CARS, THY NAME
Following last month’s announcement that Gordon Murray is to build a new supercar, we sit him down to get the full story
A glimpse into the mind of the man behind arguably the best supercars
‘IT’S LIKE A LOTUS ELISE WITH A 650BHP V12 in the back that revs to 12,000rpm. That’s what it is!’ Gordon Murray isn’t actually rebodying an Elise, obviously; he’s simply trying to express in layman’s terms just how brutal and frenziedly exciting his new T.50 hypercar will be from behind the wheel, and I’m hearing him loud and clear, my heart rate rising just at the thought. The maestro is on top form, the excitement writ large across his face and clear in his voice. He’s back on the supercar trail after 25 years, and thriving on it. Murray, along with a very select band of people such as Adrian Newey, is one of those individuals who even if they were to announce a new type of rabbit hutch you’d still take note. But it was the purist doctrine that left us literally gasping: a hypercar that weighed under a ton, had a naturally aspirated V12, revved to over 12,000rpm and with a manual gearbox? Pass the smelling salts, quick. For Murray, the reasons for going ahead with the T.50 are also clear: ‘Firstly, I thought what better way to celebrate 50 years of car design than by doing one more supercar – one that exorcises all the stuff I hate about modern supercars. Second reason, nobody else has done it. Why not set out all those targets again that we had with the [McLaren] F1, but now with 30 more years in my toolbox of technology, materials – everything has moved on so much in three decades, which is why we get to 980kg. The mass track at the moment is 983kg, with fluids and everything but no fuel; we don’t do this dry weight rubbish. It’s what the car needs to run. What we call real weight.’
A conversation with Murray about cars is an opportunity to cherish. He’s highly self-confident, yes, but very personable, and his dialogue is endlessly fascinating. He’s dressed with a dapper flamboyance that matches the deft strokes of his pen across one of his famous sketchbooks, and the slicked-back mass of grey hair and familiar clipped South African accent could only be Murray to anyone with an ounce of car knowledge. His views are forthright, as always, and he’s jumping straight in.
‘I don’t want people to think that this is in any way retro, because it isn’t,’ he says. ‘It’s just that the principles and targets that were set out for the F1, exactly 30 years ago, are still so applicable now, and I just thought we should do it before we go to two-ton electric cars, and these complicated hybrids that only produce their power when the batteries are fully charged and the motors are ready and in their torque band. It really pisses me off to be honest when people put out that “this car has 1200hp and 1085Nm of torque”, but you only have it under certain circumstances; it’s just all about headlines.
‘When I did the F1 I had no performance targets whatsoever, I promise. I never once said in the press it’ll do this speed, it’ll do 0-200 in whatever. It just turned out to be a quick car because it was light and powerful. And this is the same. I have zero interest in chasing top speed or an acceleration time, or a lap time around a circuit. Or even a horsepower figure. I’m doing what I think will be once again a reset of the ultimate driver’s car. The F1 was then, and to some extent still is.’
Murray loves light cars. He likes cars that aren’t overladen with bullshit. He’s not terribly impressed, as you might imagine, with
what’s out there at the moment: ‘A month ago I drove all the latest supercars – Ferraris, Astons; I’ve done that twice now. I’ve lived with a 720S. The 720S McLaren is probably the most capable sports car I’ve ever driven, but it doesn’t get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. You get out of it and think, “My granny could have driven that.” The noise doesn’t get me going. I don’t like the styling – not just a McLaren thing. I don’t like this excuse that the wind tunnel made it look like that, or because we’re doing 418kmph it has to look like this. That’s cobblers, really.’
And then we’re back to the F1: ‘It reset the standards for packaging, the complete driving experience, the noise of the engine, the interaction with the steering wheel, the pedals and the gearchange, visibility, plus everyday useability for the first time in a supercar – luggage space, air con. And that’s what we’re doing again. I think it will probably be the last great true analogue driver’s supercar.’
So, I wonder, does he like any modern cars? I know he loves his classics – there was a divine Lotus Seven Series 2 parked in the number one spot outside the front door of his Surrey offices when I arrived, after all. ‘I’ve got a new Alpine A110, which is great fun,’ he says with not a little amount of passion. ‘Which just shows, once you get light you don’t need the power, or the torque even. It’s plenty quick enough to have fun. It’s not a supercar, but it’s a brilliant little thing. If it was a little bit smaller it would be the perfect motor car, but it’s just 100mm too wide.’ Murray never refers to ‘cars’, it’s always ‘motor cars’.
It rapidly becomes apparent that there is a body of high-net-worth individuals who won’t leave him alone when it comes to creating ‘a new F1’: ‘I’ve been lobbied for a few years – “please do another one”, “please don’t make it big”, “make it small and useable, and manual gearbox”.’ That last point caught Murray by surprise. ‘The one thing I was prepared to give up on was the manual,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to go to a DSG because that’s a complete non-event and it’s a heavy, nasty thing, but we were looking at a manual sequential, so you’d still be involved, but I got lobbied saying, “Please make it a manual”. These people are telling me they’re now taking out their old 911s and classic cars to get some involvement again, and I had other people telling me their supercars are so wide they’re terrified to drive them in Britain, even on A-roads. The T.50 is 30mm wider and 80mm longer than an F1, but with more cabin and luggage space, and still has a smaller footprint than a 911.’
To be fair to Murray, he’s not afraid to pick holes in his own work.
‘WHEN I DID THE F1 I HAD NO PERFORMANCE TARGETS. IT JUST TURNED OUT TO BE QUICK BECAUSE IT WAS LIGHT AND POWERFUL’
‘EVER SINCE WE STARTED THIS I CAN FEEL THIS CAR. IT’LL BE THE BEST DRIVING EXPERIENCE YOU CAN HAVE’
He calls the F1’s headlamps ‘pathetic’, isn’t that complimentary about the brakes (‘we tried for 12 months to make carbon brakes work, but couldn’t’), and tells me the heating and air con set-up was a victim of weight saving (for the sake of 1.4kg) and never did work that well. But what really gets him going, what animates him, is the T.50’s engine and aerodynamics, saying, tongue in cheek, obviously, that ‘you get the rest of the car for free’.
‘It was never going to be anything other than a naturally aspirated V12. I wouldn’t look at anything else,’ he insists flatly. ‘I went to Cosworth with a spec. I started by looking at a 3.3-litre, but when we did the sums a 3.3 won’t let you get under 900kg, so going to a 4-litre and still keeping it under 1000kg was a better torqueto-weight sum from a driving point of view. We actually call it a 3.9 and we make more power than the F1 made from 6.1 litres. We’re doing two engine maps: a discreet one with all the torque moved down [the rev range] with timing and fuelling, which you can now do with electronics [unlike the cable-throttle F1], good for cruising or going to the shops. We call it Ferrari revs – 9000rpm. And then you go to the 12,400rpm fast map… I can’t wait. Ever since we started this I can feel this car; I can see it in my head. It’ll be the best driving experience you can have.
‘Paul Rosche [the BMW engine guru who designed the F1’s V12] was a great friend and a genius. I said to him it has to rev higher and have a better power density than a Ferrari, and it did. It also had the fastest engine response – 10,000rpm per second with its carbon clutch. F1 owners love putting it in neutral and giving it a kick, as its like a 1-litre bike engine.’
The T.50’s engine takes things even further, of course: ‘I said to Cosworth it must rev to more than 12, and they sucked through their teeth, but they’ve done it. And the engine pick-up speed is 28,000rpm a second, which even as an engineer my head just can’t go there. That’s the needle at idle to full revs in 0.3 of a second. And I’m having a big, analogue floodlight rev counter. Real stuff.’
As for the T.50’s aero, Murray terms it ‘a complete restart for road car aerodynamics’. Devoid of spoilers and intakes to continue the clean aesthetic of the F1, the T.50 uses a fan in the spirit of his 1978 Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT46B ‘fan car’. ‘It’s the first time in my life my brain has gone to overload. There are so many possibilities. I’ve told my aerodynamicists they’ve got to shut me down at some point. Under braking we can have automatic downforce increase, we can shift the centre of pressure. We can have a high downforce mode. If we want to lose downforce, thereby not using up suspension travel at high speed, the fan works to shed it. We’re already working on a combination of settings for a top speed mode – a virtual long-tail car, less drag, less fuel consumption. I could go on…’
I turn to the T.50’s chassis. ‘We’re looking at passive and adaptive dampers, but my gut feeling is passive,’ says Murray. ‘It’ll come down to how good we can get it. The Alpine has been a really good lesson to me. It has nothing fancy on it at all, but does everything correctly: pure double wishbone suspension front and rear, just the right amount of compliance bushing, still got good camber stiffness, massive torsional rigidity, and it’s light. That’s all you need to do. I’m trying to keep this really simple. The only reason we’ve gone to pushrod rising rate is to try to manage the aero loads.’
I can’t help but interject and ask about the A110’s steering – for many of us the car’s weak point. ‘The steering is the least attractive thing about the car. It’s OK. These days as we progress – I sound like an old fart talking – people forget what manual steering feels like unless you jump back in an Elan or F40, which are the two best steering systems in the world. We have a brand new system for the T.50. It’ll give you some assistance but also the feel. I can’t talk about it as we’re looking at a patent. It’s a completely new system, not hydraulic. It’ll deliver proper steering.’ And he then launches into a fascinating explanation about why modern steering systems are often horrible (which you can find at evo.co.uk).
Murray is proud his T.50 is an all-British effort, and wants to get to know all 100 of the customers, talking through their purchase and even allowing them access to the development process. ‘We’ll make more cars after this one, but I’ll never make more than 100 cars a year; I don’t want to be a car company, challenging Aston Martin and Ferrari. We just want to make some fun cars that people will like.’ ⌧