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A truly small and truly new small car

Last night I watched a television documentary about the career and achievements of Gordon Murray, a very different Murray from the tennis Murray whom I mentioned here on Saturday. Gordon Murray designs cars.

He started out doing racing cars. Time was when Gordon Murray was applying his extraordinary ingenuity to designing such things as “improvements” to McLaren racing cars, improvements whose only rationale was that they drove through some silly loophole in the rules of Formula 1 racing, a loophole that would soon close and render the new design feature utterly pointless. Okay, F1 is fun, and okay, most of what Murray did was make F1 cars go ever faster and get ever cleverer. But that rule-dodging bit in particular seemed like a serious waste of a talent, and I am sure the television people intended it to.

But Gordon Murray then took a big step towards applying his stellar engineering skills to a task more worthy of them when he designed the McLaren F1, which is the fastest car that multi-millionaires can buy to drive on regular roads. Better.

And now, Murray has designed a small car. This small car looks like a superior version of one of those covered over motorbikes, but actually it is a lot cleverer and more capacious than that. It is cleverer because it embodies half a lifetime of Murray’s experience in Formula 1, making everything in cars lighter, smaller and just plain better.

There are many ways to innovate. A good way is to innovate in just one aspect of a design, while relying on tried and tested technology for everything else. That way there is only one thing to go wrong and to get right. Very wise.

But Gordon Murray’s way is different. More “courageous”, you might say. He looks at everything. He looked at small cars the way huge teams of aircraft designers are perpetually looking at aircraft design, chiselling little ounces of bulk from here, there and everywhere, and where possible trying more serious rethinkings and rearrangements, adding up to a seriously improved product.

Innovation done this way can unleash a ton of mistakes, with all the good ideas getting overwhelmed by a few bad ones. Everything has to work. You have to get, near enough, a hundred out of a hundred, or you fail. You need lots of skill and experience to get a score like that. Gordon Murray, it would seem, has an abundance of both.

In particular, just as a for instance, this small car is interesting (courageous?) in using the same seating arrangement as the McLaren F1. In the McLaren F1, instead of the driver sitting on one side at the front, and then another bunch of people sitting behind on another big seat, or not, the F1 has the driver in the front in the middle, and two other seats on either side, but set back, in an arrow formation. The passengers can presumably stretch out their legs beside the driver’s bum. And the new small car has just the same seating set-up. Which makes it feel bigger inside than a regular small car, but much less bulky from outside.

Also, the doors to the new small car are an all-in-one door, which opens up and forward, like the top of an airplane. Combined with that seating arrangement, this makes it easier to get in and out of than the competition.

This small car comes in two versions. There is the black T25, which is petrol driven, and which looks like this:

T25.jpg

And there is the blue version, the T27, which runs on electricity. They showed the T27 towards the end of the television show, in the company of some veteran cars in a place that looked a lot like central London, and I thought: hang on, this rings a bell. Sure enough, after a little digging in my photo-archives, I found this snap:

T27s.jpg

I took that picture of the T27 on the same day, early last November, that I took all these photos of veteran cars in Regent Street. (There is a slice of veteran car there on the right.) I far prefer the look of the black T25. Its strangely retro styling reminds me of a delivery van of the sort I recall from my youth. The blue T27 looks to me, still, like a boring little car only pretending not to be boring, which is why I had no idea how interesting it was when I first set my eyes and my camera on it. Oh me of little faith. Kudos to me, though, for taking “too many” pictures whenever I go out a-snapping. Time and again, as in this case, I only realise later, and sometimes a lot later, what I photoed.

Being so unbulky, this new T25/27 is much more fuel efficient than regular small cars, but its energy efficiency does not stop there. One of the most interesting moments in the programme came when they talked about how this new car will be made. There is more to cars being efficient than cars being efficient to drive. They also have to be as efficient and as cheap and as easy as possible to make, and this new car requires far less in the way of capital investment before you can start cranking them out. The huge manufacturing costs of regular automobiles, said my television, explained why most car makers prefer making expensive cars to cheap cars. Cheap cars don’t make any money. But this cheap car will make money for those who make it, or that’s the idea. That’s another huge potential step forward.

The claim was repeatedly made in this programme that this T25/27 is the biggest innovation in car making since the Model T, what with the revolutionary way that the Model T was manufactured. But the cars that this new gizmo makes me think of are the Citroen 2CV and the Volkswagen, which were likewise designed to be more easy to make than regular cars, were they not? The Citroen 2CV, I seem to recall reading, was banged out by peasants in a big barn, or some such thing, just after WW2, when manufacturing skills were scarce. This seems a lot like the T25/27 plan, which is a twenty first century version (i.e. with shipped in magic bits) of the same thing.

The T25/27 secret, apparently, is that the structural frame of the car is made of metal tubing, and that is far easier for cheapo, Third World type fabricators to work with than however small cars are made now, by the likes of Toyota and Ford and the rest of them.

The upshot of all this is that here is a small car, a truly small car, that will make regular non-multi-millionaire motoring massively less of an energy gobbler.

Which in fact means, if it all goes to plan, that many more people will drive around in such cars than drive around in any cars now, and the total amount of energy consumed by these cars as they wizz hither and thither will then go up. But, a lot more people will be having fun and getting themselves and their stuff from A to B. So: very good.

Or, it could be that too many of Gordon Murray’s innovations will turn out to be mistakes, in which case car historians may point back to the T25/27, to say where Toyota and Ford got their next bunch of ideas, while the rest of us may soon forget this most interesting and admirable man. What if, for example, we regular punters just can’t be doing with that strange new seating arrangement? What if drivers just have to have company sitting right next to them when driving? And what if that radically rethought manufacturing method turns out to have too many mistakes built into it? So maybe the T25/27 will go down in car history as an heroic failure, rather than getting flagged up as a triumph, Volkswagen or Deux Chevaux style. It may be remembered, that is to say, as a very gutsy shot at a real car that was actually only a concept car. We shall see.

Earlier yesterday, in the afternoon, I caught Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton moaning on the telly about their (McLaren) racing cars had been way off the pace in the British Grand Prix. Are they missing Gordon Murray, I wonder?

25 comments to A truly small and truly new small car

  • Alsadius

    Small correction: The McLaren F1 might have been the fastest road-legal car for many years, but its reign ended about a decade ago. The Bugatti Veyron(/drool) is the current king.

  • Sam Duncan

    You may be more right than you realise, Brian. Murray left McLaren’s F1 operation to work on the road car about 20 years ago. The early ’90s are considered the team’s “wilderness years”; although there were other problems – a series of (in)different engine suppliers, not least – there was little doubt among commentators that it suffered for “taking its eye off the ball” with Murray’s move to the F-1. They later managed to poach Adrian Newey from arch-rivals Williams, and returned to the top. Newey is another detail-obsessed design genius in the Murray mould. Williams are only now, possibly, recovering from that loss. Newey is now at Red Bull. So, directly, McLaren are missing him (since 2006), but indirectly you may be right.

    One interesting thing I learned from the programme is that Murray still uses paper for his technical drawings. So does Newey. That must be significant. Computers have their place, but they also have limitations. One team, a couple of years ago, attempted to design and build its car entirely digitally, eschewing even wind tunnel testing in favour of computational fluid dynamics. It was an unmitigated distaster, and the team (then Virgin, now called Marussia) has started using wind tunnels. High technology is only as good as its usefulness, and of course much of Murray’s T25 project is quite low-tech.

    The reason Ron Dennis, the McLaren principal, poached Murray from Brabham wasn’t really mentioned on the programme, except that he was the best, but I’m sure it’s that they think the same way. The methods, and the attention to detail, that impressed you are very McLaren. In fact, I’ve a faint recollection of you mentioning the floor tiles at the McLaren Technical Centre here: Dennis ensured that they fit the floors exactly, so that there are no cuts at the edges.

    And McLaren actually has a consultancy division that helps other businesses implement F1 (or Dennis) methods: that way of looking at everything, as you say, and I wouldn’t dismiss the rule-bending aspect so lightly either. It’s an aspect of the same thing, hinted at during the show: you read the rules once to see what they say, then again to see what they don’t. What has nobody else thought of, because they’re concentrating on following the rules, or the convention? What’s the unfair advantage? Why can’t you make sure the tiles fit instead of cutting them? Why do we have to make cars out of pressed steel?

  • llamas

    I think I’m right in saying that the McLaren F1 remains the fastest road-legal car with a naturally-aspirated engine. The Bugatti Veyron has 4x turbochargers. So this may have been a sub-editor’s goof.

    To the larger point – while I have massive respect for Gordon Murray’s design talents, what is the point of this vehicle family?

    What does it do any better than the large range of micro- and city-cars already available, or indeed the smaller generations of ‘kei’ cars that are already in their second or third generations of development?

    The reversion to a panel-on-frame design, which is touted as being more environmentally-friendly and easier to repair and maintain, also means greater weight and less-effective occupant protection.

    I really fail to see what’s so ‘truly new’ or indeed ‘truly small’ about this thing. It’s (essentially) a BMW Isetta 600 with a modern drivetrain, a developed interior, and way too much horsepower.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Hmm

    Now if he came out with a diesel version of the T25 then I’d really be interested!

  • Jerry

    In addition to what Llamas said, I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it doesn’t matter at all to some but this thing just blew the top off of the ‘ugly
    scale’ !!
    I don’t care how much it supposedly ‘helps’ mother Gaia, if you find a copy of this overweight roller skate with my name on it, it’s yours !!

  • John Punshon

    Alas – my timer cut out before the last four minutes of the play. Hope you have better luck!

  • It was nice to see some recognition for the guy. Also interesting so see who chipped in: Bernie Ecclestone, Rowan Atkinson. These are guys who don’t do that many interviews. That they did in this case says something about the esteem in which they hold Murray.

    Personally, I would far prefer to see Murray designing F1 cars than road cars – there’s the sense of the extraordinary and fanatastic about what he used to do. My understanding is that in the end even he couldn’t find holes in the rules, which is why he stopped.

    Like you, I was struck by what he was saying about how the car will be built. It was a bit detail free so I remain dubious but if it is the case that he has found a way of cheapening both design and production then this car could turn out to be truly revolutionary.

  • Charlie Slate

    The thing is uglier than a Smart Car.
    If somebody wants to give me one, I’ll keep it in a corner of the trunk (boot) of my 2005 Ford Crown Victoria LX which is going to run forever.

  • As somebody who does not really like driving, I could like this car. This is not a joke – things like the driver being at the centre make it easier to judge where the sides of the car are.

    While I did eventually learn to do this adequately in a conventional car, after only a decade or so, it always bugged me that I had to work so hard at it, because the left edge of the car was so much further away than the right, and learn it all over again with every new car. Man – or woman, especially woman – was built to judge the width of gaps by by placing oneself in the middle. Even cats couldn’t judge gaps so well if they had bigger whiskers on the left than the right!

    I don’t care that it’s ugly. I only register that it is capable of being ugly or beautiful because other people express an opinion. I might care that it only takes three people, but maybe they could make a bigger one to take five.

  • lucklucky

    Horrible and badly designed.

    “The McLaren F1 might have been the fastest”

    I suppose that means a straight lane. Was it faster in a circuit?

  • Well, it won Le Mans. Will that do?

  • Ed Snack

    I wonder when the compliant media will ever consider the lifecycle efficiency of vehicles. By the time you factor in the battery costs and electric cars, over their life don’t stack up nearly as well as most people would think.

    And I’m with the others that the “revolutionary front opening door” is anything but a re-run of the bubble cars of the 50′s and 60′s. It opens up rather than across, imagine walking into that by mistake.

    Also, I believe that Gordon has been peddling this design for some years, without any takers ? Or was the earlier announcements for different configurations perhaps.

    And someone hit the design with an ugly stick !

  • Laird

    Natalie, I suspect that your problem was that you were driving on the wrong side of the road. Judging the gap when it’s on the right is so much easier!

  • Roue le Jour

    Its strangely retro styling remind me of a delivery van of the sort I recall from my youth.

    Exactly what I thought. The van in question is a Morris J-type(Link). Bonus nostalgia points among hommes of a certain age, I guess.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I watched that programme on the BBC 4 Channel. One of the few really good things that the BBC does, in fact. Murray is a genius and, yes, I bet the F1 guys miss him.

    McLaren is certainly one of those British firms that nail the idea that somehow UK manufacturing and design is dead. That is utter bollocks – what these guys do is world-class and emulated all over.

    Yes, the fact that Bernie E and Rowan A. were interviewed on the show demonstrates how much they admire this guy. He is up there with Colin Chapman in my estimation.

  • Paul Marks

    I recently watched a car (called “the Blue Hornet”) developed (from some old scrap parts) by a Chinese farmer.

    When it reaches 40 miles an hour a wind turbine at the start goes round – recharging the electic car battery.

    For 30 years the Chinese farmer has tried to get companies interested in his idea.

    Perhaps the idea is total sillyness – but it might be worth a look.

  • Alisa

    Sounds like perpeto mobile, Paul – at least on the face of it. In other words, this guy could be to car making what Keynes was to economics:-)

  • Alisa

    …’perpetuum‘…sigh.

  • Alisa is right Paul. That is in utter violation of thermodynamics.

    Example of this sort of thing being used practically is jamming pods on planes. They use a little turbine to generate electricity for sticking out a lot of electro-mag energy. But it is not something for nothing being rather draggy so increasing fuel-use/decreasing speed. Basically the energy harvested has to come from somewhere.

  • Alisa

    But that’s OK Nick: in the long run, we’re all going to be immobile…:-)

  • Paul Marks

    No I do not believe in perpetual motion machines – I am not Lord Keynes.

    I apologise for explaining badly – the farmer was not saying that his idea meant that one could did not need to extra power, he just claimed it saved a bit of money (by charging things up a bit).

    Watching him go along with a reporter in the back was fun – even if (yes indeed) his car was certainly not a perpertual motion machine.

  • Alisa

    Paul, the point is that it wouldn’t even save a bit of money – it would not create any additional energy, but rather consume some of the energy created by the engine, because of drag.

  • Alisa

    …in other words, it would waste money rather than save it.

  • Paul Marks

    Quite so Alisa – I did say it was most likely just sillyness.

    But I did like the look of the little car with a prop spining on the front.

    It was very Baron M.

    The rational libertarian in me knows enough science to know it is sillyness.

    But the romantic Tory in me wishes these things would (somehow) work – in defiance of science.

    More broadly…….

    I know we are doomed – all logical reasoning shows this. I say it many times.

    But I sometimes have mad hopes.

    “But they are mad”.

    Yes indeed.

  • Alisa

    I know exactly what you mean, Paul.