Frank Stephenson – Always Chasing Perfection
August 20, 2021
By TMA Howe
Have you ever wondered what links the Fokker Triplane flown by Baron Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron) and the Ford Escort RS Cosworth? No? Nor had I until I attended the media screening of the feature-length documentary Chasing Perfect about one of the world’s greatest automotive designers: Frank Stephenson.
This recently released documentary about Stephenson and his remarkable career gives a wonderful insight into the man and his career, and shows how one of the most beautiful cars ever to grace our roads – the original Jaguar E-Type – inspired someone to create some worthy successors for the 21st century.
After looking for perfection in moto-cross and body building, Stephenson studied automotive design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. From 30 starters, he was one of six to graduate – and he was in excellent company with future designers of the Porsche Boxter, the original Chrysler Viper, and the Ferrari Enzo, to name but a few.
After qualifying, Stephenson’s first job in 1986 was with Ford in Germany where he was responsible for the rear spoiler on the Escort RS Cosworth. He originally intended the car to have a triple spoiler – a la the Fokker Triplane; however this was not to be, and the car ended up with the double spoiler.
Frank Stephenson – From BMW to Fiat
Stephenson then moved on to BMW in 1991. Whilst there, he was sent to Italy to work on a project, and was shocked to be met by some old men who would help with the six week project. Those men, as it turned out, had been responsible for a classic back in the 60s: the gorgeous Lamborghini Miura. At the end of the six weeks, the BMW X5 was created.
His next project at BMW was to update the iconic Mini, making it fit for the 21st century. Out of 15 designers chosen to propose new designs, Stephenson’s design was chosen. He spent weeks drawing versions of the Mini, showing how he felt it would have evolved each decade from 1959 to 1999.
Whilst at BMW, Stephenson had a mysterious phone call from a company asking him to attend an interview. It was only when he arrived in Italy did he find out that company was Ferrari. In July 2002, he was appointed the first ever Design Director for Ferrari and Maserati. His achievements in Italy included the Ferrari F430 and the project he enjoyed most – the Maserati MC12.
In 2006 however, Stephenson was asked to move to Fiat. Initially this seemed a bit of a step backwards, however as Design Director for Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo he was tasked with designing a new small car which, in the end, would save Fiat. Given a very short time frame, Stephenson used the Fiat Panda as his base, and the new Fiat 500 was born.
Chasing Perfection a Lifelong Goal
Two years after joining Fiat, Stephenson joined McLaren Automotive as their Design Director, where he developed the design language and led the designs of the McLaren range up to 2017. Starting with the McLaren MP4-12C, he shaped McLaren into the creator of the automotive masterpieces that we know today.
One of my personal favourites is the McLaren P1, in which Stephenson shows how he uses the natural world to influence his designs. Fascinated by the sailfish, the ocean’s fastest fish, Stephenson purchased one and had it shipped to McLaren HQ in England (much to the displeasure of the accountants). As a result, some of the design features of the P1 are based on the sailfish, as well as another fast creature: the leopard.
Using the term ‘biomimicry’ to describe the process – an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies – Stephenson demonstrated in a sketch how the lines of the P1 and the sprinting leopard relate.
“Animals have gone through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and are still around,” he said at the time. “It’s optimised design of what works well. And there-in lies the beauty of perfected design.”
Back to the Future
In 2018, Stephenson became Head of Product Design at Lilium Aviation, a German company developing the first electric vertical take-off and landing jet (eVTOL). With the aim of having an on-demand air taxi service in operation in the mid-20s, Lilium have created a full-scale, full-weight prototype which is powered by 36 all-electric jet engines that allow it to take-off and land vertically, while achieving remarkably efficient horizontal, or cruise, flight. This is one vehicle I look forward to taking for a test flight one day.
A teaser for this wonderful film about the life and work of Frank Stephenson can be found at https://youtu.be/hI7Hq2qhKIQ.
The first test flight of the Frank Stephenson-designed Lilium eVTOL can be seen at https://youtu.be/8qotuu8JjQM.
TMA Howe is Riley’s Automotive Editor.