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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New cars: BMW 6 Series Gran Coupé

As consumers we are almost spoilt for choice when it comes to car buying – never in the history of the automobile has there been so many varieties on the market. Much of the new breed of models has been created with some of the new, and highly lucrative, markets in mind where customer needs and desires tend to be different to the more established ones.

This is where BMW’s new 6 Series Gran Coupé fits in – the marque’s first four-door coupé that sets out to combine the elegant and sporty appearance of a classic grand tourer with the added space and functionality offered by an executive saloon. This niche car will join the premium 6 Series family that currently includes the two-door Coupé and Convertible.

That Gran Coupé is based on Concept CS, shown to us at the Shanghai Motor Show in 2007. It was a handsome design that was promised as the 8 Series production car, plans for which were sadly axed in the economic recession. Keen to do something related to the CS, design director Adrian Van Hooydonk and his Munich team revisited the design years later concluding it as the Gran Coupé.

On the road this is a very handsome car, immediately capturing the main design cues of a classic grand tourer coupé – elongated bonnet and sweeping roofline. It is also a smooth operator as we were to discover when we drove the car from the BMW headquarters in Bracknell, to the heart of Champagne country, an overnight stop over at Reims, and up through glorious lush Alsace to Strasberg.

Suffering from a cold, I was impressed by how quite and comfortable the cabin was; the smooth chassis offering the steady ride of a grand tourer both on the motorway and through snaky mountain roads of Alsace.

It is also a practical car with a very spacious cabin that sits four adults comfortably. The wheelbase has been stretched so that it is 113mm longer than the 6 Series Coupé on which it is based. With the rear seats folded, the 460-litre luggage area expands to 1,265 litres. Even with four seats in use the boot will accommodate a couple of golf bags, while an optional through-loading hatch allows for a pairs of skis – for the impromptu sporting activity that is.

This being BMW, the car comes with a host of luxuries as standard, but you can also specify some extras such as a Bang & Olufsen sound system developed specially for the 6 Series. It creates a natural sound from 16 speakers distributed around the cabin. And put to the test, the sound quality is pretty outstanding.

The customer who requires even more personalisation can opt for BMW Individual, which is basically the equivalent of a personal shopper for your car so you can choose your own colour and trim combination in the cabin and mix up your own exterior paint. All this, off course, within limits.

The Gran Coupé is a niche car with BMW hoping to sell just 700 in the first year. Purists may frown but in the real world, and in the larger consumer market, some customers want to have the best of both worlds. Yet away from the marketing talk, there is genuinely something compelling in the idea of a coupé that marries this evocative, carefree sporty look with the practicalities of a larger car.

BMW isn’t alone in thinking up such a package. Audi’s A7 and Mercedes-Benz’s CLS, as well as Porsche’s Panamera and Aston Martin’s Rapide to some extent, also target the young-at-heart (and fairly well off) who’s lifestyle requires a more practical automobile layout – hence the four doors, roomy rear compartment and large boot.

This is something that no doubt customers in markets like China will be drawn to; but equally in Europe and especially in the US, the package will find admirers. After all this allows for a bit of frivolous fun, in an otherwise responsible adult.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

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