Andrew Frankel – Road cars

Murray works his magic

There are few better ways to obfuscate the truth than to throw a superlative at it. In public your claim appears unambiguous and explicit, in private it withstands no scrutiny at all. Years ago I was proudly told by a car manufacturer that its shiny new product was ‘the most spacious in its class’. Seems clear doesn’t it? It was nothing of the sort. What it had done is calculate that you could get more ping-pong balls into its cabin than any other car it considered to be a rival which, if you’re a human being, is an entirely meaningless measure since ping-pong balls can visit places humans cannot. Second, because there are no rules as to what qualifies a car for entry into any given class, it had made up its own which conveniently excluded a couple of spacious rivals.

What, then, are we to make of: ‘this is the biggest revolution in the car industry since the Ford Model T’? It’s a claim so extravagant that, as it is also mere opinion, it would seem easy to pull it to pieces in seconds. Indeed it is probably the single most bold assertion I have heard anyone make in 20 years writing about the industry, and I’ve heard a few. But if I had to guess, I’d probably go along with it. The reason why is simple: the claim was made by Gordon Murray.

The revolution is his T25 city car, and when he made his claim to an assembly of friends, journalists, former colleagues and investors at his design studios in Shalford one day last month, I doubt one of us even blinked.

Another quite believable Murray superlative is that the T25 – the 25th car which he has overseen from concept to reality – is the biggest challenge he has faced in his career to date. When you realise what this little miracle on wheels is trying to achieve, you will see that designing championship-winning F1 cars or even the world’s fastest supercar is as easy as falling down the stairs.

Conceptually, the closest and, you might argue, only rival for the T25 is the Smart ForTwo, a car for which I have almost unlimited admiration. So here are a few facts for you to chew over: the T25 is 300mm shorter than a Smart, but will seat at least three and possibly four people, yet while the T25 will weigh 500kg, the Smart weighs 750kg – half as much again. The cheapest Smart costs £6905, the projected price of the T25 is £5500 which, if realised, would make it one of the very cheapest cars on sale. A Smart’s combined fuel consumption is a little over 60mpg while the T25’s is a little over 80mpg. But while the Smart has a power-to-weight ratio of 81bhp per tonne, the T25’s is said to be 92.7bhp. A Smart emits 112 grammes of CO2 every kilometre, the T25 just 78. A Toyota Prius, by the way, puts out 104g/km.

And now a word of caution: all these figures quoted for the T25 are not real but computations, as the first car will not run under its own power until next March at the earliest. But Gordon Murray is the man who originally promised the McLaren F1 would have at least 500bhp and when the car came out, it had 627bhp.

Sadly, although all the major design work of the T25 is complete and a finished styling buck exists and was at the launch, wrapped up in what looked like hi-tech tin foil, Murray declined to show it to us. The excuse, however, was good. Although Murray and his team are and will remain exclusively responsible for the design and engineering of the car, the rights to manufacture and sell it will be licenced to a major car company and until that is done, under wraps it remains. Which company might it be? Gordon’s not saying, though there was much mutter in the room about Honda and as he is a long-time fan of the marque (owning an NSX for years and using its lightweight yet practical design as inspiration in part for the McLaren F1), it seems an entirely credible option.

The T25’s appeal to an ever more congested world is clear. You can fit three in a standard parking bay and, if legislation can be drafted to allow it, two side by side in any given motorway lane, transforming the motorway network’s potential capacity. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this new car is not what it is so much as how it will come to be. When I asked Murray what was more impressive, the car or the revolutionary way in which it will be built, he said, “You guys [the press] will think it’s the car’s design, but for me it’s the way it will be manufactured.”

He elaborates further: “The car will not be a monocoque, but a body on frame design allowing cheap panel replacement and six different body styles on one platform. Instead of having stressed panels, all ours do is keep the rain out. The whole car takes three hours to build (a standard hatch takes around 10) and while the average car has 450 pressings this one has, er, none.” He won’t say what it’s built from but does say the bodywork material has never been used in the car industry despite the fact that, “it’s been staring us in the face for years. Think water bottles”.

And what about if you crash it? “The car has already been through over 80 simulated crash tests at MIRA and has performed just fine.” He predicts at least a four-star Euro NCAP rating.

The way it will be built is more astonishing still. It needs a factory one fifth the size of that required to put out an equivalent number of conventional cars, and the car can be shipped in flat-pack form, which means 12 times as many T25s can get on one boat. As Murray says the economic advantages are considerable, but the real appeal is likely to be in the environmental savings. “Look at current hybrids: they’re environmentally great – as a marketing exercise – but viewed over their entire life cycle from manufacture to disposal they’re terrible. What is needed is a completely fresh approach in all areas from design and engineering, to manufacture and distribution.”

And if you’re thinking the result is going to be some shrink-wrapped Noddy car with all the visual and dynamic appeal of something a dog might leave on a pavement, you reckon without Gordon Murray who couldn’t design a boring car if he tried. “Look at the original Mini – it was a completely classless car and sold to everyone from rock ’n’ roll to royalty. Moreover, the T25 weighs just 500kg – believe me, it will be fun to drive.”

Murray first had the idea for the T25 in 1993 but relentless calls on his time have kept it on the back-burner until now. Perhaps that will come to be seen as serendipitous because there is no question that the reception such a car would have received even 10 years ago is very different to that it is likely to garner today.

Even so, he reckons it will be 2012 at the earliest before any one of us can go out and buy a T25 – which, if the price of personal mobility continues on its current path, looks likely to be not one moment too soon.

Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé

I reported on this coupé, the third car to be based on the Phantom platform, back in the April edition but, at the time, was allowed only to look around it.

Now, after a day driving it in France and Switzerland, I can confirm it is very much as it appears: a svelte and sophisticated carriage which for its gorgeous looks and dashing character is the most appealing product yet launched by the renewed Rolls-Royce. But the news is not all good: they’ve stiffened the chassis, not by enough to make it handle but sufficient to remove the smooth edge from its ride quality.

Also I can confirm that its much criticised ‘Sport’ button is not only inappropriate for such a car, it is also completely pointless. Nevertheless, it brought most of Geneva to a standstill so, from Rolls’ point of view, I suspect that qualifies as ‘job done’.

Ford Focus RS

What’s the most impressive feature of this new Focus RS? Its 300bhp motor, sub-6sec 0-60mph time or limited 155mph top speed? Not even close. It’s the fact that it achieves all of the above while directing its power through the front wheels alone.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, or at least torque-steering off the road. But Ford is adamant that four-wheel drive was ruled out on the sole grounds that, with trick front suspension geometry and a Quaife limited slip differential, the car does not need it.

Unfortunately it will take some time to discover the truth of it: while the RS will have been revealed to the world at the London Motor Show by the time you read this, it doesn’t seem likely that anyone will get to drive a production version this year.