Frank Stephenson on McLaren, 570 GT and car design

McLaren Automotive has ambitious plans. This relatively new company in its contemporary form, established only six years ago as the road car making arm of the race firm, is envisaging a £1bn expansion plan to produce fifteen new models and derivatives over the next six years. It is also aiming to increase annual sales from 1600 to 5000 cars, with half of these driven by sustainable hybrid technology.

We caught up with design director Frank Stephenson at the Geneva Motor Show last week as he unveiled the 570 GT, a perfect piece of aesthetic design and industrial engineering.

This latest car joins the 570S and C coupé in the more road-friendly Sport Series family. It shows how much the brand can expand in its product offering, but how far can you take this?

The 570 GT is one of the last building blocks. It completes our strategy that includes the Supercar and Ultimate range. We can of course add to this, introduce a city car, for instance – there’s room to move around.

You’ve set some pretty ambitious plans for a small company. How quickly do you sketch, design and develop cars?

For us designing the car is quick and this, I feel, is fresher and the design doesn’t get diluted. If you think about it too much you get cold feet! Here we don’t have time for too much discussion. We decide on the design straight away and boom it’s out there. The testing programme is very intense at McLaren as we have very little time for development. We are creating one car a year until 2022 at least. We imagine our cars, build them and then see them on the road. It is all very fast.

… and the 570 GT?

When I first gave the brief to my team that it has to have substantial luggage space and be the size of the Porsche 911 they designed a beautiful shooting-break, but it didn’t have an edge to it. It was just a pretty estate! So we killed this after six month and started from scratch but then decided on a fresh design approach straight away.

The car you say is the most practical McLaren with two boots, including the striking 220-litres boot space in the leather-lined side-hinged glass hatch. It must have been pretty challenging to design…

Yes. Initially I thought it was a joke! How can you put something on top of a hot engine? If you look at the 570S it is like Swiss cheese, it has holes everywhere to let the engine heat out. This car has the same engine so what we did was to suck the heat out from underneath the car, and through the lamps. This has never been done before. The issue is that the heat is so much that normally the plastic lenses on the taillights would melt, so we use special plastics that can take the heat.

Also our doors are becoming incredibly complex. Here we have 15 different pieces, which helps get air in the car and this makes our door structures complicated.

Would you say it is about having design integrity?

The challenge of creating something new is our reason to be – otherwise we’re not the leader. It is fun though. It is the excitement of discovering something new that hasn’t been done before and making this your top priority. Our cars are athletic, they have lean muscles and the cloth has to fit very close to the skin. We have to always strive to do less, less and less.

Our company is unique too in the way we work directly with our engineering team – we don’t have anyone from the outside coming in. The engineers here have the hunger like the design team to do something that hasn’t been done before.

You seem visibly excited to be working with McLaren. how would you define the brand?

Yes it is pretty exciting. In terms of design DNA we’re at a stage now where we’re building this, yet everything we do has to be functional. On the 570 GT, for instance, the lamp graphic where the heat comes out, that was functional and efficient so it will be used for future generations. It has naturally become a design element. The beauty of of what we do is that it doesn’t lock you – we can be unpredictable.

You’ve been with the McLaren Automotive team since the start. What’s been your favourite project to work on?

They get better and better. The 12C to make into the 650 was fun, as people didn’t think we could do emotion so we said watch this… then the P1 has huge emotion and is still looks like a McLaren and was basically designing a race car that is road legal.

With the 570 we knew the car couldn’t polarise; it has to be our volume-selling car and appeal to old, young, male and female so it had to be the new efficient 911. You don’t go home and say ‘wow I’ve seen a 911’, but hopefully you would about the 570 as we only make 2000 a year. We’re a small company so all ours cars are small volume.

Where is the brand heading now?

We have the smallest car design studio in the world so we haven’t got the resources to design cars for the future – instead we design concept cars for today. Now that we have the three lines (Sport, Super and Ultimate), it is time to establish the brand, work on credibility for people to see that we are making believable, exciting cars. Now we have the license to push further. We started quietly but if you saw what’s coming you’d see we’re really moving on… The last thing we will do are predictable cars.

You mentioned the possibility of an entry-level McLaren earlier. Would you consider a city car?

A city car is not in our strategy yet but I’m working with a couple of universities, in Turin and Sweden, where I asked the students to design an ultimate city car for the 2029 Frankfurt Motor Show to celebrate our 20th anniversary.

We’re not concerned with cost but to shoot high in terms of McLarenisation, materials, the electric drive technology, packaging, visibility and safety. I can see a car like this maybe in our future.

It makes sense to utilise the advanced McLaren racing technology…

Absolutely. For the 570 we use a carbon-fibre tub that is hugely expensive to create, so yes it makes sense to filter this technology down. The safest thing you can have for a city car is a carbon cage.

Visibility is key in a city car but you also don’t want to be exposed so perhaps there’s a way of working with glass, tinting it, so it gradually gets clear as it comes up or you can hit a button for it to go foggy to transparent glass. By 2029 the car will of course be autonomous.

What are the challenges of designing ultimate sustainable McLaren sports cars?

Weight is a huge thing for McLaren and for us to build an electric car we have to think about the battery size. For handling we would want to keep the batteries in the centre of the car, ideally low and positioned at the bottom of the car, and the motor would need to go right behind the driver, and then you’d consider where the driver and passenger would sit. The restriction is how thin and small can you make the battery not to impact on the handling of a sports car. We have people working on the battery technology now.

And how would you respond to autonomous driving; the cars are after all pure driving machines?

Very easily, as with autonomous driving you still have the choice to drive or be driven. So imagine you’re living out in the country, heading towards London you enjoy the car on the more dynamic country roads and let the car drive you in the traffic of the M25.

On the weekend you go to the track, you push the button for normal, fast or crazy fast and the car will take you around the track on the correct lines, shows you the right breaking points and what gear to use on a few laps. Then you take to the wheel and if you make a mistake it will correct you, much like a professional driving teacher. Unlike a real teacher, however, it won’t make mistakes.

With McLaren the relationship is always with you and the car, and this can be an extension of that. As long as you have a bit of control, it isn’t about the car just driving you, and you use this to learn from your car… then that is ideal.

What about inside?

For the autonomous future we will need to look at increasing the interior content. If being driven you may want to learn about the surrounding so we will offer a virtual reality scenario where the driver feels immersed into the surrounding. We are working on modern VR, and for us modern luxury is directly linked to technology.

The fascinating thing about car design is that you do have these parameters, which challenges the design. I love the challenge. It is the job of the designer to think differently.

Nargess Banks

Read our previous reports on McLaren here.

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Design and innovations from Geneva Motor Show

Earlier this month we attended the Geneva Motor Show. The annual event is a great place to observe the future of vehicle design, and even though the offerings are far less conceptual than they used to be, there remains a nice buzz leading up to the show.

The degree of innovation – be it in design, material use and manufacturing methods – is at the highest level in the automotive sector. It never ceases to astonish how much they have to deliver.

Cars are at once a combination of industrial design, product design, architecture, textile design, electronic design… they need to pass stringent regulations, be safe, move efficiently, be comfortable and practical to inhabit, connect our words. Some have to be dynamic, others need to be beautiful sculptures that stand the test of time. All neatly packaged in a relatively small object. It really is industrial beauty.

At Geneva we saw some pretty spectacular examples. McLaren’s 570 GT, for instance, has a refreshing purity of design where form expresses the car’s intention. Form follows performance was also at the heart of Bugatti’s highly exclusive new Chiron. And Aston Martin’s stylish DB11 also abides to this simple yet powerful philosophy.

Read the full review in Wallpaper*

We spoke with the design directors at all three marques. Have a read of what McLaren’s Frank Stephenson has to say on designing the 570 GT and the future of car design for the marque.

Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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Frank Stephenson on the McLaren P1

McLaren Automotive is an exciting company. Here we have a firm created with the sole purpose of making high-performance road cars utilising the Formula One technology of mother company McLaren. Everything it does, every move it makes is meticulously calculated for this goal. In this day and age where profit seems to rule decisions, this degree of integrity is endearing.

The P1 is the latest car to join this small elite family. Frank Stephenson calls it the ‘granddaddy’ of McLaren Automotive. ‘This is the godfather of the brand,’ beams the car designer as he excitedly ushers me towards his latest creation. It is late September and we are at the Paris Motor Show where the company’s second road car, the P1, is about to be unveiled.

This is first time the company is exhibiting at a major European car show and boss Ron Dennis has personally seen to it that the pavilion is flawless. The pristine white exhibition stand is indeed the ideal setting to showcase the bold design and bright orange pallet of this limited-edition hyper car.

The P1 is the successor to the F1 and McLaren Automotive’s pinnacle car. It will sit above the 12C and 12C Spider – the firm’s two other road cars – in terms of both price and performance. It is being hailed as the ultimate road car. ‘Basically it is a racing car with number plates on it,’ Frank quips. Visibly delighted with his first proper project with McLaren, he continues: ‘It was a fabulous experience as these kind of projects seldom come up.’

The P1 doesn’t shy away from visual drama but it gets away with not being brash for its relative small size. It is a low car – the back end comes up to Frank’s kneecap. The biggest challenge was to keep the performance dynamics of the car so that the car isn’t designed in the way you would normally design a car.

Frank explains the process: ‘We took the performance part and almost lay a cloth over it and let it sink. This is a shrink-wrapped design language where you suck the air out of it and it starts to glue to the bulging structure underneath. It is like an athlete where you can see the muscles underneath,’ he says.

A major advantage is the F1 technology the cars get directly from McLaren race cars. ‘All the F1 technology that we put into the road cars are ours. No one else can really say that,’ says Frank.

The P1 will be on the road next year priced around £700,000, and it will look pretty much like the car in Paris. Less than 500 will be built to ensure the car remains limited edition and therefore extra special. Plus McLaren P1 customers will have the opportunity to add their own individual touch.

I ask Frank if he’s had some bizarre orders so far: ‘People have some odd requests like red carbon-fibre, different colour combinations. You try to discourage them but that doesn’t always work.’ He admits that at this extreme end of the market there isn’t much you can do to make the car drive any better. ‘You’re paying so much money, what you’re getting is the best of the best.’

So what’s next on his drawing board, I ask: ‘We’re working on P13, our entry-level sports car to rival the 911,’ he says of Porsche’s popular car, before quickly adding: ‘but we’re building only around 1500 cars so it is much more exclusive.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read my full report from the Paris Motor Show 2012. Also read our previous interviews with Frank Stephenson.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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McLaren: Building a car company

It is fascinating stuff to watch the building of a car company, especially one that will no doubt make supreme road cars to rival those made by German and Italian firms who have been in the business for almost as long as the life of the motor car. This is exactly what McLaren is doing. The maker of winning Formula One cars is now fully committed to building road cars. And the car making side has been given its own specialist company McLaren Automotive virtually built from scratch.

At the heart of McLaren thinking is its boss Ron Dennis. Dennis is the Steve Jobs of the car world – he is a single minded, notoriously perfectionist man with visual sensitivity and an astute understanding of the product and the market. Every part of McLaren, be it the F1 cars, the 12C road car, the McLaren Technology Centre headquarters that is something out of an Ian Fleming novel – even the sculptural flower arrangements there and contemporary art dotted around – bear his fingerprints.

I am here to visit the new car factory McLaren Production Centre, also designed by Foster + Partners, which is almost completed and sits in the same ground as the MTC headquarters. A tunnel will join these two facilities but for now I’m chauffeured across the green land that divides the two Foster buildings.

It took one-and-a-half years to build MPC (read our preview) with a total cost of around £66m. In all fairness the word factory is probably the wrong choice for this stylish and spotless facility. Sadly we are unable to show images or say too much about this building at this stage since this was a sneak preview before the official opening next month, but suffice to say it is one of the most pleasant car making facilities I’ve visited.

To start with there is very little automation on site. The assembly line is devoid of the usual conveyor belt and McLaren has decided against the use of robots – a dominant feature in most modern car factories. What this means is that there is hardly any noise pollution and the premise remains cool thanks to the lack of heat generating equipment and the open-plan layout.

It is also spotless with Dennis specifying special loading trays that hover above the ground so that every area can be cleaned by his army of experts. This is a practice he has inherited from making F1 cars that require this degree of cleanliness. Other notable features include special stands, designed by Dennis himself, to exhibit the components much like a work of art before they are assembled. In fact the building is a sort of homage to the ‘art of car making’.

Currently MPC produces McLaren’s first road car the 12C – 260 of these have already been assembled here with 2,000 expected by 2012. The cars are almost hand made and the numbers are low to keep the novelty factor high. Next year the firm will introduce new models as well as variations on the 12C – a convertible was hinted at – and all these cars will be built at MPC.  The building won’t change until 2020, we are told by operations director Alan Foster, as its highly flexible layout means it will be able to cater for the new models and increased volumes.

Now to the cars, McLaren has been extremely secretive about the 12C’s hotly anticipated siblings which are the work of design director Frank Stephenson (the 12C was already almost complete when he joined the team in 2008). Over coffee back at the HQ he reveals that whilst I was driving the 12C around the track, he signed off the design of two models with Dennis. They will be a high-performance hypercar – a spiritual replacement for the iconic McLaren F1 of the 1990s – and a smaller sports car that will rival the Porsche 911, he teases.

Stephenson is visibly excited about these cars. The design ‘is a big jump from the 12C,’ he says with a glint in his eye, highlighting the word ‘big’. Everything is purposefully built and the cars will be reduced – ‘we are shrink wrapping the car’ as he puts it. ‘It is a new interpretation for aerodynamics,’ he continues referring to his company’s expertise in this area through their F1 cars, ‘something you’ve never seen before.’

Sadly at this stage little else is revealed about the cars – in this competitive market it is essential to keep up a degree of excitement and anticipation.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

The MPC officially opened on the 17 November 2011.

Watch Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton drive the 12C

Read our interviews with Frank Stephenson on the 12C design and interiors. Also see the link to our preview of MPC published in Building.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas

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Frank Stephenson on McLaren interior design

Frank Stephenson is car designer with an exceptional resume that includes working at BMW where he penned the 2001 Mini, Maserati where he designed the MC12, Ferrari where he worked on the F430, and Fiat where he almost saved the company with the Fiat 500.

Since heading up McLaren Automotive design department in 2008, he has shown us the first road car to be born out of the car making arm of the F1 company, the MP4-12C, and has hinted at where he intends to go with the marque’s future direction: an exclusive portfolio of high-performance cars that aim to challenge Ferrari, Lamborghini and co. Design Talks caught up with the designer to discuss car interiors…

Design Talks . How does design impact on driver behaviour?

Frank Stephenson . Helping drivers behave better is definitely part of our responsibility. We are always looking for ways to improve the experience – and the best way to do this is by making your product easy to use. If having a simple, well designed interior means the driver is more focused and therefore driving better, that’s ideal because they can get more from the car.

DT . What is McLaren’s approach?

FS . The interface between driver and vehicle should be as seamless as possible, with minimal impact or distraction, allowing for good driver behaviour. Our interfaces are designed based on input from the world’s top test and racing drivers and our F1 resources. The driver should be totally focused on the ever changing road or race track environments.

DT . How do you achieve the best ergonomically designed interface?

FS . You have to immerse yourself in the driver environment. As designers we have to understand the uncompromised McLaren driving requirements to make the interface simple, clear and efficient.

We achieve this by using seating bucks. Seating bucks are full size models of the interior where the controls are laid out and positioned to find the optimum locations – similar to the way you lay out your desk at home, with the most important and frequently used items closest to hand.

Once the layout is determined, a visual hierarchy can be set up. This can be done using any or a combination of the following: colour, light, material and input method (mechanical or touch sensitive – hidden until required).

The controls of the driver environment, whether they be mechanical, touch or voice activated, have to be at the drivers ‘fingertips’, without distracting but only enhancing the extreme driving experience.

DT . The car’s dashboard seems to be increasingly taking inspiration from trends within the world of electronic gadgets and devices, but who is leading this trend?

FS . Consumer drive is leading the car companies to use interfaces that are modelled on the latest wave of innovative electronic gadgets. Consumers want well designed and simple interfaces that are logical and easy to use; people today prefer not to read instruction manuals.

DT . Do customers more easily accept an interior that is modern and uses high tech material than they would of the exterior sculpture of the car?

FS . Yes. I believe this is due to the personal electronics we use in our daily lives. Personal electronics and product design have a very fast evolution, every few months they become faster, smaller, lighter and simpler to use.

The car industry cannot respond as quickly due to our product life cycles being up to six years, so when technologies make it into our cars, people are usually already familiar with them; and this is why we are more accepting of high tech interfaces in our cars.

In terms of accepting high tech interior materials, this is down to the interior not being as highly visible in the same way the exterior of a car is. With the exterior people can judge your taste or lack of it. This is why people are often more conservative when it comes to choosing the exterior look and colour.

DT. Do you see general interior design trends emerging within the car industry?

FS . I think the general trend within the car industry is definitely the ‘less is more’ design philosophy. The challenge for the mainstream industry is, however, designing their own interface to be brand specific.

Other key future trends in the automotive industry will be the minimisation of size and weight, improving packaging efficiency. High tech organic and synthetic materials will replace traditional materials such as leather and wood, opening up a wider selection of finishes for highly customised interiors.

DT. How far can a brand like McLaren Automotive push the boundaries of automotive design?

FS . We push it to the edge of the edge! McLaren is all about innovation and cutting edge technology. We use our F1 expertise and resources to ensure that we stay at the forefront of supercar design. Our challenge is to apply the relevant technologies in a way that enhances the complete driving experience.

DT . Do you see the interior of the next generation of cars, especially zero-emission ones, becoming increasingly high tech and digital in outlook?

FS . Yes, a lot of the latest show cars are very high tech in this respect. I think as an industry and as individual brands we have to do what suits our target customers.

For some brands, a combination of touch sensitive and voice activated controls, along with digital displays, will be the answer. In supercars aimed at enthusiasts the interactive element of mechanical feedback will still be very important and highly valued, after all we’re still talking about emotional and mechanical products.

DT . With the future driverless car, when the vehicle almost becomes a gadget, how far can all this be pushed?

FS . The technology already exists to enable the driver to become the passenger. In the future – if the autonomous car takes off – I can imagine that they will have almost no visual interface.

Perhaps the car will be able to read your thoughts and body language, body temperature and so on – adapting the interior environment by using colour, smell, sound, light and touch to suit your preferences.

Read more on the McLaren 12C design and on a recent student competition with a Turin design school to for a hybrid McLaren concept for 2020. Also read my interview with Frank Stephenson regarding the new Foster designed McLaren Production Centre here.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas

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