Having grown up with the fantasy of becoming a car designer myself, and having investigated the options back in the day, I have always been intensely aware of the sheer determination and talent it would take to make this career a reality from South Africa. But South Africa has generally punched above its weight in numerous disciplines, and I’m not only talking about on the sports fields. In terms of engineering and design South Africans have made their mark too. And in terms of automotive design a number of very high-profile designers have their roots in South Africa. There are most likely more than the five on these pages, but they’re certainly the most famous.
Born in 1946 in Durban, this legendary designer of various Formula 1 racing cars and the immortal McLaren F1 supercar studied mechanical engineering at the then Natal Technical College (now the Durban University of Technology). He designed and raced his own creation as early as 1967 – a machine called the IGM Ford.
In 1969 he moved to England and embarked on a design career that would bring him massive fame. The Brabham team scored 22 wins with his designs from 1973 to 1985 and two driver’s titles for Nelson Piquet. Murray soon became known for his groundbreaking design ideas – witness the spectacular Brabham BT46B “fan car”, which won first time out (Sweden 1978) and was subsequently banned.
Murray then joined the McLaren team as Technical Director and stayed there until 2006. He was in charge of the team that developed the McLaren MP4/4, a massively successful car that won 15 out of 16 Grands Prix and gave Ayron Senna his first driver’s championship. Many more successes followed – from 1988 to ’91 alone the team won four consecutive constructors’ and drivers’ titles.
Murray finished his F1 design career at McLaren and then moved on to road cars, first penning the highly regarded F1 and then the SLR (a project which is said was of great disappointment to him, as he was not in agreement on the technical concept).
He has since started his own design firm called Gordon Murray Design, and has developed two ground-breaking futuristic city cars, the T.25 and its electric spin-off, the T.27.
Born in Pretoria in 1944, Byrne was instrumental in a certain Michael Schumacher’s dominance of Formula 1 during the late ’90s and early years of the new millennium. In fact, he was the most successful F1 designer of the previous decade. At Ferrari alone his creations scored more than 70 victories, seven constructors’ and six drivers’ titles since 1997. The car he is most likely to be remembered for is the Ferrari F2002, one of the most successful F1 racers of all time, netting 15 wins from 19 starts!
Not bad for a Pretoria boy who started as a chemist and who had no formal engineering training! Another interesting fact – Byrne, along with a few friends, started a performance car parts firm called Auto Drag and Speed Den in Johannesburg. There they developed performance packs for sporty cars of the era, including the Opel Manta.
This Prieska-born lady graduated from Cape Town Technikon with a degree in graphic design and actually applied for a job at CAR magazine early in her career! She didn’t get it, but since then has shot up the ranks in the VW Group to be a lead interior designer for Porsche, then Audi and now Volkswagen.
Most new Volkswagens sport interiors that have benefited from Oona’s involvement, including the Polo and Amarok, but the car she is most likely to be remembered for is the Porsche Carrera GT with its minimalist but exquisitely detailed interior, including a wooden gearknob – a nostalgic nod to the firm’s 1970 917 Le Mans racers which used a balsa wood gearknob to save weight.
Born in Calvinia, Keith went on to study mechanical engineering but left the country and was accepted into the prestigious Royal College of Art in London where he obtained his Masters degree in Automotive Design. From 1978 he found himself at Jaguar, where his artful designs caught the eye of the legendary Sir William Lyons. Though he penned a number of cars, the one he will always be remembered for is the astonishing mid-engined Jaguar XJ220 supercar that was produced from 1992 to 1994. He also designed the stillborn, and beautiful, XK180 and F-Type concepts.
Most recently Helfet was involved with another sadly stillborn project, the Optimal Energy Joule.
Though not as well-known as his car designer compatriots, Terblanche is a very highly-regarded motorcycle designer. He was born in Uitenhage in 1956 and was involved in the advertising industry before moving into design. He started his design career with Volkswagen in Germany but soon moved to motorcycles (Cagiva in San Marino). When Cagiva sold Ducati Terblanche moved to the latter brand where he penned a number of models, including the 900 Gran Canyon, Multistrada, Hypermotard, Supermono, ST3, Supersport, 749/999 and SportClassics. He left Ducati in 2007 and has since then done work for Piaggio and joined the Norton Motorcycle Company last year.
Tags: Brabham BT46b, Ducati, Ferrari F2002, Gordon Murray, Keith Helfet, McLaren F1, Oona Scheepers, Optimal Energy Joule, Pierre Terblanche, Porsche Carrera GT, Rory Byrne, South African car designers