The MP4-12C stopped in the UAE on a world tour before its summer launch. Neil Vorano talks to the proud design director, Frank Stephenson.
McLaren's design director lives the dream
McLaren made a two-day stop in the UAE this week showing its upcoming supercar, the MP4-12C, for the first time to media and private guests here - part of a Middle East tour that is ultimately part of a broad world jaunt for the company's new car. The sports car will go on sale next summer and will cost about Dh900,000 here in the UAE, selling through Al Habtoor Motors.
And the sleek, low sports car did not disappoint its guests. In the flesh, it looks smaller than its competitors, with a skin that seems to have been draped over the underpinnings; wide, gaping air ducts on the sides; and a turbocharged, 3.8L, 592hp V8 lurking under glass behind the cockpit. The doors open out and up to reveal a snug but comfortable cockpit; the whole package is stunning but not as overwhelming as other supercars can be. But don't call it boring - at least not in front of Frank Stephenson.
"What we wanted was a car that didn't really shout McLaren," says the company's head of design. "We were going with the more subdued look. If anyone says the car isn't dramatic, I challenge you to put it outside and see how many people tell you otherwise."
Stephenson shouldn't be too bothered by all the travelling on the world tour. He was born in Morocco to a Norwegian father and Spanish mother; he moved to Istanbul, then Spain (where he finished school and raced motorcycles) and went on to design school in California. His work résumé includes stops at BMW, Ferrari, Maserati and Fiat. So you could say he's a pretty well-travelled guy.
But working at McLaren has given him a different perspective on his trade - instead of other car companies creating a concept and engineering afterward, McLaren developed the chassis and underpinnings before it even thought of a body.
"It's really a challenge," says Stephenson. "Most car companies sell high volumes, so they want the cars to be attractive before anything else, for people to connect emotionally with the product. But here, we really did design from the inside out, where you almost don't even style the car, you get these hard points where everything has to be, and it's minimalised.
"It can be stifling if you don't have maximum creativity. Then again, if you have maximum creativity, you'll design a car that can't be built. The engineers will come in and say, 'We can't do what these crazy designers want' and you'll end up with a car that doesn't even look like the original design.
"But those are car engineers. We have racing engineers. They're more free in thought, and they are able to be just as innovative as the car designers, so they're used to ideas because they're used to making 200 to 300 per car per race. They are always being as innovative as a car designer is creative, so you have that mutual spark. Good for us, good for them: they're hungry to do new stuff, we're hungry for new ideas. We come up with ideas that are more engineered than designed."
McLaren, being a race company before it began its venture into road cars, put the emphasis on car dynamics and engineering when developing the MP4-12C. It's the third road car the company has ever built; the first being the F1 in the 1990s, and the most recent being the Mercedes-McLaren SLR, which ended production last year. Mark Harrison, the head of McLaren's communications, says the SLR was a good learning opportunity for the car firm, in what and what not to do.
"It's done great things for us as a car company because we had to build it to Mercedes's set quality standards, to a level they've never set before. And McLaren's attitude was 'well, that's where we're going to start, so let's do better than that'. If your aim is to be better than the standard set for you, then the standard is almost the safety.
"Fundamentally, the whole programme is different. Mercedes produced a design study for an auto show; that went down very well. They came to us because we had a relationship in F1, and asked if we could build it for them. So you start with a design and you engineer within that design, and that's far more difficult to build that way, rather than start with nothing.
"What we're doing with the 12C is we literally started with the driver, just as you would do with a racing car. And you ask, 'Where is the best place for the driver to sit, where are the pedals, where is the steering wheel, where is the windscreen, how big does the windscreen have to be so this car is easy to drive on the track and on the road'. So rather than start with the shell and work in, we've started with the driver and worked out."
Because the SLR was sold through Mercedes dealers, this is McLaren's first attempt at a dealer network. The company is using its Formula One heritage as a selling point, but that doesn't mean McLaren is relying on it.
"Europe has a good Formula One background," says Harrison. "The Middle East has a good knowledge of F1 and of McLaren. As well, one of McLaren's shareholders is Bahrain, so Ron Denis [McLaren's executive chairman] has always had a strong relationship with the Middle East as far as demand is concerned.
"The ME was a good market to go to; Asia Pacific as well. We're launching in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney; three of those four have an F1 Grand Prix.
"The big challenge will be America, which has very little F1 heritage. And they would be our biggest market. So that was an interesting challenge, to see what happened. But the recognition is phenomenal. There are enough people who know F1, and the people who own Ferraris or Lamborghinis or Porsches are real car enthusiasts, so they know about McLaren. They know about it from the F1 [the road car]. So North America is really strong without F1 connections."
One selling point is McLaren's famous engineering and attention to detail, which aren't all about performance: because all components bolt onto its carbon fibre tub, the company says, the car will be easier to repair and maintain than other cars in its class. It also has a large boot (for its class), door sills that are incorporated into the bottom of the doors - making ingress and egress easier - very few visible buttons in the sparse interior and, shockingly for a supercar, cup holders.
Because the 12C's chassis holds all its structural integrity, a convertible version is a probability. After the 12C, which goes on sale next summer, McLaren is already developing two more road cars, a hypercar (a level above the 12C) and an entry-level model. The company says it will release one model each year, with sales eventually aimed for 4,000 per year.
Stephenson is already at work on the other two cars, though work is hardly a term he will use.
"I'm doodling the whole time. Honestly, I feel like I should be doing something right now. Every meeting, I draw. When you're drawing, you really don't just sit down and say 'I'm working'. Designers basically just draw the whole time; at a movie you're drawing, watching TV you're drawing, in the bathroom you're drawing.
"Because it's fun. It's like singing for some people, singing in the shower. It's not a job; it's amazing that they're paying me to do this. It's a childhood dream; I've wanted to do this since I've been a kid. Thanks, but I'd be doing it anyways."