Yamaha Motor Corporation moved into the automotive business this afternoon in one of the shock announcements of the Tokyo Motor Show. Yamaha’s partner in the four-wheeled endeavor is none other than Gordon Murray Design. The new four-wheeled Yamaha MOTIV.e range of four-wheelers will be very similar to Gordon Murray’s much-vaunted T.25 and T.27 City Car designs, and the two-seater MOTIV.e will, if it goes into production, include a range of bodies, and a range of engines, including a 25 kW electric vehicle, and a one liter, three-cylinder engine likely to produce well over 100 bhp.
With Murray finding a major manufacturer to adopt his very clever iStream production process, the stage is set for Yamaha to create a range of very affordable and high-performance micro vehicles, and for Murray’s ingenious designs to finally go mainstream. Indeed, it looks like an ideal marriage, and one which will produce a genuine competitor to the smart fortwo.
Murray designed, built and raced his first car in 1964 as an 18 year old engineering student in his native South Africa. He decided to pursue a career in automotive design, went to the United Kingdom and soon had a job at Brabham Formula One. He was 19 years of age.
In the 18 years he spent at Brabham F1, he designed cars that won 22 World Championship races working closely with drivers such as triple world champions Sir Jack Brabham, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet and twice-winner Graham Hill.
He proved he could successfully think and implement technologies well outside the square in numerous design projects, his best known being the Brabham "Fan Car", which essentially used a fan to "suck" the car onto the road. It raced once and won in the hands of Niki Lauda in the rain and was gracefully withdrawn by Murray's then boss, Bernie Ecclestone. Ecclestone went on to own and run the entire sport.
When Murray moved to McLaren Formula One, his cars won four consecutive World Constructors Championships from 1988 through 1991 with drivers titles for Ayrton Senna in 1988, 1990 and 1991 and four-time-world champ Alain Prost in 1989. In an industry where very clever people congregate, few people have been part of the success of so many multiple world champions - Prost (four), Sir Jack Brabham (three), Niki Lauda (three), Nelson Piquet (three), Ayrton Senna (three), and Graham Hill (two).
In 1988, Murray's McLaren MP4/4 became the most successful Formula One racing car in history. Piloted by the extraordinarily talented driver pairing of Prost and Senna, the car had 16 starts for 15 wins – it was leading the remaining race when Ayrton Senna ran into a backmarker. In motor racing, there's no such thing as a perfect season, but McLaren went very close that year with its powerful Honda engines and Murray's ability to design cars which go around corners as fast or faster than all comers.
Throughout his career, Murray's designs regularly created a competitive advantage over the best in the world and did so against the vast knowledge and competitiveness of the modern era where all of the relevant technologies and sciences are broadly understood.
Murray moved into road car design while at McLaren when he conceived the McLaren F1 supercar and convinced McLaren boss Ron Dennis to produce it.
People marvel at the Bugatti Veyron, but I think it's fair to say that the F1 was further ahead of its time than the Bugatti is today. Released in 1991, it was the fastest (240 mph), finest and most expensive (roughly US$1,000,000) supercar in the world and remained so for over a decade.
Using carbon fiber, which is now commonplace, but at the time was wildly exotic, Murray succeeded in building a car that had the strength to handle its normally-aspirated 628 bhp engine, but refined aerodynamics and an astounding weight of just 1,140 kg (2,513 lb).
Remarkably, despite the renaissance of sportscar design over the last few decades, the F1 is still the fastest normally-aspirated car to have ever reached production, almost a quarter century after it was publicly available.
The reason Murray chose a normally aspirated engine for the F1 was the "driveability". Turbo engines produce a lot of power, but an engine which “spins up” is much harder to control, and he wanted a car that was both fast and easy to drive. Murray learned his craft making cars handle well, and he worked with almost the entire “who's who” of Formula One. Exquisite handling characteristics have been the hallmark of his design.
His love for drivers cars was furthered at McLaren, as the F1 was succeeded in production by the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. Murray headed the team which created the supercar.
Murray finally created his own design consultancy just a few short years ago, and the first announced project was the City Car, a project which demonstrates the same genius as his racing and supercars.
Now he has found a relationship with Yamaha, a company which lists among its brand values the magic ingredient of loyalty, this could just be one of those magical matches where synergy prevails and an individual of outstanding talent finally finds an ideal match.
Yamaha cherishes “drivability” and it clearly wishes to make cars with the same delightful usability characteristics as its motorcycles. In Murray, Yamaha may have found the ideal partner to move into the automotive business with.
According to the press conference in Tokyo and Murray’s utterances afterwards, many different power plants have been explored for the featherweight “City Car” platform, and one of them appears to be based on the three-cylinder, 1000 cc engine destined for Yamaha’s next-generation big-bore motorcycles. In motorcycle form, the engine will produce over 180 bhp, and even if its power is modified downwards and broadened to push the 730 kg MOTIV.e (much more than a road bike's 200 kg).
The presentation slide reproduced at the top of this article clearly shows an array of potential designs that can be used with the MOTIV.e's rigid and lightweight chassis, though both Yamaha and Gordon Murray are carefully choosing their words about when and if the production of such vehicles will begin.
If the board of Yamaha does give the project approval for roll-out, production is likely to start in 2016. One of the keys to the success of such a vehicles will obviously be distribution, and Yamaha has a global distribution network already in place for its motorcycles.
It seems a match made in heaven. Murray's design genius and Yamaha's production and distribution capabilities make a compelling case.
Perhaps even more compelling from my viewpoint is that Murray is a proponent of intelligent lightweight design, and he has already conquered several broad vistas in that area.
The McLaren F1 road car is undoubtedly one of the landmark vehicles in automotive history, and with Yamaha's engine technology and sporting brand values, just what GMD and Yamaha might come up with if the relationship begins to bear fruit, is worth salivating over.
While the MOTIV.e with a 25 kW electric engine might make great environmental and economic sense, it's the one liter motor version that excites the hell out of me.
Yamaha's one liter motors produce 200 bhp in the R1 motorcycle. No output figures were mentioned for the three-cylinder donk, but I can see a very drivable, lightweight 150 bhp vehicle within reach, and genuine sporting performance. With Murray's pedigree in racetrack design, there seems little doubt the MOTIV.e would be a delight to drive.
See the stories that matter in your inbox every morning