possible.

The designer's breakthrough was in finding a way to make a city car in two primary steps instead of the standard five, Noble says. His iStream system forms a chassis out of composite and then installs components and attaches body panels made from recycled plastic bottles.

Three steps - stamping the steel frame, welding the body together and rustproofing - are eliminated. A manufacturer could build an iStream plant to make 100,000 cars annually for 85 per cent less capital than a conventional one, Murray says. Since an iStream factory would be two-thirds smaller, it would consume about 60 per cent less energy.

He says the process has been so simplified that retailers such as Wal-Mart or electronics giants such as Apple could use it to jump into carmaking.

While Murray's vision may sound quixotic, he has proven himself one of the most creative minds in the history of Formula One, the world's premier grand prix circuit.

A cerebral man with a taste for loud floral shirts and early Bob Dylan, Murray introduced composites and other speed-enhancing innovations to racing in the 1970s and 1980s. Hall of Fame drivers Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost won a total of five Formula One championships in his cars.

In the 1990s Murray created the street-legal F1 for McLaren Group, a British Formula One team and supercar manufacturer. The lithe, US$1 million coupe, which hit a top speed of 388 km/h in a 1998 test, has been hailed as the finest high-performance automobile ever made.

"It's a pure, singular vision of what a car should be," says talk show host Jay Leno, who has more than 100 rare vehicles, including an F1.

Murray has worshipped automobiles ever since he tinkered with engine blocks in his garage as a kid growing up in Durban, South Africa. His father, Bill, raced motorcycles and worked as a mechanic in a local Peugeot dealership. Young Gordon built his own racing car from assorted parts when he was just 20 and drove it to victory in several races.

After taking courses in mechanical engineering at Natal Technical College, he decamped for England in 1969 and eventually landed a junior designer's job at Brabham, a British Formula One racing team. With little money, he slept on the floor of a London flat and worked 14-hour days.

In 1972 Brabham owner and future Formula One chieftain Bernie Ecclestone surprised rival racing executives by anointing the hungry 26-year-old his chief designer.

A huge rock-and-roll fan, Murray grew his hair long and wore Sex Pistols T-shirts at the track. He became close friends with George Harrison after meeting the late Beatles guitarist and race fan on a Concorde flight to Brazil in 1976. Years later, Murray inlaid images of Indian elephants in the dashboard of the McLaren F1 he designed for Harrison in a nod to the rock star's spiritual beliefs.

Murray's freewheeling sensibility was apparent in his car designs. In 1979 he was the first engineer to throw out aluminium and construct a chassis entirely of carbon fibre.

And in 1981 he designed a hydro-pneumatic suspension that let his racing car drop to within 1cm of the track at high speed to amplify downforce, which helps tyres grip the road and corner faster. Rival teams protested that the system violated a ban on driver-operated devices to maximise this aerodynamic effect.

Murray countered that physics lowered the car, and Formula One officials agreed. Brabham's Piquet went on to win the World Drivers' Championship that year, a first for a Murray-designed car.

"Rather than obey the rule, Murray got around it," says Nigel Cross, professor emeritus of design studies at The Open University in Milton Keynes, England.

By the mid-1990s Murray had left Formula One and begun work on the McLaren F1 as well as on more-unusual projects. Intent on building his own drive-in movie theatre, for example, Murray reinforced a barn on his estate with steel girders and then dismantled a pink 1959 Cadillac convertible. In the barn's loft, he reassembled the classic car without its engine and suspension.

Under a ceiling strewn with starlike lights, he and his friends watch movies on a 2.7m-wide screen from the Caddy's bench seats. The topper: he re-created the Formica-and-chrome interior of the diner in American Graffiti, the 1973 hot-rod movie, next to the car.

"I just adore Americana," he says with a shrug.

Back at the office, Murray was sketching a more practical venture: a city car. He was inspired by the Fiat 500 and the Mini Cooper, two modish compacts from the 1960s. After McLaren declined to produce Murray's new machine, he recruited 27 of its engineers and other employees and founded his own firm in 2004. "I wanted to create the next iconic European urban vehicle," Murray says.

"But then I discovered you couldn't make any money making small cars." So he set out to reinvent car assembly to cut production costs.

Inside the workshop of Gordon Murray Design Ltd in Shalford, England, a few engineers are working on a prototype for a 3.5-tonne composite truck for use in Africa. A mock-up of the T.25's interior carved out of wood sits on one side of the floor. Nearby, a glistening engine rests on a rack like a piece of modern art.

Amid the whirr of power tools, Murray picks up a piece of composite - a black square of honeycombed paper and polycarbonate plastic sandwiched between skins made of tightly woven glass strands. This 2cm-thick composite feels as light as cardboard but as hard as steel. And it's 25 times cheaper than carbon fibre.

Murray used an industrial press to mould several pieces of this composite and bond them to a tubular steel frame. This structure forms a hip-high solid chassis that supports the engine, interior and other components. At 550kg, the T.25 is less than half the weight of BMW's Mini Cooper.

The T.27, which features a powertrain by British-based Zytek Automotive, met the European Union's car safety requirements in crash tests conducted last year by Mira, a firm based in Warwickshire, England.

As he did in the F1, Murray placed the driver in the centre of the bubblelike cabin, and passenger seats are slotted back on both sides. Instead of side doors, the car's top opens like a clamshell to allow entry.

On a May afternoon, Kevin Doyle, Murray's development manager, draws amused looks from pedestrians as he punches the T.25 through heavy traffic in London's Kensington neighbourhood. Doyle is about to zoom through an opening between a bus and the curb when a Mercedes-Benz lumbers in front of the T.25.

"I could have made it through that space, but he's too big," Doyle chuckles. In their current forms, the T.25 would retail in Europe for €8,678 ($14,320) and the electric car for €19,723.

Murray has yet to see commercial versions of his handiwork zipping around city streets. Rather than produce cars himself, he plans to license iStream to companies in return for an upfront fee and a percentage of the sale of every unit that rolls off the line.

He's avoided the deep spending that's bedevilled other startups that are making their own vehicles. California-based Tesla Motors, which produces a plug-in sports car, lost US$254 million on US$204 million in sales last year.

Murray's firm, which collects revenue from car-design consulting, has spent about £30 million ($60.9 million at current exchange rates) since 2007. It raised US$12 million from Mohr Davidow Ventures and £4.5 million from the Technology Strategy Board, a British government-backed research group, to help develop the prototypes.

While Murray has conducted exploratory discussions with 10 car companies and five other businesses, he had yet to close a production deal as of the middle of last month.

"It would have been more expedient to build cars, but Gordon had a business model that was more capital efficient," says Jon Feiber, a general partner at Mohr Davidow in Menlo Park, California. "We'll see if this was the correct path to build a valuable company."

Carmakers will probably be loath to embrace Murray's vision as they struggle to reap returns from their existing plants, says Maryann Keller, a Stamford, Connecticut-based independent industry consultant.

"Many automakers are on their financial knees right now, so they can't afford to transition to something different that will involve huge changes to their capital investments," Keller says.

Murray says car companies may not have a choice as regulators clamp down on emissions. By 2015, manufacturers in Europe must ensure that 100 per cent of their new cars meet new greenhouse gas emission caps or the EU will fine them for every gram of excess carbon.

The US is on course to impose new carbon dioxide standards that will effectively double the average fuel economy target to 54.5 miles per gallon (4.32l/100km) by 2025.

"There are limits to what the internal combustion engine can do, and we are close to that limit, so the next part of this process has to be lightweight materials," says David King, the director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University. "What is completely innovative about Gordon's work is effectively putting these materials together with enormous financial benefits. He's developed a completely new manufacturing setup."

With iStream, Murray has designed a way for carmakers to profitably make unique cars suited for a crowded, energy-starved world. And consumers are warming to small cars again. India's Tata Motors sold 74,527 Nano microcars in the 12 months that ended on March 31, 6 per cent more than the year before. And after a rocky introduction, Italy-based Fiat in April recorded its second straight month of record sales gains in the US for its revamped 500.

Should automakers pass on his brainchild, Murray is betting there are other players willing to try and leapfrog the status quo. "We're taking on this monster industry, but we know it's going to work," he says, standing in front of a mural depicting his victorious Formula One cars. "I love the idea of being a giant killer."

- Bloomberg

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