Falling-out with Ron Dennis led to Gordon Murray’s greatest design
Annoyance at decisions made by McLaren chief Ron Dennis was enough, in the end, for designer Gordon Murray to walk away from the world-famous company in Woking and establish his own enterprise. Setting-up Gordon Murray Design at the age of 60 seemed as daring at the time as some of Gordon’s previous technical innovations, but in the 12 years since, Gordon’s creative freedom has unleashed ideas that might not otherwise have materialised. And for motor racing fans, the way Gordon talks about one of his more recent innovations will come as a big surprise.
Ask Gordon to nominate a favourite from his 70-plus designs and you might expect him to select one of his successful Brabham or McLaren Formula 1 cars. There are many winners to choose from, but certain shapes linger in the mind’s eye: perhaps the Brabham BT46B with its huge rear-mounted suction fan, or the Brabham-BMW BT52, so slender and dart-like, or the McLaren MP4/4 and the way it obliged drivers Senna and Prost to almost lie down. Or perhaps you’d expect him to say he is proudest of the McLaren F1 supercar, which despite being designed for the road, was fast enough to win Le Mans. But no, Gordon doesn’t name any of those.
It is the low-cost OX, the world’s first flat-pack truck, which Gordon identifies as ‘probably the most significant vehicle I’ve ever designed’. The OX was intended for Africa (and for developing nations elsewhere in the world), to perform daily tasks such as transporting drinking water and collecting grain, fertilizer or building materials. By fundamentally changing the way a vehicle can be bought and transported, this flat-pack reduces overall unit cost and there is no other vehicle like it. ‘I’m sure it’s going to be a massive global success,’ says Gordon, ‘The world is crying out for something like this’.
If it wasn’t for the OX, Gordon might instead nominate as his biggest breakthrough, the iStream assembly process. His company, which has grown to employ 120 people, describes iStream as a rethink of the traditional automotive manufacturing process that represents ‘potentially the biggest revolution in high-volume manufacture since the Model T’. That’s a claim as big as all of the egos in a Formula 1 paddock, but it may well prove true: iStream’s simplified process can reduce capital investment in the assembly plant by approximately 80 per cent, with the flexibility to produce variants of the same vehicle. What’s more, iStream delivers on the dream Gordon has chased since leaving McLaren: to ‘develop a manufacturing system with structural composites for cars that everybody could drive and everybody could afford’. Cars that are lighter, stiffer, and for everyman.
So how did one of the world’s most accomplished racing-car designers end up thinking up such things? How did Gordon get here from initiating such F1 innovations as refuelling pit stops, pull-rod suspension, dry-sump gearboxes, composite rear wings, carbon brakes, air jacks, onboard timing, carbon panels, hydropneumatic suspension, tyre heaters, a carbon rollover system, and that famous fan (whose ‘primary function’ was engine-cooling, to comply with the rules, but whose real purpose was to suck the car down to the ground)? Perhaps the answer to this question is another question: ‘What if?’
What if … Ron Dennis hadn’t so controversially appointed Mercedes-Benz as the McLaren Formula 1 team’s engine supplier at a time when Gordon was all set to follow-up the BMW-powered McLaren F1 with ‘Project 2’ – a less expensive McLaren road car, also with BMW power? ‘That,’ says Gordon, ‘was all the hard work with the F1 completely destroyed.’
What if … Ron had consulted Gordon when commissioning Sir Norman Foster to design the McLaren Technology Centre, the glassy lake-side building Gordon regards as ‘a great piece of architecture, but useless as an operations engineering building’? Gordon says of the MTC, ‘There wasn’t room for my drawing board in my office, and there was absolutely zero space for a prototype workshop, which is the heart of any car design company!’
And what if … Ron hadn’t interviewed and appointed a new managing director for McLaren Automotive while Gordon ‘was away from the company’ – an ex-Fiat executive who Gordon could at once see ‘did not share my vision for the company I started back in 1990’?
From such disagreements and dissatisfaction is new motivation born. Gordon tells author Philip Porter about these things, and many more besides, in Porter Press’s new publication One Formula – 50 years of car design. This, Gordon explains in his preface, ‘is the story of my automotive designs, but inevitably the human side of my career intermingles with the design story.’ Gordon describes, with fascinating detail and context, every one of his designs during his 50-year career. Although these designs are remarkably diverse, all share the philosophy that inspired the book’s title:’“One Formula has been, and always will be, my approach: simplicity, light weight and innovation.’
Over two volumes and 948 pages, One Formula – 50 years of car design tells – for the first time – the full story of one of the greatest racing car designers of all time. The two books, beautifully presented in a slipcase, contain a wealth of previously unpublished material from Gordon’s archives, pages from his notebooks, original sketches, correspondence, technical drawings and behind-the-scenes photographs. This is truly a landmark publication.
By Phillip Bingham