A few months back, I wrote a piece about finding and tuning a first-generation R50 MINI Cooper. A few weeks later, I woke up to a message in my LinkedIn inbox. It was Frank Stephenson reaching out to congratulate me on the story I’d written about a car he had designed. Astounded,I seized the opportunity to speak with Stephenson online.
Stephenson’s first notable project was the Ford Escort Cosworth, a design he’s particularly pleased with. The car had a signature double rear wing. While at BMW he designed the very first BMW X5 SUV, then reincarnated the MINI. (The first-generation BMW MINI Cooper is regarded today as the best designed model in the line.)
Stephenson has also designed: the Ferrari F430, the Maserati MC12, the Ferrari FXX, the Maserati GranSport, the Maserati Quattroporte, the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, the “new” Fiat 500; and the McLaren P1.
He retired from McLaren Automotive in 2017, and created his own consulting firm called Frank Stephenson Design, which he runs today.
He lends a helping hand to a variety of different startups involved in a wide scope of products: watches; computer servers; child seats … and eVTOLs (electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft), which he believes will solve some of our transit challenges.
He publishes educational videos about automotive design on his YouTube channel.
Asked why so many cars are so ugly and lack compelling, memorable designs, Stephenson says today’s auto designers have grown accustomed to skipping a crucial step in automotive design: hand sketching.
“Trends come and go, but today’s trend in automotive design, regrettably, seems to be ‘ugly is the new beautiful,’ ” Stephenson says. “It’s not like, say, during the 1960s, where (the term) ‘automotive design’ referred to a specific work of art.
“We don’t instantly fall in love with great designs as we once did.
“Instead, the focus now seems to be on shock value.
“Carmakers have this mindset that bold, shocking designs convey confidence in their brand and product. They assume that consumers will eventually catch up to their way of thinking,” remarks Stephenson. “In my opinion, that’s not a great way to sell a product to consumers.”
He acknowledges that new technology and modern design tools have opened the door to more creativity, while speeding up the design process.
But, he says, the new generation of designers has lost the appreciation for sketching on paper, and this contributes to the new, robotic, cold designs the industry is imposing on consumers.
“This new generation of designers, not only misses out on the organic connection between pencil and paper, but it also doesn’t care for it, as it (seeks) to solely rely on the digital.
“This is how design schools work now. Designers have lost the art of sculpting and embracing an intimate relationship with their designs, perfecting, and further understanding the lines and character traits they’ve drawn themselves,” Stephenson says. “Now, they mostly type in a set of commands in software and the computer gives them a shape that looks like a car, which they then work on.
“That … is the root of the problem for some of the questionable car designs we’ve seen in recent years.”
Stephenson is putting together his own design course to sell online.
“(It) will be long, because it must be. I mean, how do you compress four years of design school into a single online class? Still, I believe my course will give somebody at least the basics to get their teeth into car designing. Once that person is finished my course, and once they’ll have listened carefully to what I have to say, they’ll be able to design a car professionally, while at least having tools in hand, but also the confidence to keep move forward in this profession.”
He aims to reach talented people who aspire to work in automotive design, but feel intimidated by the high costs associated with university programs, or the competitive nature of the profession.
Lately, Stephenson has been designing eVTOLs, compact aircraft that may carry people over congested areas much more quickly than ground-based public transport. “I kind of smile to myself when people ask me if I believe in this technology. It is coming. By 2025 … I guarantee you’ll be able to get on one of these eVTOLs, fly for about half an hour at 150 miles per hour, and arrive at your destination for a price that would be very comparable to what you would pay for the same trip in an Uber. Except you would have gotten there much, much faster.”
What are his favourite and least favourite new vehicle designs? Stephenson says that the Lucid Air is one of the most beautiful cars he’s seen come out of today’s auto industry, while the Tesla Cybertruck, to his eyes, is the worst design he’s seen in his entire career. “I never thought I’d one day see something so ugly,” says Stephenson. “But there it is.”