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Autocar Awards 2022: Engineering icon, and Mundy Award winner, is bringing even more ingenious ideas to life

Gordon Murray, the distinguished winner of Autocar’s Mundy Award for Engineering, was always destined to become an engineer, even though neither he nor his family realised it in his early years.

Born in Durban, South Africa, Murray lived until he was 15 in modest circumstances: a family of four in a small, single-bedroom flat. Money was so tight that conventional toys were out of the question, so aged eight or nine, young Gordon’s idea of fun was to mock up spaceships and submarines with creatively arranged blankets and dining-room chairs and then invite neighbourhood friends to enjoy them.

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He soon became known as “the inventor on the block”. When he won a course of drawing lessons in a school competition, his teacher spotted an obvious technical ability (his sketchbooks were filled with well-informed sketches of cars and aeroplanes), so she suggested he study technical drawing, the true beginning of everything. It soon seemed natural for him to move to Natal Technical College (his graduation project was a complete engine design), and by the time he was 20, he had designed his first car, lower and lighter than a Lotus Seven, which he raced for a couple of years.

By 23, he had decided that his career would advance better in the UK. By 25, he was chief designer at the Brabham Formula 1 team (owner Bernie Ecclestone summarily fired the rest of the design staff). And by 28, he was technical director, running the whole operation. Murray’s ascent soon became even more dramatic: in an F1 shark pool containing luminaries like Colin Chapman and Frank Williams, his cars won five F1 manufacturers’ titles and 50 grands prix for Brabham and McLaren over two decades, until winning became almost routine.

Then came a 1990 plan to launch a McLaren road car company, whose first product was the seminal F1. Two Le Mans 24 Hours wins for the race version followed. Then in 2003, the Mercedes-McLaren SLR arrived. Frustrated by corporate control, Murray left in 2007 to establish his own firm, Gordon Murray Design, a move that led to an expanded Gordon Murray Automotive able to bring ideas into reality.

A wide range of imaginative concepts and processes has resulted, many for secret clients. The latest headline-grabbers under Murray’s own name are a pair of lightweight, brilliantly packaged V12 supercars in the F1 mould: the GMA T50 ‘fan car’ and the slightly cheaper and slightly simpler yet no less desirable GMA T33.

For all of his achievements, Murray has always taken a very practical view of the purpose and status of engineering.

“It’s a means to an end,” he says shortly. “I didn’t get into this job to be an engineer. I did it because I needed a car that would help me become a racing driver. If I hadn’t done it myself, I would have had to pay someone else. Don’t get me wrong, I Iove the whole process, but the idea comes first and the engineering gets me there.”

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He sees a similarly clear distinction between innovation and engineering: “Occasionally, innovation occurs during an engineering process, but that’s rare. You innovate at the idea stage; engineering is the tool you use for making it real.”

How does engineering align with art? Murray began his earliest career in art (and still draws and paints for fun) but believes the link isn’t strong; most engineers would have trouble drawing a stick man, he reckons. Yet any student of his work will soon notice the care that he takes with the look of things: products, parts, logos, badges, signage, corporate identity.

“I think I’m a bit unusual in that the aesthetics of what we do matter so much,” he says. “The mechanical components of the T50 – even the stuff people never see – are made to look good. They’re engineered first, but we also make them attractive.”

Now into his seventies, Murray is very conscious of the fact that newer engineers face unprecedented challenges in building the electrified, connected, autonomous, hack-proof and yet great-driving and desirable cars of the next 30 years.

But he’s fundamentally optimistic, noting that “engineers work best under the most pressure”. He cites as an example the way his predecessors perfected radar just in time to help protect Britain in World War II. One of his concerns, however, is that modern car creation leads people to follow one discipline for long periods.

“Younger designers can find themselves working on front suspensions for five years at a stretch,” he says. “It’s understandable, because the job is so complex, but it does make you wonder how we will identify tomorrow’s leaders. To be the best, they need wide experience. Some of the best cars were ‘oneperson’ creations: the Alec Issigonis cars or Dante Giacosa’s Fiats.”

One solution for ambitious young engineers is to spend time at small, agile and immersive companies where training is a priority. Murray practises what he preaches: GMA runs apprentice and postgraduate programmes, and the morning after our interview, he was scheduled to lead a regular three-monthly business update for all employees.

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We pause over one last burning question: can Murray really view the forthcoming EV era with the same enthusiasm as the ICE age in which he has been such a trendsetter?

“I’ve lived through a fantastic era,” he answers. “An age when some of the most beautiful, emotional and noisy cars were built. And with our V12 cars, I’m still doing my best to keep the last flag flying. But the future offers even bigger, better challenges.

“At GMA, we have our own EV programme, because we have looked at what others are doing and are pretty sure it’s all wrong. It can’t be correct to have family cars routinely weighing 2.5 tonnes, yet everyone’s piling into the thing the way OEMs do. We think there’s a better way.”

Murray isn’t ready to reveal much except that his first EV will be one most can afford.

“We’re still signing deals with partners,” he says, “and we have plenty to do. But all engineering will be our own. The project entails a bit of crystal-balling, but if we hit our targets, we really believe it will change how people think about EVs.”

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