Gordon Murray: ‘Last flag-waver of a great V12’

Supercar innovation is harder than ever. But Gordon Murray Automotive has a plan – and a Project 2

By Sam Sheehan / Saturday, February 27, 2021 / Loading comments

It might have been three decades since he departed his last full-time job in Formula 1 and 28 years since the McLaren F1 first wowed the world, but Professor Gordon Murray is not done innovating. Far from it. Speaking to PH last week after the unveiling of the T.50s, the 74-year old appeared as driven as ever – not only to create the "the best driver-focused cars in the world" via his newly emboldened company, Gordon Murray Automotive, but also to carry the concept of a large capacity, naturally-aspirated engine into a new era. Murray promises to be "the last flag-waver of a great V12," no matter what lays ahead.

"We will hold onto this particular V12 for as long as we can, even if it has to be hybridised," says the South African-born Brit. "Even if we have to go fully electric at some point – and I'm sure we will after 2030 – we will for as long as possible put a V12 into the best driver's car, the lightest car in the sports or super-sports sector. We'll find a way to make the car lighter, better engineered and more fun to drive whatever the powertrain is. But rest assured we'll hold onto this engine as long as you can."

Murray's promise will no doubt be music to the ears of anyone dejected about the future of the supercar. Of course GMA's innovations extend far beyond the engine bay, where the 12,100rpm Cosworth motor is to be mated with a bespoke Xtrac H-pattern gearbox in the T.50 or a race-grade sequential in the T.50s; Murray is just as proud of the bespoke architecture, chassis and aerodynamics as he is their powertrains. Not least because as a former Formula 1 engineer who cut his teeth in the heyday of the sport, his passion and expertise span the full spectrum of a car's design.

"I think I'm sadly part of a dying breed," says Murray, reminiscing about his early days at Brabham. "There are probably only two of us left, including [legendary former Ferrari F1 designer] Mauro Forghieri, who have learned how to work on a full car like this. Barring electronics, if you locked us in a room, we could design you a whole racing car. I actually started in engine design before chassis, so together we could do the engine, the gearbox, the monocoque, the aero, the body, the cooling pack, fuel system, hubs, bearings, whatever. You'd have a full car with our collective experience."

It's for this reason that Murray's obsession with efficiency and purity can be felt in every single element of his latest supercar. That's not something he was able to fully express in the McLaren F1, thanks largely to external factors, not least Honda's reluctance to build the engine. But in the first GMA machines, every component, even the tiniest, seemingly least significant ones, are honed specifically for the purpose of creating the most "outrageous" driver's machine ever made. Murray says, "just the cost of the nuts and bolts," some of which are £150 each, nearly gave him a heart attack. All 900 of the T.50's fasteners are titanium and "bespoke made with the heads machined down".

Murray openly admits to being buoyed by the new technology at his disposal, which, along with the added freedom of running a project at his own company, meant that both T.50 variants exceeded their initial targets. "It's discovering the new materials and technologies that has been the biggest difference in the 30 years that have gone past since the McLaren F1. In those days, most of the stress calculations were done by hand; even for the composites, they were all hand calcs. We can get much nearer the bone now with the tools we have, and composites have moved on themselves, so we can get the composites much lighter to take the loads, and even the metallic components. The materials have moved on, but it's mainly the analysis tools."

Murray highlights the T.50's wheels, a set of 19- and 20-inch forged aluminium rims, "which are 25 per cent lighter than the magnesium wheels on the F1", along with the brake calipers, which are "machined from a solid piece and look like Swiss cheese". He says every gram has been drilled or milled out, so "it's a spider that's left", with each caliper costing "thousands of pounds" to make. In the F1, Murray said he "used then new technology with Brembo, with the first fully machined monoblock caliper," but by comparison, "the T.50 calipers look like they've come from another planet". Apparently, every little detail has moved forward like that; "every little piece you look at is just a little bit better and lighter than the F1's".

Ensuring everything is optimised on an individual level, rather than taking existing components and trying to meld them together, is the way Murray likes to work. He explains how he "grew up in Brabham" in the early days of F1 before he created the famous fan car, which won on its debut (before it was promptly banned) at the hands of Niki Lauda. "I was it in the design office," he says. "I ran the technical side of the company, helped pack the truck with spares and went to every test session, every Grand Prix and engineered the cars, designed and drew every single part, whether it was the gearbox, cooling.

"These days everyone, even the technical leaders of Formula 1 teams where there are a thousand people, are so pigeonholed, that very few people get to see what the overall concept of the car is," he says. "Only probably half a dozen people per team. Even then, there's somebody else doing the engine, somebody else doing the gearbox and there are 300 people working in the wind tunnel. You couldn't take somebody like that out of a Formula 1 team now and do the complete job." It's a fair point.

Of course, it's entirely possible to see the current scenario in a more positive way, not least because there's plenty of room for innovation when it comes to software engineering a new generation of electric cars. But when it comes to the sort of driver-focused, visceral and – this is key – truly lightweight machines that Murray likes, the future is less bright. In a world where Lotus can claim to produce the world's lightest EV hypercar at 1,680kg, Murray's 986kg T.50 provides a much needed reminder of what 'light' really means. And while that's admittedly in a fully bespoke, £2.8 million package, Murray doesn't believe this ethos has to always come at such a great cost. A fact that's been proven many times before.

"I decided to keep my Smart Roadster, because it was probably only worth a grand after sixteen years and me thrashing it to death, the poor thing," he says when asked about his old daily. "But everyday driving is in my Alpine A110, which I've had for two years." Murray says he has always been into this less-exotic stuff, something that was proven by the stillborn iStream Superlight concept of 2017. Murray's other firm, Gordon Murray Design, had developed the model using his innovative production process for Yamaha to build, but a company management change meant the Japanese firm backed out. Murray thinks it's a massive shame for the customers, let alone his business, because the 200hp three-cylinder 845kg model "would have made money at about thirty grand". Not only that, it shared hallmarks with the McLaren F1, like "lots of luggage space, air con and good visibility". Not surprisingly, the "idea" is still for sale at GMD, although Murray concedes that it might have to go hybrid or electric.

Murray certainly isn't opposed to the idea of a tailpipe free driver's cars. But it's clear his heart lies in the most emotional machinery, as illustrated by the cars that accompany his Roadster and A110 in the garage: "My Alfaholics' Zagato is a beautiful little car to drive, I never want to get out of the thing. And the Mk1 Escort built by Retropower, too. I'd always wanted a twin-cam, but they got up to seventy-five grand and I thought, it'll rust and I can't use it in winter. So I thought, let's do one with a proper bodyshell, stiffen it up a bit, put something a little bit more lively in it, and you've still got a Mk1 Escort but one you can use all year round."

Murray knows that purists "look down their noses" at these restomod creations, but he says he "doesn't subscribe to that". Case in point: he also has a Porsche 550 Spyder replica running with a carburettor 914 Porsche flat-four, making a recreation of James Dean's 500kg icon that has "a fantastic character and noise", and a couple of Lotus Elans. The message is clear: the priority will always be, "beautifully engineered, lightweight cars.

"We're already working on the next one, Project 2," he says with excitement in his eyes. "We're already designing that because once production of T.50 has finished, you've got an assembly hall full of people putting cars together, you've got a design team, an engineering team. They all need something else to work on, and we're not a one car wonder. But one way that we are different, is that we're not being a typical OEM and chasing volume; we will always do very low, select low volume, limited-edition driver-focused cars. Although the next won't be as outrageous as the T.50"

Murray assures us that this means that while Project 2 will share a "basis for the engine" and "the same basis for the transmission", GMA is "starting again" for its T.50 follow-up. He says: "The T.50 is absolutely out there on the edge, at the very limit of what's possible, but you can still get that driving experience at a lower price point. It can be 90 per cent of the T.50 driving experience, but not the full thing. If you take the engine a little bit away from that edge, the emissions get a little better, the drivability gets a little better again, it gets heavier, but not by a massive amount. It's the same with everything. We won't be as extreme, but we'll still be hundreds of kilos lighter than the opposition."

Elsewhere, Murray is doing more than just ensuring we have cars to get excited about under his watch, by investing directly in the development of future engineers and designers, with internal apprenticeships and even a donation of his shareholding to a technical college. Surrey-based GMA has plenty of room for young, budding new staffers, having already grown from 112 to 150 employees during the pandemic. They can each take considerable pride in calling Gordon Murray their boss.

"We're a funny business, as you can't really call us a car company because we have no aspiration to grow," he laughs. "It's much more about building a brand that stands for what we believe in and stick to our principles. I guess that means it's going to be difficult to find a CEO to run it, which perhaps one day I will have to look at doing."

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