Frank Stephenson has never owned a Mini. Or a BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Lancia or McLaren. Which is a little surprising because he – famously – has designed models for all those marques. His wife does have a Fiat 500, and yes he designed the new version of that, too. Frank, the car designer’s car designer with a CV to die for, is quite happy with his 1977 Land Rover Defender.
How I designed the Maserati MC12 – a chat with Frank Stephenson
Frank designed the new Mini (or MINI as BMW still insists we call it) a quarter of a century ago, the car having its world premiere at the Paris Motor Show in 2000. Ahead of that 20th anniversary GRR thought it was time to catch up with the automotive polymath whose acclaimed designs range from Fiat 500 to McLaren P1.
His career spans not just design directorships at some of the world’s most renowned car companies but six years as a pro motocross rider (“hence all the broken bones”) and diverse design challenges today that range between flying taxis and chocolate bars.
Frank Stephenson was born in Morocco and brought up in southern Spain. His passion for cars took him to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and into his first design job with Ford in Cologne. There he came up with a new design of rear wing for one of the Blue Oval’s sportier models – the now-iconic double rear wing on the Escort RS Cosworth.
“The thing people don’t know is that it was always meant to have three wings, like the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane of WW1 which gave me the inspiration for it,” Franks tells us. “But the finance people took out the middle wing to save money.”
The multilingual former motocross rider went on be responsible for some of the most important and influential cars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We (virtually) called in on Frank at his home near Henley-on-Thames for this exclusive catch-up.
GRR: Looking at some of the design challenges you have taken on – working on BMW’s first SUV, the X5; redefining Mini for a new generation; helping put Fiat back on track with the 500; being Ferrari-Maserati’s first-ever director of concept design; establishing McLaren’s new design language – you know more than most the power of design to make or break a model, or indeed an entire company. Is that power of design as potent today?
FS: It is stronger today than ever. In the past you had the luxury to make mistakes, even Ferrari could afford mistakes. You could always bounce back. But today it is dog-eat-dog competition and any mistakes are heavily penalised. Mistakes typically don’t come from engineering these days – no one builds a bad car anymore – but they can and do come from design. Screw up the design and that can really hurt.
GRR: In what ways today does design get screwed up?
FS: Designers have a fear of their cars looking too alike, as cars did back in the 1990s, so they sometimes try way too hard to shock in order to create an identity, and the result can be almost cartoonish. Their point is, we don’t care if it shocks you, we just want to make an impact. But that’s not good for balanced design.
The biggest recent example of something merely to shock is the Tesla Cybertruck. It is different and radical but it is nothing like the Tesla cars and there’s no human touch. If it makes it into production the design will age as fast as any design can ever age. Good design tends to last a long time.
GRR: Reinventing past icons like the Mini and Fiat 500 has been one of your notable successes. How would you have reinvented the car you own, the Defender?
FS: That was always going to be one of the toughest jobs. Any time you reinterpret an icon you are playing with fire. I think Land Rover nailed it pretty well; the only part I don’t like is the static square side panel which looks a bit last minute. But overall they have done a great job, balancing the need for a recognisable successor with the need to bring it into this century.
GRR: You have designed some of notably successful cars of recent times. Is there a secret?
FS: I think, dream and sketch cars every minute of every day and I don’t fear designing cars to be hits. But product planning has a lot to do with it. I can design a car to look nice and meet the brief but to be great it must be the right product, in the right segment, at the right time. Like the X5 was for BMW, and the Mini, the Fiat 500 and the first new McLaren, the MP4 12C – all were the right cars that came at the right time.
GRR: Of the cars you are most often associated with which one is the most personal to you?
FS: That would be the Maserati MC12. It is a car that I identify with hugely. It combines all the things I like best about automotive. It harks back to the Group C cars of the late ‘60s and ‘70s and looks too extreme for the road, but you can drive it semi-comfortably on road. It’s awesome and the one car I would definitely like in my collection.
GRR: What is in your garage?
FS: I do not own any of the cars I have designed, and never have, though my wife does have a Fiat 500. I have never owned a Mini, new or old. When I was growing up in Spain my father was a Mini dealer and later I always thought I should have bought the last of the original Mini Cooper Ss, but I missed the boat.
I have no special cars, only my beat-up old Defender, which is like a favourite old pair of jeans, and my Ducati. It’s a 1198S but I have modified it very heavily, with things like a carbon-fibre rear spring. It is my pride and joy.
GRR: The film of your career is titled Chasing Perfect. What’s the closest you have come to perfection?
FS: Chasing perfect is not just my career but my whole life. I got pushed very hard when I was growing up, when nothing I did seemed good enough. So I have always pushed hard. I still haven’t achieved all that I want to achieve, even though some may say I have achieved quite a lot.
GRR: With your movie, imminent book and website how-to videos, you come across as someone passionate more about the design process than the actual cars. Is that fair?
FS: I haven’t heard this said before but you are right, not that I don’t love cars. I do love cars, and that’s why I do what I do. But the biggest thrill for me is in creating the design, not in driving the finished product. When I was designing the Mini I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning and didn’t want to leave at night. It was the same with the McLaren P1.
Once they are finished they lose their appeal. The thrill of the product has always come to me through motorcycles rather than cars. You can’t get more exhilaration than on a motorcycle. Riding a bike on the road is the most dangerous thing you can do. I get up really early and go for a ride when there is no one else about.
GRR: What are the challenges for the designer in an increasingly electric world?
FS: Why do electric cars have long bonnets and big grilles when they need neither? It is almost as if the designers are embarrassed to say the car is electric. The architecture of electric cars needs to change to show off the advantages of the electric car, and be honest to the engineering.
GRR: How easy is it for a designer to go from a Mini to a McLaren P1, a child’s safety seat to a flying taxi, as you have?
FS: You might think designing McLarens is the best job in the world, and it may be, but I have done it and would rather move on and do something with more scope. It’s one reason I wanted to work on mass market cars.
Car designers have to be well-rounded product designers because there is so much in a car that has to be designed. Given that, it doesn’t matter much whether it’s a Mini or a P1… technology and aerodynamics are different but the design challenge is essentially the same.
Aircraft design is different, more like race car design, in that aircraft are not bought for their emotional design; first and foremost it’s all about flight worthiness. An aircraft has to be safe but it can still look good. All birds fly well but they don’t all look the same.
GRR: Who is the most inspirational car industry leader you have worked for?
Dr Wolfgang Reitzle, without a doubt. He was the Errol Flynn of the 1990s at BMW, number two behind Bernd Pischetsrieder and a man with huge charisma but also one of the smartest guys I ever worked with. He was very decisive and knew what looked right. At Rover, I had to fight for my Mini design all the way. Reitzle had told me it wouldn’t be easy but I had a hot-line to him in Munich and he always backed me up.
I would also say Ron Dennis at McLaren. Ron’s strictness and focus are similar to the way I was brought up. At McLaren we agreed about most things and he gave me freedom in the design process.
GRR: You have your own design consultancy now and are involved in a wide range of projects. What is it that people want Frank Stephenson to design today?
FS: I am working with an eVTOL all-electric vertical take-off and landing taxi; I am designing smart sunglasses that have built-in sat-nav but don’t look at all geeky; there’s a new range of watches for land, sea and air; the BabyArk infant’s car and baby seat, plus some other exciting projects that are confidential at this stage.
When I take on a project I insist it must be the best in its segment, bring technical innovation, have elements of sustainability, and contain biomimicry and be inspired by nature.
GGR quick fire round
GRR: Best job in the world?
FS: Mine, I just wish I started 10 years earlier.
GRR: Most admired car on sale today?
FS: McLaren 720S. It does everything really well.
GRR: What car did you pass your test in?
FS: A Fiat 600, in Spain age 17.
GRR: What car posters did you have on your bedroom wall as a kid?
FS: I had two: Ferrari 246 Dino and Series 1 Jaguar E-type fixed head.
GRR: Is there one car from history you wished you had designed?
FS: Lots. But my favourite car of all time is the SI Jaguar E-type fixed-head coupe. And that wasn’t designed by a car designer, but an aerodynamicist. That car makes my knees go weak.
Chasing Perfect, a documentary charting Frank Stephenson’s design career, was released in 2019 and is available now on Netflix or to download or as a DVD from Amazon by clicking here: Pre-Order
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