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From Formula One To Green Machines


By Conrad Wilson Famed British Formula One race car designer Gordon Murray--best known for the sleek lines of the McLaren F1, a rare, $1 million-plus supercar launched in the 1990s--is doing an about-face. Rather than continuing to craft the racers that won him a following among well-heeled car aficionados, Murray is turning his attention to designing a compact, fuel-efficient urban vehicle for the masses. His eponymous design company plans to partner with a manufacturer but retain ongoing responsibility for engineering. Murray hopes the vehicle will sell for about $10,000, a figure big carmakers have had difficulty achieving outside Asia and Eastern Europe.

The three-passenger car, the Type 25, will utilize lightweight materials and its tiny size to shrink operating costs to a third those of an average car. Moreover, the vehicles will be designed to limit carbon emissions during production, Murray says. Ultimately, the company hopes to work with governments to create a class of vehicle that will be eligible for tax incentives because of its low impact on traffic congestion and the environment.

Murray launched Gordon Murray Design in July. But he doesn't really think of his company as a startup: Fourteen of the 16 employees have previously worked together. "It's [taking] some of the best talents in the U.K. and putting them under one roof," Murray says. The company plans to produce the first prototype within 18 months.

Despite Murray's A-list team, industry experts are skeptical. "No matter how well-known someone is, it sounds pretty naive to me," says David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. Cole, a former automotive engineer, says startups like this often fail because of both the difficulty and the huge capital investment involved in mass-producing vehicles. "There's a difference between making a few race cars and high-volume production," he says.

'THE EDGES OF INNOVATION'

INDEED, MURRAY'S project conjures up images of past auto entrepreneurs like John DeLorean or Malcolm Bricklin, founders of storied-but-defunct boutique car companies. Both ventures failed for similar reasons: production delays and high costs. But Jon Feiber, an investing partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures Menlo Park, Calif., and a board member of Murray's company, says DeLorean and Bricklin tried to compete in existing car classes, while Murray is pioneering his own. Says Feiber: "Gordon will push the edges of innovation."

Murray, born in Durban, South Africa, designed his first car in 1966, while still a mechanical engineering student at Natal Technical College. After moving to Britain to pursue a career as a race car designer, he took Formula One design to new heights over a span of 30 years.

But it was countless hours spent in snarling traffic around London that spurred him to design the T25. Murray hopes to do more than just engineer an ultra-hip small car--he hopes to produce one that's green from start to finish. So he's designing a car that won't require a new chassis each year when its styling is updated; only the interiors and external sheet metal will need to be changed. Besides production efficiencies, that means fewer pollutants emitted during perennial plant retoolings.

So far Murray has only hand-drawn sketches of how the T25's curvy silhouette will look. But he knows that game-changing design is essential to launching his eco-friendly product. "You're not going to get someone out of their Porsche 911 driving into London if people are going to laugh at them," he says.

Still, Lee Schipper, director of research for EMBARQ, the World Resources Institute's transportation program, believes Murray's concerns about reducing emissions during manufacturing may be misplaced because, Schipper says, much more carbon is released during years of driving. But Murray is undeterred: "It's a complete rethink about how a car is used and built. I'm trying to protect our freedom of mobility for the next 25 years."

Wilson is an intern for BusinessWeek


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