If there could ever be such a thing as a car designer’s car designer, then Frank Stephenson is that person. Over the past three decades, he has designed Ferraris and Fiats, Minis and Maseratis, and now he’s at work on an entirely new form of transportation: a jet-electric vertical take-off aircraft built by a German company called Lillium.
At some point in the 2020s, you’ll be able to hire it like an Uber for short-haul journeys such as Heathrow to Piccadilly. The idea, says Stephenson, is to “move journeys from the ground into the sky”.
Not that cars are finished, or anything like it. Stephenson is most famous in the UK as the designer of BMW’s recreated Mini – the car launched in 2001 whose towering success continues – and when we meet in central London, he spends a large part of our time together sketching a proposal for an electric city car after the photographer rather airily asks him to “draw something”.
It soon emerges that Stephenson draws all the time; for him, it’s a cross between recreation and a creative release. Others of his age (he has just turned 59) have long since moved to design management, rarely picking up a pencil and spending their days directing others. But for Stephenson, the job has always entailed direct creativity. “I’ve never been able to resist getting my hands dirty,” he says. “I draw without thinking. It’s my hand that seems to do the work. Other designers work this way too. Whatever comes out, comes out.”
This compulsion to create cars has resulted in an extraordinary output since Stephenson’s formal design education ended at ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, in 1986. Among his hits are the stand-out design features of the Ford Escort RS Cosworth (especially the biplane rear wing), BMW’s new Mini, the Ferrari F430, the Maserati MC12 racer, the latest Fiat 500, plus the McLaren 12C and P1. He has worked for car companies nearly all his life but decided to leave McLaren after nine years towards the end of 2017 to open his own studio. “I’d been working a long time on the products nobody really needs,” he says. “I’ve always believed you should work to make the world a better place, and perhaps there was a better way of doing that.”