McLaren's Frank Stephenson on nature-inspired design and shape-shifting body panels

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The 570GT sitting in the new McLaren Melbourne dealership

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McLaren has only been back in the supercar game since 2011, but from the supercar-lite 540C through to the bonkers 675LT, the engineers at McLaren Technology Center (MTC) in Woking are doing something right at the moment. In Melbourne, that success has led to a brand new Richmond showroom and New Atlas was at the opening where we had a chat with Automotive Design Director Frank Stephenson about his design philosophy, how Sequoia trees could influence the next generation of wheel design, and why McLaren is a unique place to work.

Taking a flick through the Frank Stephenson back catalog reveals an impressive, varied history of design. As well as designing the original BMW X5 and Mini, his name is on the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti and F430. He's also the man responsible for the Maserati MC12. Even though he's an American working in Britain, there's an Italian feel to Stephenson's past work.

McLaren is a company that bows at the altar of progress, but Stephenson draws a lot of his inspiration from nature. For one, he's fascinated by the golden ratio that can be found in nature in the design of leaves, pinecones, seashells and sunflowers.

"There's the Fibonacci [sequence], the golden law of proportions," says Stephenson. "1.618 is the golden ratio in nature. And that's freaky, because it happens everywhere. It's always that number. Doesn't stray up or down from there, that's what's so weird about it. Everything that has that ratio looks great. So I use it, a lot of times when we're doing curves on the car, we apply that ratio and it just feels right, it looks right. I don't know why it works, but it just works. That law of proportion, that nature biomimicry approach, works. It's the intelligent way to design, and they've been using it forever."

Nature's influence in McLaren designs extends beyond the golden ratio. There are plenty of clever little touches scattered around the outside of Stephenson-designed cars drawing on the world around us, like the sinewy wing mirror stalks on Super Series cars. The keen eyed will notice five small bumps on each stalk, which are designed to cut down on wind rustle at high speeds. Stephenson says the bumps are "straight off the torso of the sailfish."

"We were having problems with the wind noise coming around the car here, and a lot of generation of vortexes and noise coming into the cabin," says Stephenson. "We put these five bumps on here and the sound went away."

Stephenson and his team are always on the lookout for new, practical solutions to improve on existing designs. Some are small, while others have the potential to radically change the status quo. Think wheels with crazy, asymmetrical spokes inspired by the roots of a Sequoia tree, and shape-shifting body panels manipulated by electrical currents.

"Currently we use active aerodynamics where pieces move out of the car, but if you could make the car itself – the shape itself – mold itself into that shape, it's going to be a lot more efficient obviously," says Stephenson. "That comes through electric charges, [which makes the panel] take another shape."

As thrilling as these ideas sound, from lighting technology more capable than lasers to his tree-root inspired wheels, such innovations can't be cheap to explore. How do the engineers and accountants at Woking react when Stephenson and his team come knocking with one of their ideas?

"You have to understand, McLaren is a racing car company through-and-through," Stephenson says. "Our engineers are pretty much all coming from the racing side, anyways, so I think they get more excited by crazy ideas like that than boring ideas that have been done before. McLaren is very special in that way."

Stephenson says the freedom he and his team have, and the passionate engineers they work alongside, are unique to McLaren. He says not even Ferrari offered the same freedom, which is something that might surprise those with a romantic view of how things work in Maranello.

This freedom shines through in McLaren's cars. There mightn't be a 650S with shape-shifting body panels or a 570GT with Sequoia wheels yet, but the desire to push the boundaries has already bred a unique range of supercars to make the establishment nervous and keep fans excited about the future.

McLaren Melbourne is located at 388 Swan St, Richmond. At the moment, there's a customer's road-registered McLaren F1 sitting in the street window, so if you're in the area it's worth swinging by and doing some window shopping.

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