Gor­don Mur­ray in­ter­view

De­signer Gor­don Mur­ray has set up a com­pany to build lowvol­ume cars us­ing his rad­i­cal istream process. Steve Cro­p­ley sees the roots of his vi­sion in one of his ear­li­est de­signs


His grand plans laid bare

It’s 10am, and the Sur­rey traf­fic has as­sumed the grey or white Ford-to­vaux­hall-via-bmw same­ness that marks UK traf­fic to­day – ex­cept for a cou­ple of daft­look­ing blokes with grins as wide as the road it­self, rasp­ing briskly along in a tiny, boxy, bright-yel­low car, an ul­tra-rare cre­ation not seen on Bri­tish roads for well over 40 years.

The tall one be­hind the wheel is Gor­don Mur­ray, mas­ter For­mula 1 de­signer, who, af­ter umpteen world cham­pi­onships and 50-odd grand prix vic­to­ries, turned his tal­ent in the 1990s first to road-go­ing supercars and then to tiny cars of low price and weight but re­mark­ably high ev­ery­thing else, prin­ci­pally per­for­mance.

The one in the pas­sen­ger’s seat is me. We’re head­ing for Mur­ray’s new head­quar­ters on the perime­ter of the Dunsfold air­field, out­side Guild­ford, to do some proper driv­ing. Our amaz­ing lit­tle car is the whole fo­cus of this morn­ing: it’s a nut-and­bolt recre­ation of the Min­bug, the first car Mur­ray ever built in this coun­try and his sec­ond ever af­ter a unique club­man dubbed the T1, which he built and raced in South Africa as a pre­co­cious 19-year-old would-be rac­ing driver. The T1 bore a su­per­fi­cial re­sem­blance to a Lo­tus Seven but was even smaller, lower, lighter and more rigid.

Through­out his ca­reer, Mur­ray has been a metic­u­lous keeper of records and draw­ings and is con­scious, with­out bom­bast, of his place in the au­to­mo­tive fir­ma­ment. The de­signer is about to mark his half-cen­tury in car de­sign by open­ing a brand-new Dunsfold HQ for his newly an­nounced lowvol­ume manufacturing arm, Gor­don Mur­ray Au­to­mo­tive, and stag­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of most of the cars he has cre­ated in 50 years. There have been 70 de­signs, he says, of which 58 have been built and 40 will be at the ex­hi­bi­tion, a re­mark­able num­ber given the cost and rar­ity of most of them. Mur­ray is care­ful to point out that this is far from be­ing a mere ret­ro­spec­tive: if any­thing, his lat­est de­signs are in­creas­ing in rel­e­vance and inf lu­ence be­cause they use the highly ef­fi­cient, ‘sim­ply so­phis­ti­cated’ istream prin­ci­ple that un­der­pins his new TVR Grif­fith and re­cent OX ‘truck for Africa’.

The Dunsfold event is a friend­sonly af­fair mainly be­cause Mur­ray’s new busi­ness (al­ready at work on a diminu­tive sports car ca­pa­ble of tak­ing the place of his beloved, 14-year-old Smart Road­ster) sim­ply isn’t equipped for the ar­rival of the

thou­sands who would at­tend if they could. But there’s a com­pre­hen­sive video tour, cu­rated by Mur­ray him­self, avail­able on the Gor­don Mur­ray De­sign (GMD) web­site.

The Min­bug, our fo­cus to­day, was pro­duced out of ne­ces­sity. Mur­ray ar­rived in the UK at the end of the 1960s, hav­ing al­ready built and raced his T1 in South Africa, but with very lit­tle money. He couldn’t af­ford a de­cent car so, with a friend in the same po­si­tion, he de­cided to de­sign and build his own. The idea was to make four – one each and two to sell – us­ing the prof­its from num­bers three and four to pay for the orig­i­nal pair, and that’s how it worked out.

The work­shop was a rudi­men­tary shed just in­side the bound­ary of Heathrow air­port, a site that has long been de­vel­oped. “We had one pow­er­point and one light bulb,” re­calls Mur­ray, “but they were good days and we soon got used to the noise. I re­mem­ber us rush­ing out­side to see the first Boe­ing 747 jumbo jet ar­rive. It was re­ally ex­cit­ing.”

The Min­bug was Mini based and thus used a trans­verse front­drive lay­out. The donor car was the Mini van, cho­sen chiefly for its no-frills run­ning gear that in­cluded a stan­dard 33bhp 848cc A-se­ries engine, a prefer­able tail-light shape and the van’s easy avail­abil­ity back in 1970. Mur­ray re­mem­bers the team rolling donor vans onto their sides as a quick way of strip­ping off the nec­es­sary Min­bug com­po­nents.

Back at Shal­ford, which re­mains GMD’S de­sign HQ and pro­to­type cen­tre, we’ve just had half an hour in the board­room por­ing over the typ­i­cally neat 48-year-old draw­ings that led to the Min­bug’s ges­ta­tion in June 1970, in­clud­ing a hand­drawn de­pic­tion of how its flat pan­els could be made to fit onto five 8ft-by-4ft stan­dard steel sheets. (Mur­ray couldn’t af­ford the cost and com­plex­ity of shap­ing them.) At this point, it dawns on me that this is lit­er­ally the first Mur­ray istream

It dawns on me that the Min­bug is lit­er­ally the first Mur­ray istream car

car. Its welded frame in square­sec­tion steel tube – de­lib­er­ately not a costly space-con­sum­ing tri­an­gu­lated space­frame – uses bonded-in flat steel pan­els to cre­ate rigid­ity while leav­ing max­i­mum in­te­rior space, ex­actly as istream cars do with com­pos­ite pan­els pro­vid­ing rigid­ity in a net­work of steel tubes to­day. The re­sult in 1970 was a low, spa­cious, re­mark­ably sporty lit­tle car weigh­ing just 500kg, un­der­cut­ting a stan­dard Mini by at least 100kg. It was also a cool 25cm (10in) lower. The lower weight meant that, even with a base engine, the car went harder than any Mini, and the stan­dard, ris­ing-rate rub­ber sus­pen­sion gave a sportier ride with bet­ter han­dling. Set­ting the oc­cu­pants lower and fur­ther back evened up the Mini’s front-heavy weight dis­tri­bu­tion – hence less un­der­steer and body roll – and the Min­bug also stopped much bet­ter, even on stan­dard drum brakes.

Given that all pan­els and both front and rear wind­screens are flat, the Min­bug is a sur­pris­ingly funky­look­ing lit­tle car, while also be­ing very much a 20-year-old’s mo­bil­ity so­lu­tion. The square­ness gives it some Moke connections, ex­cept it’s lower, with a more spa­cious two-seat body and a lower and much bet­ter driv­ing po­si­tion, cour­tesy of the Cor­beau bucket seats.

At the rear, there’s a metal canopy with a raked, open­able rear win­dow (on struts) and a re­mov­able can­vas roof. The bon­net is neatly formed of flat pan­els, ac­com­mo­dat­ing a pair of round head­lights that both place the car firmly in its era and make it seem sim­ple and cheeky be­cause they’re so large. The Min­bug is def­i­nitely more en­gi­neered than styled, but its low­ness and good pro­por­tions work well. “It was sur­pris­ingly prac­ti­cal,” says Mur­ray. “We used it daily for three years, in­clud­ing for hol­i­days in Scot­land.”

What’s re­ally riv­et­ing, how­ever, is how well the car works to­day. Be­cause Mur­ray has the draw­ings, this is a nut-and-bolt replica, though it now packs niceties from the late Mini era such as a torquey 1380cc engine with about 100bhp, a re­mote gearchange in place of the orig­i­nal Mini’s ‘spaghetti lever’, disc front brakes and de­cent tyres. Oh, yes, and a sports ex­haust that goes from bark to roar when you give it the beans.

When you drive, the car feels big­ger than it is, mainly be­cause of the roomy cock­pit, the low and spa­cious driv­ing po­si­tion, the ex­cel­lent seat sup­port and the ter­rific vis­i­bil­ity. There are few of the usual small-car cock­pit com­pro­mises here. Re­mem­ber, its cre­ator is 6ft 5in tall. It also goes: even with oc­cu­pants aboard, it packs 150bhp per tonne. Yet out­side, it’s tiny. The track feels wide but the car it­self is nar­row, al­low­ing you to take an old-style line through ev­ery bend. And there’s torque, even from 2000rpm in top.

Best of all, this car has the bal­ance rem­i­nis­cent of a rear-drive car, sim­ply be­cause the weight dis­tri­bu­tion is so much bet­ter than a Mini’s. It’s not hard rid­ing – there’s de­cent bump ab­sorp­tion and de­tectable roll in cor­ners – but the turn-in is neat and sharp and the grip is im­pres­sive. You can’t just press it in­stantly into un­der­steer and nei­ther is there the in­stant Mini brand of snap over­steer when you throt­tle off mid-cor­ner. Even when you drive hard, it works.

This recre­ation of the Min­bug might have been a cu­rios­ity, a mere book­mark in a mas­ter de­signer’s ca­reer. That, I must say, is what I ex­pected. But that morn­ing at Dunsfold shows the un­der­ly­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties of this odd lit­tle car, and the con­tin­u­ing dura­bil­ity of the the­o­ries that have un­der­pinned the con­cept for 40-odd years. No won­der Gor­don Mur­ray’s own plan for the car is so sim­ple: to keep us­ing it a lot.

The Min­bug was sur­pris­ingly prac­ti­cal. We used it daily for years

Orig­i­nal 1970 car had a pro­duc­tion run of four recre­ation of the orig­i­nal This is a nut-and-bolt Mur­ray (on right) shows Cro­p­ley new Dunsfold premises Mur­ray has de­signed no fewer than 70 cars over 50 years Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, Mur­ray still has his...

Low, aft-sited seat­ing aids han­dling abil­ity

Flat steel pan­els and parts sourced from a Mini van kept costs low; rear screen opens

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