McLaren F1

McLaren F1

We love Gordon Murray for what he's contributed to the automotive universe. Perhaps most famous for his work on the McLaren F1, he was also responsible for the legendary Brabham fan car, the banned BT46B, as well as two F1 World Championship cars for Brabham, and the fantastic McLaren MP4/4 F1 car driven by Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in addition to many others. He built his reputation for excellence on innovation and outside-the-box thinking.

But with his latest round of designs, we're left wondering where the Gordon Murray of decades past has gone. Using derivative ideas from prior (great) creations is one thing, but packaging a host of old ideas with nothing new but a bit of greenwashing while perpetrating some of the most atrocious exterior designs ever conceived (and ruining classic icons) is another. Unfortunately, that seems to be what we have today.

Cases in point include: the T.25, the T.27, and the T.32 (brought to realization in concept form in conjunction with Toray as the Teewave AR.1). We'll address each individually.

Gordon Murray Design T25 Minicar

Gordon Murray Design T25 Minicar

The T.25

The T.25, revealed in June, 2010, purports to be a "major breakthrough in city car design in the areas of weight, footprint, safety, usability, and efficiency." To its credit, it is very light at about 1,260 pounds, and does achieve remarkable fuel efficiency at 74 mpg. It borrows the three-seat layout of the McLaren F1 (an idea originally conceived by Murray in 1966 while a mechanical engineering student at Durban Institute of Technology in South Africa). It also just edges out a 54-year-old Fiat in most respects.

Say what? Weighing in the neighborhood of 1,100-1,300 pounds in its various guises, the original Fiat 500, built from 1957-1978, often managed 50-plus mpg--not quite 74 mpg, but given the technology of the time (carburetors, slide rules), an impressive figure. Engine displacement and power are also similar between the two.

The T.25 is also roughly comparable in size to the 500, being nearly two feet shorter in length but a foot taller at the roofline. Both cars sport similar interior dimensions and cargo capacities, but the Fiat offered seating four four instead of the T.25's three. The tradeoff came in individual passenger space--the Fiat 500's occupants were a bit more cramped.

But that's in comparison to a 54-year-old design; the T.25 improves upon it in many aspects, particularly in materials and safety. No one, after all, wants to hit anything in a classic Fiat 500, let alone contemplate being hit by something else. 

Those areas, however, are not particularly innovative nor impressive; modern CAD design enables strength and safety testing and experimentation simply not possible in the 1950s, and the carbon fiber Murray relies so heavily upon has been around for years, awaiting little besides affordability and mass-production methods. Vehicle safety in general has come leaps and bounds in the last 50 years, and there are few cars on the market in the Western hemisphere that don't offer it in spades, though some pay a higher penalty in weight and economy to achieve it.

At best, the T.25 can be considered a skillful integration of many existing concepts to yield a compact, efficient city car--but it's anything but a "major breakthrough."

Gordon Murray Design T.27 electric car prototype

Gordon Murray Design T.27 electric car prototype

The T.27

Adding electricity to the mix is everybody's favorite move these days, and the T.27 does that by building on the T.25's basic structure. Adding a 12-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and electric drivetrain increases weight of the T.27 to 1,501 pounds, making it very light for an electric car. Its 25 kW (33 hp) motor gives it a rather weak 45 lb/hp power-to-weight ratio, about 50 percent worse than the 30 lb/hp of the Nissan Leaf. Performance isn't the primary goal of any electric car, but it's a basic necessity when dealing with larger, more powerful traffic, even in urban environments.

The Leaf, of course, weighs more than twice as much as the T.27 and requires a 24 kWh battery pack to achieve roughly the same 80-100 mile range. That means the Leaf, for all its greenness, uses about twice as much electricity per mile as the T.27. Fortunately for Leaf owners, however, it seats five passengers and has, you know, room inside for things as well as people. Best of all, it's actually in production and on sale through a major manufacturer.

Worse still for the T.27 is BMW's i3, conceived under the Project i banner as early as 2008 and shown in concept form earlier this month at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Incorporating many of the same elements as the T.27, such as a carbon fiber monocoque chassis and a strong emphasis on safety, the i3 is still a heavyweight by comparison at about 2,750 pounds. On the other hand, it's a real car, with seating for four and an overall size between the 1-Series and 3-Series, meaning more than merely adequate cargo space and utility. Impressively, the i3 claims to eke a 93-mile range out of a 16-kWh battery pack, making it about 33 percent less efficient per mile, but about 37 percent more efficient per pound than the T.27. It is scheduled to go into production in 2013, a feat the T.27 has yet to achieve.

And all of that is before we get to the other technology wrapped into the i3, including city-driving aids that approach autonomous abilities--technology that actually merits the "breakthrough" tag.

As far as safety--the T.25's primary advantage over the original Fiat 500--the Leaf is, well, safe: it's an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The BMW i3 is also expected to garner top safety ratings--thanks again to the wonders of materials and computer-aided design available to the entire industry.

The bottom line here is that while the T.27 manages to look good on paper (in large part due to its small size) it's not particularly innovative in any regard; it's just a downsized version of existing electric cars.

Gordon Murray & Toray's TEEWAVE AR.1 electric sports car

Gordon Murray & Toray's TEEWAVE AR.1 electric sports car

The T.32/Toray Teewave AR.1

Billed as an electric "sports car," the Toray Teewave AR.1 (codenamed T.32 during development) has its own set of problems.

Again, the Teewave is light, weighing just 1,875 pounds even with a 550-pound battery pack, but again, it falls short on power--a mortal sin for a sports car. The 47 kW (63 hp) motor (that's just over one-third the power of the 2,400-pound Miata MX-5) delivers "limited" ultimate performance according to Gordon Murray Design, but claims to offer "lively" acceleration from a stop thanks to its 132 pound-foot torque figure. The hard numbers put 0-60 mph acceleration at 11.4 seconds and the top speed at 94 mph. Range is estimated at 116 miles. Part of the trouble here is Toray's use of the Mitsubishi iMiEV's powertrain.

To put all of these numbers into context, let's take a look at the only electric sports car currently on the market (though it soon ceases production): the Tesla Roadster. Weighing in at a comparatively monstrous 2,723 pounds, the standard, non-Sport Roadster nevertheless manages breathtaking performance, getting to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 125 mph. It does this with a 215 kW (288-hp) motor rated at 273 pound-feet of torque running on a 56 kWh battery.

Makes the AR.1 look positively anemic, doesn't it?

Adding to the AR.1's issues is the fact that the Roadster itself is little more than an assemblage of technologies (from pre-2007): a bonded aluminum chassis from Lotus, re-packaged laptop batteries, and yet more carbon fiber to lighten the load. It looks like Murray's approach is not only not innovative, but it's been done before, if not to the same extremity.

Get a new idea

All of this isn't to say we don't appreciate the value of the T.25 and other Murray designs. On the contrary, we recognize them for what they are: simple and forward-looking ideas aimed at tackling the growth of Earth's motorized population and the environmental impacts associated with that growth. We just wish there were something truly Murrayan about the design, some game-changing, why-hasn't-anyone-thought-of-that, truly ground-breaking solution. Instead, we're getting refinement of existing systems and technologies by degree.

We miss the old Gordon Murray.