Gordon Murray


On Sunday, July 17th, 2005, Gordon Murray gave a slide presentation at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA. There was a hilarious introduction by comedian Jay Leno, who pledged to buy every single car ever designed by GM. Jay also talked about the eye-watering $1,500 bill for a single wiper blade for his McLaren F1, and how his wife knows he will never have a mistress, because every single spare dollar of his goes into his cars!

The podium was handed over to GM, who proceeded to give a detailed, humourous talk about his career.


This was the backdrop--it contained 35 of the cars GM has designed. Apparently some fan of his worked very hard to create it, and when he presented it, GM didn't have the heart to tell him it was missing 12 of the 47 cas he had designed...

Nice montage, nonetheless!

  GM started by recounting how, from his earliest childhood, all he had ever wanted to do was design and build cars. He was inspired by his father, who used to build and race motorcycles.
  One of GM's early designs was instrumental in the significant success of some lady driver--and years later, when lecturing as a professor, an 80-year old attendee in the back of the room would stand up and identify herself as that person! The picture to the right is of one of GM's more serious efforts at building a racecar.

GM interviewed for a job at Brabham during someone else's time slot, as they were running late. As he was walking out, the other person ran in, but it was too late--this is how GM started in his brilliant career--by sheer luck. The rest, of course, is history.

This was GM's first design for Brabham. It was very successful. FIA banned it when the other teams complained.

  Shortly after getting hired, GM walked in to work to find that all of the other designers had been fired and he had been made chief designer. He worked extra-long hours to complete racecars on time.

Another of GM's successful designs. FIA banned it when the other teams complained.

During the time GM was working for Brabham, Alain de Cadenet and Chris Craft offered him a job developing a car for them to race at LeMans. He would work his day job at Brabham and then spend half the night working on the LeMans project.

The car was fielded in 1972--it was called the Duckhams LM Ford, wearing race #68 and finishing 12th overall.

  Some of his pictures from the track. GM was the one refueling the car, and the only one not wearing protective clothing!
  The famous "fan car." It was very effective at generating downforce by sucking air out from underneath the car, creating a low-pressure zone. FIA banned it.
  GM's next successful racer. FIA banned it.
  GM's next successful racer. FIA banned it as well.
  GM talked about the bad/depressing times, and how tough you had to be to deal with failure.
  Another design, with winglets to disturb airflow at the edges of the wings and increase aerodynamic efficiency.
FIA, predictably, banned it.
  More trips down memory lane. GM recalled Ayrton Senna fondly, saying he has never met another racecar driver like him. Ayrton had the unique ability to work with what he had, analyze the whole lap and see where he could make improvements, and then go out and actually do it all. For instance, if he was lapping a track at 1 min 17.4 seconds, and was told that new tyres were not available, he would just concentrate for a while, then announce that he thought he had figured out how to save a tenth of a second. Sure enough, his next lap would be completed in 1 minute 17.3 seconds.
  One of GM's most successful designs. Banned by the FIA.
  This is a design that is in use to this day.
For GM, every project was "good fun", and getting his successful cars banned by FIA was also good fun!

The background to the development of the McLaren F1 supercar is covered in detail in numerous books, with Driving Ambition (by Doug Nye) as the most prominent. GM did not talk about the development of the F1 during this slide show.

This picture was taken when the first production F1 was introduced to the world (silver was a popular colour, in keeping with the understated simplicity and elegance of the car. 27 of the original 64 cars were painted silver).
This is the lean team (36 people total) who built the McLaren F1. In contrast, Mercedes-Benz has 9,500 engineers and designers on its payroll.

  At its launch.
  Some of GM's designs briefs and working notes while developing the F1.
[Though he did not talk about it here, the process of putting concept to paper and defining it within real world parameters is called "ideation"--on the day of GM's talk, the Art Center's design studios were open to the public, with plenty of exciting ideations]
Compared to the world of F1, full of regulations and restrictions, the field of passenger car design is vast and virtually without constraint. GM felt very unencumbered while working on the F1.
  The unique seating layout was something that had been floating around in GM's head since his college days.
  GM talked about restraint in design. And the importance of overall packaging.
  Those who don't consider packaging from the outset are limiting what they can achieve. This is why GM is not keen on the new supercars such as the Pagani and Koenigsegg. To begin with something heavy, and attempt to improve it by adding more power to it, and to then keep on repeating this cycle that you have forced yourself into--it gets further and further away from the very basics. When you don't begin with lightness and agility in your design brief, you certainly won't end up with something light and agile.
  Every detail of the McLaren F1was obsessed over. The instrumentation had to be easy to read, impart critical information, understandable at a glance, soothing to the eyes, and the materials used had to conform to the design brief of minimalism and exquisite engineeringl. From font to luminosity to colours to materials, every detail of even the gauges was obsessed over. The metal plate used was just 20/1000s of an inch thick.
  GM wanted to sit in the car when it was certified at the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) crash testing facility. He was confident in the car's safety, and felt it would make a fantastic advertisement. To his surprise, MIRA agreed to his request. However, no one was willing to insure him, so the car was ultimately tested without a live occupant.
  GM talked about the superb 650 bhp BMW motor that powers the F1. There is no flywheel, so the revs can speed up and decay very quickly, leading to the ntoxicatingly quick throttle response. Though the powerplant exceeded the maximum weight that McLaren had stipulated, it had an even better power-to-weight ratio than McLaren had asked for. McLaren was happy with the "compromise."

At the start of the F1's development programme, GM had adamantly insisted that the car was not a race car. The customers thought otherwise and threatened to race it on their own if the factory did not provide support.

GM went to Ron Denis and explained how it would be very bad for publicity if the privateer efforts did not succeed. Ron Denis gave his blessing and the McLaren F1 was raced in the BPR championship series.

The budget was extremely limited. But the car won the championship.


The customers then started enquiring about fielding the car at Le Mans, one of the world's most grueling endurance events. GM explained how it had not been designed for that, but the customers thought otherwise and threatened to race it on their own if the factory did not provide support.

GM went to Ron Denis and explained how it would be very bad for publicity if the privateer efforts did not succeed. Ron Denis gave his blessing and the McLaren F1 was raced at Le Mans.

The entire budget for the Le Mans effort came from the proceeds of just 10 racecar sales, about 250,000 GBP. This was about 1/100th what other factory teams pour into their Le Mans efforts. McLaren won the race resoundingly!

[Revealing McLaren's tiny margin of 25,000 GBP on the sale of each racing car. An astoundingly low number, even though the cars were not especially cheap. Although, for a racecar, at 600,000+ GBP, they might well have been diamonds in the rough. The buyers were making an educated leap of faith, and it certainly paid off!]


GM is also the man behind another seminal work: the Light Car Company's one and only model, the Rocket. It is absolutely brilliant to drive--powered by a small Yamaha engine with 5 forward gears (high and low effectively give it 10 forward gears), it is the embodiment of his design philosophy of lightness and balance. GM worked with Chris Craft on this project (he had worked on a LM cars with Chris Craft and Alain de Cadenet earlier, moonlighting during his Brabham years by working his day job from 7am to 9pm, and then working on the LM car from 10pm to 3am!).

Jay Leno has one of these as well, and says that nothing can keep up with it on a curvy road.
[I suspect the light Lotuses and the active camber prototypes can not only keep up, but in some cases get ahead of it too.]

  This picture shows how compact the F1 really is, despite being a 3-seater. This reinforces the concepts about overall packaging design (and what a feat of packaging the McLaren F1 really is).

Moving on from the McLaren F1, we get to the abominatin that is the Mercedes McLaren SLR. GM said he had to fight for every change he made--dealing with Mercedes-Benz was not a pleasant experience overall. Their initial design was so bad that when they tested the scale model in a wind tunnel, its rear axle would lift completely off the ground at 200 mph. GM had to remedy this, amongst many other key details that were, quite simply, wrong.

Every decision on the Mercedes side was by committee, and led to the dilution of a lot of design principles and any attempt at innovation. The car was very heavy, and therefore required a lot of power, which led to handling problems that had to be "overcome." GM did get to work his magic and its dynamic properties are very impressive.



GM talked about the advanced design of the SLR's passenger cell, leveraging the expertise gained in the development of the McLaren F1. The engine compartment could not be made out of carbon fibre because the high temperatures from the big motor would degrade the carbon over time. It is a very advanced, safe design, and the very public recent crashes by celebrity owners bear this out.

The carbon brakes are another impressive bit of engineering kit. Carbon does not heat up easily, so the brakes do not fade. You get consistent stopping, mile after mile after mile, and the pads and discs last for thousands of miles.

The technology was simply not there at the time of the McLaren F1. Though carbon brakes were tested, they were lacking in feel and did not work until warmed up. As a result, the McLaren F1 had conventional brakes.
[Incidentally, one of the criticism of the McLaren F1 is that its "regular" brakes do not provide much feel, and are a bit "wooden"--GM says they just require a hefty shove, and, while heavy-feeling initially, are wonderful to modulate.]



To illustrate the contrast between Mercedes and McLaren, Gordon Murray went to Stuttgart every Monday for six months, to attend meetings about safety, motor, suspension, body, stereo, etc., etc. Each time, McLaren was represented by Gordon Murray alone. Each time, 15-20 new faces would be representing Mercedes. One of the changes GM proposed was to move the engine back...about 3 feet! This is why, despite being a front-engined car, it is still very well-balanced, and consequently, handles superbly.

Another point of contention--the exhaust tubing. GM felt that the should have side extremely short exhausts, in the interest of efficient scavenging. This dictated side-exiting exhaust pipes. When he showed Mercedes the design, they responded, "Mercedes doesnt do side exhausts." GM reminding them that they did indeed...in 1955, on the original SLR [a fabulous, storied car in its own right]. Thus, GM's vision prevailed, and Mercedes McLaren SLR bears distinctive side exhausts!

Ultimately, for a grand tourer, the SLR is a very good car. It's just not what GM, or McLaren, would do.

  At the end of the SLR programme (early 2005), GM resigned from his post at McLaren. He is seriously considering starting a new car company.

He would like to make another supercar, a cheaper McLaren F1, if you will. Around 200,000 GBP ($400,000), this will most likely not have a V12.

It will, first and foremost, be a driver's car.


After the supercar, or perhaps at the same time, GM is pursuing a city car that will be light, economical, practical, and fun to drive.

The logo is just an expression of those ideas, not a representation of what the actual product will look like.


Clockwise from bottom left: The racecar, the Le Mans commemorative edition, and the world's best roadcar.

It all starts and ends at the McLaren F1.

    [After the presentation, there was a question and answer session. See below]

Walking out of the lecture hall...

Freak and TVRfreak!


Jay Leno - a truly nice guy, and a certified car nut. Hounded by fans, as usual.

The man has infinite patience and deals with pushy fans very diplomatically!



Professor Gordon Murray took a few questions from the audience.

Q1: Would you say that your next company will be more TVR or Lotus, or both?
GM. Well, it won't be anything like TVR, I can assure you of that! Lotus is interesting--our supercar could be like some of their concepts.

Q2: What is your take on the new paddle-shifting mechanisms?
GM: I think there's going to be a backlash. They don't add anything, and in many cases they detract from control and from the overall experience. People are told by manufacturers that they are being given formula racing technology, but they are not. You reach a point of no returns and begin to see that it's not getting you anywhere.

Q3: (young boy): My local Mercedes dealer won't open the door of the McLaren SLR for me. Could I get a letter or something from you?
GM: [Looks at him like he's from Mars. Laughter from audience.]

Q4: Do you still think that ABS and traction control are superfluous?
GM: First of all, they are being mandated, so it does not matter whether I believe in them or not. Second, for the average driver, they are helpful. I would not use them, or impose their systems' weight penalties, in a racing situation. That's the conundrum--how do you provide for both?

Q5: Alternative fuels--your thoughts?
GM: I think we are a long ways away from a viable alternative source of energy. You have to realize that, apart from making a car that can do some car-like things well while running on alternative fuels, you also have to put in a whole infrastructure to support it all. Service stations, refueling points--we are a long ways away from switching over to a different source of fuel. But I do welcome any such advances.

Q6: What do you think of the Pagani and Koenigsegg?
GM: I don't beleive in ignoring packaging. And I don't believe in throwing horsepower at heavy cars. You cannot ignore dynamics early on, then revisit them later in the design cycle. So, they are all a bit pointless, really.

1. I am missing a few of the early slides. If you have pictures and are willing to share, I would love to complete this writeup.
2. If you would like me to add any more details to any of the slides, please do not hesitate to contact me via admin@mclarenfreak.com.

Other scenes from the day

  Strolling around you were likely to run into such luminaries as Peter Brock or Gordon Murray. GM insists that all five of the LM cars were painted historic orange, in honour of Bruce McLaren's racecars. This just adds to the controversy, as some very credible sources have revealed that one or two have been painted in the livery of the Le Mans-winning car, GTR 01R.
  GM patiently answered every question. You could ask him about anything--from active camber technology to drag racers.

Gordon Murray shares some details about McLaren owners. He is amazed to find out Peloton knows more! A couple of tidbits:
1. A German customer bought a McLaren and crashed it badly at over 200 mph with just 28 miles on the clock. He was racing his friend in a highly modified 959, in the rain, and lost control. He went backwards into the Armco and took out over 100 metres of steel railing! He walked away from the crash (shows how safe the McLaren is), and immediately ordered a brand new McLaren F1 from the factory.
2. Rowan Atkinson now owns a longtail car as well. For those who don't know, he is a famous British comedian who has a burgundy McLaren F1 roadcar as well.

  GM is astounded at Peloton's photo colloection. Several times, he exclaimed that Peloton knew/retained more than him!
  Jerry Weigert, the man behind the Vector, shows up to chat for a while. Apparently he's trying to raise funds for some car venture.
  GM turns to TVRfreak and asks

"Did you get a load of that Weigert character??!!!"

Actually, the discussion about funding car ventures led to an interesting revelation that Ron Denis had spent so much money on the new factory that he was contemplating selling the world speed record-breaking F1, XP5, the one that McLaren officially claimed it would never sell!

  How to make anything supervaluable. Just add one Gordon Murray signature! One Japanese customer had his car autographed on the wing above the rear wheel, and then had it lacquered over.
  Hoping for the McLaren magic to rub off...
  clearly it did!
  This was intriguing to GM.
  This concept was very much in keeping with GM's ideals of minimalism, and he was quite intrigued by it. The single rear wheel did not impress him too much though.
  It was still early in the day when this picture was taken.
  Some pictures of GM's creation.

Pictures of Jay Leno's car, McLaren F1 roadcar number 15.

GM mentioned that if he were to buy an F1, he would never go for the High Down Force package or the Le Mans edition. He prefers the unspoilt, pure lines of the F1 roadcar the most. Indeed, he's got XP3 as a personal vehicle, and has kept it completely original.

[I would trade some top speed for the stability that the High Down Force kit gives, and I do prefer its looks too. Also, I hear that the GTR's steering rack is far more precise and sensitive--considering that understeer was actively introduced to make the car easy to handle at the limits, I believe this would also make a great enhancement.]

  6,100 miles on the clock.
  Massachussetts plates. That's where Jay is originally from.
  What's amazing about these pictures is that there are relatively few people in them. For the most part, it was a mob scene.
  Simply, elegantly beautiful.
  GM said the only criticism the car ever got was that the styling was not radical enough, or startling, enough for a supercar.
  But that probably is what stopped it from dating quickly. It's got classical curves, and a timeless simplicity.

It sounded fantastic when it was started up--you could hear the revs build up and die down in an instant when the throttle was blipped. There was a lovely deep, throaty growl as it drove off.

[The approach road actually passes under a building, as the Art Center is tucked away into a steep mountainside. Those who were standing in the building's bridge/balcony area above the road said the car had a deep bassy rumble as it passed underneath, and it changed to a very loud roar as the car accelerated away--sadly, there's no audio or video.]

clip of Jay Leno introducing GM (it's a 21.6 mb download, so you need a broadband connection).
You need to save this file to your own PC, and then you need to rename it by adding a .mpg extension to the filename.

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