Buro 24/7 Middle East Exclusive Interview: McLaren Design Director Frank Stephenson
Getting to know the man behind the design of auto icons
Before Frank Stephenson took up his position as design director at British automaker McLaren - where he has spearheaded the design of models including the P1 and 650S, his design portfolio includes the Ferrari F430, Mini Cooper, Fiat 500, Maserati MC12, and BMW X5, to name a few. Buro 24/7 Middle East finds out more...
Tell us more about the McLaren 650s that recently made its debut at the Geneva Motor show.
The 650S is a distillation of what we've learned from developing the P1 and 12C and also from listening to the voices of our customers in this segment. It offers an even more capable and mature driving machine in the supercar segment from McLaren. It addresses the issue of having a more unique McLaren design language with readily noticeable features that create a fresh look and that elusive wow factor. All the exterior design features have been made to improve the aerodynamics and performance of this vehicle and, in the vein of McLaren's evolving design DNA, each feature serves a purpose.
What unique design features make the 650s special?
We've spread the bandwidth of performance and comfort by significantly upgrading the horsepower and torque figures while improving the gearshifts and braking. The total downforce has been increased over the 12C by 24 per cent at 150kph. The suspension can also be set to a stiffer level for quick driving or to a softer level for more comfort. New materials and material combinations have been added as well as four striking new colours to the current range. The 650S is at the cutting edge also with its electronic developments, offering the latest infotainment system, rear-view camera and a much more active aerobrake system to cover all possible situations.
Were you always into cars as a child or did your father's car dealership spark an interest?
As a child I was very much into anything that rolled, flew or swam. Seeing something in motion was always a thrill for me and it seemed that the faster it moved the more it interested me. I especially liked trying to capture those images through drawing them on paper. I started becoming obsessed about cars at around the age of 10 when I saw my first Jaguar E-type parked on Boulevard Mohamed V on a Sunday morning walk with my father in downtown Casablanca. It literally stopped me in my tracks - until my father had to finally drag me away - and I still remember the feeling of the goosebumps that riveting experience gave me.
You were lucky to secure a place at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Tell us more about that experience.
Of the thirty students accepted into the starting class, roughly 1 per cent of the worldwide applicants, only six of us survived until the end. It's a dream profession for many to make a career out of designing cars for a living and, believe me, it really is as exciting and glamorous as it seems, but the competition to achieve it is as ferocious as can be. There are not many practicing car designers out in the field because too many would tend to either dilute or confuse a company's design language, so the number of available positions in the real world remains relatively small. Therefore naturally the universities tend to allow only the most dedicated and focused students reach the end of those at least four grueling years of intensive learning.
You've designed icons such as Ferrari F430, Mini Cooper, Fiat 500, Ferrari FXX, Maserati MC12, GranSport, BMW X5 - how challenging is it to keep on coming up with fresh ideas?
It's not challenging at all if "coming up with fresh ideas" is your passion! Seriously, the challenge comes in making your designs desirable, successful and profitable in the eyes of the consumer, the media and your employer. One thing I've learned in my years of creating is never to fall in love with your work. Admire it and respect it yes, but the moment you are completely satisfied and out of ideas on how to improve it is the moment you cease to be a true designer. One must never be satisfied, rather it should be the time restrictions of deadlines that halt your flow of input and creativity to the project.
McLaren offers a bespoke service to customers who want to create the car of their dreams, if you were a customer and had a blank canvas, what would your dream car look like?
My taste is always evolving...I could be their toughest customer if I had the possibility of asking for the car of my dreams! First of all, it would have to have the colour changing characteristics of a chameleon. That would have to combine with the form changing properties of a Peregrine Falcon in a high speed dive that allows its body shape to optimise its aerodynamic characteristics. The interior would have to combine comfort for long drives with the single mindedness purpose of a jet fighter cockpit. A selection of aurally pleasing sounds would be a must and a huge variety of infotainment and connectivity at my disposal would also rate highly.
Does it feel strange to get behind the wheel of something you've designed?
Not at all! There's a tremendous feeling of warm familiarity that comes from having imagined it first within your mind and then the reality of physically going through the process of creating it. Because it comes from inside you, it feels as if part of your soul is somehow within the finished design and that results in a very personal and emotional bond. That may seem strange to an outsider's viewpoint but seen from the perspective of a designer it feels quite normal.
What are you driving at the moment?
I drive the most modified Ducati 1198S in the world on dry days and a Jaguar 4.2, Series 1, E-Type on those days when my back needs a break.
What's your favourite aspect of the job?
Gosh, there are so many! The truth is, I can't wait to get to work in the morning and I hate leaving in the evening. For me, nothing beats the priceless pleasure of seeing something that you created in your mind become a reality and which then brings happiness and pride of ownership to others.
Throughout your career, what has been your proudest moment so far?
The proudest moment of my career is the day I signed my first employment contract with Ford Motor Company in Cologne, Germany back in 1986. It helped to repay in a way the confidence, support and sacrifices I received from my father and mother and it put me on the path towards making my future a reality with the words in my head that my father had brought me up with, "Never look behind, push forward, you make your own luck."
How do you usually spend your time when you're not in the office?
My passions are my wife Linda, she's also my life coach; Sierra, our eternal Bernese Mountain Dog puppy, we love her to bits; quiet weekends cruising the River Thames together with friends on Riverbreeze, our beautiful Slipper Launch; early Sunday morning blasts along country back roads on my Ducati 1198 S; and travelling to exciting new places as often as possible. The contemplative moments are invariably accompanied with my love for a good cigar and a single malt.
What is the best advice you can offer to young car enthusiasts interested in getting into the business?
The best advice that I can give to a young car enthusiast is to first figure out what you want to be in the car business. Then you should find out who is the best person at doing that job and then pattern yourself after that person while pushing even harder than your role model ever could have. There's room at the top for the best but average just does not cut it anymore in this business. And if you're passionate about your job, you'll be among the most fortunate people in the world, where your profession is also your hobby and you are paid well to do what you love most.