GORDON MURRAY: IN CONVERSATION with Adil Jal Darukhanawala
Gordon, everyone engages you almost inevitably in discussion about the McLaren F1, but what about the Rocket you made with Chris Craft?
Gordon Murray: I loved doing the Rocket, I have to say I really loved it. It was so clean and pure. When I was young, Colin Chapman was my hero, and when I was older he was my friend. But he really remained my hero, because his mantra of light-weight and simplicity, I loved. And that's always been my mantra as well. And I thought a good friend of mine, Chris Craft, always wanted to make a car with me. And I thought that Colin had held the world record for long enough with the Lotus 7 being the lightest car, and I think at the time (we did the Rocket in 1990, or 91 or something like that), and at the time the Caterham / Lotus 7, was around 530 kilos. So we wanted to be not just a little bit lighter, we wanted to be dramatically lighter. And I said to Chris the only way to do it was to use a motorcycle engine. And in those days, people weren't using motorcycles because you didn't have the differential, you didn't have reverse gear, you had transmission problems. My target was a single-seater at 350 kilos, but just as we started the design Chris said that it should be a tandem two-seater, so we gave away 20 more kilos to make it a two-seater. But we still came out at 370 kilos, which I was very proud of, and I've got one. I still use it, I go shopping in it, I go to work in it.
AJD: Don't you want to recreate such a thing for the present times?
GM: Funnily enough that's uncanny you ask this question, because last week Chris Craft came around for dinner, and he has an American financier with whom he wants to do Rocket 2, with an engine with more torque; maybe a 1300, so it might not be as light, but it'll still be, I think, quick enough.
AJD: It's important that you mention the word light, because looking at your T25 project, you are talking about a city car for four weighing about 500 kilogrammes.
GM: We're talking about something like between 500 to 600 kilos, which will be 400 kilos lighter than an average small hatchback-like car.
AJD: How do you go about achieving this target? Is it only by design or is it by design and material?
GM: No, honestly, by design you could maybe save 50 kilos, really. I started work on this car in 1993, but then got stuck into the Mclaren F1 project. While at McLaren in 99 when I had a bit of a gap between programs, I spent a year doing work on this car. What it is, is a completely new manufacturing process for a motorcar. Totally new, so it's a process that needs very little capital investment, including the size of the factory, has a very low environmental impact because the factory itself has a low carbon footprint and the car is separate body-chassis. And what that does for you is you get away from pressed steel. If you do a traditional spot-welded body the same way we've been making cars for 80 years or something, that's it! You've chosen your material. So the bits that are important have to be steel, the bits that just have to keep the rain out also have to be steel and you're stuck. So what we've done is reinvent the process, and we've gone back to the future with a separate body-chassis. So we can go right through the car as we've done and select a material suitable for what that job does; for crash, for torsion, for keeping the rain out. And we've got loads of different materials in the car and that's the way we've managed to save 400 kilos.
AJD: Is it still safe?
GM: Absolutely, it has to be! Certainly in Europe you couldn't sell a car that you can't graphically demonstrate as a safe car. So we have to have a good Euro NCAP score, in essence have to be as safe as the Smart, which has got a 4-star Euro NCAP. You have to do that. And the car can't be too low, because it's not good to drive in traffic, so your eye-line has to be at least the same as a conventional car. But we're aiming at 500 to 600 kilos...
AJD: And you're talking about powering it with a 550cc engine with three cylinders?
GM: The first engine we're putting in is a 660cc, 3-cylinder, but actually, the car's design, especially its architecture is so flexible that it can take anything. Could be electric, could be hybrid, could be anything.
AJD: One key thing I garnered about the T25 project is that it has been geared to conform to different applications very easily, say a taxi, a pickup, a sporty run-about.
GM: Absolutely, and that's because of the separate body-chassis. The really clever bit, I think is the separate body chassis, because if you look at the tooling cost to do a car, most of the tooling costs are in the heavy bits, which is the power train, the suspension, the brakes, the electrical architecture, the steering, the cooling system, the fuel system. That's where all the real money is. With this, you effectively have a rolling chassis.