How nature inspired the design of the McLaren P1 and Mini Cooper

  • Nature and scientific concepts inspired the McLaren P1 and 2001 Mini Cooper.
  • The theory of evolution is used to innovate while maintaining a “family look” within a car brand.
  • Natural proportions, unique character, and instant attraction are elements of successful car design.

The following is a transcript.

Narrator: Car designers draw inspiration from the places you would least expect, using nature and scientific concepts when constructing their designs. But if there are design elements that guarantee success, why have iconic designs like the Mustang been able to adapt with the times, while others like Pontiac’s GTO have completely fallen off the map?

Frank: Where do they succeed and where do they fail? I wish I knew the answer to that one, because I’d be rich.

Narrator: That’s Frank Stephenson, designer of the Ferrari F4 30, McLaren P1, BMW X5, and the 2001 Mini Cooper.

Frank: A lot of people do think that you just pick up a pen or a pencil or whatever you’re using and just start, but that’s kind of like starting a race without knowing, how far are you going to run? I much prefer doing a little bit of what we call due diligence, or research, before I start a design project. But you’re being asked to design something that originally probably started in the marketing department as the response to providing your suggestion for a certain segment.

Narrator: But while car designs often are the response to an identified segment or a targeted market, that doesn’t mean automakers want them to stay the same.

Frank: They pay us to innovate, not to replicate. Most designers, when they draw, like I said, are probably drawing cars that are going to be coming out in five years, not next year, because it takes about that long to develop a car.

Narrator: One of the ways car designers keep their designs looking fresh is by using nature as inspiration.

Frank: What that basically shows, what I call biomimicry. Basically take what nature gives you, and you sort of take the best of what it has and interpret it into a design. So I did that with the P1, where it’s more influenced by speed. The cheetah is a strikingly efficient animal when it’s at full speed. So trying to capture that dynamic proportion of it in certain elements. It’s the stance that makes it look like it’s pulling at the leash, even when it’s standing still. A lot of the stuff that I use is called the golden ratio. Just to achieve the right proportions of the vehicle, so it looks right. That ratio, by the way, is 1.618. You find it everywhere in nature.

Narrator: But using nature in design isn’t always about motion. Sometimes it’s about giving the car character.

Frank: The Mini had always reminded me of a bulldog. If you looked at the original Mini, it had that low squat, kind of cute, but also not too aggressive, but it wasn’t silly. It was kind of like the little dog you’d walk up to and ask, “Is it all right if I pet him?” Like, “I’m not asking you, I’m asking the dog.” And I wanted to capture that with the Mini, because the Mini, for me, being iconic, British iconic, and the bulldog being British iconic, and both of them being that type of proportion, I thought it was the perfect inspiration.

Narrator: When it comes to the 2001 Mini, a vehicle that hadn’t been redesigned in over 40 years, Frank had a difficult situation on his hands. How do you make the Mini look recognizable, like it belonged to the Mini family, while also adding a natural progression to its look?

Frank: What I did was I basically took the Mini, the original Mini, and I did a theoretical evolutionary cycle to it where, if it had changed every 10 years, what would it have looked like? And that’s why people recognized it and had that familiarity feeling when they saw it.

Narrator: That familiar feeling Frank is talking about is what car designers call “the family look.”

Frank: So if you walk into dealership, you’re not expecting to see just the same car, just in different proportions or shapes or sizes. You want common elements, design elements, like the headlights, like the grill, like the lines on the side of the car, like the stance of the car, to give you sort of this feeling that they’re brothers and sisters.

Narrator: The family look is just one of the key elements to the success of a design. And radically changing the look of a car too quickly is one of the worst things a brand can do.

Frank: Suddenly, you bring in a completely different-looking relative into the family. It kind of makes you think, “Well, where did you come from?” And so we try to avoid that in the car industry, because it doesn’t help us to develop the brand, to develop the design language of the brand.

Narrator: Figuring out what will make a new car design successful is a complicated process, but there is a simple way to understand why new designs might fail.

Frank: They either fail by not trying hard enough or by trying too hard. That’s definitely been proven many, many times in the past. When they don’t try hard enough, customers get bored and jump ship and go to something that’s a little bit more, at least from an emotional point of view, more exciting. When people ask what makes a car design timeless, I prefer to call it long-lasting, the most important elements to achieve what we would call a long-lasting design are natural proportions. As we see oftentimes in nature, there’s a ratio, a scientific ratio to that. I think also you have to establish a very unique character so that it’s definitely recognizable as being unique. There has to be also an element of dynamism or tension in the design. Nobody likes boring designs. Nobody likes overcooked designs. So I think you have to find a complete balance between what feels natural and perhaps love at first sight. That’s definitely one of the main ingredients. You have to have that instant spark of attraction.

Narrator: While no one can guarantee the success of a new car, designers do their best to create innovative vehicles that have a lasting appeal. But the only way to truly know if a car is timeless is to see if it passes the test of time.