Suddenly, every high end automobile manufacturer in the world wants to have the biggest, baddest hybrid super car on the planet. McLaren is building the P1, a V-8, 850 hp hybrid, which Ferrari will counter with its 900 hp V-12 hybrid, the LaFerrari. And Porsche is going ahead with its V-8, 884 hp plug-in hybrid, the 918.
But Gordon Murray, one of the preeminent car designers of all time, disagrees with this approach. He is the leading advocate for small, lightweight road cars that focus on good road manners and excellent handling rather than brute horsepower.
From childhood, Murray dreamed of building a sports car with the driver seated in the center for excellent visibility and flanked by a passenger seat on either side and to the rear. Following the fateful Italian Grand Prix at Monza Italy in 1988 in which legendary driver Ayrton Senna was killed, Murray got the ear of McLaren chief Ron Dennis and presented him with his concept.
That meeting led to the creation of the McLaren F1, still considered one of the best road cars ever built. A McLaren F1 won Le Mans in 1995, besting several purpose built race cars in the process. In 1994, AutoCar magazine proclaimed “ “The McLaren F1 is the finest driving machine yet built for the public road.”
If there were a Hall of Fame for automotive designers, Murray would be in it, alongside such titans as Colin Chapman, Jim Hall, Harvey Postlethwaite, Adrian Newey and Ken Tyrell. In his design philosophy, Murray is closest to Colin Chapman, creator of Lotus Cars, whose lifelong mantra was “To go faster, simplify and add lightness.” While carbon fiber is all the rage these days for building a supercar chassis, Murray believes that a sandwich or composite structure of carbon fiber and aluminum is actually lighter and stronger than carbon fiber alone. To that end, he has designed the T25 and T27 electric urban runabouts, which Yamaha recently signed on to produce.
Who is Gordon Murray in 2014: high performance hero or eco warrior?
More than anything he is someone who loves driving, and wants to protect that. With bigger and heavier cars we are heading into oblivion. Finding more and more power can’t go on for ever. The big frontier is weight. I have always been into light weight, it’s just that now I have changed from racing and high performance to cars that everyone can enjoy.
Do the McLaren P1, LaFerrari and Porsche 918 represent a natural progression from the McLaren F1?
No I don’t think so. They have gone in a completely different direction from the F1. I see these cars more as a technical exercise. I am not saying the P1 is not a good car but it is 180 degrees away from what the McLaren F1 set out to do. The F1 was a pure driver’s car, a piece of engineering art and also a car you could use every day. It was always going to be quick but we never set out to achieve 240mph. The most important thing was that you could take it to the track and be able to slide it around a little. We could easily have given it three or four times the downforce but what would have been the point?
What’s so special about your iStream way of making cars?
Some sports cars made today with a single-skin carbon chassis boast about using F1 materials – people do tend to have a fixation about carbon-fibre. But this is completely the wrong way to use carbon. It’s not F1 materials that are important to iStream but F1 technology in the form of composite structures – two skins and a honeycomb. That’s how you get light weight and strength. iStream makes these structures without using expensive carbon in a way that’s easy and affordable for mass production.
It’s the first change to mass motor production for 100 years. It’s disruptive technology and hard to sell. However any start-up company wanting to make cars has no option but to leapfrog traditional stamped steel manufacture and adopt a disruptive technology. We have seven different projects under way at the moment, all very different; Yamaha is the only one that’s gone public with its Motiv which will be in production in 2018.
What’s still on Gordon Murray’s to-do list?
I have a hankering to do one more supercar, and I wouldn’t have unless these one-and-a-half-tonne hybrid monsters hadn’t come out. I would have left it with the F1. But now there’s a point to be proven: that you can still do a great driver’s car with an internal combustion engine and pure engineering.
I am desperate to get my affordable sports car to (low-volume) production. There’s such a gap in the market for it. What is it like? Simple, normally aspirated, light weight, rear drive, very stiff and strong with its composite construction. It’s the antidote to the P1 or LaFerrari.
If a genie came to me tomorrow and granted me one wish, it would be to work at Gordon Murray Design alongside this creative genius and his team of 70 talented colleagues. That would be so cool!