A Simple Trick For Designing Cars

Illustration for article titled A Simple Trick For Designing Cars
Screenshot: Frank Stephenson

I have my issues with the McLaren P1's design. Alright, I have one issue: there is a FAKE WINDOW on a top-tier hypercar. Regardless! The car’s designer Frank Stephenson explained how he penned the thing, and gave a good tip on how to make a car look good in the process.

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Here’s the video of Stephenson re-designing the P1 for a new audience, coming up on eight years after it made its debut:

Now, the P1, fake window aside, is a really charming car design in that it is extraordinarily curvaceous. It’s a swoopy machine, particularly for something that’s not actually any longer than a Toyota Corolla.

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In describing the design work, Stephenson spends a lot of time talking about influence from looking at animals, and claims that he got the idea of adding little vortex generators (not greatly unlike what you’d see on a Mitsubishi Evo) from, staring at sailfish. He even produces some pictures of a sailfish painted in 2000s McLaren colors. I need to know where this fish is, but I’m getting away from the point. Stephenson claims that animals have a kind of “shrinkwrapped” look that makes them inherently eyecatching, and that sporty car design should follow this trend.

Again, I really don’t agree with this idea. There are plenty of cool-looking animals that don’t have all their muscles popping out, like seals, or bugs that look like leaves. If there was a car that was designed to look like a round seal, I’m sure people would buy it.

Still, Stephenson’s discussion of draping as little car as you can over the necessary components is a straightforward one. As you can see, he starts off drawing the wheels:

Illustration for article titled A Simple Trick For Designing Cars
Screenshot: Frank Stephenson
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And then quickly moves on to laying out where the driver will sit and how much space the engine and transmission will take up:

Illustration for article titled A Simple Trick For Designing Cars
Screenshot: Frank Stephenson
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Everything else covers that with as little excess space as possible, and you end up with a low, charming design. It’s not a question of elaborate proportions, but it is a simple way to make a car look good. It’s honest! Unlike that side window that leads to a vent and nothing else.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

I’d say the way to design cool cars is the opposite.

First you make it look cool.

Then you hand it over to the engineers and say “fit people and an engine in here somewhere.”

Old Corvettes come to mind. Styling first, engineering second. I love old Corvettes because of the styling, but holy cow, apart from the fiberglass body and the rear IRS on the C2/C3, the car is basically a 55 Chevy underneath. The whole C3 Corvette was an aerodynamic disaster as originally styled.

It worked though, because 5 year old me fell in love with the Corvette and I have a C3.