frank stephenson

We asked a supercar designer for his favourite automotive style statements

The former design director of Ferrari, Maserati and McLaren tells us what touches and trademarks in the industry have most impressed him

If you’ve not yet seen Chasing Perfect on Netflix, then get it watched. It’s not like you don’t have the time. A retrospective on the high-octane, super-stylish work and life of automobile designer Frank Stephenson, it is a celebration of the art of supercar design  — and rare a peek inside the head of one of the industry’s most prolific professionals.

To say that Stephenson has put his stamp on the industry would be an understatement. The American-British designer has held the position of ‘Director of Design’ at Ferrari, McLaren, Maserati, Fiat, the MINI Group, Lancia and Alfa Romeo during his varied and acclaimed career. He’s designed such super supercars as the Ferrari F430, the McLaren P1 and the 720S. In other words, he knows a thing or two about these sophisticated speedsters.

That’s why we decided to ask him: what are the most iconic design features and elements in supercar history? As a designer, which touches and trademarks have stood out most memorably for Stephenson?

“That’s a tough question,” says the designer, “because there are so many great supercars throughout history! My favourite overall supercar, for its absolute purity of function and harmonious form-blending, would have to be the McLaren F1. With that uncompromised central driving position, it’s the non-aspirated king of supercars. Of the cars I’ve designed, without a doubt it’s the very limited edition Maserati MC12 because of its visual presence and stunning level of performance.”

For the ultimate power statement, the full-width rear wing of the Ferrari F40

Ferrari F40

The first specific supercar design feature Stephenson deems worth of celebration comes speeding out of Maranello, Italy. Unsurprisingly a Ferrari, the F40 began development as a continuation of the 288 GTO — and its body was designed by Pininfarina, crafted from Kevlar, carbon fibre, and aluminium for strength. But one particular piece of styling stands out for Stephenson.

“The Ferrari F40 full-width rear wing,” says the designer, going bold and brash for his first supercar style statement. “This feature was the ultimate power statement and it actually helped to keep the F40’s rear end glued to the ground at high speed.”

For an unbeatable supercar silhouette, the Lamborghini Countach

Lamborghini Countach

Styled by Marcello Gandini of the Bertone design studio, the 1974 Countach was Gandini’s follow-up to the Miura. In other words, it had big tyre tracks to fill. But, after experimenting with a new, more angular and geometric design language, the Italian landed on the crisp, wedge-shaped design; a jigsaw of trapezoids drenched in cool. It certainly impressed Stephenson.

“I believe that for any shape to be considered iconic,” explains the designer, “it should take just three drawn lines or less to recognise it. That is certainly the case with the exotic Lamborghini Countach. Its aggressive, low, wedge-shaped profile is a once-seen; never-forgotten masterpiece. And it was rightfully named “Countach”, which, in the Italian dialect of Piedmontese, is a profane expletive that’s used to convey startled astonishment. Very suiting!”

For a subtle move that changed car design forever, the Maserati 3200 GT tail light

Maserati 3200 GT

As supercar designs go, the Maserati 3200 GT isn’t your typical head-turner. A product of the overly curvy late-90s, it hasn’t aged too well and you’d be hard-pushed to spot one on the road these days. Its production ran for four years, during which time its styling and bodywork — the creation of Moncalieri-based design house Italdesign Giugiaro — was favourably received. But one element of this so-so supercar was more important than the sum of its parts, and has since made history.

“The Maserati 3200 GT’s boomerang tail light,” says Stephenson, “was the feature that first introduced a free-flowing tail light shape. It was also the first LED tail light. In turn, that started the trend of distinctively recognisable rear tail light designs in supercars, and then cars, the world over.”

For an unapologetically performance-led design, the McLaren F1’s front seat

McLaren F1

Stephenson has already admitted that this is his favourite ever supercar — or his favourite that he didn’t design. So there had to be a reason for his choice, and this is it. Despite boasting a complete carbon fibre reinforced polymer chassis, dihedral ‘butterfly’ doors and tyres designed and developed for the McLaren F1 team, Stephenson is most impressed by that solitary, central front seat.

“The central driving position of the McLaren F1,” the designer extols, “is an uncompromised feature that puts the driver in the ideal ergonomic position to both drive — and control — such a high performance vehicle.”

For an instantly recognisable ‘face’, the 2004 Ferrari F430

2004 Ferrari F430

As with the profile of the Lamborghini Countach above, the Ferrari F430 is immediately recognisable — only this time from a front angle. Designed by Pininfarina and Frank Stephenson himself, the car’s styling was revised from that of its predecessor, the Ferrari 360, to improve aerodynamic efficiency. And, while the tail lights evoked the Enzo’s, and the side mirrors resembled those of the Testarossa, it is the car’s ‘face’ Stephenson is most proud of.

“The basic architecture of a low slung supercar tends to give this type of vehicle a very similar stance,” he explains. “Generally, they are low and wide. So the responsibility of a distinct and unique design character falls typically on the headlamps and front air intake. In that regard, I think that the ‘face’ of the 2004 Ferrari F430 is as distinctive as they come. It’s immediately recognisable as the heir apparent of the 1961 Ferrari 156 Sharknose Formula One car, both having been designed to emphasise the beauty of excellent function.”

For an innovation as beautiful as it is technical, the McLaren Speedtail rear aileron

McLaren Speedtail

Do you know what an aileron is? No? Well allow us to enlighten you. It’s a small wing or flap, usually attached to an aircraft to control even the smallest of aerobatic manoeuvres. But some cars, some really fast cars, need these technical touches as well. For one, the McLaren Speedtail, an Ultimate Series Hyper-GT whose rear aileron is something of a mechanical marvel.

“The McLaren Speedtail’s carbon fibre rear aileron,” says Stephenson of the hydraulically actuated active feature, sculpted from active carbon fibre and sitting flush in the rear clamshell, “is seamless. It’s a feature that reduces mechanical complexity and weight by being the first automotive application of shape-shifting design.”

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