SHALFORD, England -- Gordon Murray, celebrated for designing the fastest, most powerful cars in the world, has gone to the other extreme. His latest product, the T.25, a fuel-abstemious three-seater passenger car, is made from metal tubes and recycled plastic bottles.
Murray is famous for his Formula 1 race cars that won a string of Grand Prix races and World Championships first for the Brabham and then the McLaren racing teams. He designed the F1, which was for years the world's fastest road car, and the sleek, powerful gull-winged Mercedes SLR.
What he calls his "guerrilla attack on the conventional car market" includes a new production process. It abandons the machine-stamped steel panels and inflexible spot-welding assembly lines used by most major car manufacturers in favor of low-energy, low-emission, low-cost lines that can be flexible enough to produce different designs in the same day.
"The process is much more significant than the product," he told ClimateWire in an interview at the offices of Gordon Murray Design in the village of Shalford, about 30 miles southeast of London. "But having said that," he added, "the product is something that I have thought about since 1993."
It all started, he said, when he was stuck in traffic on the way to work, "and I looked around me, and all I saw was big cars, and I couldn't see any with more than one person in it. I thought, 'I wonder just how long this can go on. Why don't people build small cars that are safe and funky to drive and have good vehicle dynamics?"
He spent the next few years working on a design that eliminated all the things he didn't like about conventional cars. Murray's chance to use the design came in 1998, when a lull in work gave him the opportunity to use his technical team at McLaren to bring his T.25 into being. He says the Formula 1 design philosophy of squeezing a lot of meat into a small, lightweight package transferred smoothly to the T.25.
What didn't transfer smoothly was cost. In Formula 1 and the very high end of the luxury performance car market, cost is more or less an afterthought. In the small car market, it is everything.
"This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do," Murray explained. "With this, we have had to develop composite material that can be made in two minutes and for pennies rather than tens of thousands of pounds," he said.
For example, just the carbon chassis of the McLaren F1 road car that Murray designed cost the equivalent of $158,000 (in current dollars) in 1992. The chassis of the T.25 costs $224 today.
From stamped steel panels to plastic bottles
"Then it dawned on me why people didn't make those cars. It was the fact that you don't make money on small cars," Murray said.
He discovered, to his dismay, that the development and actual tooling costs were more or less the same for a family-sized SUV made with welded steel panels and a tiny, two-person city car. In other words, carmakers make most of their profits on big cars loaded with extras.
"That realization sunk my little car, really," he explained, so he went back to thinking about his race car experience, in which he used lightweight carbon composites.
"The two main reasons why people don't use composites, not just carbon composites but composites generally, in the automotive industry is that the raw material cost is usually pretty expensive relative to steel, because steel is so cheap," he said. "The other thing is process time.
"So I set myself the task of trying to come up with a high-volume manufacturing system that would have a very low capital expenditure footprint but at the same time also a low energy footprint."
The result was a production process he calls the iStream.
It starts with low-carbon steel tube and composite panels, which provides a strong, safe structure. Meanwhile, the body panels, Murray explained, "can be made of anything -- we are using upcycled plastic bottles -- because the body panels are nonstructural. They keep the rain out, basically."
"Upcycling" is a process developed by a German company -- which keeps the process secret -- to stop recycled plastic from losing its molecular strength. There are 720 upcycled plastic bottles in each T.25.
Letting computers do the tooling
As the T.25 chassis rolls down the assembly line, other parts are installed and different models can be created on the same chassis. "That saves a massive amount of money and energy," explained the designer, adding that 80 percent of the tooling is writing software for manipulating machines.
The upshot of Murray's new formula is a smaller, much cheaper auto plant that creates lower emissions. "Wherever we can, we have used recycled or upcycled material," he said. And because it is much lighter than a conventional one, the car that results from that process produces 20 to 30 percent less emissions.
The car is a modular design, so it is easy to assemble and also to repair. According to Murray, production calculations show that an iStream line could be profitable with output as low as 30,000 vehicles a year.
Although Murray insists he is far more interested in selling licenses for the process than in selling the product itself, he is not averse to the idea of selling both. The basic T.25 would be priced at about $9,600. Two potential buyers have already expressed interest in buying both the conventionally powered T.25 and its electric-powered version, the T.27.
The little T.25, weighing in at just 1,267 pounds, with a three-cylinder, 660 cc motor, has a potential range of 80 mpg and a top speed of 100 mph. Its tailpipe emissions are below 90 grams per kilometer, making the car eligible for all sorts of tax breaks.
Murray, who has patented both the car and the process, says he has received interest in the iStream process from more than 40 businesses -- including 10 carmakers -- from 17 countries, including Japan, the United States, and countries in Europe and South America. "In the U.S., a major retailer that wants to break into the electric car market has approached us," he said.
Room for a 6-footer and all his shopping
"On top of that, it is our mission to get a U.K. consortium put together to build a vehicle in the U.K., hopefully the 25 or the 27 or both," Murray said. "We are talking to brands, to sales and distribution people, supply chain manufacturers and funders to see if we could get a small consortium together to actually build them in the U.K."
"I really hope to sell the first iStream license in the next 12 months," he said. "We don't expect everyone to stop making stamped-steel cars in the next 10 years and start using iStream. There is too much inertia. But I think what is happening is that the forward-thinking car companies might start up a parallel iStream plant for what they call multi-niche vehicles.
"When they see how efficiently that works, they will probably start switching more lines over to it. So it is going to be a gradual process. This is a guerrilla attack on the conventional car market."
When Murray squeezes his 6-foot, 4-inch frame into the driving seat in the middle of his three-seater, there is still plenty of room on either side. When he does the same in one of the two passenger seats placed on either side but behind the driver, it is a tight fit -- but a fit nevertheless. It is certainly not a vehicle for long journeys with all three seats occupied. But that observation fails to faze the gray-haired South African.
He foresees a change in car ownership philosophy: "As crazy as it sounds, we are all going to have to own more cars in future." For weekends and vacations, the family could have a larger car. For commuting, shopping and running urban errands, there will be his T.25.
It may not burn rubber like his F1 or turn heads like the gull-winged Mercedes, but that's not the point, explains the designer. Utility, economy and efficiency are what his new formula is all about.
"It can be configured to carry three people with some luggage, two with a couple of big suitcases or just the driver with the other seats folded forward to carry the week's shopping. The average family shop [buying trip] takes 600 liters of space. The T.25, with the passenger seats folded flat, has 750 liters of space," said Murray.