Frank Stephenson Interview

Martyn Goddard

Frank Stephenson has been the design director at McLaren Automotive since 2008. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1959, Stephenson was raised in Europe, including stints in Turkey and Spain. He speaks seven languages. After finishing high school, Stephenson successfully raced motocross bikes in Europe for six years. He graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, in 1986.

During a wide-ranging career, Stephenson has been recognized for a number of striking designs, including the BMW X5, Ferrari FXX, Maserati MC12, Ferrari F430, and Fiat 500. His most important and widely admired work has been the 2001 Mini. At McLaren, Stephenson supervised the final stages of the MP4-12C's development and the creation of its subsequent variants. The McLaren P1 is his latest car.

Jamie Kitman interviewed Stephenson at the Geneva auto show. We have edited out the laughing, whispering, and trash-talking from the free-flowing discussion that ensued. Stephenson's remarks from the transcript of the recording follow:

//// When you think about the Mini being around now since 2001, the question is, how do you refresh it? In the beginning, the obvious thing was to establish a connection with the old one, so you get that emotional link. With the next generation, you have the chance to do a breakthrough Mini that shows what BMW is capable of doing -- a Mini for the twenty-first century.

Imagine a very small car like a Mini with innovative packaging, putting the maximum amount of interior space within the limited exterior space for four occupants and reinventing how to carry luggage and all that. So I was hoping for a creative look to the new Mini.

I guess I'm ambivalent about the current second-generation Mini. It's like if you get divorced; you don't really care what your ex-wife does. You shouldn't care what she does afterward, because it'll hurt. So, yeah, you move on.

//// The Fiat 500 was the right car at the right time, since Fiat was basically ready to fall off the sales cliff in 2006. When I was at Ferrari, they said to go to Fiat and do something in ten months. And I thought, "Well, it's kind of impossible."

We sat down at Fiat and figured out that, 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 Fiat Panda platform, which works very well. We'll take the body off of it and put another body on top of it.

Sort of like what we did with the Mini, we went with the concept of having a connection with the past. We said, let's make it look up-to-date, sort of the spiritual successor to the [original] 500. And let's make a few different versions of it, so you could customize it to no end with engines and things.

We did that in ten months, and it had pretty much the same impact as the Mini. Maybe not quite so in the States yet, but you know they sold 44,000 in the U.S. last year.

//// I love performance. I love speed. I love cutting-edge technology. And I like the opportunity to start something that doesn't already have a lot of DNA behind it, so you're not forced to make it look like something in the past.

Of course, everybody strives to design a car that is stunning to look at. So they go the usual way, which is to get inspired by art and architecture—all that. And they try to take the influences of sensuality and turn the car into something beautiful.

What they don't do is actually go the opposite way, which is to really try not to design the car. A supercar is a product that doesn't really have to be sold, so it only has to be purely functional. So the design itself can look absolutely functional. This in itself is a look, and the car might not necessarily be beautiful in the conventional sense but instead be beautiful because it performs like it does.

Even if you take this approach as your inspiration -- just sort of clothing the skeleton with minimal bodywork -- you can still overload, because too much "less" is actually no different than too much "more." The right way is to know when to stop, so you don't look like you're trying too hard. Trying too hard, well, anybody can do that. This has been kind of the thinking behind the McLaren P1.

//// When they invited me to join McLaren as design director, naturally my first reaction was, "Wow, they want me." But after that, I wondered whether we were just going to do one car and then wait another ten years before we do another one. Instead, I found out that there is a McLaren strategy. We're going to do three cars -- sports car, supercar, and hypercar, plus variants of all these. And we get to start the design with a clean sheet of paper.

This is the ultimate opportunity for a designer. And with McLaren, you're working for a company that has technology that's 100 percent influenced by racing. A lot of companies say they use racing influence and all that, and that's kind of true. But their engineers are just car engineers. Our engineers are racing-car engineers, which is a completely different thing.

A racing-car engineer is always designing a car that's for the next weekend, and it must be a tenth or a hundredth of a second quicker than last weekend's car. He doesn't care about quality, cost, durability, or anything like that. He just cares about the performance advantage. So what you have at McLaren is that mentality of, "Quick, we've got to find a better way."

At a normal car company, the designers lock themselves up for six months while they create. You know, they have to have time to be free thinkers, and they're in there laughing and drinking and, you know, listening to music and all that. And you get absolutely stunning designs. They build a concept car, then show it to management. The management loves it, so they bring it to the motor show. Everyone loves it, so they decide to build it. They finally bring in the engineers six months later. And the engineers go, "Well, we can't actually build that." And so the design gets watered down.

I've always felt that when you have an engineer who's committed to innovation and doing something that's never been done before, if you link him with the designer right from the start, sparks will fly. This is an engineer who'll stay as late as the designer and find a way to make things work. And that's the way you get cars like the McLaren MP4-12C and McLaren P1.

//// So the McLaren P1 isn't just something to show that we can be dramatic. Instead it is the chance to do something from a clean sheet of paper that has a spirit of innovation and technology -- setting the bar at a new level. You could call it the spiritual successor to the McLaren F1, the supercar from the pre-2000 era.

Just like the McLaren F1, the P1 is capable of amazing performance. The aerodynamics are intense. I'm sure it's been quoted that the P1 has five times the amount of aerodynamic downforce as the 12C—and the 12C has never been criticized for downforce. It's got 600 kilos [1320 pounds], and we don't actually want more than this because the car is being squashed already, and you have only two little flaps in the front to compensate for the pitch of the car.

This amount of downforce allows you to corner with so much grip on the skid pad that it's insane. If you keep it off your pages, I can tell you off the record that the number is . . . (Recording ends.)

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