Peter Stevens is a legend in the automotive design community, known for his impeccable judgment that’s cast a huge influence across the industry over the years. With a career spanning several decades, Stevens has played a pivotal role in shaping and designing various iconic cars – and I’m an unashamed fan.
Car design runs through Peter’s veins. Born in 1943, he graduated from the Central School of Art and Design in London, and almost immediately made his way into the car industry. His career in automotive design began with Ford in the 1960s where he once admitted apologetically that he was responsible for the Capri Mk2’s headlight design. He later joined Lotus, where he worked on the Esprit and front-wheel-drive Elan. However, it was his role as the Chief Designer for the McLaren F1 that turned him into a member of the car design elite.
Perhaps best known for the F1 and Esprit X180, Stevens also has fingerprints on a huge number of cars, and we love the fact he’s so outspoken about design. Over the years, he’s been a commentator for many publications including Style Auto (while he was still a design student), Autocar, Octane, Magneto and CAR magazine. He’s still very happy to give his opinions and share his experience – a rare quality these days.
Here are his thoughts on current car design trends: ‘I have become appalled by the number of just plain bad looking cars on the road. People complain about the latest BMW grilles, but the fact is every surface of a BMW is dreadful. It’s not just BMW, there are plenty of other companies who seem to have lost the plot when it comes to keeping control of the form. Audi, designed and modelled by savages and now driven by people from the same tribe! Phew, there I said it!’
It’s not all bad: ‘The Series 3 Land Rover Discovery still looks fresh and sophisticated while the Ineos Grenadier is hopelessly amateur,’ he adds.
Anyway, I doff my cap, and pay tribute by selecting my personal Top Five favourite Stevens designs. Let me know what yours are.
The McLaren F1, introduced in 1992, is an automotive masterpiece thanks to the engineering genius of Gordon Murray, the fabulous V12 engine delivered by BMW M Sport, the support for the project from Ron Dennis, and Peter Stevens’ wonderfully-judged styling. The F1 was an amazing thing, incorporating a lightweight carbonfibre monocoque, a central driving position flanked by two passenger seats, and those iconic dihedral butterfly doors.
The 6.1-litre V12 engine produced 627bhp, propelling the F1 to a top speed of 241mph, making it comfortably the fastest car in he world. Where Stevens’ design worked so well was all of the surfaces and details were designed for function and form, so its bodywork was lean, tight and beautifully judged. Unlike modern hypercars, there’s a refreshing lack of over-the-top detailing, necessitated both by the demands of aero, but also good taste. It set new standards for supercar aesthetics that remain in place to this day.
I make no apologies for putting the Streetwise in this list. Maybe an unconventional choice, but when you think what the car landscape looked like when it was launched in 2003 – and how it looks now, that might help explain things. Peter Stevens’ versatility as a Designer was most evident in his involvement with this car, a compact crossover launched years ahead of its time.
The Streetwise was designed to cater to a younger, city-dwelling audience and was described as an ‘urban on-roader’ by its maker. Stevens’ design injected the car with a rugged, adventurous appearance while giving it a sense of fun, lacking in the standard 25. It featured chunky bumpers, protective side cladding, and sporty styling elements – just like pretty much every B-segment car you can buy today. Peter once told me he was very happy with it, aside from the ‘cheap badges which would delaminate in no time undermining the quality.’
Lotus Esprit (X180)
Stevens’ association with Lotus included work on the Lotus Esprit, a significant update after being tasked with one of the toughest jobs in the industry – how to turn one of the most iconic shapes of the 1970s, penned by a master of design, into something new and fresh for the 1990s? That Peter managed to evolve Giugiaro’s origami supercar to effectively speaks volumes for his skill.
Introduced in 1987, the Lotus Esprit (X180) featured more organic lines and aerodynamic detailing, thanks to Peter Stevens’ design. The car retained its mid-engine layout and employed the same 2.2-litre turbocharged engine as before, but somehow it was re-energised by the facelift. Stevens’ redesign not only enhanced the car’s slipperiness but also contributed to its enduring appeal, allowing the model to remain in production until 2004.
MG XPower SV
Peter Stevens’ work on the MG XPower SV exemplifies his ability to take someone else’s design and transform it from an ugly duckling to aggressively attractive swan in one fell swoop. Don’t believe me? Look at the Qvale Mangusta and then compare that to the SV and tell me you’re not impressed. This might have been MG Rover’s greatest folly, but it was also a middle finger to all those who thought MG Rover was incapable of going down without a fight.
It was produced in limited numbers, adding to its exclusivity, and while it may not have achieved the commercial success its maker so dearly needed, its design and performance earned it a dedicated fan base, as well as some closet fans in other corners of the car industry. Today, it’s considered an all-time classic and a symbol of British automotive design ingenuity.
MG ZT and Rover 75 Coupe
Peter Stevens’ involvement with the MG Rover Group brought forth the complete reinvention of the MG range with the ZR, ZS and ZT, as well as the MG TF and XPower SV (above). However, he wanted to evolve Rover, and his work on the 75 Coupe gives a clear indicator of where he – and the rest of the team at Longbridge – wanted to take the firm, reflecting his commitment to evolving British automotive heritage.
The MG ZT might have been little more than a re-clothed Rover 75, but these changes completely transformed the way we looked at this handsome, traditionally detailed saloon. It may have shared so much, but it had distinct design characteristics that proudly shouted MG. Stevens’ changes emphasised Richard Woolley’s original elegant styling, and moved them on agreeably.
Peter Stevens’ influence extended beyond just one brand or type of car, even if we tend to admire his transformative work on the post-2001 MG range (which I’ll come back to in more detail later). He played a significant role in diverse projects, from sports cars and family wagons to out-and-out racing cars, via compact crossovers and BMW 3 Series bashers.
His legacy is not confined to the cars themselves – it extends to the Designers he mentored and inspired throughout his career. Many of today’s automotive Designers cite Peter Stevens, including greats like Elise and Evoque Designer Julian Thomson, as a source of inspiration, and his approach to design continues to spark debate.
His work on the McLaren F1 and Lotus Esprit, as well as his influence on countless other projects, has left an enduring impact on the automotive world. Stevens’ legacy serves as a reminder that great design is not only about creating beautiful cars but also about influencing the future of an entire industry.