They say you should never meet your heroes. People cite rudeness or arrogance as unexpected traits in their idols, but meeting Gordon Murray is disappointing for another reason. Expecting to meet a mad eccentric, I was instead met by an affable, modest, motoring enthusiast. He wasn’t even wearing one of his famed floral shirts, and he made me a coffee.
Many people, had they created the McLaren F1, would be insufferable, but mention this milestone car to Murray and he simply says, “The F1 wasn’t anything particularly trick – it was just Formula 1 technology applied to a road car. Six weeks to make a monocoque – who cares? £74,000 for the monocoque – who cares? It wasn’t particularly clever, it just happened to be the world’s first carbon fiber road car, that’s why it got a lot of attention.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t love his McLaren F1, but you’re far more likely to see him driving a far more modest car. “I’ve always liked small cars, and I’ve always been an advocate of light weight. Personally I have always driven small, light cars. My everyday car has been a Smart ever since they came out. I started with a 4-2, and for the past eight years I’ve had a Roadster. That’s what I like, and that’s all I need really.”
However, mention the future of motoring, and you see the genius within Professor Murray. In 1998 he had the idea that a factory could separate the vehicle assembly process, with the powertrain, wiring harness, brakes, suspension and other components fitted directly to the chassis, and pre-painted body panels fixed to the chassis in the final stage. This process, known as iStream, could be the biggest advance in volume car manufacturing since the Model T Ford assembly line, according to Murray, and require factories only 20% the size of typical facilities.
He offered the idea to McLaren in the early 2000s, but was told that the company’s focus would remain on low-volume sports cars. Undeterred, he set out on his own in 2004, taking a team of 22 engineers with him and setting up an office 10 miles away in the next town. With backing from MDV-Mohr Davidow Ventures, he received funding to kit out his workshop, coincidentally sited next to an old McLaren site, with all the equipment needed to create running prototypes of the T25 in-house. T25 is designed to illustrate to potential iStream licensees what his methods can achieve, but remember, the car is just an iStream sales tool, unless a customer wishes to buy that particular design.
“We suffer enormously from being misunderstood as the people who are going to manufacture the T25 city car,” complains Murray. “This is quite natural as people like to talk about cars, but they don’t like to talk about manufacturing systems. We wanted to build one running prototype of a vehicle of our choice to demonstrate iStream. It just so happened that for years and years I’ve had this concept of a little car that would suit UK and European roads and their congestion problems. The car is just a physical entity to show people. It doesn’t matter what your background is, you can’t sell an idea just by talking to people.”
iStream is a product of F1 thinking, substituting the expensive, intensive process of stamping steel with a cheap, simple, composite technology. Murray was a pioneer in using hand-layed pre-preg carbon fiber in F1 back in 1978, but at the time it was an aircraft technology and was, “hugely expensive and amazingly time consuming”.
Composites were not much simpler to work with when the F1 was launched in 1992. However, when Mercedes-Benz specified a production run of 700 SLRs per year, a new way of infusing resins and pre-forms and putting them in molds was devised, reducing monocoque components to seven, and cycle times for a monocoque and body shell to a couple of days. Fast-forward to today, and McLaren is pressing single-piece carbon fiber tubs for the MP4-12C in a matter of hours – a technology Murray worked on prior to his departure. The technologies involved in iStream however, are “a whole new world.”
“The three things that stop you using composites in high volumes are material costs (you can’t use carbon fiber as its ludicrously expensive compared to steel or even aluminum); the process time; and the fact that attaching point loads to a composite structure is incredibly complicated,” says, Murray. “When you’re hand making a few sports cars and have lots of time, it is easy to place load spreaders or inserts in a composite that you just CNC drill afterwards. There might be 40 such point loads in a monocoque to pick up suspension, engine mountings, etc.
“If you’re trying to make something in two minutes you can forget carbon for material costs, you can forget normal composites for process time, and you can certainly forget trying to spread point loads into that composite. What iStream effectively does is to solve those three things for high volumes.
“We have a really simplistic low carbon, steel tube frame that picks up the point loads. We have developed a new material which is not carbon, but is an F1-type composite where we can modify the matrix volume, the glass fiber content volume, the skin thickness, the core thickness… and we can co-press inclusions like an F1 car, so we can have uni-directional fibers for crash loads. We have the same sophisticated program used to design F1 and Le Mans monocoques, but we’re using really low-cost materials that we’ve nicked from other industries around the world.
“We just put it together in a different way, which gives us iStream,” says Murray. “That’s what we’ve patented and that’s what we’re selling. So for the first time you’ve got a composite monocoque that you can make in two minutes for a very low tooling cost and a very low industrial cycle time, which is very light, and increases the safety levels of small cars. So we’re doing two things at once. Normally, to save weight, car companies spend money – we’re saving money to go light weight. And normally to increase safety you spend money, but we’re increasing safety levels with less weight.”
There has been a lot of interest in the process, with over 50 companies from over 20 countries approaching Murray in the last 12 months. Intriguingly, only 12 of those companies have been automotive OEMs. The others have been companies looking for a low-capital door into car making, with no need for existing infrastructure. Murray says they will need just 10% of the investment the average OEM would require to make a new car. This means they, “don’t put themselves against the might of Toyota, VW or Ford, as they’re not competing. No one in their right mind would try to make a stamped steel car where these companies are players.”
Murray is actively working with three companies at present, including a US$50 billion retail outfit that sells electric bicycles and scooters in its stores, and wants to move into EVs. With nothing suitable on the market, it sees in iStream a cost-effective way to make its own cars.
Moving up a level, two countries have approached Murray, looking to manufacture their own small, lightweight vehicles for their domestic markets, with low investment and infrastructure, to help reduce congestion and pollution in their cities. Enquiries have ranged from single-seat rental cars, all the way up to buses. There is also some interest from potential customers in using the T25 design, but Murray is not precious about it.
“When it’s sold it could be a Ford, a Renault, a Peugeot, a Virgin, a Sony a Dyson – we don’t care” he says. “If you want to change the styling, we don’t care. If you want to change the motor or gearbox, we don’t care. Our mission in life is to sell licenses. If somebody comes along and says ‘we love the cost saving, the energy saving, the weight saving and the safety, but we want a six-seater limousine’ – I think they’d be stupid to be honest, but they can have one.”
One thing you can be sure of is that once an iStream licence is bought, a customer can have their design in production as soon as their factory is ready. This is another element where Murray’s F1 background shows – vehicle development is carried out in parallel rather than series. The requirements of the program are decided, and then proving grounds and test facilities are triple or even quadruple booked in order to save time and money.
“On certain days at a circuit or facility we can do things four-times quicker than an OEM because we do more than one bit of testing. If we’re testing the durability of a car as a whole, we also test vehicle dynamics, aerodynamics and internal airflow and so on during the cycle, and we write our development programs with that in mind,” says Murray.
The result is a fully comprehensive 24-month test program at as little as a quarter of the cost of a typical OEM test program.
“The program is written in an amazing amount of detail and is then optimized and re-optimized. We don’t skip anything – we just maximize the booked time at a particular facility. These principles come from F1… it teaches you to get the most out of the time you have available, and we just carried that over, which is why we can be cost-effective.”
The design process can be equally fuss-free, again due to Murray’s background.
“We carried over the concept we used to design McLaren cars. We have a full-size 6m drawing board and we use full-size printouts. We gather round that board every week and have arguments about problems and real estate. If someone wants to move a battery, instead of moving it independently, they have to do it publicly. This saves so much time.
“For example, the F1 was probably the last car in the world to be designed on paper, and we only had one design clash with a production element. With the SLR we started 100% on CAD and ended up with a clash detection department fixing hundreds of clashes.
“We’ve gone back to the future here. We use CATIA V5 and all our inputs and outputs are in CAD, but the design of the car is fixed full size, and we don’t have clashes. One of the reasons the T25 has been brought to prototype so quickly is that we weren’t re-doing stuff. So much of design work in modern cars is rehashing stuff.”
With Murray’s love of F1 techniques you might imagine he misses it. However, you would be wrong.
“Not at all. Not in any way, shape or form. I did it for 20 years and that was enough. F1 then was open to innovation on a scale that was satisfying. There is still a massive amount of innovation, but it’s all in the details. It’s all in tiny aero improvements, etc, and I really wouldn’t find that satisfying.”
No, for Murray there are two main projects on the horizon once he has a few iStream licensees under his belt. The first will certainly please followers of his work.
“I definitely have one supercar left in me, and the team wants to do it too,” he says. “It won’t be anything like the cars you see at the moment – the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, Porsches, Bugattis or the McLaren MP4-12C – it will hold all the values the F1 had, but it will be in a completely different direction which ignores horsepower and top speed. As the F1 was a swansong for the 20th century, I’d like to do something for the 21st century.
“Some buyers convince themselves they need the big numbers, and they won’t choose our supercar, but more people see beyond that, as they did with the F1. We didn’t sell the F1 on top speed. We didn’t even do a top speed run until we stopped selling the cars because I didn’t want to – it was never part of the agenda. I like to think most people bought the F1 because it was the pinnacle of engineering at the time, using modern materials, and was also a pure, pure drivers car and didn’t pretend to be anything else.
“A lot of supercars now try to be all sorts of things. They try to be well-engineered, with all the latest trick suspension and electronics. They try to be track day cars, and they try to be status symbols and that goes with a lot of baggage – size, complexity and weight. I don’t want to do any of that rubbish, I really don’t. I just want to do a pure, pure supercar again, like the F1 was. And I think there are enough people out there to move in a different direction again. I’d like the next supercar to point the same direction change the F1 did in 1992.”
The second project takes Murray back to his current passion
“We’re already working on iStream 2 and 3. iStream 2 will be ready in four years, and iStream 3 is a long-term project that is 8-10 years away. We’ve even had people from other industries, such as architects and train companies looking at iStream. We don’t have to be automotive, but right now people are looking for weight saving, increased safety, and multiniche vehicles with different powertrains at lower volumes. This is a perfect picking ground for us.” ‹