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When James May met Gordon Murray

  1. The Gordon Murray of today
    is a mature edition of the hippie you often see in old F1 pit-lane photos: wild
    hair, moustache, worse shirts than mine. He is
    the man who designed for Brabham and McLaren and went on to conceive the F1
    supercar, as well as the ‘McMerc’ SLR and the LCC Rocket. He is a workaholic,
    card-carrying engineering evangelist, tinged, as is usual, with a hint of

    He likes Bob Dylan, for example, and soap-box racing. He’s inexplicably fond of jukeboxes and seems to harbour
    some deep-rooted phobia about cockroaches, which he mentions several times
    during our discussions.

    Words: James May

    Pictures: Justin Leighton 

    This article originally appeared in the June 2012 edition of Top Gear magazine 

  2. And
    here, finally, are the fruits of his apparently baffling small-car project, the
    petrol-engined T25 and its electric counterpart, the T27. We can relax. They
    are fun, good-humoured and slightly comedic, which is to be applauded – faintly cerebral yet entertaining, like Total

    are the first flowering of a new manufacturing method Gordon has dubbed
    iStream, and which could also be used for making motorcycles, boats, trucks,
    caravans, railway carriages, furniture or even, by my reckoning, luggage. More
    of this elsewhere.

  3. For the moment, iStream has given us these cars.
    “Styling a car to fit three adults is almost impossible,” says Gordon, as if
    getting his racing-car designer’s excuses in early. Actually, they look quite funky, although
    admittedly a bit weird. Then again, people have been saying that about Gaudí’s
    cathedral for a century, and we’re beginning to dig that. In any case, the
    are a bit weird all the way through, as it turns out. Tired of bulky weekend
    newspapers full of irrelevant supplements? This may be a good way of getting
    rid of them. Explanation to follow.

    Here are a few vitals. A T-car is around a foot shorter than a Smart ForTwo. It’s two-
    feet narrower across the mirrors, weighs around 200kg less in petrol form, seats one extra person and has a bigger boot.
    It will also cost quite a bit less.

  4. You really can park a T perpendicular to the kerb and thereby fit three in a standard British city parking bay. As
    parking is currently charged by the space rather than the car, you will have to drive around in convoy with two other T-owners to take advantage of this, but things may

    at a crunch point for mobility,” says Murray. “They said this would happen.”

  5. The
    T-cars are a sort of pre-emptive strike, an attempt to dignify the truly small
    car and make it acceptable, before ‘they come with a big stick’.

    To enter the mind of Gordon Murray, first press a
    button on your key fob. The whole
    front of the car hinges open, recalling the Isetta bubble car, the Bond Bug and other earlier headbangs against the thorny
    old chestnut of tiny-car design.

  6. You can, in fact – though I’m sure this will change – drive around with the lid open. There’s no earthly reason for
    doing this, but you will, and for the same reason that you will put a tea cosy on your head.
    You do it because you can and because no one else has got one.

    And if you end up in utter motorway gridlock, you can
    open the lid, stand on the
    seat and survey the carnage à la Rommel.

  7. With the lid closed, all is cosy. You sit in the middle, which seems like the right place to be, with the neat dash and
    dodgem-car steering wheel in front of you. Good for driving abroad, and an end
    to the tiresome LH/RH drive issue. The flanks wrap around you, cockpit-style, but the inside is airy because the glass area is massive. It’s a bit like being
    one of the Jetsons.

    Your two passengers sit to either side and slightly
    behind, as in the F1. It sounds anti-social, but works quite well. With the
    editor and photographer aboard, conversation still seemed normal. They get a good view
    of the road ahead; I don’t have to look at their faces. This lay-out is ideal
    for en-route neck-rub from the other half, but not from
    these two, obviously.

  8. I see a Smart car going the opposite direction. Pah!
    Sap. Your car is enormous,
    sir, and ridiculous. The 660cc petrol T25 gives just 51bhp, or 13 less than my sluggardly Fiat Panda. It matters not. It isn’t quick,
    clearly, at least not in the numerical terms with which the appreciation of performance has
    become saddled. But it delivers fast sensations, because it is small, and it is light.

  9. “Low weight is the last holy grail of car design,”
    said Gordon, earlier. This is at the
    core of his iStream thinking, but also close to his heart as a racing man.

    A light car obviously accelerates better for a given amount of power, or uses less fuel if you’re that way inclined. But
    it’s actually a bit more complex than that. The effects of excess weight are
    compounded by movement, because inertia – the reluctance of the car to change
    its speed and direction – then becomes the issue.

  10. A lighter car requires less braking effort, so the discs and calipers can be smaller, and the critical unsprung mass is
    reduced. Because a light car can be turned more readily, the tyres can be smaller.
    That means smaller, and lighter, wheels, and even less unsprung mass. A light
    car, having less inertia – and contrary to popular belief – can be made to
    crash better.

    And so
    it goes on. Lightness begets lightness, just as weight ushers in more weight, for the reverse of the reasons above. Supercar builders drone on about carbon tubs and aluminium, but really
    they are trying to shoehorn lightness into a fundamentally heavy way of thinking.

  11. One philosophy tends naturally towards the Houses of Parliament; the
    other towards something more like a party balloon. The T-cars are headed balloonwards, and the benefits of
    lightness go all the way back to the production line. Remember, the T weighs
    around 200kg less than a Smart. That’s the weight of a hefty motorcycle, and a massive
    proportional difference between two very small cars.

    Anyway, here we are, in a three-seater, rear-drive,
    ultra-lightweight sports car of sorts. This late-prototype-but-as-yet-untrimmed
    T25 is a bit creaky, but never mind. Here comes a bend. The steering, enriched by
    the physical immutables of weight-saving and Murray’s enthusiasm for simple
    sports cars, is razor-sharp – perhaps a bit too lively for the unsuspecting.

  12. In we go; the visual references suggest an unseemly
    falling-over of the novelty item, but my arse-based accelerometer says
    otherwise. It’s neat and even a bit chuckable, and I manage a whiff of drift on a long left-hander. I must stop doing that sort of thing, or I’ll totally ruin my reputation.

  13. What a shame that Murray has been lumbered, for the
    moment, with the two-pedal transmission from the Smart. It’s notoriously tardy.
    Still, the T is, in essence, a chassis-based car rather than a restrictive
    monocoque, so you could fit any small engine and gearbox within reason.
    Motorcycle engines suggest themselves, and I think the T25 would feel good with
    the 675cc triple from my Triumph Daytona, which also has a quick-shifter. Then
    it would fizz like an Alka-Seltzer in Irn-Bru and bang through the gears like a
    Gatling gun.

  14. But maybe it should be electric anyway. The T27 is
    more finished, and trimmed inside with cheerful seaside fabrics and light
    silver plastic. The electronic instruments are especially nice, and there’s no
    faux futuristic silliness. Murray is disappointed with the intrusive whine from the powertrain, but I quite like
    it. It reaffirms my daring in committing to the new propulsive force of The
    Electric. There’s just a knob for forwards and backwards, and instant promotion
    to the bridge of the Enterprise. Wheee! She can take it, as it turns out, Scotty.

  15. And all the time you are sitting in the middle of a
    car, which feels a bit special. People will want to ride in your T for the
    novelty of its seating arrangement, for the same reasons that they will want to
    try your inflatable furniture. The only other way of enjoying this kick is to
    buy the F1, and they’re a bit steep these days.

  16. What really makes the T amusing to drive, however, is the sense that it is almost a scooter; almost a licence to reinterpret the cloying conventions of lane
    discipline and road positioning that shackle the drivers of full-size vehicles. Out in the
    town, there are places where a T-car could make an extra lane for itself. The temptation to do this is overwhelming; to shoot down the
    middle of the road and arrive at the front of a queue at some traffic lights. Other
    drivers might even forgive you for it, because your car is funny.

  17. These are genuinely clever iddy-biddy cars that
    avoid – if only just – the trap of seeming righteous or like an apology for
    owning a car. They are the honest outpouring of an engineer and his hand-picked
    team of experts/lunatics, not the cynical masturbatory effluence of cod
    transport reformers and fashionistas.

  18. They come adorned with letters and numbers, like racing cars or fighter aircraft do, not sanctimonious monikers like the
    iQ, the Smart, the Future or the Jesus. These are just very small cars, but, in many ways, the
    most radical we have seen. Fancy one? You can have one now if you like, but
    there’s a catch… you have to buy the whole factory.

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