Interview - Gordon Murray

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Specification

Engine: “Large” — Naturally aspirated
Cylinders: “Lots”
Power output: “Plenty”
Suspension, brakes and steering: “Formula 1 standard”
Availability: From 1994
Price: “More than anything in view today”
Manufacturer: McLaren Cars Limited, South-east England

If the specification for the forthcoming McLaren “supercar” looks decidedly vague, it’s not because the directors are trying to keep dark secrets. We have the assurance of technical director Gordon Murray on that; “When we’ve got something to tell you, we will. We may announce the name of the car at the end of the year. We may show you the concept at the end of next year.”

“What we will not do is give a load of hype, ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that’ and we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it. Sure we’ll talk to you about what we aim to do, but we won’t give you any information that might turn out to be wrong.”

What strikes you in a conversation with Murray, the leading Formula 1 car designer of the 1970s and 1980s, is a nice mixture of futuristic concepts and old fashioned virtues. He, principal directors Ron Dennis, Mansour Ojjeh, and commercial director Creighton Brown are jointly dedicated to producing the best sports car that modern techniques will allow, at a price that has no label. The McLaren will be hand-built, more expensive than anything envisaged today (certainly in excess of £500,000) and will be produced only as long as there are enough wealthy people to buy it, but on the other hand it won’t be a limited edition model.

And yet, while designing an esoteric car that will guide the volume manufacturers for the next decade, Murray has put his roots down in the past. He’ll emulate Henry Royce, Ettore Bugatti and Henry Leyland in their desires to make the finest cars of their era, and he just might use some of their techniques as well, blending traditional materials inside the cockpit with carbonfibre and composite materials used for the chassis and body.

“The quality of the engineering will be Formula 1 standard,” Murray insists. “We’ll be putting a massive amount of work into vehicle dynamics, noise and vibration control, suspension compliance, outstanding performance and driver satisfaction. Above all, the McLaren will be designed to give maximum satisfaction to the driver.”

When all is said and done, though, the McLaren will also be a classic. “I don’t think that any cars in production today are destined to be classics. Let’s just say, though, that someone found a Mercedes 500SEL in a barn somewhere, in 50 years time. All the plastic mouldings are split and cracked, so how would you restore them? You couldn’t, unless you had the original moulds! The dashboard, the headlining, the underfloor covers, they’re all injection moulded.

‘The cars I admire were built in the 1930s, things like the Bugatti Royale I suppose. They were built from the real stuff, trees, leather, metals that you could reproduce. I don’t know how much of that we can use, but I’d like to try because l want the McLaren to be a classic for ever, if that’s possible.”

Mansour Ojjeh is the principle of Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG), responsible for the V6 engine made by Porsche for McLaren Racing. He made a bit of folklore along the way by ordering the most exotic Porsche Turbo ever produced for road use (at the time, in 1983), half way between a road 911 Turbo and a 930 racer. “It had to be the most technically advanced, luxurious and fastest 911 Turbo ever” reported Rolf Sprenger, head of Porsche’s customer department in Stuttgart.

The spirit lives on today, and it was mirrored by Ron Dennis, head of the McLaren International group. He and Ojjeh have determined that they’ll take the same path as Ferrari in establishing a manufacturing company, McLaren Cars, that will move to the centre of the group before the end of the Nineties.

The group HQ will be based somewhere in south-east England and will have a test track alongside, as Dennis announced to a surprised audience some 18 months ago. Not surprisingly there are serious planning difficulties attached to the track, and Murray and Brown have even considered running it underground.

McLaren Cars, with a staff of 29, occupies the same new building in Old Woking, Surrey, as TAG Electronics (staff of 80), which will soon be seen to provide an advanced engine management system to Mercedes for the C291 sports-racing car. It is reasonable to suppose that TAG Electronics will also supply the management system for the McLaren, though Murray won’t say so in as many words.

There are lots of things he won’t say, in as many words. The concept of the engine was decided some months ago, but we wait to be told (a) the capacity, (b) the number of cylinders and (c) the power output. “What has been taking the time is talking to the people who’ll actually make it. I can’t even tell you if it’ll be made in England, but it’s an option.

“One of the options we’re considering is that it could be someone else’s design that we build, here. It will not be turbocharged, so it follows that it’ll have a reasonably high capacity because it’s got to have lots of power! The car’s power to weight ratio will equal that of a Ferrari F40, so you can get some idea of what I’m saying.”

This engine, definitely located ahead of the rear wheels, might be placed transversely in the style of the Lamborghini Miura (“That would be telling. . . . but think of the problems with the exhausts on the forward bank”). It will drive through a McLaren gearbox, perhaps with semiautomatic control.

The suspension will be conventional, it’s thought, brakes will be exceedingly powerful, the steering high geared, all to give the driver the feeling of handling a Formula 1 car on the road. Four-wheel drive has been ruled out, mainly on the grounds of weight and complexity, but also because Murray feels it shouldn’t be needed in such a car. If the owner wants to go out in the snow, he’s got an off-road vehicle in the garage.

How about active suspension? “No, I’ve rejected that. I could look at electronic dampers, maybe, but not active suspension. It’s too complicated and too heavy. The McLaren will be very exciting dynamically, and all the active cars I’ve driven have been the exact opposite.

“They’re fine over bumps, that’s what they’re good at, but there’s no feel at all when you try to hustle them along, they actually feel unsafe. There’s no feel of contact patch at all. Active suspension’s valid in the same way as flying to the moon was valid, strictly from an engineering point of view.”

Compactness, and intelligent use of the car’s overall dimension, is a gospel for Murray. For family transport he swears by a Renault Espace, while for fun it’s a toss-up between his Ducati motor cycle and his pristine, 1960 Lotus Elan which was built, as a matter of a fact, a year before he arrived in Britain from his native South Africa.

“Ordinary passenger cars are getting bigger and heavier, and that’s an awful trend. If everyone drove around in Volvo 760s there’s be no room on the road for you and me! It’s ridiculous making these massive cars for people to travel around on their own.

“Sports cars should be dynamically exciting and enjoyable, and to me that means compact, light and powerful. I have set a weight target, which I’m not telling you exactly, and the McLaren will be very light. . . . but it’ll be a hell of a lot safer than the big and heavy cars. You’ll see, one day, the amount of effort we’ve put into things like visibility and controls. We’re on our third pre-production buck at the moment, and we’ve had several people working on controls for seven months now.”

The choice of wheels and tyres could be a major headache for Murray and for styling chief Peter Stevens, who joined McLaren earlier this year after completing the new Lotus Elan. Ultra-wide wheels, as Murray knows all too well, are the enemy of everything he wants the McLaren to be. They reduce comfort, they increase rolling resistance, drag and unsprung weight, they cause problems with suspension geometry and camber change control, they increase the turning circle.

“However, a car with such high power to-weight ratio needs a lot of rubber on the road. If there isn’t enough you’ve got problems. You’d have to go to a harder compound, and that means you’d lose grip.”

Murray’s ideal sports car, the original Lotus Elan, managed brilliantly on 4½ inch rims, the same dimension as on the Austin A35 saloon, but while the future McLaren won’t go down to that dimension, it certainly won’t have full-size Formula 1 wheels either.

Small really is beautiful in his book. Looking to the future, Murray agrees that there will be a successor to the `supercar’ and it may not be a sports car at all. “I’ve got a very, very good design team here, hand-picked guys, and I never want to let them go. Once we’ve designed this car we’ve got to go on to the next. So yes, we will have to have another programme and soon we’ll have to start talking about it.

“The way the world’s going, this might be the ultimate and final statement in supercars. Personally I’d like to build a proper town car. Building a sports car is fine, but sports cars are for fun. We should learn something from Japan, with the micro car. A small sports car is highly efficient, and a town car is a logical progression.”

After spending 20 years in Formula 1 racing, Gordon Murray has no withdrawal symptoms at all. “I have found this entire exercise very fascinating. The design of the car is only one small part of setting up an operation like this. We’ve been talking about marketing, servicing, customer requirements and the like for the past three years, and I’m immersed in that. We’ve got some unique ideas in these areas, and the whole thing is very refreshing.

“The best market researchers in the world couldn’t tell us anything we don’t know already, because Creighton and I have been mixing with our potential customers for the last twenty years. We know their profiles, we know what they want and what they don’t want. It’s not always the things you’d expect. It’s more often the little things they’d like to see included, or left out. “Basically, the McLaren will be hand-built, in the way that a Formula 1 car is hand-built. Everything you can see and touch will be designed and made specifically for this car, even door handles and locks. Things you can’t see, like windscreen wiper motors, we’ll look around and buy the best available. We’re not going to be bloody-minded about making everything ourselves, we’re not going to re-invent the wheel, but there will be no compromises whatsoever.

“Ordering and owning a McLaren is going to be a very personal experience, going back to the 1930s again I suppose. It it’s going to be the best car that money can buy, we’ve got to match that in every way. There can be no breakages, no things falling off, and our service has got to be second to none.”

Within a few weeks McLaren Cars will announce the name of the supercar. At the same time, or soon after, more information will be released about the engine, when a contract has been signed. At the end of 1991 we may see the concept, a year later the first working prototype, while the first customer car should be completed by the end of 1993. It all sounds rather relaxed, but in reality there’s an enormous amount of work to be done in a fairly short space of time.

The whole concept of the McLaren supercar would sound like dreamland to anyone in the motor industry, yet the project has a simple beauty; if only one customer, possessed of almost infinite wealth, wanted to purchase the unique machine, McLaren would make it then turn the page, get on with something else. They’re in another world. MLC