Frank Stephenson: Designing the E53 X5

It's a rare treat to get inside the minds of artists. In the automotive world, especially, manufacturers work very hard to mask the car's design on test mules until the car is production ready. And even after the reveal, artists are rarely acknowledged—the credit transcends to the marque. But there are some automotive designers who have managed to break the mold and shine on equal terms with the manufacturer. Frank Stephenson is one of those rare exceptions, penning some of the most iconic cars of our time across a wide array of brands and intended purposes. Of his proud portfolio, you'll recognize cars like the Mini Cooper, Maserati MC12, McLaren P1, and, in this case, the very first generation E53 BMW X5.

BMW's first go at the burgeoning SUV market was an instant hit and it's awesome to get even a brief behind the brain look at what Stephenson was thinking. He designed the X5 in record time, a mere two hours on a plane. Unreal.

Frank Stephenson YouTube Channel

But the real sticking point of this, and his on-going YouTube series, is that in each example, he doesn't just simply take bits of things that he likes and smashes them together. He takes the marque's reputation and iconic design cues into large account, carefully balancing the brand's core aesthetic with his own unique style. Arguably, nods to lineage and the finesse of visual restraint has gone awry. Is it because artists / manufacturers are trying to push the envelope to shortcut fame?

BMW G22 4-Series Front Fascia

The BMW G22 4-Series (Image courtesy of BMW AG)

Looking at a lot of modern automotive design, there seems to be a general lack of individuality that is further masked by the pressure of "homage" culture. We saw it come (and fail) with the Mustang and now, BMW's latest G22 4-Series. The larger grille is repeatedly defended by calling attention to BMW's of old—a "return to form" in the most insulting way, while at the same time, some of the most iconic design cues of BMW's yesteryear have been abandoned. It's a mixed message that echoes the G22's confused aesthetic. Stephenson actually picks apart BMW's new 4-series design in a more recent video, which you can watch here.

BMW E53 X5 angle view at dusk - stratus grey metallic

2006 E53 X5 3.0 - Stratus Grey Metallic. A stunner.

Looking back at the E53 X5, even now, is so satisfying. Even twenty years since its inception, the body looks fantastic. It is unmistakably BMW and even drives the part too. Do you think that modern car designers, or even manufacturers for that matter, are trying to do too much? I for one, think that very much might be the case—too many cooks in the kitchen and, strangely enough, too much inspiration when all we might really need is a two-hour plane ride in solitude to let ideas flow from the heart.