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.

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Sustainable cars: BMW i8

The Scottish Highlands is an unusual destination to test the new i8. BMW‘s hybrid performance car is a highly advanced piece of machinery – it’s complex mechanisms hidden beneath an almost futuristic shell. This remote part of Scotland has an untamed beauty where nature is at its purist; and as our small charter plane lands in Inverness, it feels a million miles away from the high-tech world where the i8 was born. This is one of the most daring cars of late – certainly in the sustainable category – and I am seriously excited to step inside and explore.

There has been quite a long prelude to this day. The initial Vision EfficientDynamics study was shown to us almost five years ago. It was revolutionary in design. It broke away from conventional automobile aesthetic introducing non-automotive materials and applications to the exterior and interior. It had a pioneering LifeDrive architecture, looked futuristic, spacey, exciting. The i8 production car retains the drama – perhaps not the full intensity but enough to command attention.

The proportions are that of a classic sports car; elongated bonnet, stretched sexy roofline, short overhangs, long 2,800mm wheelbase, and big 20-inch wheels. The i8 though looks unique with its overlapping and interlocking surfaces and visible aerodynamic aids – especially as you catch sight of the rear fender on the wheel arch from the wing mirrors. It has playful scissor doors that open forwards and upwards, and intricately-designed full LED slender lights at the front and rear.

 

 

‘The i8 delivers a lot with very little emissions, but with great if not better emotion,’ says Benoit Jacob. A little while ago I caught up with the head of BMW i design who explained that he encourages his team to take a completely fresh approach to designing the i cars. For the i8, they studied gliders and sailing boats that move with natural energy. He told me it is designed ‘by the wind not the design team; it is dictated by nature’ and as a result this is a highly efficiently aerodynamic sculpture.

Inside is slightly tilted towards the driver in BMW fashion and the occupants sit low as you would expect in a sports car. The leather trim, treated with natural substances, covers the slim seats, extending to parts of the centre console, overlapping instrument panel and interior door panels. Elements of the carbon-fibre passenger cell, so much at the heart of this car, are exposed as you (try to) artfully enter and exit this low car via the scissor doors.

The plug-in hybrid runs on a turbocharged three-cylinder engine-electric motor duo with a combined 357hp and 155-mph top speed, yet the i8 boasts 135mpg efficiency figures. Handling is agile and steering is precise, but as much as this is a performance car, it goes beyond a sports car. Once the doors are shut, you are cocooned in a delicate, quite space where you can then choose how to drive: glide in the city on the electric motor or kick the throttle for a completely different experience on the open road.

The contrast is incredible as you switch from Comfort to Sport mode. The instrument panel switches from light blue to hot red, the roaring engine note kicks in, and you as a driver take on a new role yet the interior environment somehow takes the element of aggression out. Jacob is very much aware of the importance of directing driver behaviour in these i cars. He feels his role here is ‘to design the behaviour of the people driving these cars’. After all sustainable driving needs to be about more than saving energy.

Like many other carmakers, BMW feels there is still a valid case for investing in sports cars; that the desire will not wane. And there should be a place for sports cars in the age of sustainability – carmaker just need to create them more intelligently. We experience very little emission and greater emotion as we drive through the Highlands, reflecting the weather as the sky dramatically transforms from piercing sunshine, to torrential rain. There is hardly a car in sight. We are almost drifting in near silence celebrating the environment.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

More about the drive here BMW i8 hybrid performance car.

Read our review of the BMW i3 here and our previous reports leading up to the BMW i brand in Wallpaper*.

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Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

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Jaguar Project 7 at Goodwood

‘We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,’ F. T. Marinetti wrote in the 1909 Futurist manifesto. ‘A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire…’

Speed. There is something at once modern, advanced, sexy, almost superhuman about it – notwithstanding its usurping by Mussolini’s fascist movement having taken the manifesto as theirs. Speed symbolises progress, and in the epoch of sustainability, it is perhaps not getting quite the glory it deserves. I can never forget the sheer thrill of taking the Shanghai Transrapid, the magnetic levitation train and the word’s fastest at 268 mph. Your heart almost stops a beat or two.

The Goodwood Festival of Speed (26-29 June) celebrates speed in its rawest form. The annual hill climb sees drivers race to complete an uphill course – and it is quite spectacular watching the parade of exotic metal, as RAF Red Arrows perform some stunning air acrobatics over the picturesque Goodwood House in West Sussex, UK.

This was the ideal setting for Jaguar to reveal its latest production car, the F-type Project 7, a high-performance model and the production version of Project 7, a concept shown at Goodwood last year. Project 7 is a tribute to the Jaguar D-Type, which turns 60 this year. The racing car was produced between 1954 and 1957, featured an innovative highly aerodynamic monocoque construction and won the Le Mans 24-jour race on three occasions.

Project 7 will be made in limited numbers – only 250 have been promised so far. It has two seats, a simple removable fabric roof, and a distinctive asymmetrical hump at the rear. It has a lower windscreen than the F-Type on which it’s based and a carbon-fibre bodykit, which together with other innovative features, helps shed 80kg of weight. With 567bhp from a 5.0-litre supercharged V8 engine, Project 7 is the most powerful Jaguar road car.

It is the offspring of a newly created Special Vehicle Operations team. If it all sounds a little 007, then I suspect this was intentional. Half the charm of the brand is its association with all things British, the charming old school kind. The SVO team will be developing not only tuned versions of production models but also classic cars like the upcoming lightweight and super powerful special-edition E-type. And we cannot wait to put some of these to the test.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our Jaguar reviews here, and about Jaguar’s installation at Clerkenwell Design Week 2014.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK 
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

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Driving pleasure: Lotus Elise

There are few cars built today that offer a uniquely special driving experience. The Lotus Elise does. Here we have a car that has been stripped down to its bare bones for pure driving pleasure. The reaction is simply visceral. This small two-seater forms a special bond with its driver. It is quite delicious.

The Elise is definitely not a car for everyone. It isn’t a pragmatic choice by any stretch of the imagination. It’s extremely low, almost on ground level, so getting in and out is a little tricky. I’d advice against even attempting to do so with the cloth roof in place. It helps to be agile, and not too tall. Your knees need to be in good condition, and having flexible limbs is a big bonus. There is no elegant way of doing this but I found a little hop whilst holding onto the frame works.

Then there is the roof. This small cloth structure is mechanically operated and takes a few takes to master. You unclick the sides, roll it up and store it behind the driver and passenger seats. The problem is that this area is tiny and you need to get the roll as compact as possible to fit it in. Once safely inside, the bucket seats are surprisingly comfy; they hug the frame and as I was to discover first hand whilst in the passenger seat, are the perfect car seat for a power nap on route.

The stripped down cockpit offers only the bare essentials – there is not much of a glove compartment, the stereo is a simple CD player/radio and the boot is a petit bucket size slot at the rear next to the engine. Yet instead of taking away from the driving experience, the utilitarian interior design – where form really does follow function – only enhances the driving pleasure.

Once I got used to driving so low down – visibility is a little issue for someone of my 5”2 stature – the Elise really connects with the road. You feel every bump, every stone, every spec of dirt… but that only adds value to the adventure. Turn the engine on and the Elise S starts with a lovely sounding roar. The steering is unassisted and responsive, the suspension pretty obedient for a light, low car like this. You can have a great deal of fun on snaky B-road where we took the car for a drive.

The sportier S version we drove is powered by a 1.8-litre Toyota four-cylinder assisted by a supercharger. Power is at 217bhp with 184lb ft of torque at 4,600rpm, which makes it easy to drive the little Lotus quickly. And it’s not too thirsty at 37.5mpg.

The Elise S is a no frills machine that offers pure driving pleasure in a way that some other cars seemed to have forgotten how to do. It is a truly thrilling driving experience.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | www.d-talks.com | Bookshopwww.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas