Legendary Designer Frank Stephenson Says Modern Car Design Lacks Soul And Warns Against Buying Friday-Built McLarens

Illustration for article titled Legendary Designer Frank Stephenson Says Modern Car Design Lacks Soul And Warns Against Buying Friday-Built McLarens
Photo: FS Design

Look back through the history books of automotive design. It won’t take long, there have only been 120 years of cars anyway. Wherever you look, you’ll have a hard time finding someone with as broad a range and more iconic designs than this Moroccan-born genius with a pen, Frank Stephenson. Frank has frequently been given the task of creating a brand identity in his career, and those brands have absolutely taken off.

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The man has put his pen to cars for Ferrari, Maserati, McLaren, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Ford, Mini, BMW and Lancia. His designs span the gamut from $20,000 economy hatchbacks to multimillion-dollar hypercars. No matter the design brief, he managed to give it his own flair, and many of these designs will go down in history as icons of a generation.

Stephenson made his big breakout design by crafting the iconic wing on Ford’s Escort RS Cosworth rally car homologation special. That car wouldn’t be quite the same without that wing. In the ensuing 29 years, the man has concocted some of the greatest car designs of the era. It’s difficult to tell which of his designs are more worthy of praise.

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A Ferrari F430 sketch shows the simple and elegant lines the iconic sports car
A Ferrari F430 sketch shows the simple and elegant lines the iconic sports car
Screenshot: Frank Stephenson on YouTube

Ferrari F430? Maybe the best road-going Ferrari taking it back to the 1960s. Maserati MC12? An icon of supercar performance in the mid-2000s. Mini? Fiat 500? Millions sold, absolutely killing the game with modernized throwback style. BMW X5? That vehicle’s success kicked off an SUV craze that shows no sign of stopping. McLaren P1? The hypercar that defined hypercars. It’s all important. Any one of those designs would be the crown jewel of any other designer’s portfolio.

Since 2017 he’s been out on his own, kicking off his own design firm, called FS, naturally. He wanted a new challenge and has been absolutely doing that by working on designs for a VTOL autonomous taxi company, crafting a new baby seat and making racecars for the moon. In the current weird isolation times, he’s also become something of a design vlogger.

Frank is a truly interesting man to talk with. Credit to him for giving me a little over an hour of his time. I found out quickly that the easiest thing to do with Frank is lob a question into the room like a grenade and then get the fuck out of the way. He’ll explode with exposition for as long as you’ll let him. As always, I did my best to ask him questions that he had not been asked before, so if you’ve heard other interviews with him, you might still learn something by reading on. I enjoyed the conversation, and I hope you do, too.

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Before I could get my recorder started, Frank started talking about how excited he was about motorcycles, knowing I’d recently completed a cross-country bike trip. I give you an interview already in progress:

Frank Stephenson: I pre-ordered it, the new BMW R18. It doesn’t have that much horsepower, but it’s got plenty of torque. A real stump-puller. And it has that classic early BMW look like the R51, R69, you can’t tell where the shock’s at. It’s a nice bike. I’m going to take it out for a test ride this Saturday.

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The BMW R18
The BMW R18
Image: BMW Motorrad

Bradley Brownell: I haven’t actually had an opportunity to get on that one. I would love to, but I haven’t ridden that one yet. It looks really cool.

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FS: Has it made it out there yet? It’s brand new.

BB: There are a couple of test bikes on the West Coast that have been reviewed by a few people, but I haven’t made it down to LA to get my hands on it yet. 

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FS: Okay, well I’ll give you some feedback. The weirdest thing is it doesn’t have a gas gauge.

BB: Oh, it just has the low fuel light? I’ve ridden a couple of bikes that just have the light, and it’s a little nerve-wracking. You don’t really know how much you’ve got left.

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FS: It’s a bit like range anxiety on an electric.

BB: Yeah, the Ducati I was on, I rode it across the country, and I was only getting about 150 miles on a tank, so I had to stop pretty frequently. Especially across North Dakota, where gas stations are pretty far apart.

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FS: About an hour on the bike?

BB: I would usually go two hours. Last Saturday I did 880 miles in one day.

FS: 880 miles on a bike? Oh wow!

BB: Yeah, it was 2,000 miles one way, and I split it into four days. One of the days there and one of the days back was over 800.

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FS: Oh wow, that’s serious! I’ve got an [Ducati] 1198S, and I can only ride that about 100 miles or so, and then I have to take a break for the rest of the week.

BB: So first of all, where are you calling from?

FS: Right now? Ummmmm. I’m um, in Kalamazoo.

BB: Really?

FS: You know Kalamazoo?

BB: Michigan? I grew up there!

FS: In Kalamazoo? Yell, maybe I can hear you.

BB: Yeah, I grew up there. I grew up in Hickory Corners, right down the street from the car museum.

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FS: Yeah, well, I know that place. [pause] I can guarantee you Tom, my PR manager listening in right now is going “What the heck is he talking about? He’s in London!” Sorry about that, I’m just outside of London.

BB: Oh! Okay, alright. I take it you did research on me, then?

FS: No, I had no idea, I just thought of a name of a town outside of Detroit on the way to Chicago that’s called Kalamazoo. When I saw it, I thought, “How does anybody name a town Kalamazoo?”

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BB: Yeah, grew up there. Born and raised… Anyway…

FS: I had no idea!

BB: Weird coincidence. So, anyway. Let’s get started, huh?

As an outsider looking in, I’m not a visual design guy, but it feels to me like the P1 was the first McLaren design that had a McLaren signature design to it. Can you tell me a bit about the design leap that occurred between the 12C and the P1, and how you arrived at that final design?

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FS: Yeah, sure. OK, so when I came there, the 12C was in the cards already. It was going to be our first McLaren road car. Well, actually the car that McLaren had built before the 12C was the McLaren SLR. That gave McLaren automotive the experience of how to build a car. Obviously the F1 in the mid-1990s was kind of a one-off. Very limited and uncompromised. But when they got serious in 2008 and decided to really start a road car company, the first car they wanted to bring to market was a supercar. Something they could put all of their tech and engineering and carbon know-how. They wanted it to be the best of the best, aiming pretty high for a first car, knowing that there are established companies in that segment, and McLaren was out to beat them.

Frank’s first McLaren, the MP4-12C
Frank’s first McLaren, the MP4-12C
Image: McLaren
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So, the one advantage they had over everybody was the carbon tub. No other car in the segment had a carbon tub. They had a pretty good engine, they had some good tech behind it. The suspension was key also to making it handle well. That’s when the called me up and said, “Look, we’ve got the basic rolling chassis. But we don’t have a look to the car.” So obviously in that segment you don’t want to copy what anybody else is doing, otherwise you get hit hard. We had to have our own unique look, but if we went in the market right away with a car that was very unique and outlandish, it probably wouldn’t have been British, for one thing, and it probably would have been pushing too hard or trying too hard from the very beginning.

The decision was, “Let’s make the design different, and not generic, but just not anything standing out like a Versace suit.” So let’s take the quiet route, let’s make it subdued. Obviously, it has to look like a performance car and all that. Let’s don’t push too many buttons from the design side. So that’s what the MP4-12C came out to be. It was almost like, well I wouldn’t call it a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but it wasn’t from a visual point as strong as it could have been.

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But the proof was in the pudding that the car did alright from the design side, because it hasn’t aged too much. People are still saying it’s a good looking car, so that feels good. But, when we had to go on from the 12C and really establish McLaren’s design language and engineering tech, the P1 was going to be the company’s calling card. What can McLaren really do with it, if it’s serious about developing a hypercar? Which, by the way, it was a total coincidence that it was in the same mix as the LaFerrari and the 918, it just so happened that the stars aligned and all three cars were coming out at relatively the same time, all had a hybrid drivetrain.

McLaren P1
McLaren P1
Image: McLaren
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But, that was the time when we really started to pull out all the stops and establish a unique look for McLaren. And how do we play with the big guys? The idea was, to establish our own look let’s play up on the engineering side and let the engineering kind of define the look. Not that the form follows the function, but the function is going to define the form. It’s going to be equal, kind of. We designed it for performance, and that’s what it looks like. And basically the only way to get that design language was to minimize.

What I mean by minimizing is, you know, you look at a Ferrari and you see a lot of Italian sensual surfacing kind of thing. Porsche is also very Germanic. Lamborghini is very outlandish, almost origami type. But McLaren was in that phase of how do we define our design language. So the obvious way was how do you design a race car? You take away rather than add on. What we decided to do was take the hard points on the platform, on the chassis. Those hard points where the suspension mounts are, where your vision angles are established, your bumper heights and headlight heights. Put everything where it needs to be and can’t move, and then use those points in space, and what we kind of did was throw a bedsheet over that package and let it settle. So where the bedsheet settled meant we didn’t have to have much material there. So basically what we did was come up with this language we called shrinkwrapping, where instead of adding surface to make it beautiful or whatever, sensual, we sucked the air out of the car.

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That’s why the rear end of the P1 was so low. We did that and thought, well we don’t have to go any higher than this. And it kinda looked a little bit slim when we did that, when we approached it from that angle. It’s actually got its own design language that way, let’s go with it. And the luck of it was that Ron Dennis, who is a control freak, who ran McLaren, said, “Look, you guys have shown me that you can handle the 12C pretty well, now I don’t want to have to come back in the design studio. If you guys just tell me when you’re ready, I’ll have a look at the P1. Don’t worry about showing me sketches or anything like that, just show me the ready finished clay model.”

McLaren P1
McLaren P1
Image: McLaren
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So we had a year to do that, and we started with that philosophy of minimal surfacing, or minimal depth of surfacing, I guess. And we came up with this look for the P1 based on that. The aero guys didn’t believe at first that we could take sufficient air in through the car’s shoulders, they always said, “No, you have to take it in from the side.” You have to turn the air to hit the radiators, and you lose a bit of efficiency in that. We did something called a ram-air effect, where you just plug the air straight into the shoulders of the car and the P1 was wide enough to accept an air intake, so we just rammed the air straight into the radiator, and the aero performance was great.

We didn’t want a big wing on the back, so we went with active aero on the back. The lamps are where you have a little bit of freedom, so we took and ran with the McLaren logo as sort of a new way to design a headlight. So it had its own light signature at night. In the rear of the car we thought we didn’t need a rear end, because the thing was chucking out a lot of heat from the power of it. We needed to have open space for it, one at the top for heat soak, and one at the rear. If you put a back end on the car, you’re going to block up a lot of hot air space that you could use to get that air out. So we thought let’s just use the trailing edge of the body and run a pinstripe around it with enough LED intensity to match the lighting regulations and basically we created a very fancy light signature behind the car that was just a reflection of the shape.

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As much as we could, we wanted to make the back of the car look like a racing car, because a lot of the mechanicals were pretty nice to look at. So the shape of it kind of evolved from thinking let’s design a racecar for the road with a license plate on it. That’s kind of how the P1 emerged.

I can remember the day that we showed it to Ron, and it was under one of those silk covers. After a year, he was ready to see it. We pulled it off and his jaw dropped. He was like, “What the hell is this? Where’s the front of the car and where’s the back?” And I’m like “Uh, Ron, this is like haute couture. And you need the shock factor when you have a hypercar. If it’s Superman, you want it to look like Superman, not like Clark Kent.” So he didn’t get it, he said “You’ve been working on this for a year and this is all you could come up with?” Yeah, well, Ron, it’s supposed to look a little weird, because it’s a hypercar. It’s got a unique look, you can’t mistake it for anything else out there. Finally he said, “Alright, well if you guys think so. But remember, I can always kill it, I can pull the plug right here and now. And if this car doesn’t sell, you’re out of here!”

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So we got it out and we got a lot of testimonials before it was launched and the customers were all like “Yep, yeah, yeah, yeah.” They wanted it. So the launch went pretty well, and we sold every one of them. The first building block was the 12C, but the next step was to build a unique identifiable McLaren signature and character, which I think it did.

So that was it in a nutshell. If you want I can do the longer version now.

BB: Haha! I think that will do fine, thank you. In some ways the P1 was a controversial design when it debuted, but in retrospect almost looks restrained. What has happened in car design over the last decade that has managed to overshadow what was once a wild shape?

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FS: I don’t think it’s overshadowed yet. It’s not that I’m trying to praise it too much or anything like that, but the response I’ve gotten quite a bit is that it still looks very fresh for what it is on the road. And my problem is with all of the other hypercars coming out now it’s almost like, well I don’t want to say ugly is the new beautiful, but trying too hard is the new beautiful. They’re trying so hard now that it’s almost reversing the trend of what we as humans consider to be beautiful, and it’s more about the shock value now than anything else. And hypercars, nobody needs a hypercar. It’s a luxury, you buy it because you have to feel your five senses erupt by this complete package of a car. If you start missing on some of the elements, you’re not going to fall completely in love with it because it’s just missing somewhere.

I think the P1 kind of does it well in the visceral sense. It feels raw when you’re on a track and you’re driving it to the limit or somebody else is driving and you’re passenger. That’s one of the senses of it. It’s a fast car, anything above a supercar is bound to give you a thrill when it comes to speed.

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My worry is that supercars and hypercars now are starting to go in a direction that is not going to be as timeless in terms of what we see 20 years down the road and say which cars were the ones that really stood out in a positive way. The ones that are trying too hard or the ones that are just like nice for a few years and then you don’t remember one thing about that car. It’s just a bunch of little ingredients coming together, a lot of simple ingredients coming together to make a soup. I think the P1 is a simpler and cleaner approach. There are a few other good ones, obviously. I appreciate the pureness of the P1 more than some of the other ones that are coming out now. I can’t explain it, but I think cars should be balanced in a way that lasts.

As OEMs you want a car to be out for a few years and then you can do a facelift to make it better so the new model takes over as a profit generator. It’s kinda’ like when you look back at stuff from the 1960s they produced cars that we still today salivate over. Simply because they were instant love-at-first-sight designs, you didn’t have to get used to them. I’ve never bought anything in my life that I thought well I might get used to it in six months, I’m going to buy it now. It just doesn’t work, you don’t buy anything that way.

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In my opinion the P1 still holds its ground today.

BB: Which is more exciting for you to design, something like an everyday compact hatch like the Mini or the 500, or something which is all about going fast, like a Maserati or McLaren supercar?

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FS: That’s a good question! On the one side, they’re all very fun. I wouldn’t say one project is more fun than the other. One of them you know are going to be out there in droves, you know they’re going to sell thousands or whatever of them, so you have to make sure that whenever you see it you don’t regret it. Whereas on the other side, you get a little more liberty to be a bit more edgy and confrontational and not everybody has to like it. You’re not shooting for high numbers of volume.

The throwback-cool Fiat 500
The throwback-cool Fiat 500
Image: Fiat
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People oftentimes in that segment will just buy it sight unseen, just so they get on the list of buyers and probably the car will go up in value rather than depreciate. But I have to say I had as much fun designing the Mini as I had with any other, you know the MC12 was fun, that was working with a racecar company, Dallara, to do it. That experience was second to none.

Mini was just a once in a lifetime, and it’ll never happen again, when you get a car that iconic. When you get that kind of political in-house fighting between the Germans and the Brits. Who’s running who, and we can’t get it wrong because it means too much to the automotive world. Like VW, I think they got that pretty wrong, the New Beetle, it’s not handled properly.

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Maybe the New Beetle didn’t get it quite right
Maybe the New Beetle didn’t get it quite right
Photo: By OSX - Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

With all the ups and downs we had over five years of development of the new Mini, that was exciting. That should be a film, not just a book. Somebody should one day tell the true story about the Mini, I’d love to be somebody that consults on that. The in-house Brit vs. German philosophy of what the Mini should be like, that was off the charts, it was pretty crazy.

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I don’t know. With supercars and hypercars, you get a little bit more technical in terms of working with aero engineering and guys who come in that area. A normal car is easy to design because it doesn’t have to go to the limit like a performance car does, you know everything is about downforce and aerodynamics and ergonomics and safety and all that other stuff. Whereas an A-to-B car still has to look great and the budgets are lower, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less challenging. I think it’s just as much. And if you’re working in design you’re blessed because whatever you’re doing at that stage, it’s going to come out on the road anyway. You’re lucky that you’re able to put something on the road.

The challenges are the same. I truly cannot tell you, Bradley. I think I had as much fun designing the so-called eco-boxes as I did the high-end hypercars. It might sound like I’m not trying to give you the truth, but I really am. I enjoyed both processes. My joy is giving shapes to vehicles, that’s what I love.

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BB: Alright, cool! What car would you wish was your design? If it was an alternate universe where you could claim ownership of someone else’s design, and nobody would know, which car do you wish was yours?

FS: How many can I choose? There’s the Talbot-Lago T150 CSS, there were two versions of it, one is obviously more beautiful than the other one. The Figoni & Falaschi is the one that did it. That’s one, for sure, because from a design point of view it was kind of the heyday of French Art Deco. You had to treat every element as very special, so that was probably a blast to design.

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Talbot-Lago T150 CSS Figoni et Falaschi
Talbot-Lago T150 CSS Figoni et Falaschi
Image: RM Sotheby’s

The other car is just the car that I’ve always said because it’s my favorite car ever, and it’s not without its design mistakes. It’s the ’61 Series 1 E-type Fixed Head Coupe. That was the first design, after that they ruined it. Shot it in the face and took a hatchet to it or something, I don’t know, but they screwed it up. The Series 1 Fixed Head, it was definitely my favorite car in terms of proportion and just how it gave you goosebumps. Maybe it was because I saw it at such a young age that it left a lasting impression. It still gives me goosebumps today.

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E-Type comin’ at ya
E-Type comin’ at ya
Image: Jaguar

BB: So do you consider that your favorite design of all time, then?

FS: The E-Type? Yeah. It’s interesting because it wasn’t designed by a designer. You’d think the most beautiful car in the world, it must have been designed by a designer. But it was designed by a guy called Malcolm Sayer who was actually an aerodynamicist. He was an engineer. He didn’t sit there and try to design a stunning looking car, he just took some materials and metric shapes and put them all together.

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Look at that shape. Jag really got that one right.
Look at that shape. Jag really got that one right.
Image: Jaguar

He was shooting for aero, I mean they didn’t know that much about aero back then, but that was his interpretation of it. The car just came out pretty stunning looking, so I kind of respect what he’s done with it. To prove that he’s not a one-hit wonder, he also did the D-Type and the C-Type, they had one called the XJ-13, which is stunning also. That ’50s and ’60s era was just spot on for Jag.

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BB: What is your favorite new car design? Of everything on sale right now, what grabs you?

FS: That’s a tough one, because it depends what I want the car for. If I just want a car for everyday, I’d probably pick a Range Rover or something and be done with it. You can go up and down the country, you can go shopping, put the dogs in the back, whatever. It’s a very practical design.

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But if it’s a car that isn’t my daily driver, it would probably be not the 765LT, but the 720S. Because the 765LT if you look at it, man, they didn’t know where to stop on that car! If you look at it, you go what the heck? Stop! But they were like, “No, I’ve got another thing I want to put on it.” The 720S came out very pure, it’s very drivable, it’s comfortable, it does everything really well. You could, theoretically, if you wanted to, use it as a daily driver, but you know you probably wouldn’t. But it’s got that look that I think will keep it looking modern for years to come.

Frank remains quite proud of his McLaren 720S design
Frank remains quite proud of his McLaren 720S design
Image: McLaren
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If you get a good one, that is. If you get one that doesn’t fall apart on you. McLaren has this thing about building cars pretty quickly. You need to double check before it gets out of the factory. They are great cars when they’re assembled during the week and not on a Monday or Friday, you get a good one. Then you’re in luck.

BB: So the hot tip for 720S buyers is to look at the build date?

FS: Yeah, don’t grab a Friday car. With COVID, I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

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BB: You were given two different opportunities to restyle Ferrari’s iconic Enzo supercar in the MC12 and the FXX. Despite the cars sharing the same base, they look distinctly different. What sets these two apart in your mind? How do you change the brand identity without changing the base structure of the car?

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A Maserati MC12 sketch
Screenshot: Frank Stephenson on YouTube
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FS: Well, for one we changed the wheelbase on the MC12. If you put them next to each other, one is pup in the litter that didn’t get enough milk, and you’d have to say that that’s the Ferrari. The MC12 just by its size and impression, the larger overhangs and we pulled the wheel forward to increase the wheelbase. That car has so much presence. I was up today at Donnington Park, there were thousands of sports cars, supercars. I was invited up there to talk, and I thought “What the heck is going on here?” I had a chance to see the MC12 next to the FXX and next to the Enzo, and it just dominates. People were almost not even looking at the Ferraris. I think it has to do with size impression for one. The second is, it does look a little bit more organic than the Enzo. Enzo was obviously a departure from Ferrari’s typical design language, which was flowing and softer curves, and the Enzo was very hard. It worked on the F40, that harder edged look, the F40 does it well. I don’t know why it doesn’t work so well on the Enzo. The F50 went too soft, for some reason.

The Enzo wasn’t one of Frank’s designs, but he got to restyle it twice
The Enzo wasn’t one of Frank’s designs, but he got to restyle it twice
Image: Ferrari
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I know the history of the Enzo, I know who designed it and all that, it’s a little bit his style, the guy who worked on it. It came across as something almost more digital design for Ferrari. I think the “manual” look of the MC12 probably is what makes it more endearing from a design point of view. It’s got a few features on it that stick out. You don’t put too much into it, but whatever does stand out is memorable. From the front it’s got a Maserati identifiable grille. The wheels are very Maserati. You can’t say it looks like any other Maserati, simply because Maserati never did a car like that before. But what I did was, I had a big love of Group C racing from the ’80s and ’90s and I tried to get that look, that sort of Group C-ish look.

Maserati MC12 Corsa
Maserati MC12 Corsa
Image: Maserati
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I actually did the Corsa, the race version, first. And then I translated that to the road car. It came with some racing pedigree to the look of it. It looks meaner in one way, but it looks nice mean, it doesn’t look evil. The big wing on the back helps, obviously. The paint scheme, the sort of two-color body makes it look a bit racier. It’s got that Camoradi Birdcage livery throwback to it, the white and blue of the American racing team.

Maserati MC12 Corsa
Maserati MC12 Corsa
Image: Maserati
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It turned out really well. If I had a car to choose of the ones I’ve designed, I’d probably pick that one. Over a P1 I might even pick the MC12 because it’s got the history. It’s won a few championships and that.

BB: It’s a very cool car, it’s one of my favorites of all the supercars out there.

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FS: Awesome, oh it’s great to hear that.

BB: I imagine that advancements in computer-aided design have completely changed your work from the start of your career to today. Can you walk me through the technological differences between design in the 1980s and design now?

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FS: Yeah, I mean, it definitely has. It’s kind of like doctors, you know. Imagine a doctor in the 1980s and not changing the way he works in 2020. You’d probably be seen as like dangerous or something. I mean, come on we have modern equipment, we don’t have to operate that way anymore. But you have to stay on top of it, otherwise you don’t keep pace with what’s relevant in different generations of design.

It’s kind of fun to do it because at the same time you start realizing that when you go from manual to digital you can do a lot more, you can generate a lot more work. You can make a lot more mistakes and go back. You can try out options, and if you don’t like them you can go two steps back and try again. When you’re working manually, for the first 15 years of my career I was working manually, you have to depend on your gut instinct a lot more. Your manual capabilities of seeing something and putting it on paper in 2D in front of you. But that link sort of started to blend, the manual to digital, started to blend in the mid-1990s. Then we started getting Photoshop and things started to get exciting again because it’s a new way of designing.

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What happened, and I noticed it, and I see it now more than ever, simply because I have to interview a lot of university students for jobs and things like that. It’s frighteningly disappointing in a way that generally I can’t ask a university graduate design student to sketch a car for me. They’ll say “Alright, I’ll come back in an hour with this amazingly rendered image of a car that looks real.” And I’ll say OK, but where’s the sketch? Well, they didn’t spend any time on the sketch, they went straight to the computer.

These designs on computer, like anybody who knows how to handle a computer can do that. And the computer is basically, I wouldn’t say it’s designing the car, but it’s diluting that design a little, I feel. You see that in the design. They’re losing a lot of sensitivity that was created by a designer drawing it or working with a clay model and figuring out the shape by hand. Now, basically the designer does it in Photoshop or whatever and sends it over to the 3-D aliasing guy and he creates the points and creates a mesh network of data. The data goes straight to a milling machine and it’s milled out as a model. They might say, yeah, it’s exactly what I wanted, but it doesn’t have the man-made done-by-hand soul that we used to have.

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I kind of regret that, because I can see that in car design today. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with these cars, there are creases in cars that are almost like folded paper. There aren’t transition blends of surfaces, complex surfaces, you can start to see that it’s designed by data rather than by feel or by soul. There are certain ways that you can use computers because it speeds up the whole process. It’s almost like the designers today are becoming more like data designers.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s you asked a guy to sketch a car, it was like a piece of art. He did it right in front of you with a pen or markers or whatever, and it was something you wanted to hang on your wall. Nowadays it’s a photograph. Everybody produces the same quality of work and you start to look at those individual characters. In the old days you could look at a painting and tell who painted it by their individual styles. Nowadays you look at a rendering of a car, and there’s no individual character to it. It’s just a machine-made design. We can’t stop it, the world is going that way, but designers are starting to see that as good.

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It’s kind of like what happened with Tesla. When it came out everybody was a little bit shocked, they either loved it or hated it. And now people are getting used to it and the kids coming up through the ranks are saying that must be the future, and they start doing it. Suddenly ugly gets introduced as cool. The Tesla, I’m sorry to say, from a design point of view I have to try hard to design that way because my mind doesn’t work with straight edges and rulers. It’s like somebody took a ruler and a circle guide and put some wheels in and a triangle here, and designed a Tesla. It might have a purpose, but it’s not design, it’s algebra or trigonometry. Numbers.

Design by trigonometry
Design by trigonometry
Image: Tesla
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I’m in that phase where I can see both sides. But designers, if you don’t learn to sketch you start to rely on that crutch. That crutch is the Photoshop and rendering drawings to make it look like it’s reflecting properly with certain mirror gloss surfaces. If you ask them to draw it, they don’t really know how to draw anymore. They’re losing that one side which made design a beautiful profession. And it’s now something that you learn by numbers in college. Everybody has their laptop in front of them. There’s no more paper anymore, or pencils. They’re turning out really nice designs that look great on paper, but look at the BMW 4 Series, you know?

Does BMW owe its big grilles to computer-aided design?
Does BMW owe its big grilles to computer-aided design?
Image: BMW
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Some guy did a rendering of it and showed it to the execs and they said “Wow, that’s hot! Yeah, let’s build it!” and now they’re like “Oh, wait a second, that’s the drawing?” I’m sure the 4 Series grille happened that way.

BB: Well, since we’re on the topic of BMW, as the designer of the X5, how do you feel about your influence in the proliferation of SUVs as a global phenomenon of the last 20 years?

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The BMW X5 changed the game
Photo: FS Design

FS: That sounds like a complicated question. I feel pretty good about it. I think BMW hit it right at the right time. Especially coming from BMW, which especially at that time was seen as a sporty company. So I think the approach we used back then was more “sport activity vehicle.” It showed that there was a market for that kind of vehicle, drivers, women especially, started feeling like in that type of vehicle they had something called a command driving position, and they felt immediately safer sitting up above the other cars on the road. It gave them a sense of security. They suddenly realized they could take the soccer team with them, you know the kids and the dog and the weekly shopping.

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And the idea behind it was the kind of car you would drive to the opera, or you would do a cross-country jaunt with it. You could pack a lot of stuff into it. That market opened up with the X5. I think it’s a good segment to be in. It kind of replaced the station wagon segment. People used to buy station wagons back then. And it’s much more useful. BMW put the pep into SUVs, so it could get out of its own way. If you were to go off-road, you kind of could, obviously not like a purpose-build SUV for that reason, but for your everyday purpose car, it was kind of OK.

You know, wasn’t it the Chrysler minivan, where you could put six people in the back, kind of thing? I think the SAV with the X5, was kind of like that. It created a new market. I don’t think we knew what we were getting into, but one thing led to the next. Oh, that’s cool, now let’s make a bigger one, we’ll call it the X7. Make a smaller one, and then make an even smaller one!

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BB: Well, what do you drive right now? What’s in your collection?

FS: Typically I drive, well it depends on the weather, but typically I drive a Ducati. I’m more of a bike guy. I liked when you started out talking about bikes. It feels alive. You’re more at one with a bike than you are with a car. My car is nothing to brag about. I’ve got a Land Rover. It’s basically like my old pair of blue jeans that I throw on and throw the dogs in there. It’s great, it starts up. That’s what I drive, typically. I’m not out there to drive any flash cars. And it’s not that I’m just an A-to-B kind of person, I just feel like you can’t beat Levis 501s to just throw something on.

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BB: How have the last few years of designing on your own terms, outside the boundaries of an OEM, been treating you? How are things different working for your own design firm rather than under a brand?

FS: I kind of feel like I should have started doing this 10 years ago, or even more. It’s kind of fun to have that liberty, where you don’t have a press officer so I can say whatever I want to you. At an OEM you’re responding to marketing and the brief was given to you, you have no choice, you can only do the best you can do with what you’re given. You’re an employee, so it doesn’t matter how good or how bad it is, that’s your job, what do you expect? More money for doing something we hired you to do in the first place? No way.

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The OEMs are great because you get a sense of security. You know what you’re getting every month, and the perks of traveling around the world with the car when we’re launching it, meeting the press and all that. But once you’ve been through the mill, especially when you’ve gone through the range of one extreme to the other extreme, at some point you think I’ve done it all, do I just want to keep doing it again for the next 10 to 15 years and repeat at a different OEM? At the highest-end hypercar level, you’re not reaching a lot of people with goodness. Few people out there can afford it, you’re introducing new technology that will hopefully at some point cascade down into the lower segments. So there is a reason for the hypercar/supercar segment, but again it’s not reaching a wide variety of people out there in a good way.

So after having finished basically the first range of three cars for McLaren, I thought, it’s 2017, do I stick in this for another 10 years, or do I get out and start my own thing. It’s always that fear of getting out and thinking how am I going to get any work, what are people going to ask me to design, you know? Am I going to be starving one month and then eating like I’m packing on pounds for winter the next? So that’s how everybody starts out, but I had a good track record, and my name was out there, so I thought I’d just go for it now because it’s a chance to do something different. Obviously it’s going to be exciting. There’s more to it than success, but I think if you put the energy out there, I think the universe recognizes people’s energy when you put it out there that you need to do something. Things start bouncing back.

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Kind of immediately I started getting offers to design a lot of different things. I put it out on LinkedIn that I was leaving McLaren and boom people were like design this, design that. I immediately recognized that I had to set up a filter to let the good projects come through.

So I set up four ground rules. One, the product has to be best in its segment. Whatever I was asked to design, it couldn’t just be another product in that segment, it had to add value or be at the very top of what it was in that segment. That didn’t mean it had to be a luxury item or super expensive, it just had to be the one to buy if you’re going to buy one. Two, it had to bring innovation. In other words, it’s not just a cool-looking product, it had to be innovative technology wise. Three, it has to incorporate what we all know now as sustainability. It has to be designed, built and produced in a sustainable way. It has to bring ecological value. Younger generations are pretty headstrong about wanting that, so OK, it’s a great product but is it eco-friendly? And four, it would have to allow me to use my favorite inspiration for the design of a product, and that’s bio-mimicry. The design is reflected and its inspiration is reflected through nature.

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Any time I design something I use inspirational mood boards from architecture, furniture, fashion, all that kind of stuff. For me, the most useful source of inspiration has always been nature, and nature has always done things in the best and most efficient way. We can always learn from the way nature has solved that issue.

As soon as I did that, like 75 percent of the products people wanted me to design fell by the wayside. And the good ones started coming through. The first one that I found really good was the EVTOL. Electric vertical take off and landing jets. A company in Germany contacted me and said we have the engineering, but we need the look of it, so it’s a combination of aero and design and working with all of our engineers to make this thing work. So I went to Munich for 18 months and worked on the design of one of these new air taxis. It’s going to be out in about five years. So it’s a new way to travel. It’s very reachable for students to execs wanting to get in and out of the city quickly and efficiently. So the price is accessible, it’s not like flying a helicopter. The plan is to be autonomous, so you don’t need the infrastructure that a helicopter does. Super clean.

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The next project, I was contacted while I was doing that, was a company in Israel that works with the military on saving lives in armored vehicles. Situations where there’s an explosion and the energy transfer of the bomb goes up into the vehicle. The vehicle is fine because it’s made to withstand that kind of impact, but the people inside get injured from the g-force going through the vehicle and they die. So this company came up with a device that is very small that absorbs, under the seat, an enormous amount of energy. And that basically helps keep people alive.

So they decided to put that into the commercial world. And what better use for this technology than to put it into baby seats, infant car seats. Car seats haven’t moved on in the U.S. since 1970, believe it or not. And in Europe since 2000. At least, that’s 20 years of no proper development of baby seat technology. So this device, I designed a baby seat for it. We did all of the testing for it at a facility near Amsterdam that does this. They say it’s close to 70 percent safer than anything else on the market, and it looks awesome. It looks like when you look through the back end of your Ferrari and you can still see the engine in there. This baby seat is kind of like that. There are hints of what is going on and it’s done in a lovable way. A product like that has to be friendly, not look like a machine. That’s going to come out soon, and hopefully that will save a lot of lives.

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Frank’s car seat, called Baby Ark
Photo: FS Design

I found out, they don’t tell you this, but babies get killed all the time from slight impacts. Front, side, rear. Although they’re buckled in, the impact force is too much for a little baby and they can die. So this seat should help in that sense.

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I’m just starting now on the first two racecars that are going to the moon to race on the lunar surface next year. When they first pitched it to me I thought they were all a little bit drunk, but it turns out they’re all scientists from Washington, D.C. and attached to NASA. And I’m like “Are you guys serious?” and they’re like “Yep, we know what we want to race up there, but we don’t have designs, and we need advice.” That’s going to be in development for the 2024 lunar module that’s going up. So as in racing, all of that technology comes down, so that’s what these two racecars are going to do. They’ll be on a track designed by Tilke, he’s the guy that designs tracks for Formula 1 all over the world. He’s going to be designing the track on the lunar surface. We’ll be able to, as the public, put on VR goggles and watch the race unfold.

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It’s not about aero, obviously, as there’s very little atmosphere at all on the moon. It’s about grip and speed, so it’s a very cool project.

BB: The final question I have is what inspired you to kick off your own YouTube channel? 

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FS: I guess because nobody ever talks with a voice of experience about design. You have a few young guys doing it, but they haven’t really gone through the mill, you know? They might have brushed over, and maybe they had a three-year experience with an OEM, or they may be a teacher or something. I think nobody is actually speaking from a decades of experience point of view on a regular YouTube channel. So it wasn’t that there was a niche market I wanted to attack, but I thought that there was an opportunity to help, in that sense. Obviously, there are a lot of kids out there that want to become car designers, they see this as a dream profession, and they have no idea where it begins. It’s easy to put myself in their shoes.

Nowadays with YouTube anybody can access any number of types of courses or things like that, but they don’t usually have a way of contacting somebody who is in the business, who has been in the business and is credible, I guess in some way, and listening to them. So I thought that was an outlet I could use, and it’s going to have three or four different directions. The first part was going over seven or eight of the designs of the 14 or so that I’ve done. So I did that process. So now we’ll start addressing young 10- to 15-year-old aspiring car designers who want to get into design and start critiquing their work so they can get tips on that before they go into the school. Another thing is my dream car garage, so I’ve chosen 12 incredible designs that I love, but if I was in that era how would I have approached it? What would have been different?

The first one is going to come out this week, its about the E-Type. Remember, I love that car, but there are some bits of it that bug the hell out of me. I go through that, I’m on site at a really nice location where they bring in E-Types from all over the world and restore them, so I go through that. And then I go back into my studio and I redesign the car as I would have done it in 1961. It’s easy to do a modern flip or interpretation of it, but then the car starts to change quite a bit. And then it can be any approach. If I was under the same guidelines as I would have been back then, what would I have designed? So I gave it my spin and explain how and why I’ve done that. I think it’s fun and relevant. Nowadays people go to YouTube more than TV or whatever, and I think that there’s a way for them to connect directly with me for followup. But also it’s a way for me to keep my finger on the pulse, to stay current and stay relevant with what’s happening in design.

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BB: Is there anything else you want me to know about before we end this conversation?

FS: YouTube is kind of it right now, because it’s growing quickly. It’s not leaps and bounds, but it’s growing quicker than we ever imagined it would grow. I’m going to be doing a course for young aspiring designers to learn how to get to a level that allows them at least to get into a university with a decent portfolio, so that’ll be an online type training course. How to design cars from scratch. Getting from those first sketches to the delivered product and learning about perspective and colors and all of that. That’s coming soon, that’s a package course. There’s a film out that I did called “Chasing Perfect.” You can watch that on MotorTrend. We have it on Netflix over here, but I don’t think our Netflix is the same as yours. [Note: It’s not on Netflix in the U.S.] It kind of shows how working in design is.

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BB: I genuinely appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. It’s been awesome. And next time I’m in Kalamazoo, I’ll stop in and say hello!

FS: [laughs] That’s amazing. I swear, I had no idea you were from Kalamazoo.


So there you have it. That’s what an hour hanging out with one of the most prolific car designers in the world is like. He likes to joke, he likes to laugh, and he is pretty obviously super intense about design. This is a man that loves his job and is proud of what he’s done. How many of us can say that?

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I’ll be honest, I was never a big fan of the McLaren P1, so you can count that among the things I have in common with Ron Dennis. But after talking with the man who designed it and spending a bit of time poring over the details in photos and videos, I’m coming around on that ridiculous design. Frank is right, if it wasn’t wild from the beginning, it wouldn’t have been a hypercar.

I’m not sure I believe in this electric VTOL jet thing Frank is working on. Air taxis have always been vaporware, and making it autonomous gives me even more to worry about. The baby seat thing looks pretty cool, though. I hope the technology can both do what it says it does and become inexpensive enough to proliferate throughout the world to save little baby necks.

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Good luck, Frank. Thanks for the chat!

Jalopnik contributor with a love for everything sketchy and eclectic.

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DISCUSSION

I just want to say your 430 take is bad and you should feel bad.

Otherwise, yeah sure.