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 Minbug drawings
Low, aft-sited seating aids handling ability
Flat steel panels and parts sourced from a Mini van kept costs low; rear screen opens