McLaren designer Frank Stephenson on what looks right: Motoramic Q&A

Frank Stephenson, 54, has had an enviable career designing cars, touring the world’s design studios working for Ford, BMW, Mini, Ferrari, Fiat, Maserati and lately McLaren. Credited with seminal modern designs like the Mini, the Fiat 500 and the BMW X5 crossover, he is most recently the man behind McLaren’s aerodynamic wonder, the P1 hypercar. Born in Morocco and raised for several of his high-schools years in the United States, Stephenson's globetrotting has given him a sharp eye for what looks right — and what goes wrong with so many designs today.

Jamie Kitman: What were the unique challenges that you faced with the P1? It seems like it gets ever harder to design a super car that doesn't look like every other one.

Frank Stephenson: It was a challenge. But in fact, you know, the Holy Grail is to try to find the design language that you need, especially with a company like McLaren. You’re not designing for a kit car company. This is a major player. Everybody in the design business I think strives to design a car or a product that is stunning to look at. So they go the usual way, which is to get inspired by sculptures, art and architecture, all that. And they try to take the influences of sensuality and turn something into beautiful.


What they don’t do and I haven't seen before is actually go the opposite way, which is really not to really try to design the car, just design it to be absolutely functional, and that in itself is a look and not necessarily beautiful in the conventional sense but beautiful because it performs like it does.

I love biomimicry and bringing in influences of nature….There’s hardly anything out there from nature that’s ugly.

So you take that as your inspiration, just sort of clothing the skeleton with minimal adornment. Less is actually no different than more, you can overload. And the right way is to know when to stop, almost not to look like you’re trying too hard. Trying too hard, anybody can do that.

JK: Like Lamborghini?

FS: Trying too hard.

JK: Why leave Ferrari to come to McLaren?

FS: Working at Ferrari, knowing that whatever I designed had to look like a Ferrari, it was kind of cool. Every kid’s dream would be to design a Ferrari. And when you’re in that position, you think it just doesn't get any better.

When they invited me to McLaren for the position, [as] design director, my first hesitancy was are we just going to do one car and wait another ten, fifteen years? No, we’re not. There’s a whole strategy behind it. We’re going to do three cars, a supercar, a sports car, and a hyper car, [plus] variants of all those. And you get to start the design language, a clean sheet of paper.

And you can start on the hyper car, the P1, from a clean sheet of paper. That is the ultimate, ultimate challenge for a car designer. Plus you’re working for a company that has 100 percent racing influence technology.

So what you get from that are the crazy ideas of engineers working together with the designers. A lot of companies say they use racing influence and all that. It is kind of true. But their engineers are car engineers. They do cars. Our engineers are racing car engineers which is a complete different [mindset] -- a racing car engineer designs for next weekend to have a car that’s a tenth or a hundredth of a second faster than last week’s. He doesn't care about quality, cost, durability or anything like that. The car just has to have an advantage. Put it together so it holds up.

So that kind of mentality of quick, we gotta find a better way is what they use at McLaren. So you’re getting normal car company, designers locked up for six months. Nobody’s allowed in the design studio. Let the designers create. You know, they have to have free thinkers, and they’re in there laughing and drinking and, you know, listening to music and all that.

Oh, they’re getting absolutely stunning designs. Nobody’s bothering them. They build a concept car. They show it to management. “Oh, wow, let’s do that. Show it at the motor show, yeah, build it. “ Three years down the line, what happened? They brought the engineers in six months after that. The engineer goes, “I can’t build that.” So they water it down. And I’ve felt it wasn't the right way, but in actuality when you have an engineer who’s gung-ho about innovation and doing something that’s never been done before and finding a way to do it that’ll work, you link that with a designer right from the start, and sparks fly. It’s crazy. It really does work.

And you don’t get these engineers that say, “oh, it’s 6 o'clock, I gotta get home, you know, the wife and kids, dog.” This is a guy who’ll stay as late as the designer, who are known for crazy hours, and find a way to make it work. So you’re going to naturally get products like 12C and P1 even more so, with cutting-edge technology.

To tell the truth, [McLaren owner Ron Dennis] was a bit nervous about the P1 in the early stages. He was like, this doesn't really look like a car. This is a little bit too extreme. This is like [something] ‑‑ I’ve never seen this before. This is not making me feel safe. And I thought, damn, we hit it. That’s it. It’s all about shrink wrapping and getting rid of the mass instead of adding material. But when Ron said, “Do you stand behind it?” I’m like, “Absolutely. I think if you’re reacting like that, I think it’s right –its what this segment of the market demands.”

I’d be nervous if it was too conservative.

JK: Right. Well, now, were you there at the beginning of 12C? It’s pretty conservative.

FS: No, I was after.

I can understand why [former head of McLaren Cars,] Antony [Sherriff] went that direction because obviously your first product, you don't want to scream and shout and look like you’re bringing out the latest cutting-edge Versace dress. You’re just going to be, up there, but you don't want to [be all]
“Look at me,” which is kind of what they’ve explained about the car. At the same time it’s very English, if you think about it. It’s not styled to be dramatic. It just is good, decent design that’ll probably last a long while.

So P1 wasn't to show that we could be dramatic. It was just the chance to do something from a clean sheet of paper that had to have a unique look, that only had to have the spirit of innovation and technology and set the bar at a new level, Because the F1 [McLaren’s famous 1990s hypercar] was such an influential, respected car. And it set a whole new level.

As long as we identified with that and kept that feeling in the new car, it could very well be the spiritual successor of the F1. It didn't have to look like it because new innovation, new technology, new production, manufacturing technologies allow you to do a lot of different things to the car. Aerodynamics, you know, were intense.

JK: One difference that strikes me-- the F1 was kind of like no expense spared.

FS: There’s a budget for everything. I mean if they want a central seat in P1 [like the F1,] that’s crazy because, first of all, you’ve got regulations today that make it difficult if you want to put a central seat in the car because it just makes the car crash and everything a lot more complicated. The car would have gained a lot of weight by doing that.

Plus if it’s a usable car every day, you don’t want to climb into the center of the car.

JK: It’s a popular refrain that cars look too much the same these days. You can’t really accuse the P1 of that. But what is your thought as one of our great designers of why that is, what could be done about it, how much of that is a function of regulation, how much of it is a function of manufacturer’s inherent conservatism and the desire not to stick your head up too high.

FS: It’s a whole book. Basically what I think is it costs exactly the same amount of money to design a beautiful car as it does to do an ugly car. When they do ugly cars or boring cars, that’s usually a sign of depression, nervousness. Let’s don’t take a risk. And the cars tend to look boring and to start to look all the same because in that meat market area of cars where they’re not allowed to break out of it because we might lose sales

We might alienate. We might lose more buyers that we would otherwise. So they play it safe. And when they play it safe, that’s when you complicate it even more. …I can’t understand, for example, why Ford today ‑‑ I’m not criticizing Ford ‑‑ why they’re putting the Aston grille on it. People are saying, well, why not? It looks good. Come on — your designer or design team should be creative enough to come up with something revolutionary, fresh, cutting edge. Don’t steal — not steal, but borrow, even though you’re closely connected

With Mini it was completely different story. The Mini had to be a safe bet because of who was going to trust a German company reinterpreting a British icon? They don’t think like us, and then they’re going to make it crazy and Germanic and all that?

So my proposal then was basically just to ‑‑ reinterpret it -- in that first month we asked what the ’69 Mini would have looked like? What would it have looked like in ’79, ’89 and then ’99, so build in the lifecycle. So when they say it’s a retro design, it tees me off because the 911 isn’t a retro design. It’s just an evolutionary process of designing 911, which was what the new Mini was -- what the Mini would have looked like in 2000.