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.

JK: So what do you think of the Countryman?

FS: Oh, my gosh, I don’t like it. I mean I don’t like the whole new trend at all. I think they just wildly abused the brand. And they’ve gone away from their roots in such a way that now the buyers are not the same buyers.

JK: When the next Mini has got three rows of seats and a V-8, I’ll know that they’ve really lost it.

FS: They’ve lost it. [When] they chose to change the design, [c. 2007] perhaps that would have been the best moment to break away and really innovate like the original Mini did. With all the new technology today, how would you reinterpret a small car with the technology that BMW’s capable of using for that type of car?

You can imagine a very small car like a Mini with the innovative packaging again, putting maximum amount of space around the very limited four occupants, for example, how to carry luggage and all that. So I was hoping for a breakthrough, creative look to the new Mini to the new, new [second-generation] Mini.

JK: It seemed like what they did was, they mostly concentrated on cutting costs.

FS: They did. The original wasn't cheap to build that way, I think that’s one of the things that happens when you do get a bit risky. … And it was expensive, of course, to build. Had it not been, then it probably wouldn’t have looked like it did. It probably wouldn’t have been as successful.

JK: No, it felt very special in a way.

FS: Yeah, it was a small BMW, basically. So you were getting the quality and the technology of the BMW on a small platform. And, of course, companies are always in the business of trying to make money, so how to make it just as desirable with maybe a higher-volume share in technology for platforms and engines with other companies. So it suffered maybe a little bit from that. But yet the car still sells very well.

There’s a whole new segment of buyers for the car. Maybe the older ones are still linked to the original 2000 Mini. The newer buyers are coming in because they like the reputation of ‑‑ the spirit of the Mini. Yet it can accommodate family or, you know, going out to the mountains like a small SUV or something. So it’s a bit of everything for everybody. But, of course, the Mini was ‑‑ it is more of a niche car. I think its original intention was put families on wheels in a small, limited amount of space.

Now, of course, volume means that they just get bigger and bigger…

JK: Well, if you could go back, though, what do you chose? Like how do you make that next generation that showcases the technology rather than just cheaper to build?

FS: BMW’s a pretty well-off company. So I don't think they should try to make a cheap car. It has its own market to have, you know, a small, luxury car that’s basically classless. You can, kit it out or spec it such that it can be available to anybody. Then again you could kit it out so it could be an ultra luxury car and customize it at the same time. I think that was one of the big secrets to the success of the Mini was, you could make it your own.

Except that I think that the special thing that made the Mini desirable in the original was the amount of character it had and obviously the packaging solutions it offered. And that it was basically a fun car to drive. It wasn't intended that way obviously until John Cooper got ahold of it and turned it into a giant killer. So I think the newest Mini or, say, when they changed in 2006, that’s the point where they should have turned it into another packaging wonder….

There was one solution that they came out with when we were selecting the new Mini back in 2000, one that was done from the UK. It was called the Mini Spiritual. And at that time it was probably not the right car because it didn't really look like a successor to a Mini. It was just a bubble car, basically.

But the MINI Spiritual would have been a good transition from the Mini, current Mini or the 2000 Mini, to the next generation 'cause they did look very futuristic for what they were.

JK: So what do you do with Beetle and Fiat?

FS: The Beetle for me is not a serious car. You get Minis that are like little bulldogs. You walk up to them with a little bit of respect. VW, I hate to say it, but it looked goofy, and you’d walk up and slap it before you’d pet it. And it was really a bit of a compromise on the design side. It was designed to look cool or trendy. Or whatever.

But it didn't really go, and it was a bit of a packaging disaster. That dashboard, so huge, so expensive.

The 500 was the right car at the right time because [by] 2006 Fiat was basically ready to fall off the cliff with sales of everything [deceased or dying.] So there was a need to produce a car in ten months. I remember I was at Ferrari, [and] they said you have to go over [to Fiat,] do something in ten months. And I thought, well, it’s kind of impossible. You don’t design and build a car in ten months.

...But we sat down at Fiat with [CEO Sergio] Marchionne, we figured out, well, realistically we can’t design and build a car in ten months. But if that’s the time period we have, let’s just take the Panda platform, which works very well, take the body off of it and put another body on top of it.

Let’s make it look up to date, sort of the spiritual successor to the 500, like we did with the Mini. And let’s make it customizable, a few different versions of it so you can have a cool version, entry-level or whatever. You would customize it to no end, engines and things. So that turned out to be very successful.

It’s had pretty much the same impact as the Mini [in Europe,] and it’s doing better and better in America.

JK: Why don’t you do a popularly priced sportscar, a Lotus Elan for today?

FS: Well, right now we have a strategy for three products which are going to be pretty exclusive. We are going down one segment to the sports car market next. I’m sure there is a market out there for that, for that bracket of the Lotus Elan. But again I’m sure we want to stay pretty small and exclusive and stay under 10,000 volume a year. That gives us a lot of advantages in terms of legislation and commissions and all that. So ‑‑ but I can see you’d do a limited run of maybe 3,000 small cars, stay under 10,000. You could do that,

JK: Yeah, charge a lot of money for them.

FS: Charge a lot and make money from it and set a new level for small cars.

I just need to find my spot. I’m doing cars that are like dream cars that you usually only dream about them. I mean a Ferrari is kind of like that too. But rarely is it where you get the chance to really design a car the way you want it to be with a very small group of people who are trusting you with it, which is nice. But they’re all focused on performance.

And that’s what makes cars exciting, you know, design a car the way you wished. We don’t have to sell lots of them, just a limited amount. So it’s almost been very ‑‑ what is that called? Where you think of yourself, only about yourself.

JK: Egomanical?

FS: Yeah. You can design a car almost like your dream car, and you’re not gonna sell thousands of them or hundreds of thousands. I love performance. I love speed. I love cutting-edge technology. It’s the opportunity to start something that doesn't have a lot of DNA behind it. So you’re not forced to make it look like something in the past, just ‑‑

JK: It’s almost like you’re laying down the DNA.

FS: You actually are. I mean at the end of the day they’re all going to the same dealership. So you want them to be somewhat related. But the worst thing to do is to relate them so much that they look like ‑‑ you know, so predictable that you expected it to be the next car. You want a shot at the customer every time he comes out positively shocked about this thing. But you want them to see a real advancement.

'Cause I find design too much today of being just changing the shirt from one color to the next. There’s no really no breakthrough innovation in the design. And as soon as somebody comes up with a design that’s a little bit more radical, that tends to be cutting edge and starts to lead towards other people following. 'Cause we’ve done beautiful cars, we’ve done beautiful cars forever. Why don’t we start designing cars not unattractive but just in ways that we hadn't done before?