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Jay Leno: The Collector

  • Jay Leno, August 2011 - 0
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Giving the Rocket an, er, rocket.

I’ve always been the type of person who enjoys cars that are one person’s design. And as something of an automotive historian I always felt bad that I never got the chance to meet some of the great ground-up designers like WO Bentley, Fred Duesenberg and Enzo Ferrari. But I have been fortunate enough to meet Gordon Murray. When a true automotive icon is alive in my lifetime, it’s great to get a chance to meet them and drive the vehicles they designed.

One of my favourite Gordon Murray creations, rivalling even the McLaren F1 which I love, was the Rocket. They only built about 49 or 50 of these and, when they first came out in ’91 or ’92, I thought it was just brilliant because here was a car that could do almost everything the F1 could do, with the exception of the top speed.

It’s hard to make a million-dollar supercar, but it’s almost impossible to make a reasonably priced supercar. And that’s what the Rocket is. There have been similar cars since – the X-Bow, the Ariel Atom – and even though these are more visceral than the Rocket, they’re not as sophisticated. The Rocket is that classic Gordon Murray design: extremely lightweight; in fact I believe it’s one of the lightest production vehicles ever made. It weighs only 350kg.

I’ve had my Rocket for ten years. I don’t take it to track days, but I drive it hard on the road – and I’m still on the original brake pads! As it’s only a single seat wide, even if you’re hanging the tail out on a corner you’re still in your own lane. You can see all four corners and you’re really no wider than a motorcycle that has saddlebags on. I cover ground more quickly than I can in a lot of supercars.

The car is so light and so nimble and it gets incredible gas mileage. It uses a 1000cc Yamaha Genesis engine and it has, in essence, a 12-speed gearbox: six high and six low ratios. So when you’re on the freeway your revs can drop down to 3500rpm at 70mph, or put it in low gear and you can cruise down the freeway at 75 or 80mph, turning 7000rpm, which is okay because your redline is close to 12,000rpm. How many production cars have a redline of 12,000?

When you put your foot down in the Rocket it literally screams, and unlike the Atom, where you’re all out in the wind and everything, you’re enclosed. You’re just in this tube going down the road. It’s incredibly serene even though it makes all kinds of noises. If you cruise at anywhere between 80 and 100, because of the streamlining all the wind goes above your head; even in the rain you rarely get wet.

The thing that makes it very Gordon Murray is that, like the F1’s, its steering is very direct. Whatever is happening at the wheels, you feel it through the steering column. Hit a bit of an undulation in the road and the wheels just flicker for a moment; you feel it in the steering wheel. It’s the most communicative car, and communication is the key to all of Gordon Murray’s vehicles. I do not consider myself an expert driver but, driving the number of vehicles that I do, it seems to me that Gordon Murray seems to have the most communicative input. His favourite car is one of my favourite cars: the Lotus Elan.

Gordon Murray has taken up where Colin Chapman left off. That lightness thing is key, especially now that everybody is turning to carbonfibre tubs and all that type of thing. Today, cars weighing 1800kg are commonplace. The Lotus Elan was around 635kg.

Many people have never driven an unassisted automobile: no power boosters on the brakes, no power steering, or stability control. It’s really a revelation how communicative a car can be without those things. Almost all cars have them now so there’s less and less to allow a person to bond with an automobile. I can see why Gordon Murray didn’t put radios in his cars, because the real joy is in the driving.

When the Rocket came out it was not as successful as it should have been and I think the reason was that it cost the same as a Porsche Carrera. The Porsche has a roof and windows and such, so anyone with a spouse was not going to get the Rocket. But to people like myself, there’s not even a choice – of course it’s going to be the Rocket.

Here’s a car that was designed almost 25 years ago and it does everything a car is supposed to do now. It gets good gas mileage, it’s extremely lightweight, it’s fast, it handles, it will do anything that 90% of the supercars will do. All at a fraction of the cost and wear and tear.

What else is unique about the Rocket? You know, there are very few vehicles in which you can pass under trucks. As I almost found out when I let one pass me, only to discover at the last second that it was pulling a second trailer…

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