GORDON MURRAY: IN CONVERSATION with Adil Jal Darukhanawala

  • November 12, 2008
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From designing the world's fastest supercar to making the most innovative small car for the world, you can't get a better person than Gordon Murray to spearhead such projects. Adil Jal Darukhanawala engaged the great designer, engineer and innovator in an exclusive interview

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.

AJD: Pretty old age...

GM: Absolutely, we call it "Back to the Future". Because let's say for very medium tooling costs of the body, which is recycled plastic (the whole body is recycled) , you can have anything you like. So down one production line you can be doing a pickup truck, a police car, a taxi, a van, or even an old saloon.

AJD: When you did the McLaren F1 with its central seating position, that itself was revolutionary, and it was then that I heard the term "centre of pressure", which you were talking about what the sports cars should have. How will this term / engineering approach transcend now to this small city car?

GM: Aah, that I can't talk about, atleast until the car is up and running!

AJD: Compared to what we've seen in Formula One, when you were doing the Brabhams, which was your stand-out Brabham design? Was it the BT44 or the BT52?

GM: I think, actually you picked the two cars, I think, I'm most proud of were the 44, 'coz the 44 did a lot of new things. It was quite a revolutionary car. I was very proud of that. It was the first car to put a lot of fuel behind the driver, remove it from the sides. And it was the first car to really develop any sort of ground effect aerodynamics. And the BT52 I love because it was the world's most unadjustable Formula One car. You just couldn't adjust stuff on it as you know it to be today. You could adjust the front wing, obviously the ride height and the springs and the dampers, and that was about it.

AJD: Amongst all the drivers who drove the Brabhams for you at that time, who was the stand-out driver in terms of racing?

GM: In the Brabham team, I got on very well with Niki Lauda, but the stand-out one I guess has to be Nelson (Piquet - father of Nelson Piquet Jr, who drives for Renault), who was with us for seven years and really part of the family. You know his engineering feedback was outstanding. It's not just about the driver's skill or engineering feedback, it's the time he's with the team. I think the driver needs to be a part of the family. And I don't think drivers are now. First of all, they're treated like gods, which is rubbish in my opinion. They're just employees like anybody else. They get paid to do a job and they should do the job. And secondly, they have to do so many PR functions that sometimes I think when they arrive at the race circuit, they forget what they've got to do. So I'm not a great fan of the current Formula One atmosphere, if you like.

AJD: You didn't have any incentive to go ahead with Formula One after the Brabham years?

GM: No, well I was gonna stop after 17 years and Ron Dennis talked me into it, twisted my arm in fact, to go to McLaren because he had lost John Barnard. And I said to Ron I'll come to Formula One, but I'll only do three years because 20 years is my absolute limit, bearing in mind I was married (and I don't know how I stayed married), in the first eleven years, I only had three weeks holiday! And it was really hard work in those days, no big teams like you have right now. So I said 20 years, that's it, did three years at McLaren and then stopped.

AJD: One of your backers is the Swaraj Paul-owned Caparo Group which also has a lot of Indians involved.

GM: Oh yes. It's an Indian family, yeah.

AJD: How do you see that linkage working out?

GM: Well, I think that it has great benefits. One of the reasons why I was very interested when Caparo approached me to be an investor in the new company is because they have, not just in India, but in North America and in the UK, a very broad engineering base and they're a very very good company and I think there's potential for our manufacturing process to have a huge linkage with Caparo in the future and particularly in this country perhaps, because the other thing I forgot to mention was the "Back to the Future" thing, our manufacturing process, which we call I-Stream, you can actually build the chassis anywhere in the world. It's designed like a bit of Swedish IKEA furniture.

AJD: Which you put together yourself?

GM: It flat packs. So instead of a typical shipping container; you know shipping is mostly diesel, ships are becoming more and more damaging, more and more expensive obviously with the price of diesel, pushing up blunt instruments across the sea takes up a lot of the black stuff. The T25 is designed to flat pack, so instead of getting three in a container, you can get 36. So it's 12 times more efficient, if you like.

AJD: Now I want to come across to this body-on-chassis approach. Compared to the Volkswagen Up! and the Tata Nano, both of them being rear engined, what do you have to say about their design approaches? Coz we're also aiming for the same here in India.

GM: The Volkswagen Up! I think that's switched back to a front engine now. I think their engineers got beaten up by the accountants.

AJD: Who runs accounts in your organization?

GM: We run it! We're an engineering led organization, you better believe that. But I think if you're going to build a really short car these days and still make it crash worthy, rear engine's the only way to go really, because you need a certain amount of crash length in front of the car. Of course when you've got a solid uncompressible bit which is the engine you have to add a bit of crash length between the occupants for intrusion and then you have to have the crash length in front. So you're stuck with a bit of dead length which you really can't minimize. If you package the car intelligently with a rear engine, you can maintain the front crash lengths and get better packaging I think. So I think very small cars in the future have to be rear engined.

AJD: Is your T-25 a rear engined one?

GM: Yes.

AJD: You must've obviously heard of the Tata Nano. What do you have to say about that?

GM: Yes. I haven't actually seen one but I've only read about it in the newspapers and it has got a fantastic amount of publicity in the UK and Europe. You know, if it can really be sold for that, I think it's a fantastic achievement. When you're selling a car for that little money, the bill of materials must be very small or the car is making a loss, one of the two. Great achievement nevertheless.

AJD: And final thoughts now on how far are we from a non-fossil fuel car?

GM: Well, I mean there is a lot of bullshit talked about new fuels in the world. You know, the European parliament in particular and the UK were very like that as well. Somebody thinks of a new idea and they jump on the band wagon and make rules and stuff, without really understanding the background. They did it with bio fuels, and there was a food crisis, and now they're looking at electric cars. Everybody's got to have electric cars. If you're like the United Kingdom, we have only 3% renewable energy source. That doesn't do any good because energy's got to come from somewhere and we're burning coal, gas or oil for the energy. So that's crazy. Electric cars will always have a place in the future especially if battery technology gets safer and lighter and cheaper. But electric cars will never be, until battery technology changes a lot, the answer for everybody. Just can't be, I mean, you add so much weight to the basic car that everything else gets heavier - the wheel bearings, the brakes, everything else gets bigger. So that's electricity.
Hydrogen is either a very long way off, 30 years or more, or maybe never, because it takes so much energy to make hydrogen. And the only possibility we have with hydrogen is if somebody comes up with a completely new way of producing hydrogen. Even then, you've got to store it at 200 bar to 300 bar. And the molecules are so small, they leak through steel! So you can't store it, you fill your car up and you leave it for 10 days and your tank's empty! So there's too much rubbish in my opinion to talk about stuff without enough research. You know, I've always been a realist and that's why we want to launch our car in petrol, because we're saying look at the other advantages, the car could be a hybrid or an electric, it's not a problem. But, let's just see how good we can get petrol first.

ZW: How far away in time are we from seeing your car in the flesh, the prototype?

GM: That's out of our control entirely, because it depends who we sell the car to. If hypothetically the buyer is somebody who is in business as a property developer, we'll sell a license to them for sure, such is the manner in which the project is being put together. So whoever buys it, whether it is an OE car maker or a non-OE entity, doesn't really matter. They might want to handle the press and PR entirely one hundred per cent. Or they might want to co-brand with us, in which case we can have a say. Or we could have a ridiculous situation where we could sell the first three projects and we can't say anything about them! Have to think this out though when I get back to England.

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