8/1/2002 | 4 MINUTE READ

McLaren's Pied Piper

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Gordon Murray has designed both Formula One cars and million-dollar supercars. Now the technical director of McLaren Cars has set his sights on mobility solutions for crowded urban areas.


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Gordon Murray has done things most engineers only dream about. The South African-born Murray wanted to be a race driver, but became an automotive design engineer instead. For 17 years he worked for the Brabham Formula One team–eventually rising to chief engineer–before leaving to head up the TAG/McLaren F1 design team for three years, then moving into position as the technical director of McLaren Cars (Woking, England). Murray often is compared to Lotus founder Colin Chapman when creative superiority in race car design is debated. Neither was always successful, but they could be counted on to regularly redefine the meaning of the term "racing car." In recent years, Murray–creator of both the Rocket and McLaren F1 road cars–has begun to redefine the term "road car" as well.

"I've worked in the end of the industry where you are responsible for the styling and packaging, aerodynamics, suspension, and the investigation of new techniques and technologies," says Murray. This, he claims, often makes him feel more like a project manager than a design engineer, though he is adamant this burden of responsibility is where design is headed in the auto industry. Often this means he carries a large workload, but work is not a foreign concept to the man. For example, in the short period between his duties with McLaren's Formula One race team and the creation of McLaren Cars–where he designed the McLaren F1 road car, and currently heads up the Mercedes SLR road car project–Murray spent his evenings working on the Rocket. Looking like a modern interpretation of a 1960s-era Cooper Formula One car and powered by a motorcycle engine, the Rocket took six months to complete. Next, with seven full-time designers and help from the odd contract worker (the team never exceeded 10 people), Murray dove in to the McLaren F1 project. The team took the +200 mph, $1-million (each) BMW V12-powered road car from clean-sheet to first car off the production line in just 43 months.

"The F1 probably was the last project where one person could dictate the character of the car, the weight targets, the performance targets–the whole envelope," he says. "The legislative climate isn't right to do a no-holds-barred car with one person in control, and probably never will be again." His latest project, the Mercedes SLR, combines the talents and abilities of a small company and a large corporation to produce a front-engine, rear-drive, twin supercharged V8-powered luxury sports car that exceeds 200 mph. Where there were once 10 people, there are now 35 permanent design engineers and about 100 people total. In order to keep work flowing–something he insists is central to all successful projects–Murray made certain the group was filled with multi-skilled designers. "If the suspension designer runs out of work," he says, "you might shift him over to the fuel system, or the body panels. This gives you the ability to change direction very quickly and cost effectively, and to keep the project headed in the right direction." Yet his next project, based on an idea nearly 10 years old, will shift back toward the design model used on the McLaren F1.

Though reticent to divulge many details, Murray paints the picture of a machine designed to replace a family's second vehicle while liberating parking space in clogged urban areas, radically reducing operating costs (on the order of 75%), and decreasing the environmental impact–from manufacturing to vehicle disposal. "It doesn't bear any relationship to a normal motorcar at all," he says, adding that the vehicle is shorter than a golf cart. Not surprisingly, "The way you sit, the way you get in and out, the way you load the luggage are all different."

The reason for Murray's move into more prosaic transportation comes from the fact that, especially in Europe and parts of Japan, travel is becoming a logistical nightmare made worse by the increasing popularity of large SUVs. "Congestion in Europe and Japan is such that these countries are almost to the point of having to restrict personal freedom," he says. "Why not get ahead of the problem, and preserve as much as we can?" Murray concedes building a new commuter vehicle isn't the complete answer to growing traffic problems, though he sees his concept being supported by the growth in minivans–also known as MPVs–in Europe. Like his city vehicle, MPVs are tall and therefore shorter than a comparable car–and much shorter than a SUV. But, in order to make the MPV more palatable, Murray envisions spicing up the recipe in order to appeal to more people. "If you reduce the weight and increase the performance of an MPV," he says, "it can become a wonderful mixture of sedan, sports car, and van," he says. And–done properly–this design will dominate the market. "We have to act now in order to give people an incentive to modify their personal transportation choices while preserving their ability to select a scheme that best fits their need," he says. "It's up to designers to show the way."