Frank Stephenson is the master of successful retro styling; perhaps the greatest automotive designer of our era, he succeeded in taking an apparently inimitable classic and improving on it. What’s more, he did it more than once, creating some of the finest modern classics of the new millennium.
The Mini is an icon of Britain, the living embodiment of the Swinging Sixties, just as the Fiat 500 is as Italian as Dolce Vita, and forever a reminder of that sweet era and the post-war resurgence of Italy. Both have become part of the modern cultural heritage of their respective countries, and much loved for it.
The little Mini made its designer, Sir Alec Issigonis, join the pantheon of great designers, for a car with an almost unprecedented production run from 1959 to 2000. In those 41 years almost 5.4 million Minis in a broad variety of versions were built, making it one of the great triumphs of the British car industry.
The same can be said of the Fiat ‘Cinquecento’, originally dubbed the ‘Topolino’ after an earlier model that had begun the initial process of bringing motoring to the masses. Though its designer, Dante Giacosa, didn’t quite achieve the same level of personal fame as the creator of the Mini, and while the British micro car is often dubbed the original in its class, it is actually the Fiat that was launched first. What’s more, this little gem sold over four million units in a production lifetime that ran from 1957 to 1975.
Other models followed, but none could capture the hearts of the public the way the Mini and Fiat 500 had done. Not surprisingly, a cult following developed that kept the former in production and the memory of the latter firmly alive. With the approach of a new millennium, however, it seemed clear that even the Mini had got through its seven lives, but when word got out that the brand’s new owners, BMW, were working on a new model scepticism was rife. It was universally agreed that no ‘new Mini’ could truly replace the original.
The Master’s Eye
Step in Frank Stephenson, the master of his generation of automotive designers and a man with a unique ability to mould retro-based shapes and imbue them with a fresh, modern look without ever losing the identity and charm of the original. Such a brief would have driven most designers and engineers to distraction, for it seems a contradiction in terms, but Stephenson sculpted a new model that was at once a modern classic…
Words Michel Cruz / Photography McLaren Automotive