Gordon Murray’s car collection is all about ‘simple, lightweight, and purposeful’ design

You’d expect nothing less from someone with his car-design portfolio
by Ollie Kew | 5 days ago
PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

Gordon Murray parks outside his namesake company’s HQ in his grimy Alpine, the first new car he bought after 16 years daily-driving a Smart Roadster because “although the gearbox is crap, I couldn’t find anything that was as small, light, and fun.”

He’s enjoying his A110, but has already curbed three wheels because it’s “too wide,” and he’s upset it’s not a naturally aspirated manual. “Then it would’ve been perfect.”

Not a man easily pleased, then. But ‘the easily pleased’ don’t mastermind five Formula 1 championship-winning race cars and several record-breaking road cars, or have the audacity to name their new track-day toy after Niki Lauda. Today, he can add ‘tour guide’ to what must be a fairly extensive LinkedIn CV.

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“We’re standing in our customer experience center,” says Murray, beckoning us into the very room where 100 wealthy individuals of exquisite taste will collect their tri-seat T.50 supercar next year. “Upstairs is our seating buck, where everybody gets fitted ergonomically for the car, just like we did with the McLaren F1. Then we talk through color and trim.” Dare you to ask for pink. Dare you.

Murray is more than a fast-car fanatic. He’s an ideas factory, and his brainwave for this nondescript industrial unit was to reimagine it into an immersion pool for his lightweight mantra. A mood room of his origin story, how he learned his craft, and inspirations through 50 years of being impossible to satisfy.

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Nominally, Top Gear is here to inspect the new T.50s—the one of 25 track-only spin-offs (so to speak) of his McLaren F1 successor. It revs faster, screams louder, has dieted harder than Christian Bale, and conjures so much downforce, the mustachioed maestro decreed it be eased back to a mere 1,500kg of negative lift at just under 340kph “to keep it fun.”

“I think this is going to be the best track experience there has been to date,” he smiles confidently. “We had a lot of fun creating this with no regulations.”

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We’d usually fawn over this carbon spaceship alone, but the T.50s is encircled by impossibly pretty, petite distractions. And none of them is a McLaren F1. Murray sold his personal example—the XP3 prototype—after the £20 million insurance valuation made it a tad squeaky to “enjoy scaring passengers on my local roads.” The father of the F1 then set about expanding his collection with every other motor vehicle he’s longed to own.

“At home, I’ve got 22 garages,” he says. “They’re not all cars, unfortunately. Some of them are gardening equipment. About 14 are for classic cars.” Christ. Must be some lawnmower.

And off he goes, retracing a life spent chasing a petrol-fueled advantage, without a single cue-card prompt or pause to pull Wikipedia from his pocket. He transports us back to his formative years in South Africa: “I grew up in a racing family. My dad, a motor mechanic, raced motorbikes before the war. I grew up being taken to race meetings aged five or six. In those days, Durban had an around-the-houses, along-the-beachfront course, like a sort of bad Monaco.”

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His 1951 Mark IV Cooper 500 single, a classic Formula 3 car, was a must-have as “it is the very first car I can remember my dad working on. It’s really nostalgic for me. It sits adjacent to my first racing car, which I designed and built when I was 18 years old. I did all the engine work myself—it was based on a 105E Anglia, but I did my own pistons and cams.” On a shoestring, too.

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“The whole car cost me 200 quid. The most expensive bits were the Weber carburetors: 60 of the 200 pounds. I borrowed that from my aunt and my brother, and I had a year to pay them back. I campaigned it for two years and won a few races.” Beats paying off your student loan wiping tables in a fast-food chain.

By 1969, a 23-year-old Murray had reached the ceiling of what he could achieve in his homeland and boarded a cargo ferry to migrate to Britain—then, as it remains today, the global epicenter of elite single-seater racing.

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Reassuringly for all of us whose loft joists groan under boxes of dusty Scalextric and old issues of Top Gear magazine, he is a hoarder. Old gifts and memorabilia have been used to recreate his first office: “That pantograph drawing machine was a present from my parents for my birthday. The Swiss instruments on the desk were also for my 18th. I used them to draw the McLaren F1,” he says matter-of-factly. As far as I’m concerned, they’re more valuable than a Lennon guitar, but Murray views them as mere tools.

Randomly dotted about this space are glistening jukeboxes, collected “not just for the styling, but the mechanism. I’ve got 16 now. This is before transistorization—they’re electromechanical. You get all these cams and belts. Whenever I buy a new one, I take the back off for a month and watch all the mechanisms.”

Resisting the urge to slap the ’box until it cranks out ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ we delve into sub-1,000kg heaven. There’s no order as such, but a definite theme: “I love design that’s simple, lightweight, and purposeful. That’s central to just about every car in my collection.”

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Next to a rebuilt F1 Brabham BT44B lies the pancake-flat 1972 Le Mans 3.0-liter prototype that Murray created for Alain de Cadenet in four months: “Alain had a budget of £5,000 for everything. My fee was 250 quid to design the car. In the end, I think he paid me 200 pounds. He didn’t have the 50 quid. But I got a Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator as payment.”

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All glamour, the life of a racing car designer. “My wife and I were then renting an unheated place in Claygate,” he recalls. “I worked at Brabham until about 8pm, got home and worked on this until 3am or 4am in the morning, with ice on the inside of the windows.”

The test driver’s job sounds cooler: “They took it to the M4 at midnight and did 200mph down the motorway to test the stability, then they put it on the trailer and went to Le Mans.” Murray’s first crack at an endurance racer ran solidly in fifth before a late crash dropped it down the order to 12th. He’d eventually conquer La Sarthe in 1995 with the F1 GTR’s landmark victory.

The collection exposes its owner’s early plans not to be a draughtsman, but the nut holding the wheel. He notes his Formula 750 racer’s lay-down driving position—way ahead of its time for 1970—lowering his lanky frame out of the windstream, his body counterbalancing the offset Reliant engine.

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Between that and a V8 hot rod, the diminutive LCC Rocket, built to unseat his hero Colin Chapman’s Lotus Seven as the lightest street car ever. Until the T.50 arrives, its 11,500rpm motorbike engine holds the mantle of revviest road-car engine yet.

“Here’s the first car that De Tomaso made, the Vallelunga. The first mid-engine car to have a backbone chassis. Depending on who you listen to, he only made 50. It’s a joke: you’ve got this beautiful Italian body and a Cortina GT engine in the back.”

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Espousing his adoration for Zagatos—like an adorable Fiat 600-based coupe he’s captured after lusting for one since his teens—Murray is off down an educational Abarth rabbit hole.

“Abarths have been a big inspiration for the T.50. I just love the simple instrumentation and the little gear levers.” He’s just had a Spyder rebuilt to accommodate his height, but lockdown kiboshed testing. “I’m desperate to get it on circuit,” he fizzes. “This is going to be oversteer with a capital ‘O.’” The man is 74 years old.

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Through a dividing door, we enter the second chamber. His well-worn Smart quietly rests in a corner, three-spoke rims still caked in brake dust from its last commute.

Here we find the Lotuses. Sorry, Loti. The shapes and liveries are so mesmerizing, it’s tricky to keep up with his world-class museum commentary: “…a beautiful little engine. I’m a great fan of the Lotus 1558 twin-cam in the Cortinas and Elans...my perfect car, really—a very usable motor car...all-aluminum body, Zagato shape, beautiful little twin-cam. It doesn’t get any better than that...” I venture the naff but irresistible question: If the place was on fire, which one car would he choose to save? “Oh, one of my Elans.”

Britain and Italy are well-represented, but Japan has a look in with a cute Honda S800. “I was a teenager when this came out. I remember reading about this affordable car that revved to 10,000rpm, and I thought that one day, I’ve got to own one of these. The engine’s quite tractable as well. Very light, of course. The gearbox is an absolute delight. It’s one of the best road-car gearboxes I’ve ever driven.”

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What about motorcycles? Murray seems to employ 50cc bikes as an artisanal alternative to wallpaper.

“The story behind the bikes began with that Maserati 50, which my dad bought for a tenner as a non-runner,” he recalls. “I had to rebuild the engine and gearbox.” Nope, I never knew Maserati used to do bikes, either. My brain is near overflowing.

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“In those days, you needed to be 18 in South Africa to get a driving license. So from 16, I just rode bikes. I still do. In the old days, I rode without a crash helmet or shoes. Just a T-shirt and shorts. I crashed, I lost skin. I loved it.”

Now, the motorbikes serve as “little works of art.” I silently wonder if Mrs. Murray knows how many adorn his office. “It’s become a bit of a mission now to have one from each manufacturer—I’ve got 40 so far. Eight to go. I ride them for fun, then hang them on the wall.”

What’s next on the wish list? “I think I’m pretty much there. There’s a couple of little Abarths I would love to find, but they come up so seldom.”

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Picture the scene of your average billionaire helicoptering in to collect their T.50s, then wandering through here and tripping over Murray’s humble early work. What would they make of the 850cc Minbug, built in a disused shed at Heathrow airport in 1971 and used for 38,000 everyday miles with his wife? “She did all the pop riveting. There were 1,500 rivets on every car.”

Only here would you find a Minbug or a Lotus 11 sharing real estate with a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. The beaky 626hp V8 coupe was the battleground where Murray’s lightweight obsession locked horns with Benz corporate boardroom culture, and produced the most schizophrenic supercar of all time. I sense it’s not his go-to Sunday morning treat.

“I’m very proud of the team that produced this: The carbon chassis and hollow engine cradle are very stiff and light, but the styling, the supercharged engine...isn’t my sort of motor car,” he admits. Moving swiftly on...oh, a Porsche 550 Spyder.

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Design-by-committee is a poignant issue for Murray. He’s still at the top of his game, but he solemnly recognizes “I’m a dying breed. There are maybe one or two car designers left in the world to whom you could say, ‘Right, lock yourself in a room with a calculator and a drawing board, and I want you to come out with finished aero structures, stress analysis, suspension geometry, cooling, an engine, a gearbox, and don’t come out of the room until you’ve given me a whole car.’

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“There were loads of them around in the ’50s and ’60s. Issigonis doing the Mini was fundamentally a one-man band. Dante Giacosa’s Fiat 500: one guy. Five hundred drawings, by one person.” While the new T.50 hasn’t been created so autocratically, Murray’s close-knit team shares his single-minded devotion to shaving weight and seeking nape-prickling sensations over a binary numbers war.

“You can’t do that in Formula 1 anymore, either—there’s a thousand people in the team,” he points out. “At Brabham, I was the only person in the drawing office—I was running the team, I did the hiring and firing, then helped pack the truck with spares.”

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So this is more than a collection—rather, it’s something adjacent to a living museum. It’s a roadmap through trial and error, to what can be achieved when ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough. He rounds back on the £3.1-million T.50s, wearing the name of his late great triple-world champ mate on its slender fin.

“Until someone else does an 850kg car with a 700hp V12 in the back, it’s never going to get better than this,” Murray predicts.

Sure, he would say that. But do you disagree?

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni
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