Senna by McLaren: When design follows performance

McLaren Automotive‘s latest car is Senna, a driver-focused road-legal track car that pushes the limits of vehicle design. It will be built in very limited numbers at the Foster-designed factory in England next year. I was lucky to be treated to a sneak preview of this car earlier in the week, and it really is very, very special. Read my full review here.

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Frank Stephenson discusses McLaren 12C

Few contemporary car designers boast a resume as impressive as Frank Stephenson’s.  Since graduating in vehicle design from the prestigious Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, he has designed the first generation 2001 Mini, BMW X5, Maserati MC12, Ferrari F430 and Fiat 500.

Frank Stephenson and the 12C

Stephenson took on the position of styling director at McLaren Automotive in 2008. The first road car designed for the new company, the MP4-12C, was already underway when he joined, but he has been responsible for fine tuning the design, as well as mapping out the upcoming products.

We caught up with him at the futuristic and pristine Foster-designed McLaren Technology Centre near London in Woking, where he resides until the bespoke car plant is completed next year.

‘The 12C was already conceived before I arrived so I couldn’t start from scratch but at least I could give it that look to give it the individuality,’ he says. ‘My task was to find out what kind of impression we should have with this car. Does it have to be bold, quite, strong – it was all up for grabs.’

Stephenson had worked for BMW for 11 years and the Fiat Group for almost six – both marques heavy with automotive history. McLaren’s road car making history is, on the other hand, pretty limited – there was the McLaren F1 (coined the ‘ultimate road car’) built as a one-off in limited numbers in the 90s. And there was the partnership with Mercedes-Benz, the fruit of which was the SLR super car – both production and partnership ended last year.

The McLaren MP4-12C carThe McLaren MP4-12C car

‘If you work with a car company that already exists you have to respect its history and heritage so that any new product is genetically linked. You can’t really break away and do your own signature,’ he says. ‘With McLaren we didn’t have this kind of history.’

‘McLaren Automotive is not a repeat of what we did in the 90s,’ he concedes. Neither is it a kit car firm. ‘This is a real company with a future strategy.’ The firm has a 12-year plan in place starting with the 12C, which will go on sale globally next year. Expect a new model, including three 12C variants, coming off the production line every year for the next seven years. ‘How many times does a real automotive company get started?’ enthuses Stephenson.

High tech design

The 12C is a wedged-shaped two-seater V8 sports car. What’s unique about it is that it is essentially built around a lightweight carbon fibre tub that only really exists in F1 and hyper cars – those that cost over £500,000. The 12C will be priced around the £150,000 mark. Therefore one of the main challenges for McLaren was to drastically reduce the production cost of the tub down. The one-piece mould engineers specifically for this project has managed to reduced the production cost of a single tub from around £100,000 in a F1 car, and £30,000 on the SLR, to just £6,000 in the 12C.

The lightweight tub in the McLaren MP4-12C car

The tub is light and helps weight reduction and therefore fuel efficiency. Plus, it is a unique feature for the 12C, which is hoping to compete against the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the world. ‘This is our principle,’ notes the designer. ‘If you can introduce new technology and let it cascade down, eventually it will enter the mass market and cars will get better for it.’

McLaren design DNA, says Stephenson, is to be very purposeful and efficient, and the styling essentially comes through that language. ‘We are not there to make a pretty face and then trying to make it work. It is the other way around – you optimise the car dynamically, and then beautify it in such a way that it doesn’t lose any of the function.’

Ron Dennis at the launch of McLaren Automotive

In the 12C ‘form and function work together,’ says Stephenson. ‘Every product has to look like it does what it says on the tin.’ Design is aero driven, which means creating the lowest possible wind drag and using light materials. ‘It is what it is – we haven’t over stylised it. The car is without ornamentation and surfacing.’

As expected there will be a wide degree of customisation for interior colour combination and trim levels. And the 12C is a very high-tech car, kitted out with the latest gadgets including three cameras in and around the car so you can record, download and make a movie of your track day.

Competing in niche world market

McLaren is aiming at a world market that includes the established markets as well as some of the emerging ones, most notably South Africa, China and India – its relatively reasonable price undercutting some of its rivals. ‘We will have entry-level super cars. The cars will be exclusive which is what will make us special. You don’t want to oversell as it loses its bottom purpose,’ he says.

Image of what the McLaren Automotive retail stores will look like

Stephenson doesn’t think McLaren will necessarily steal Ferrari or Lamborghini customers. ‘I think what we will get is customers who know about cars,’ he says. ‘It will be people who understand technology and are car enthusiasts as well as those who want something different.’

He warns: ‘We are not a start-up company. But, you cannot put all your eggs in one basket and hope to be safe. If we do spread out to the automotive range, it will take technology, innovation and the advantages we have learnt from F1 and let that cascade down into our product range.’

With future McLaren cars, Stephenson says there will be a family identity but not a heavy one. ‘This locks you in creatively,’ he notes. It is with the post 12C range that the designer has the chance to put in what he has always wanted to into design. ‘And we have the potential to create something really nice in an intelligent way,’ he says.

Lewis Hamilton testing the 12C

‘This is about new ways to do a car. This may sound hyper but if you knew what was inside my brain you would understand it’s not just words but being considered the crazy one at work and do cars that people will say why didn’t I think about that.’

Read about the bespoke McLaren Automotive Centre designed by architect Foster + Partners in our review published in Building.

More from Frank Stephenson…

On the 2001 Mini:

‘BMW wanted a Mini for the 21st century. They said it is too important a project and we cannot get this wrong. So they asked us to produce 15 models between Munich, California, the UK and an external team in Italy – this is three times more than normally done for a new car.

‘We were celebrating after finishing our model. It was 4am when I took a final look at the model all painted and dressed up. Then I just froze behind the car – our modeller had forgotten to put in an exhaust pipe. Everyone was flat on their backs by then but I looked at the Colin modeller who was drinking a Budwiser so I took the can, cut off the bottom half put a hole in the bottom of the can and shoved it in the clay. The next day Chris Bangle says to me ‘congratulations Frank but never ever waste a modellers time making a detailed exhaust pipe’! The first Mini got the same design as that original exhaust pipe.’

On the dream Ferrari job:

‘I was working at BMW when I got a call from someone to come to Turin for a job prospect. At the end of lunch the two guys said we’re from Fiat and have been instructed to offer you to be the design director or Ferrari and Maserati. I said you don’t have a design director and they said exactly. I signed up immediately.’

On working with Chris Bangle:

‘Chris Bangle was really interesting to work with. On Mondays he always had some amazing ideas. We need people like him to inject some real changes. When BMW came out with the second-generation Mini I hated it. The one I did was like a link so that they wouldn’t get upset with us meddling with an icon, the one after could have broken the bubble and gone crazy but what did they do? Nothing. They lost it – made it bigger and too comfortable. It needs to be Dennis The Menace on wheels. It has become a corporate decision.’

For more on the development visit McLaren Automotive.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks