Frank Stephenson is arguably one of the great car designers of the modern era, taking a very classical approach to beauty and proportion but with an eye firmly on progress and the future. Here’s a list of our favourites, of the cars he designed, from Mini to McLaren, Ferrari to Fiat.
The eight best Frank Stephenson car designs
Ford Escort Cosworth
First, though, a fast Ford. Frank wasn’t responsible for the bulk of the design of the Ford Escort Cosworth but it’s quite possible he’s the reason it’s as memorable as it is. See, If not for Frank, the Cossie would never have had that signature wing. Frank, the mad man that he is, originally proposed a three-layer wing. Yes, three, as if louvres on the back window had grown out into a wing. That was vetoed, as we all know, but we’re still thankful for what we got in the end.
Yes, Frank Stephenson designed the original BMW X5. Yes, we think it’s worthy of mention, not least because of the herculean job he had of making it happen. See, design can be a very long-winded process. In the case of BMW in the mid-1990s, impatient to bring an SUV to market, long-winded wasn’t an option. The design team had six months from being briefed to present a clay model. As such, the initial sketch for the X5, which informed an enormous amount of the finished product, was done by Frank over the course of a two-hour flight. He managed to define a product and by extension, near-enough define a segment, within two hours. Impressive. We also think the original X5 is very much on the inoffensive end of the SUV spectrum, certainly by comparison to the Porsche Cayenne that followed it.
How do you redefine an icon? This is a question that will have been ringing in Stephenson’s mind in the 1990s, while faced with the task of designing a Mini for the new millennium. The answers, as we will see, would come to serve Frank again in future projects. His approach was to retain as best as possible, defining features of the original, while modernising and in combination with a squat sporty stance. This was the small car in the early 2000s. It, like the original, showed buyers that economy cars didn’t need to be apologetic or make you a martyr. This was a premium style statement on a budget, having your cake and eating it too. For eight years it would go unchallenged as the chic hatch of choice.
Having redefined desirability in small cars, Frank shortly thereafter found himself faced with the task of succeeding the beautiful Ferrari 355 and Ferrari 360. The platform was similar, so all the vents had to be in similar spots, but the car’s design had to be moved on and still be beautiful. The silhouette remained similar for the F430, albeit exaggerated, as did the vents. Upfront, vents taking influence from the Phil Hill’s iconic Shark Nose racer and at the back, lights raised and protruding, with shotgun tip exhausts. Truthfully, at the time, people found it tough to love but it’s a Ferrari that has aged spectacularly, especially as supercar design has gotten so extreme. Short of beautiful though it still is, the F430 is beautifully judged and proportionally near-on perfect.
What’s better than designing a supercar? Designing a hypercar. Like with the F430, Frank was given an underpinning and a brief: Here’s an Enzo platform, make a GT1 racing car out of it. A designer with aerodynamic sympathies, Stephenson created a long swooping supercar whose only relation to the Enzo is detectable in the glasshouse: the Maserati MC12. Enormous overhangs, those iconic strakes, that Stephenson had to force through, with new manufacturing methods, that whale tail and that massive wing. Is it gorgeous, in the sense a Jaguar E-type or an Aston Martin V8 Vantage is? No. But it’s striking, purposeful and dynamic. It surely made for a formidable racing car in period too, winning 40 of the 90-plus races it entered in the FIA GT, GT1, Italian GT, Super GT and ALMS championship.
How often can it be said that a designer has done such a good job of something, that he’s been called in to draw up a direct competitor? Well, in Stephenson’s case, twice. It’s high praise for his Mini, that he should be the man to be called upon to create the new-era Fiat 500. Once again, Stephenson split the difference between the recognisable icon and an entirely modernised product. The resulting 500 of 2008 is compact in appearance and tense in its form. It was sporty but still cute and entirely lovable, from all angles. If Frank forged that love of affordable style with the Mini, the 500 was the encore and like with the Mini, it wasn’t long before highstreets were swimming with them. It’s the lovable little car that saved a leviathan conglomerate and whose essential style remains today in the only recently released all-electric follow-up.
Having designed the F430, Stephenson had the perfect resume in the eyes of the fledgling McLaren Automotive, who wanted to sell something to beat it. Like the 500 to the Mini, the MP4-12C was McLaren’s statement to the establishment that two could play at that game. We think the 12C was met with somewhat harsh criticism on arrival. Its subtle look was mistaken as boring, granted, in the same year the completely insane Lamborghini Aventador was revealed. Next to the F430’s replacement, the angular and angry 458, the 12C could be seen as a bit safe, but we prefer to say classically pretty. We reckon it was distinctive enough, certainly in its silhouette, to establish the ‘McLaren’ look.
Then, of course, he took that look to the absolute extreme, with the McLaren P1 hybrid hypercar. Instead of a classically beautiful machine, Stephenson looked to the ultimate designer, mother nature, for inspiration for the P1’s shrink-wrapped air-dictated form. The result is a car that looks like it’s made of liquid and muscle, that could be as at home under the sea as it would be on a racetrack. Where the 12C left some wanting more, the P1 was utterly overwhelming and set the tone for McLaren for the next decade, still to this day.
From reinventing cars of the past to creating cars of the future, Frank Stephenson’s CV covers the whole spectrum of the automotive industry. Such is the variety, he’s had as much of a hand in shaping the traffic on our high streets as he has the highest-profile car collections and indeed, endurance racing grids.
Do his cars exude the kind of right-hand-of-god beauty that the likes of Ian Callum’s Aston Martins and Jaguars do? Not quite, but there’s an intelligence, a boldness, a method and yes, a beauty, to all of Stephenson’s work. What’s your favourite Frank Stephenson-designed car? Or, conversely, do you disagree that he’s even any good? Let us know...
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