PROFILE: Ferrari’s Frank Stephenson

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The GranSport Coupe comes roaring down the pit lane, screeching to a stop just inches from Frank Stephenson’s legs. With the jacket of his gray silk suit casually slung over his shoulder, Stephenson barely seems to notice. He’s too busy casting a critical eye at the creases and curves of the newest model in Maserati’s growing line-up.

2004 Ferrari 612 Scaglietti“What we’ve done here is inject a little bit of legal steroids,” he says of the sports car, a tweaked and tuned version of Maserati’s aging Coupe. The GranSport is the first Maserati project where you can see the fingerprints of Stephenson, who signed on as design director of the Ferrari/Maserati Group in August 2002. On the Ferrari side of the company, Stephenson was able to infuse some subtle but significant late changes into the new 612 Scagletti.

The ability to make things happen quickly is one of the reasons the Moroccan-born stylist says he left BMW for Ferrari/Maserati. Working at a big car company is a lot like directing a Hollywood movie. It’s work done by committee, and if you’re lucky, you just might recognize your original vision when it hits the silver screen — or the showroom. Not so at a place like Ferrari/Maserati.

“As a designer, the last thing you want to do is compromise, and here, there are a lot fewer compromises,” he explains.

Skeptics gathered

Stephenson’s arrival in Modena, the center of the Italian sports car world, was greeted by more than a little surprise and skepticism. It took the 45-year-old designer from one automotive extreme to another. In his previous job Stephenson had worked on a variety of projects, including the BMW X5. But he earned his spurs for penning the shape of the reborn MINI Cooper.

2004 MINI Cooper SPerhaps it was a matter of serendipity that Stephenson was born the same day the original Mini was launched, October 3, 1959. But there seemed to be an instant connection when he was assigned to the project by the British brand’s German parent, BMW. Stephenson set out to do a car he insists was “definitely not” retro. He drafted a series of sketches showing how the MINI might have evolved over the years, “and the 1999 sketch was the kick-off.”

The new MINI has proven to be one of the most unexpected hits of the last decade, resonating not only with consumers, but with the rest of the auto industry. “The phone was ringing off the hook,” he recalls, adding that “One of the calls was from the ‘godfathers’ in Italy, with the offer I couldn’t refuse.”

If the transition from MINI to Maserati seems a stretch, Stephenson’s career as a whole might be described as unlikely. He was, after all, born in Casablanca, not exactly one of the centers of the automotive world. His father was a Norwegian expatriate Boeing employee, his mother a Spaniard. Until he was seven, Stephenson spoke only French and Arabic.

Every designer seems to have a moment when the truth and beauty of the automobile suddenly connects deep into the soul, and Stephenson is no exception. At 11, he recalls “freezing,” when he saw a Dino 246 driving down one of Casablanca’s narrow, dusty streets. “I didn’t know, at that point, that design was a profession, but I realized that inanimate objects could be beautiful. And I just began drawing cars.”

It helped that his father had opened a body shop, a place where Stephenson spent as much time as possible. But it wasn’t until he turned 23 that he realized a way to turn his passion into a career.

California dreamin’

Though Stephenson came to the U.S. to study at Pasadena’s Art Center School of Design, his budding career didn’t keep him in the States for long. And over the years, he has clocked time at a number of different companies, including BMW and its MINI division, as well as Ferrari/Maserati.

The new job was “kind of rough” at first, he admits. “I didn’t speak Italian and that was hard enough. I went over to (long-time Ferrari design collaborator) Guigiaro and asked them to change something and they looked at me like ‘you just arrived and you’re already…’ but it takes a little tact and a few successes along the way and they start trusting you.”

It also helps that Stephenson took a crash course in Italian. Actually, that wasn’t all that difficult for a man with incredible language skills. When asked to list all he speaks, he thinks for a moment and then begins ticking them off: Italian, Norwegian, English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Turkish, German. He’s getting rusty in Arabic, he demurs, and Turkish was “never one of my better languages.” It’s just a matter “of osmosis,” of moving around all his life and somehow picking things up.

Over the last two years, Stephenson has spent a lot of time trying to pick up the subtle cues — what automakers often like to call the design DNA — of Ferrari and Maserati.

“Ferrari,” he explains, “has to be at the extreme, extreme end of the markets in terms of performance, handling,” and design. “Maserati has to be almost there,” Stephenson adds, “but it also has to be a livable, daily car.”

2006 Maserati GranSportWhile the GranSport and 612 may give a hint of what’s to come, it will be a couple more years before the world really sees what Stephenson has in mind for the Italian marques. And in the meantime, he’s spending 16-hour days in the studio, hoping to get it just right.

“For me, it’s not about making a statement, it’s about respecting the heritage that got the company to where it is at. If it needs to change, then you have to do something about it but if you are on the right track there is no reason to go off on another track; you don’t fix what isn’t broken. You get it wrong or you try something new and set off on a new track and you could destroy the company.”

Few expect that to happen. If Stephenson’s track record is any indication, Ferrari and Maserati may be entering one of their most creative periods in decades.

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