Designers

Gordon Murry (written 1975)

South Africa

IF YOU HAVE a child who spends half his time drawing race cars, he has possibilities of becoming a Colin Chapman or a Maurice Phillippe. If you are still at school doodling futureistic designs up the sides of your exercise books, maybe you'll be someone like Robin Herd or Derek Gardner.

Well, if you are still very young you can aim to be a Gordon Murray. It is quite an achievement for a 28-year-old to design a Formula 1 car that in its first year dominates a few races, wins the Austrian Grand Prix and comes in one-two at Watkins Glen in the last exciting moments of the 1974 season. The first FI racing car Gordon designed as a whole was the Brabham BT42; a year later it became the BT44. At the U.S. GP Carlos Reutemann drove one to 1st place, Carlos Pace set a new lap record and finished 2nd in his and John Watson, sponsored by Hexagon, achieved 5th place in another BT44.

But begin at the beginning. Ian Gordon Murray was born June 18, 1946 in Durban, South Africa. His father, retired now, was a garage motor mechanic.

"My father has always been interested in motor racing, and I have been going to meetings since I was six years old. I have programs of speedway races in Durban from 1952. I suppose it was my father's great interest in the subject that first inspired me, and from as far back as I can remember I have wanted to race myself."

Gordon enjoyed school and looks back on it with pleasure because there was time to do what he wanted to do: take a car apart and put it together; join clubs that raced push bikes and soapboxes; and join in any sort of competition at all. His passing interests were aircraft and archaeology.

"Funnily enough, I was never very good at math. Simple calculations were okay but abstract things were out! I enrolled in the art course in high school and have done a lot of art work since. I switched to technical drawing and don't regret it. I was better on the technical side than in drawing pretty pictures. When I left high school in 1963 I was called up for military service, as conscriptions were 100 percent in South Africa. This-was an absolute waste of a year in my life. I turned 18 whilst I was in the Army and my parents bought me an old Hillman Minx. I came home on a Saturday morning, took my driving test in the afternoon and passed it."

His first job was as a student draftsman in mechanical engineering in a tool and die firm. This, he found, was the best way to get into basic engineering. In his spare time he started building a race car based on a Ford Anglia which had been rolled over.

"I had quite a bad road accident with the Minx. I had been driving only a few weeks and lost it in the rain one night, hit a bus headon and broke the car in half. This took quite a while to get over; I had cracked ribs, cuts and bruises, and it set me back financially. I had to wait to buy another car, so I spent time drawing a race car which was initially going to be used for hillclimbs and sprints. It was something like a Lotus 7, which we didn't see in South Africa. I used the engine, gearbox and back axle from the Ford and built my own space frame, bodywork and suspension.

It took two years to build it. Then I rebuilt the engine (using Ford, Peugeot and Renault parts) in my bedroom! I started racing it in 1966, entering it as an IGM Ford."

He participated in hillclimbs, autocrosses and club racing events; Gordon admits he went off the track so often that he spent more time repairing the car than preparing it. He spent all his money on racing for two seasons and won a few. At the end of 1968 he decided to go to England to get a bit farther into the sport. Gordon wanted to build another race car and get into designing a bit more, so he wrote to Lotus looking for a job.

"The reply was fairly encouraging though I never dreamed of joining a Formula I team straightaway. In 1968 I sold the race car, two old road cars and all my other bits and pieces, and went to England. The second day there I went to the Lotus factory in Norwich and spoke to the personnel manager. Lotus was going through a bad patch and not taking on anyone else, so I went back to London to answer advertisements."

One thing led to another and he accepted a job at Hawker Siddeley designing guided missiles. He still wanted to get involved in racing, though, so he went to the Brabham works in June 1970.

"I spoke to. Ron Tauranac, who was the designer of the Brabham for many years and the sole owner since Jack Brabham retired. We talked for about an hour and he asked me a lot of questions. It just so happened that he needed a designer because a couple had just left.

"At that time Ralph Bellamy worked as a designer and Ray Jessop was in charge. Ron would decide the basic design outline of a new car and then let the four designers get on with the various parts themselves. He finally picked what he wanted. My assignment was to update the Formula I BT33. It was Brabham's first monocoque and was very good.

"Oh, and I married then. The girl I had been going out within South Africa, Stella, came to England the wedding had only 12 guests."

In 1971 Ron let Gordon design an Indianapolis car. The project fell through, but this was the first time he was let loose on the beginning of a car.

Things changed at Brabham in 1972. Ron Tauranac became thoroughly cynical about the whole business for a time and wanted a real holiday from motor racing. He sold the business to Bernie Ecclestone, whizzed away on skis (to the Alps) and left the mechanics to sort themselves out. Gordon stayed. Gordon and Bernie, with their very different characters, were to make a fine team.

Ralph Bellamy had been at McLaren for a year but Bernie got him back to be chief designer and to complete the design of the BT37 (a development of the 34). Alain de Cadenet approached Gordon to design a 3-liter sports car for Le Mans.

"Bernie agreed to let me do the car as a part-time project at home. I had only six months before the race. I worked very long hours; it was drawn up within a month and was built in a hurry. It was not until 4 a.m. race day that it actually went on the main road at Le Mans. It had been scrutineered and weighed and was the lightest 3-liter by 60 pounds. I was worried. Luckily, it managed the race for 211/2 hours before Chris Craft spun off in the wet. It was lying 4th at the time. It was a great thrill for me because I had always wanted to have a prototype of my own competing at Le Mans. That was fantastic."

Brabham had a bad year in Formula I. They came last in the constructor's championship; one of the biggest reasons was the changeover of so many staff members. "It just didn't click," says Gordon. "The drivers, mechanics and those in charge were all learning. Ralph went to Lotus in October 1972 and Bernie offered me the job of chief designer. We were down to two designers, Jeff Ferris and myself. From then on things started to pick up, thanks to Bernie. He is very dynamic. He never accepts second best and never gives up until he's done what he wants to do."

Now was the time to develop a completely new Grand Prix car. It was a great opportunity. Gordon had just three months to develop the beautiful, white, streamlined, brand-new BT42.

"I had never been ill in my life, but when I had a week off to go to see my family in Durban I collapsed with nervous exhaustion. I'd just worked too hard and too long from the time of the Le Mans car. Then John Watson wrote off the new car at the Race of Champions!"

The team made two more new cars for the Spanish Grand Prix. The rest of 1973 saw these cars being well handled by Carlos Reutemann.

Gordon now produced the BT44.

"We updated the 42, which meant new monocoques needed to be fitted. We kept the good points and fixed the bad points. The chassis setup was the main change: we made sure we could vary springs, roll stiffness, wings and aerodynamics from circuit to circuit.

Reutemann's two 1974 GP wins, as well as Carlos Pace's obvious improvements and pleasure with his new team, help make the shy, handsome and quiet South African a golden boy in a successful team. His wife Stella is a very talented commercial artist, and she goes abroad with Gordon to cook for the mechanics. The Murrays' private life is spent decorating and furnishing a small terraced house in Godalming, Surrey. They design some of their,own furniture.

"I'm always thinking of things I'd like to do when I have time. I'd love to design a very modern house or convert a very old one. I would love to design and build my own plane and fly it. I'd like to spend more time in the country walking and sketching. I've promised myself that before I'm 30 I'm going to drive a race car again. Stella and I enjoy all the things about our house too. We like to go to plays, musicals and concerts in London.

I wish there were more time in life. But, whatever you decide to do, I think you should do it well

Index