A Formula One Designer Shifts Gears

Gordon Murray is now focusing on lightweight, low-cost, environment-friendly autosbut can he pull off a stylish, inexpensive design?

Famed Formula One race-car designer Gordon Murray, best known for his sleek design of the McLaren F1, a rare, $1 million-plus supercar launched in the early 1990s, has reversed direction: He's now focusing on a compact, fuel-efficient urban vehicle for the masses that will sell for about $10,000.

In July he launched Gordon Murray Design, based in Shalford, in Surrey, to turn his idea into reality. Far from the high speeds of racetracks or glamorous auto shows, Murray's own experience as an everyday driver inspired him to focus on a low-cost, mass-market car. Since 1993, he says, seeing London roads clogged with gas guzzlers motivated him to research and develop a car that would still have the design oomph of his high-end vehicles. Says the British designer: "I asked myself, 'How could you change people's view on driving something that was smaller and lighter, while being relatively safe, but also preserve the fun of driving?'"

There's more to Murray's vision, however, than designing an ultrahip small car. He wants to reduce carbon emissions on the front end of a vehicle's life by greening the production process itself. He rejects, for example, the popular idea that hybrid vehicles are the way to go. Hybrids, he points out, require the manufacturer to create two engines rather than one, using additional raw materials and energy.

"On the Right Track"

Can Murray can pull off a low-cost gas-saver with the appeal of a sleek race car? So far, Murray only has hand-drawn sketches of what the Type 25 will look like. Similar to the design tactics behind the Toyota Prius and the MCC Smart Car, the one-passenger Type 25 has a curvy silhouette and unusual proportions to distinguish it from more traditional vehicles and to declare, via form, its intention to be a game-changing, environment-friendly product. "It's very difficult to achieve that in any motor car," Murray says. "You're not going to get someone out of their Porsche 911 driving into London if people are going to laugh at them."

Murray has a history of designing smaller, lighter cars. In 1989 he created the 800-lb. Light Car Rocket Roadster, which ran on a motorcycle engine and remains the world's lightest sports car. For the heftier Type 25, he's experimenting with materials, substituting some steel elements with lighter yet sturdy alternatives, such as high-performance plastics. The car will weigh about 1,300 lbs., about 1,700 lbs. less than the average passenger car, and will use less fuel. The idea is to lower operating expenses for drivers to a third of that of the average vehicle, which in 2007 was 53.2¢ per mile, or $7,823 for every 15,000 miles driven, according to an annual American Automobile Assn. study.

"I really think he's on the right track," says Stewart Reed, chair of the transportation department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., citing Murray's dual approach of lightening the load and fuel usage of cars, as well as his reworking of the production process.

Running Down Emissions

Murray's plan has its critics, though. The vast majority of emissions come from the lifetime use of the vehicle, says Lee Schipper, director of research for EMBARQ, the World Resources Institute's transportation program. Seventy percent to 80% of total carbon emissions come from the use of the vehicle, 5% to 10% of carbon comes from repairs and fuel, and only 10% to 20% from the production of the car, he says. "While it maybe be true that a hybrid has some intensive production factors," Schipper says, "the overall carbon emissions are from the lifetime use of the car."

While the Type 25 is still in its drawing-board phase—Murray plans to build five prototypes within the next two years—the design solutions that he proposes could provide real inspiration for automakers and drivers alike.

For a look at Gordon Murray's innovative car design through the years, check out the slide show.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.