There are very few petrolheads around the world who, at some point, didn’t have the McLaren F1 taped, glued or Blu-Tacked to their wall; and rightly so. A perfectly proportioned hypercar (arguably the first), it olbiterated the established limits of a what a car was supposed to do, all the while remaining wonderfully handsome and achingly cool.
Yet the McLaren F1 wasn’t just a really fast, good-looking car. There are incredible details within that, perhaps more than any other car that preceded it, embodied the incredibly precise, clinical mindset of its creator; down to the micrometer-thick gold foil heat shield in the engine bay.
But there’s an awful lot more to Gordon Murray than the McLaren F1, or the soon-to-be-launched Gordon Murray Automotive T.50 that will, probably, make a mockery of perceived mechanical limitations once again.
This is the story of one of the car industry’s most undervalued geniuses.
Born in Durban, South Africa (Union of South Africa as it was known), in 1946, Ian Gordon Murray (yeah, that threw me too) was born with petrol in his blood.
Alright, not literally, but racing was in his DNA. His dad raced motorbikes, later building and repairing racecars, so Murray’s decision to study Mechanical Engineering at Natal Technical College (now Durban University of Technology) was almost a given.
And if his studies of choice were somewhat predestined, his venture into motorsport was pure feat.
But as is often the case with Murray, he didn’t exactly take the conventional route. Choosing instead to make his own car from scratch, he taught himself to weld, made the entire body structure and chassis from scratch, built his own pistons, fuel tank, suspension; seats.
Here he is in his own words talking to Motorsport Magazine:
“I lightened some Consul conrods. Made my own camshafts. Reworked the cylinder head. Fitted Jaguar inlet and Peugeot exhaust valves. Made my own manifolds. And lightened the flywheel by much more than was reckoned safe by the British tuning magazines. They also said that you must fit a steel crankshaft to rev beyond 7500rpm. I used a standard cast crank. I reckoned that if you carefully balanced every part – reciprocating mass as well as rotating – you could get away with it. I did so to within a tenth of a gramme and revved to 8500rpm for two seasons with no problem.”
It was racing that allowed him to think creatively, his thirst for learning and his love of problem-solving combining with his competitiveness to impressive success. In the two seasons prior to leaving for England, in 1967 & ’68, he won his class at Roy Hesketh and the hillclimbs at both Polly Shortts and Burman Drive; in a car designed and built completely with his own hands.
For anyone wondering why Ian Gordon Murray has achieved so much success during his career, the IGM Ford is all you need by way of an explanation.
Blighty & Brabham
Gordon Murray has always held the Lotus Seven in high esteem, as has anyone who’s ever raced a car. Even today, the Seven is widely regarded as a pioneering racecar, the embodiment of Colin Champman’s approach to design and the purest demonstration of performance engineering. And it was to Norfolk that Gordon Murray headed when he first arrived on England’s shores; but it wasn’t to be.
Despite being offered a job at Lotus, upon his arrival in Norwich he discovered not only was there not a job, but that Lotus were actively laying off a large portion of its workforce. He was in a new country, with no money, no job and nowhere to live. Perfect.
What you’ll soon learn, however, is that Murray isn’t exactly someone who shirks from a challenge. In fact, many would argue that he’s at his best in the face of adversity, whether that be in desperate search of a job in 1969, or faced with the impossible challenge of designing the world’s fastest car.
And we all need a little luck as well. Which is exactly what happened to Murray when he wandered into the Brabham factory, the home of the famous Formula One team, on the day they were recruiting. Having been mistaken for an applicant, he was interviewed and given the job. And the rest as they say is…
His early years at Brabham were nothing special, the team competing well but always lacking both enterprise and money to compete at the front of the field. But for Murray, he was happy to be in a job and learning every day.
When Bernie Ecclestone took over Brabham in 1971, he recalls specifically: “Tauranac told me I should get rid of him and keep everybody else. So I kept Gordon and got rid of everybody else.” Murray had been on the verge of leaving, but decided to wait and see what the new ownership had in store.
At the end of 1972, and a season that had delivered little success, Murray was called into Ecclestone’s office, given a blank canvas and was tasked with designing “a completely new Formula 1 car”. On his own. He had sole responsibility for the car, something he’d craved for a while. It would be the start of a special relationship between the pair, and one that would come to define Murray’s career.
In just four months, Murray and his tiny team had penned and built the unique BT42, a car that so nearly won its first Grand Prix in Barcelona; a splt drive shaft boot would prove to be its downfall.
At a time when race cars were entirely functional, with little in the way of form, Murray’s creations were more than a little different. A stark combination of both, it allowed Brabham to punch far above their weight.
The BT44 followed in ’74, and though it once again failed to win its first race when it ought to have, it did record three victories that year, followed by two further in ’75 as the BT44B. Evolution rather than revolution.
Brabham switched to Alfa Romeo engines in 1976 and it proved a challenge too great for even Murray and his wonderful mind, though he didn’t stop trying.
In 1978 he introduced surface radiators – thin panels disposed along the sides of the monocoque to reduce frontal area – but the Italian engines couldn’t help but overheat. It was time, not to think outside the box, but to step entirely out of the box and look elsewhere for inspiration.
And that’s exactly what Murray did in 1979 with the BT46B fan car.
Firstly, yes that is a huge fan mounted to the rear of the car. But more specifically, it’s a gearbox driven fan that simultaneously fed air to the conventionally-mounted radiator and created down-force by manipulating airflow onto flexible skirts around the engine bay. Not only that, it was legal.
Or rather, 60% of its performance went on cooling the engine, 40% on increasing downforce, so they’d had found a loophole in the regulations that would quickly be closed at the end of the season. But it didn’t matter, because they took it off the car to appease the FIA, Mr Ecclestone keen on working his way up the ladder of racing’s hierarchy.
And it didn’t matter, because it merely emphasised further Murray’s inate ability to tackle a challenge with ingenuity, bravery and incredible amounts of hardwork.
Murray did practically everything, from ordering parts and wind tunnel testing to laying out the race strategies; and everything in between. They were giant killers, with a minute team. And they harboured ambitions of a World Championship title.
In 1980, and back with Cosworth, Murray’s BT49 helped Nelson Piquet to second place in the world championship and three victories. The team were gaining plaudits, whilst both Murray’s and Piquet’s reputations continued to blossom.
Though Murray had once harboured his own ambitions of racing, he’d now found a way to channel his energy, his passion, not into racing cars, but into designing cars for others to race. But more importantly, designing racecars that enabled victory, that empowered success. And the best was yet to come.
Murray had already shown His ability to think differently, challenge convention and seek loopholes in search of progress and success. But what he did in 1982 was beyond anything he’d done before, something equally brilliant, brave and hugely risky. And in doing so, changed the whole sport forever.
1982 saw Brabham switch engine suppliers again, this time to BMW. In stark contrast with the Alfa-Romeo flat-12s, the German marque had developed a turbocharged four-pot engine, but one with remarkable power; and reliability issues.
What did Murray suggest? Shrink the fuel tanks and introduce pit-stops.
This is something that just wasn’t done at the time, and it all came to Murray during a hot bath! We’re not going to cover the ins and outs that followed, the incredible considerations and design work required to enable such a brave decision, for that you’ll have to read Murray’s superb interview with Motorsport Magazine. Rest assured it’s worth it.
Though 1982 was a struggle, the team showed promise towards the end of the season with the final three grand-prixs of the season. And 1983 brought a second world championship for Nelson Piquet who was fully embedded into the Brabham team.
1984 saw the pitstops banned, Brabham, more specifically Murray, drawing the FIA’s attention to loopholes in the regulations with sheer brilliance and an awful lot of hardwork. But it was taking its toll on Murray, Brabham’s resources and tiny team stretched to the limit in both the off-season and when the racing calendar shifted into gear.
In 1986, Murray felt his time was up, despite further pioneering work with the ultimately unsuccessful BT55. With Ecclestone’s focus elsewhere, the business-side of things fell by the wayside, as did the on-track performances; it was time to leave.
Dennis the Menace
Murray’s legacy at Brabham was impressive: 22 Grand Prix wins, 2 second place finishes in the Constructors’ Championship and 2 Drivers’ Championships, in 1981 and 1983; with a skeleton team and a shoe-string budget.
At the end of the 1986 championship, and after 17 years at Brabham, a combination of factors had led Murray towards an exit from F1 on his own terms; he’d had enough and wanted a new challenge.
Feat had different plans, however, and when John Barnard left McLaren around the same time, Ron Dennis approach Murray, who agreed, on the premise that he would only be in F1 for three years, bringing his racing career to an even 20.
And it would prove to be a brilliant decision.
McLaren was everything that Brabham were not: big and well-funded, they had a rich history of racing success, though what amazed Murray was the lack of process, from racing strategy and vehicle design to lessons learned after races. Murray was given the freedom to put it all in place, whilst leaving the commercial side to… well, commercial people. It was the perfect match.
Inputting more closely into the design of the ’88 car onwards, 1987’s car having already been designed by Steve Nichols and the team, Murray’s creative approach and vision brought instant success, the MP4/4 using the brand-new Honda 1.5l V6 engine to power Ayrton Senna to his first World Championship and a remarkable 15 Grand-Prix wins in 16 races.
No-one team has yet won more races in a season with sixteen or fewer races, and the Constructor’s Championship points tally of 199 was a record until 2002; a season of 17 races.
The car for 1989, the MP4/5, would bring another World Championship and Constructurs’ Championship to the McLaren-Honda team, Alain Prost this time beating his legendary Brazilian team-mate Senna to the world title, whilst Murray’s final F1 car with McLaren, the MP4/5B, would sweep the board again the following year.
Murray’s three years were up, and it was time to leave, but he’d created a phenomenal legacy. So, what was next?
On the 14th June, 1989, the year before Murray would depart McLaren’s Formula 1 team, Ron Dennis incorporated McLaren Cars Ltd. and so began the development of a car that Murray had dreamed about since he was 15; “a proper Ferrari-beater”.
It would be called the McLaren F1.
We’re going to save the magic of the car for another time, because I could write twenty blog articles about the thing; we’re here to focus on Ian Gordon Murray. But if there was any doubt about just how special the vehicle is, or the important role that Murray played, let Murray’s own words clarify things.
“I don’t think a car like the McLaren F1 will ever happen in the same way again, not because the design capabilities aren’t there, but because the process by which it happened wouldn’t be allowed. Very seldom in history has one person been given the responsibility of everything to do with one car – laying out the building, deciding on the furniture and the carpets, employing every single staff member, designing the car, everything down to the fitted luggage and the hi-fi, developing the car, putting it into production, even writing the owner’s handbook. The McLaren F1 was able to be one man’s vision, uncompromised.”
In just 43 months, the tiny team designed a car that completely, and I don’t use that word lightly, rewrote what a supercar was supposed to be. Autocar tried to explain this in it’s full road-test of the legend.
“A £238,000 Bugatti EB110 GT is a fine car and less than half the price of the McLaren, but it will not even allow you a glimpse at the world of the F1. Spending £403,000 on a Jaguar XJ220 buys performance that is monstrous. But you could drive one for a year and never know what it is like to visit the places the £540,000 McLaren will take you on the slightest piece of straight open road. “
Few journalists, when the car launched, were able to find sufficient words to describe its brilliance. It was completely unsuitable, in many ways, for public roads, because it had so much capability, yet it was brilliant because it had been designed exactly for that; every day usability.
It was exceedlingly expensive, taking three months to produce, yet wonderfully pure in its design and, arguably, one of the most perfectly proportioned products ever created. Look at in from any angle and tell me I’m wrong.
A multitude of projects followed for Murray before the F1 had even seen the light of day, but various commerical deals and market changes put pain to his creations. His input into the McLaren SLR was, of course, exquisitely detailed and focused, but as he hadn’t been given the licence to create that he always needed – and demanded – it was never going to be anything other than an impressive car.
The McLaren F1 GTR, which the firm launched in 1995 due to customer requests and the opportunity to further push the F1 envelope, is a wonderful iteration of a legendary car. Having worked, briefly, for the firm myself, the moment you walk up the stairs of the famous building towards the atrium and your eyes settle on the aggressive rear-haunches of a “long-tail”, your heart does strange things you’re not able to control.
Though Murray still insists that the McLaren F1 is still at its best as a comfortable road-going car, the F1 received remarkably few changes to convert it into a GT-spec car, including a power downgrade to bring it in line with regulations.
It won on its first ever Le Mans outing, recording a top speed on the Mulsanne straight of 281km/h (174.6mph), the highest practice speed of any vehicle that year. Murray and the team had done it again.
As if creating the world’s greatest supercar wasn’t enough, Murray was approached by former racing driver Chris Craft to pen his vision for an ultra-lightweight, supremely agile one / two-seater sports car.
The Light Car Company began producing the Rocket in 1991, an 850lbs (385.6kg) tandem-seater with a 1,000cc Yamaha engine producing up to 165hp; giving the Rocket a top-speed of 230 km/h (142.9 mph).
With looks and proportions far similar to a ’60s F1 car than anything modern, and with a power-to-weight ratio equivalent to a Ferrari F40, all housed in a body that weighs less than a Lotus Seven, just 55 were produced. The combination of Craft’s vision and Murray’s undoubted execution, yet another brilliant vehicle had been penned by the South African.
Gordon Murray Design
Murray left McLaren in 2004 to start Gordon Murray Design, a company completely of his choosing; as he always preferred.
The first vehicle delivered in-house was the T.25, a car that, on the face of it, is a smaller Smart Fortwo; but it’s an awful lot more than that.
It was Murray’s attempt at re-envisaging personal mobility, a car that could be overtaken within its existing lane, or parked three abreast in a single, standard, parking space (with room for entry and access thanks to the door opening design). The minimal use of stamped metal and the clever use of composites resulted in a high volume-capable, cost efficient, lightweight vehicle that, though not a looker, was very clever and willing to reconsider the way we motor. It still had space for 3 people. Typical Murray then.
Two years later, in 2009, an electrically-powered variant, the T.27, was developed.
The T.25 and T.27, however, were (or are) just the beginning for Murray’s pioneering process; iStream.
In recent years, Murray has evolved the iStream process from one that used carbon-fibre reinforced composite panels bonded to a steel tubular structure to one that utilises copmposite sandwich panels. With claimed volumes from 1,000 to 350,000 and a cycle time of just 100 seconds, Murray’s lifelong passion to reinvent cheap cars for mass transit is unlikely to reliniquish anytime soon. He holds both the original Fiat Nuova 500 and the Mini in the highest regard, whilst simulatenously criticising both recent remakes for what he considers “crap packaging”.
One of his idols remains Colin Chapman, a legendary figure we’ll be covering later this year.
But this doesn’t make Murray a one trick-pony, not by any stretch.
T50 & Beyond…
In 2016, Murray turned his hand to developing a low-cost, flat-pack vehicle for the Global Vehicle Trust charity. Called the Ox, it was designed using Murray’s iStream principles, albeit using wooden laminate panels, but the same level of attention to detail, versatility and clever packaging prevailed. It’s intended for use in developing countries as a way of providing versatile transport for rural communities.
He continues to consult with TVR and had a huge say in the design of the new Griffith, the first model from the cult firm since 2006.
And of course, Murray continues to consult on all manner of global projects, whilst maintaining a strong link to Yamaha, a firm he partnered with during the iStreAm development.
But there’s another project that has got everyone licking their lips.
The T.50 promises to be stupendous.
If you arrived here from another planet, but one that has cars of course, you’d look at the Gordon Murray Automotive T.50 and think “wow, that’s a handsome looking car” but perhaps not much more. It’s certainly not an Aventador, or a Chiron; or even a Corvette. In fact, thanks in part to its size – it’s very similar in footprint to a Mini Clubman – it doesn’t have the intimidating air, or aggressive aesthetics of modern supercars; but then neither did the McLaren F1.
It’s Murray’s 50th car in his 50 years of automotive design, hence the name, and just a tiny prod into the details hiding below the surface quickly force you into retracting each and every thought that sprang to mind when you first glimpsed the car.
At 986kg (2174 lbs), it’s a carry-on suitcase-heavier than a Lotus Elise; It has a naturally-aspirated Cosworth-developed V12 engine that revs to 12,100 rpm and delivers 663bhp; obviously, there’s a manual gearbox. There’s that fan on the back, which makes you feel at once both a little-bit naughty and a little-bit racing driver, whilst the central driving position lures you deeper into both the chassis and the soul of the car.
Then there’s the butterfly doors, the multitude of storage options, the driving modes that do all manner of funk things with the aid of a 48v motor and that fan. Its a car both for everyday and that one day in a single lifetime.
More importantly, it’s the same old Gordon Murray. But it’s also Ian Gordon Murray with 50 years of experience; and all the lessons taken from Formula 1, and the F1, and all the other projects inbetween.
The T.50 promises to be his last supercar, but it won’t be his last project. And if you take any of his projects in isolation and focus on the attention to detail, and his ability to challenge convention, and the future, there’s an awful lot of exciting stuff in store for us all. And I can’t wait to see what the legendary man has in store for us next.
Here’s to another 50, Gordon.
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