The fate of Italian auto maker Fiat rests largely in the hands of one man -- and he's not sitting in the executive suite. Chief Designer Frank Stephenson, 46, must create cars that can reverse a dramatic 15-year sales slide that's now threatening the 106-year-old outfit's very existence.
The American designer, born in Morocco to European parents, is considered one of the hottest talents in the auto design industry. During an 11-year tenure at BMW, he racked up his first industry icon: The popular Mini Cooper, which was launched in 2001. The Ferrari F430 came from Stephenson's drawing board during his recent stint at Ferrari and Maserati.
Stephenson, who penned his first car design at age 11, studied at the Art Center College of design in Pasadena, Calif. He's now working feverishly to bring out a new generation of cars at Fiat, including a remake of the historic Fiat 500, one of Europe's hottest-selling cars in the 1960s. Stephenson, who moved from Ferrari to Fiat in April, spoke with BusinessWeek Senior European Correspondent Gail Edmondson about the future of auto design and his new challenge at Fiat. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Fiat used to be the European leader in small cars. Now the competition is ferocious. What does Fiat have to do to regain some of its lost ground?
You have to grab the customer from the beginning. To do that with design, there are two approaches. The first is to use shock value. The second is a more evolutionary approach that plays off the brand's historic treasures. If an auto maker has a rich history, you don't want to take off in a completely new design direction -- you want to handle the DNA of the brand correctly to preserve the customer base.
Fiat definitely has a history of making cars that people loved. Then it went through a hiccup where the quality went off track, and design, too. We are taking it to the doctor and bringing it back new life. We only have to make it healthy again.
How do you do that?
You need to make cars with pure Italian-ness about them. Everyone loves things made in Italy, because there is an intensity to everything about this country -- lifestyle, food, culture, fashion, and history. We have to get back to Fiat's roots and make really, really attractive cars -- cars that you fall in love with on the first look.
The auto industry's model cycle is roughly five years, and designing a new car takes two to three. How fast can you start to bring that new Fiat look to market?
With the new Punto, which was launched this fall, we have made the first step in the right direction. The next products will start to be shown within one year. You will see cars that are full of sensual design.
How can you design a car in one year?
The design department at Fiat is a small group. We don't have any committees, so there's no reason for us to take 24 to 36 months to develop a car. If a company is taking that long, it probably means communications are not working well, there are a lot of revisions going on, and you don't have the right team with the right vision.
Which will be the first new models to hit the market?
We are working on a replacement for the Stilo -- that will be a hot product. Lancia may come out with a remake of the Delta model. And the Fiat 500 will surprise a lot of people. In the light commercial vehicle market, we will show we have our finger on the youth market -- our vehicle will be more sexy than anyone else's.
What are the key trends in car design, and where are they leading?
The secret and future of car design is personalization. Car buyers want to be the only one to own a given product, so any way you can offer the customer the chance to suit his taste and be unique with materials, colors, wheel design is important.
And the ability to customize the interior of the car [is important, too]. For people in Abu Dhabi, for example, perhaps you offer a bluish tinge to the light, which makes the car feel cooler. In Finland, where it's 30 below zero in the winter, you might offer a warm red haze to the interior lighting, to warm the atmosphere up. We are also interested in materials that have sparkle and light.
What will we see in car design in 5 to 10 years that we can't imagine today?
We will see innovation in luxury materials. I can't believe in 10 years alloy, leather, and wood will be the only luxury materials in cars. Everyone will try to find the next one. Think about mother-of-pearl, ceramics, rocks, granite, or marble. We could rethink the materials used for the grills.
How important is the interior design of a car?
The interior is the big battleground of the moment. It is a way to win over the customer. The exterior may look good, but if the interior doesn't convince, people will get rid of the car. It's like falling in love with the mind and character of someone, after being attracted to their face. Unless you love the inside of the car, it won't do the trick.
We're all pushing for advances in interior design. Everyone is doing different things with the instrumentation. We may see 3-D effects, softer materials that feel better, and ergonomically well-designed cars. It's a constant battle to find some competitive advantage in interior design.
Do Europeans still hold the design leadership in cars?
No one speaks about emotionally charged American or Japanese vehicles. They make normal, high-volume products.
Chris Bangle really shook up the world of auto design with the new look at BMW. He provoked a huge controversy within the industry.
I respect Chris for what he has done. It takes a lot of courage to go against the grain, and to do it with a company that has BMW's weight in the industry. There's an element of having done something correctly, and there is a period of refinement to smooth out some of the new styling. Bangle has been a hero -- he took courageous steps.
Who is really leading the car design industry today?
It's not Mercedes, not BMW, not Ford (F). We are living through a moment of confusion. Chrysler (DCX) had it. The French had it, but it didn't stick as well as it should have. There is nothing beautiful like in the 1960s, where you really drooled over cars. Design was like sculpture -- artisans made those surfaces.
We've gone to aggressive-looking cars -- you don't want to run your hand over the car anymore. We've lost that artistic, sculptured look. There are not many cars where you'd say, "there was an artist at work here," where a car was created by hand and not by computer. Cars have gone digital. We will try to stay organic.
You can't escape using computers, can you?
We have to use computers, to be fast. But we should have a design language. The car should be massaged into shape, instead of being milled.
It's simplicity that is beautiful. Like the iPod. It's so simple, but it's just right. I bought one a year ago and I've never used it, but it's so beautiful. It's a highly technical product, but it has a purity and honesty to it. I want to try to get that kind of design language back into the product at Fiat.