Gordon Murray, son of a motorcycle racer and the designer of the legendary McLaren F1, on the Ducati 916, the Isle of Man and hanging bikes on his walls at home...
When did you get into bikes?
The bike thing started when I lived in South Africa. When you were 16 you could ride little 50cc bikes that we called ‘buzz bikes.’ For £10 I got a secondhand Maserati 50cc and used to ride that around. In fact just this month I’ve bought another one to hang on my workshop wall at home to remind me of those early days. Unlike my dad I never raced bikes, well not formally anyway. The only bike racing I did was when we used to break into the circuit and race our 50cc bikes around, haha!
Moving onto faster things, you were the designer of the McLaren F1 car. Can you tell us a bit about that project?
Oh boy, that’s a big subject. I left the McLaren F1 team with one other director because the group wanted to start a car company and I got a totally free hand to do whatever I liked. I always wanted to make the ultimate sportscar, and I got the opportunity. It was like a fairy story. The car is still regarded as a benchmark, no none has come close to it because they went the wrong way, they went heavier and bigger and more horsepower. If you look at power to weight ratios of even something like today’s Bugatti Veyron it’s worse, which isn’t good from a handling point of view.
How did you get into design and engineering?
I was born in South Africa just after the war and had a father who was a motor mechanic. At that time everyone used to build home-made cars because there was very little money around for racing. My dad used to race bikes and he helped to build a lot of car ‘specials’ so, from the age of six, I used to hang around watching. I got the bug from him.
And ultimately you ended up in F1...
Yes, I went to college on a day release system and did mechanical engineering for five years. During that period I didn’t want to be a car designer, I wanted to be a driver, but I had no money so the only way I could go racing was by designing my own car and engine. So when I was 19 I designed my own car and raced that for two years successfully. Then in 1969 I sold everything, got on a boat and joined the Brabham F1 team.
You invented the 1978 Brabham ‘fan car.’ What was the idea behind it and why was it withdrawn?
Lotus discovered ground effect aerodynamics, but you needed two channels under the car to get down-force. We had a flat 12 Alpha engine, which precluded us from doing that because it was too wide to allow clean air flow, so I had to think of another loophole to get a similar amount of down force to beat Lotus. The fan was legal because 55% of it was cooling the engine, the other 45% was sucking the car to the ground! It was withdrawn under pressure from the other F1 constructors, it was too good.
Nice work! When did you win your first F1 title?
In 1981, when I was technical director of Brabham. Nelson Piquet was driving and he gave me a Joey Dunlop Isle of Man replica VF1000R as a thank you. I had that for quite a few years, then I started getting into Ducatis…
Oh yeah? Why’s that?
Well I had a 750 F1, which I went down to the factory to order, then an 888 SP1 and now I have a 916 SP4. I sold the VF because it got to the point where I simply had too many bikes. I had loads of dirt bikes because I used to do trail riding. I wasn’t riding them all, so I thinned down to one touring bike and one race bike. Apart from all the dirt bikes, I still have them all over the place. Now I just have a 1300 Pan European for long distance and the Ducati for fun. I hate collecting. If I don’t ride or drive something in 12 months I sell it, or hang it up.
How many bikes do you have hanging on you walls?
Quite a few. I have a TZ250 GP bike in my music room on the wall, which I entered into the Isle of Man TT races in 1995. I went to the TT non-stop for 10 years, I love it, anarchy on a stick, and wanted a bike that had raced there on my wall. A mate found the TZ and said ‘why don’t you enter it at the Isle of Man in your own colours?’ So I did. We had a young New Zealand lad riding it and he finished 22nd on the bike, not bad considering the bike was nine years old at the time.
Now own up: How many miles do you ride a week?
Not that much on a weekly basis. Unfortunately now I’ve started my own company I’m only seven miles from work, whereas when I was at McLaren I was 18 miles away and it was a really good ride on a bike. My current journey is terrible, there are no corners. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m looking at buying a Sachs Madass 125…
We’ve heard about your legendary soapbox derby in France. what’s that about?
It’s something that has been going on for 16 years now. Gravity racing over dirt roads, no tarmac. It’s pretty dangerous to be honest, and very fast. I have set up seven different circuits in my house in France and invite friends, family, locals, basically anyone who wants to risk their life. There have been several quite spectacular accidents…
And finally, What’s your best biking memory?
With me not riding? Any one of the years at the TT, I love it. For the point of view of me riding? The first time I got on the 916. In those days the SPS used to arrive in a box and you had to assemble them yourself. I still enjoy getting my hands dirty.
You are often pictured wearing a Hawaiian shirts, are you not a suit man?
I don’t own a suit. I own enough Hawaiian shirts to clothe the population of Hawaii..
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