GP Traveler caught up with Gordon Murray, former technical director for Brabham Formula One, who won two world championships in 1981 and 1983; and later, as Technical Director for McLaren International, led the team to win three consecutive championships in 1988, 1989, and 1990.
Murray was recently awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for his contribution to the British motoring industry and currently runs two companies he founded, Gordon Murray Design (GMD) and Gordon Murray Automotive (GMA). He has authored a book, celebrating all his designs, called “One Formula”—set for release in May 2019.
In his career spanning ﬁve decades, Gordon Murray, 72, (yes, he started young) has stuck to a personal mantra of “Lightweight is everything,” masterminding lightweight race and road cars with heavyweight attitude that amaze technically and slacken car lovers’ jaws worldwide.
Many of the cars he designed are so well known that they need no introduction, but think F1 championship winners Brabham BT49, the BT52—designed in three and a half months to replace the BT51 following a historical F1 rule change banning skirts, the (almost) all-conquering McLaren MP4/4 of ’88, the innovative Brabham BT46B “fan car” of 1978, the BT55 of 1986, and the iconic McLaren F1 road car—considered by many to be the benchmark for road-going hypercar performance as a result of its lightweight design, precise steering and powerful V12 engine.
As is the case with most legends, Murray’s ambition and talent revealed themselves early on. “I was mad on racing when I was ﬁve or six,” the South African-born designer residing in England said. Add to that passion an artistic bent, and the rest is history. “I always loved shapes and styling. I’m not saying that I sat down to draw pretty cars, but I did have that ﬂair and always made sure that things looked nice. It’s difﬁcult to draw an ugly shape if you have that within you.”
As important as aesthetics are, Murray “never, ever” sacriﬁced performance. Still he admits that if there was something in an area, like ahead of the cockpit, that didn’t really affect the aerodynamics, he’d always draw something with a “decent shape and a nice balance.”
As far as cars’ graphics go, Murray explains that he wasn’t involved, and that they were largely driven by team owner Bernie Eccelstone, who often used freelance designer Peter Stevens. “Bernie really cared about how the car looked,” Murray says. “He had a massive say in the livery of the cars.”
“I don’t sleep much; all these ideas keep popping into my head.”
Evidently Murray has a magic formula for achieving the perfect balance of form and function, turning out mesmerizing vehicles—both robust in performance and exciting to behold (think again of the stunning, impossibly fast McLaren F1). Murray attributes his winning (literally) designs to intuition, engineering knowledge, artistic simplicity and a never-ending supply of new ideas. “I don’t sleep much; all these ideas keep popping into my head,” he quips.
When it comes to design, Murray never veers from his personal mantra: “Lightweight is everything,” inspired by his design hero, Colin Chapman, whose favorite line was: “Add lightness.” Murray has adopted the same philosophy, seeing himself as an innovator just like Chapman. “In the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties there were the school of innovators or risk takers like the Colin Chapmans of the world; then there were the evolutionary guys, like Patrick Head of Williams. Neither school was right or wrong, but I certainly fell into the innovation side of it.”
Murray explains how a myriad of skills, including management know-how, earned him a special place both behind the scenes and on the circuits. “I ended up running an entire Formula One racing team at twenty-six, which sounds terrifying to me now!” he said. But what really put Murray above other teams, was that he could design the whole car. “When Bernie Eccelstone arrived and ﬁred the other four guys in the design ofﬁce and made me Chief Designer, I was on my own,” Murray recounted about his Brabham promotion.
“Today, there are thousands of people working in a Formula One team and hundreds of people designing parts, while only a handful of people have a handle on the overall concept,” he pointed out. “In my days, I had to design the gearboxes, the engine installations, the aerodynamics, body structures, suspension geometry, do stress analysis and on top of that run the team. I organized spare parts catalogs, loaded the truck, ran all the testing and aerodynamic work and at the circuit I was engineering both cars.”
For Murray, a holistic approach to lightweight design remains the almighty goal even today. “If you design the whole vehicle cohesively and sympathetically you get a car that has a really focused agenda. Like the McLaren F1 road car [that] is such a lightweight cohesive car because I signed off on every single drawing for that car.”
The very last frontier for road cars is lightweight.
Further, he believes that lightweight technology—like the lower-cost carbon-ﬁbre honeycomb panels GMA produces through robotic systems—should be extended to the everyday driver. “The very last frontier for road cars is lightweight,” the design visionary says. “That’s why I’ve started this business. We’ve invented iStream to support the production of affordable, lightweight road cars with all the stiffness of racing cars. We’re licensing this across the world.”
GMA’s ﬁrst model is the T.43, a lightweight car featuring a new version of GMD’s iStream manufacturing system. The T.43 will re-launch the IGM brand and carry a re-design of the badging applied to Murray’s very ﬁrst car – the ‘T.1’ IGM Ford Special, which he raced successfully in South Africa in 1967 and 1968.
Murray is also working on what could be considered the spiritual successor of McLaren’s F1, a manually shifted, V12 powered 3-seater featuring a lightweight carbon ﬁber chassis that promises to be lighter than the already svelte F1 of 2007.
If penning new models isn’t enough for the prodigious designer, he’s also written a book entitled “One Formula” as a permanent record and celebration of his 50 years of car design. Published by Porter Press, its launch is expected in May 2019.
And speaking of records—this time of the musical variety—Murray, oft-photographed in the 70s and 80s wearing rock band t-shirts, is asked what he’s listening to these days. “It’s an eclectic mix,” he replies, “but mostly Bob Dylan.” We can only wonder if “Blowin’ in the Wind” plays in Murray’s mind while he thinks up his next aerodynamic innovations.
Interview by Antonio Pizzi, story by Loretta Di Vita