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From Fords to McLarens, legendary car designer Frank Stephenson turns to small aircraft

We sit down for an exclusive interview with Frank Stephenson, to chat about current and future automotive design, Youtube, and urban aircraft.

By William Clavey Wheels.ca

Apr 19, 2023 8 min. read

Article was updated 8 months ago

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The story of how I came upon the privilege of interviewing Frank Stephenson spawned from this very website. A few months back, I wrote a piece about my experience purchasing 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 himself, reaching out to congratulate me on my piece about a car he had designed. Astounded by the fact that my story had received such recognition from a renowned personality, I seized the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one in an online interview. It was an invitation Mr. Stephenson gladly accepted.

From Drawing Ford Escorts to Becoming a YouTube Sensation

Through an online video conference tool, Frank introduced me to his man cave, a dimly lit, but warm and cozy space filled with reminders of his past, a massive projector screen, and even a minibar. “I like this place, it’s quiet and allows me to wind down,” Stephenson says as he gave me a quick tour of the room through the lens of his camera.

Prior to the call, I was somewhat intimidated by the prospect of meeting this renowned designer but Frank immediately put me at ease with his down-to-earth, honest, and relaxed demeanour. I felt like I had known the guy my entire life.

Frank Stephenson’s contribution to the automotive industry is huge. He oversaw some of the most significant vehicles we’ve seen being put to market over the past three decades. His first notable project was the Ford Escort Cosworth, a design he’s particularly happy about due to the car’s signature double rear wing, one that originally had three slats in concept form, but was eventually toned down prior to production.

Frank Stephenson

While at BMW he designed the very first BMW X5 SUV a big deal on its own but his most noteworthy project there was the reincarnation of the MINI brand. The first-generation BMW MINI Cooper is regarded today as the best-designed model of the lineage, a bookend car that’s slowly becoming a future classic.

Frank has since designed a wide spectrum of automotive icons. Models like 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 were all born from his creative vision.

Stephenson retired from McLaren Automotive in 2017 but created his own consulting firm called Frank Stephenson design, which he still runs today.

He remains active by lending a helping hand to a variety of different startups involved in a wide scope of products, from watches, to servers, to child seats, and even eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing), a type of aircraft he firmly believes will solve some of our mobility challenges in the future. Through it all, Frank keeps his YouTube channel running by publishing educational videos about automotive design. There, he explains how he sketched his most famous works, while at times sharing blunt opinions about the industry’s latest models.

“Ah, the YouTube channel! I despise it, William!” Stephenson commented after I asked him how he came about becoming a YouTube star. He explained that the channel mostly came about as a necessity during the COVID-19 global pandemic. The idea had come up that it could help keep his name out there during lockdowns.

“My public relations team and I never expected the channel to pick up like it did. I’m happy people like the channel though. I love sharing my knowledge with people, but I hate doing YouTube videos (laughing). It’s very demanding and time-consuming. It’s just not my thing,” says Stephenson.

Why are so many new cars so Ugly?

I asked Frank some questions about current trends in automotive design. I wondered why so many cars are so darn ugly nowadays and, perhaps more importantly, why so many new cars lack compelling, memorable designs.

He tells me that today’s automotive designers have grown accustomed to skipping a crucial step in automotive design: hand sketching. Also, priorities in automotive design have shifted compared to the era when he was drawing cars.

“Of course, trends come and go, but today’s trend in automotive design—regrettably—seems to be ugly is the new beautiful. It’s not like, say, during the 1960s where automotive design referred to a specific work of art. We don’t instantly fall in love with great designs like 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. In my opinion, that’s not a great way to sell a product to consumers,” remarks Stephenson

Frank Stephenson

Stephenson acknowledges that new technology and modern design tools have opened the door to more creativity, all while speeding up the design process. He even produced an entire video explaining how artificial intelligence will reshape the profession.

However, Frank admits that the new generation of designers has lost the appreciation for sketching on paper. He considers this to be a sad reality, one that further contributes to the new robotic and cold designs the industry’s been subjecting us to.

“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 was thought 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. Now, they mostly type in a set of commands in software and the computer gives them a shape that looks like a car, from which they then work on. That, in my opinion, is the root of the problem for some of the questionable car designs we’ve seen in recent years,” says Frank

Open Up Car Design to the Masses

So, what’s next for Frank Stephenson? Well, when he’s not busy designing an Atmo supercomputer that runs an ultra-powerful AI to solve weather predictions for any city, state, or country, Frank is actually busy putting together his own design course which he soon plans on selling online.

“The course will be long because it must be long. I mean, how do you compress 4 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 the main tools in hand, but also the confidence to keep moving forward in this profession.”

With his course, Frank aims to reach lower-income talented individuals 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. He believes that his course, which he plans on starting this year, will help quell the investment risks associated with the profession.

The Future of urban mobility

Frank’s latest involvement in design is in the field of eVTOLs. It’s a type of compact aircraft that could potentially carry people over congested areas much more quickly than standard public transport. Stephenson sees this field as a highly challenging one, the next “Everest” in his long list of achievements as he sees an opportunity to reimagine the way we see aircraft in the future.

Frank Stephenson eVOTL

When asked if he believes the eVTOL business is a serious one, Frank enthusiastically shared his point of view:

“I kind of smile to myself when people ask me if I believe in this technology. It is coming. By 2025 – record this and put an asterisk on it. 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 to your destination at 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.”

Stephenson made sure to express how safe and reliable eVTOLs will be and how they could potentially change the way we undertake urban mobility in the future. During our interview, he told me he was working on his third plane. Frank sees a world of possibilities for designers in this field as these startups are looking for a new look for their planes.

“Why do planes need to look like sausages with wings on them? In terms of aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, there are much more efficient shapes. That’s what I feel I’m bringing to that industry, this new look on efficiency in terms of flying. Working with the engineers and the new types of propulsion methods helps shape new ideas for design. It’s super stimulating,” says Stephenson.

On the topic of his favourite and least favourite new vehicle designs, he 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 while designing cars. “I never thought I’d one day see something so ugly,” says Stephenson. “But there it is.”

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