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On March 19, 1969, on a bustling street in Casablanca, a nine year-old boy by the name of Frank Stephenson was walking along with his father when destiny took over. That was when a Ferrari 246 Dino GT went buzzing by, leaving the young man in awe, changing everything. “I know exactly when that was down to the date. I am not joking,” he recalls, because that was the day Stephenson knew he wanted to design cars.
Fast-forward 36 years. Stephenson has had one of the most envied careers in the business, having designed the world-famous reincarnation of the Mini for BMW and being appointed the first in-house design chief for Ferrari and Maserati, all before the age of 45. After penning Maserati’s MC12 racer and Ferrari’s F430, Stephenson was transferred to Turin, where he now creates future vehicles for Fiat and Lancia brands, as well as the Italian auto maker’s commercial vehicle business.
So, what’s it like to go from designing exotic dream cars for Ferrari to everyday Fiats and commercial trucks? “One is a playground and the other is very serious work. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum,” Stephenson admits. Developing the next Ferrari or Maserati doesn’t require designers or engineers to pinch pennies. Want carbon fiber chassis and aluminum structural members? No problem. Fat chance if you think that same theory will work at euro-pinching Fiat: “At Fiat it is tough, it really is. You can’t go crazy and ask for anything. One euro costs one euro at Fiat and they have to make sure it is well spent.”
Having joined the Fiat team in April 2005, Stephenson had little influence on the auto maker’s most crucial model, the Grande Punto, which was introduced at the Frankfurt show in September. All he was able to do was tweak a few pieces of the interior, including the final materials selected for the cabin. Not being able to have direct control over the Punto design puts Stephenson in somewhat of a jam, since its design is one of the building blocks for Fiat’s future. “The Punto has a lot of nice design features; it’s a car that shows a lot of energy...an energetic design that also starts to show more of the Italian-ness about it. It’s definitely not a French car or a Japanese car,” he says, as he defends the vehicle, pointing to the Punto’s “sensual” hips, high-mounted headlamps and form-fitting rear end. One eerie design theme on the Punto is the Maserati-esque front fascia, complete with its nearly identical grille: “A lot of people have said that and it does sting a bit when somebody says your child looks like somebody else’s, but at least they say it looks like a Maserati.”
Stephenson says the first Fiat to display his direct design influence will be the upcoming Stilo, which is being engineered by Magna Styer. The supplier was chosen to develop the vehicle as a result of the tight 20-month development target outlined by Fiat’s hard-charging CEO, Sergio Marchionne, who himself convinced Stephenson that designing Fiats would be a prized career move. “Marchionne decided that design has to have a strong influence, strong enough to count as much as engineering. If you look at what sells it is design, and design carries the family jewels of the company. I think the last few generation of Fiats haven’t had designs that really convinced people because they were unemotional, not Italian, and under quality. Now, we’re completely turning the table on those.”
As if turning the Fiat brand around weren’t enough to fill his plate, Stephenson also has to bring some direction to the troubled Lancia brand, which has some of the oddest looking vehicles in Europe. Lancia is supposed to stand for Italian luxury, but it has missed the mark in recent years by developing rebadged versions of Fiat econo models. Stephenson wants Lancia to play in the same league as Maserati, a tough role that’s liable to take years to fulfill. “We’re not going to leave it behind and let it die. Lanica has to do what Maserati does, but at a level under that.” All of this, plus the guy has to design commercial trucks?
Where does a man who goes from designing ultra-exotic sports cars to middle-of-the-road people movers get his influence? Stephenson says he recently experienced a design epiphany while on a shopping trip in Milan, where he found his new Loge chair, which cost him $2,200, and an additional $1,000 for the ottoman. “I needed it because it just looked spectacular. If you look at this chair it exudes everything that is dynamic. The closer I got to it the color was spot on; I just couldn’t stop turning the feet, and the leather stitching is incredible. I didn’t care what it cost, I had to have it.”