And he knows what’s cool.
The race- and road-car designer’s back catalogue includes five Formula One World Championship winners and the McLaren F1 (which won the Le Mans 24 hours twice, incidentally), not to mention the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and a host of other projects, including a new electric city car, the T.27.
But now he’s added another icon to an already spectacular CV - the Batmobile for the new arena world tour, which zooms in to Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena from August 10.
Murray’s take on one of the world’s most famous vehicles was unveiled in June, a month before Batman Live’s premiere in Manchester.
The sleek, matt-black machine immediately became an internet sensation, with pictures posted on countless car and comic websites and blogs.
It’s not every day that you get asked to design a Batmobile, and when Murray first got the call from Batman Live’s producers, he was understandably cautious.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he says, sitting in his office at Gordon Murray Design’s Surrey HQ.
“I hadn’t heard about the show and when you get something like that out of the blue it’s difficult to know how serious it is. But then I met with the team and it was pretty obvious that they were very serious. From my point of view it was a great opportunity – it’s the first time a live audience in an arena setting is able to experience the Batmobile as opposed to it being in a comic or on screen.”
So how does one go about designing a Batmobile?
“I had no idea what to expect as I’ve never done anything like this before,” confesses Murray. “Everything else I’ve designed has been a real vehicle, that someone’s had to drive to work or race, but this was real fantasy land. So I let my head go. I’ve always had a pretty good imagination, as I think that’s what the Batmobile needs.”
Although the Batmobile has a history stretching back to 1941 (a Cord 812, trivia fans), Murray was determined not to draw too heavily on the past.
“I did very little research,” he explains. “I did look back through the history of Batmobiles, but to be honest, I already had in mind what I wanted to do by then, and nothing I researched could change it. The car we’ve ended up with is a combination of my childhood memories of the comics and Formula One. So it’s got F1 aerodynamics, F1 materials, F1 systems, F1 venturis and ground effects, then a big dollop of fantasy on top of that.”
That “big dollop of fantasy” includes a hydrogen engine that is powered by advanced Wayne Industries technology, lasers, sonar, a “breathable carbon-fibre” body and “virtual wheels” – gravity-opposing force field generators that suspend the car 40mm above the ground. “I just thought rotating wheels are so passé and wouldn’t be spectacular,” says Murray.
“At the start, I wasn’t even going to have the wheel diameter shape at all, just streamlined pods with lights. But when we made it we saw we needed to bring the surface out, and they really needed a disk. I put in LED lights like incomplete spokes; you can make them rotate backwards, forwards, pulse, change colour or whatever.”
As for the engine, Murray did not disappoint. ”I thought, ‘why not use a hydrogen fuel cell, as that’s something that’s around the corner.’ Except the fantasy twist is that there’s a hydrogen generator on board so you don’t need to fill up. You make your own, and that comes from Batman’s direct touch on the handgrips, so if a baddie jumps in the car he can’t drive off with it.”
Designing the Batmobile also gave Murray a chance to revisit old ideas. Back in 1978 his radical ‘fan car’ for the Brabham F1 team was banned by the authorities after just one race – it was simply too quick for the other teams to catch. So it’s no surprise to see a fan on the back of the Batmobile.
“The fan and afterburner were literally ideas I had when I was with the guys who built the car, Asylum. I did a sketch and next time I went to the studio it was working and looked brilliant. It’s just red lights and a smoke generator, but when you’re standing three feet away, you’d swear there’s a flame in there.”
The fan has a practical use, too. “It can get pretty warm in there,” explains Murray. “So there are a couple of holes underneath at the front and you can actually use the fan to pull fresh air through the cockpit so that Batman doesn’t get too hot.”
Key to the Batmobile, it almost goes without saying, is bat imagery.
“The bat elements have always been pretty obvious before,” says Murray.
“The wings, bat faces sticking out the front... But I wanted everything to have a technical reason for being there.” The most obviously “batty” part of Murray’s design is the view from the rear.
“The top profile is the support for the wing and the bottom profile is the exit of the diffuser for ground-effect. The car is in matt-black so it looks like carbon fibre, but we painted the rear gloss-black to pick up the lights and make the bat shape really stand out. I wanted the only bat-shaped elements to be there for a reason. Look at the front, and the way I’ve split the windscreen into two halves and placed those little sonar sensors above them. They are like small ears above eyes, so it has a slight ‘mammal’ face. That’s about as far as I wanted to go from a bat’s point of view!”
One non-negotiable was the colour. “I love the fact it’s all black,” says Murray.
“I saw that right from the beginning. I didn’t want too much detail in the way of fins and grills and too many holes. It needed to be pure and if it did have apertures they needed to have a very good reason, like the lasers and the fan. That’s why I didn’t want the cockpit to be see-through, because if it was glass or Perspex, then in certain lights you lose the profile of the car.”
No one can deny that the overall effect is, as Murray intended when he did his first ballpoint sketches, high-impact. “What I’m hoping is that it’ll have real stage presence. It’s got to have something about it so young boys will go, “Wow,” when it comes on.”
In fact, the Batmobile has more stage presence than Murray anticipated. He originally envisaged a single-seater, without realising it would have to carry Robin too. In order to accommodate the dynamic duo’s numerous getaway strategies, Murray redesigned the vehicle to fit both crime-fighting super heroes.
“I can’t wait to see the show,” says Murray. “I think it’s going to be great. The fact that I’ve played a part and designed a Batmobile is something to be proud of. I’m quite humbled actually. It reaches a different audience, doesn’t it? And that’s great!”
The only downside Murray can see, it seems, is that he’ll never get to drive his latest creation. “It would be cool to drive around in something like this,” he laughs. “I mean, imagine cruising through the West End…”
* Guarantee your seats for Batman Live at Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena, with eight shows from August 10 to 14. Tickets are £20 to £45, may be subject to a booking fee. Buy in person, call 0114 256 5656, book online at www.motorpointarena.co.uk or www.arenaticketshop.co.uk . For more visit www.batmanlive.com