McLaren’s Design Boss Just Built the World’s Most Beautiful Powerboat

Frank Stephenson penned the modern Mini Cooper, Ferrari F430 and the McLaren P1. Now check out his 31-foot, all-electric boat.

byLawrence Ulrich|
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Frank Stephenson, design director of Britain’s McLaren Automotive, is perhaps best known for his revivals of the bobber-size Mini Cooper and Fiat 500. But floating near his home on Henley-on-Thames, about 35 miles west of London, is a larger and more languid conveyance: a wood-hulled beauty of a riverboat that Stephenson designed. And unlike his previous boat, which had a Dodge Viper V-10 engine coiled inside, this new Riverbreeze is all smooth, silent sailing with its electric powertrain.

It’s Cupid’s Arrow slicing through water. A bravura exercise in beautiful hardwoods, with contrasting rosewood and mahoganies from Brazil and Africa, slathered in 15 initial coats of grain-flattering lacquer. “We’ve added five more coats every year, so now there’s 35,” says Stephenson. “It looks wet, with a shine that gets deeper and deeper.”

As such, this 31-footer blows a kiss to a romantic pre-fiberglass boating era, when lovingly varnished hulls gleamed like Tony Curtis’ pompadour. To Stephenson, fiberglass vessels are like Tupperware: useful for the household, but about as sexy as June Cleaver.

Frank Stephenson

“Everyone’s got this white plastic shell, a big boat maybe, but there’s no romance,” explains the affably bearish 56-year-old. “Wooden boats get better with age, they smell nice, they feel nice, every one has its own character.”

A sort of rumble seat up front opens via flip-up portals, a bit like the dihedral doors on the Stephenson-designed McLaren 650S and 570S. And that mermaid mascot on the prow? Straight from a 1932 Cadillac, a hood ornament that Stephenson found on eBay (“I paid an arm and a leg”) and rechromed.

“Her chest is out, hair flowing back. It’s just beautiful.”

With sailors and collectors falling for wooden boats like salty Gepettos, the likes of architect Frank Gehry are creating their own designs. Timber runabouts you could barely give away 20 years ago, from American companies such as Chris-Craft and Hacker-Craft, are fetching up to six figures in restored trim.

Frank Stephenson

Models from Riva, the Italian boatmaker that got its start in 1842, are especially prized. One 1966 Super Aquarama Series II, a descendant of a 1962 original first tested by the late Fiat tycoon Gianni Agnelli, fetched $775,000 at auction a few years back—a jaw-dropping sum for a pocket-size vintage boat. That’s because, in their Sixties heyday, the typically Chevy-powered Rivas glamorized every port on the French Riviera as gotta-have accessory of royals, industrialists and movie stars. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton hopped to ports from their yacht, the Odysseia, in a Riva Junior; Italian playboy Gigi Rizzi, known for swilling champagne and midnight waterskiing with Brigitte Bardot, says that she’d switch to a new Riva with every new boyfriend. Ferruccio Lamborghini had a custom Riva Aquarama built in 1968, powered by the V12 from his 350GT coupe. Rivas’ jaunty profiles made them perfect for movie roles, from James Bond features to Some Like It Hot and Ocean’s Twelve.

Stephenson says of his own sleek-lined superstar, “It’s in the vein of a Riva, but it’s stretched and more dramatic. It’s one of those labors of love, where I just wanted to make something special.”

Frank Stephenson

Instead of a fuel-thirsty V8 or V12, Stephenson sources power from a torpedo-shaped, 4.2-kilowatt electric pod motor, with 14.7 kilowatt-hours of storage from eight Varta 12-volt marine batteries that take about eight hours to charge. A typical day’s cruise mates might include neighbor Dhani Harrison, son of George Harrison, who Stephenson met at a Christmas party in Maranello when Eric Clapton was being fitted for his Ferrari Enzo seat.

Stephenson and crew will spend a good 10 hours cruising the Thames, rising and falling on a series of locks, all the way to Lechlade at the edge of the Cotswolds—the river’s highest navigable point, near the bubbling source of the Thames. The electric boat depletes roughly half its battery en route, Stephenson says, but there are charge points all along the river. And, where his signature sports cars and bikes are fast, Riverbreeze is about slowing down.

Frank Stephenson

“For a designer, it’s all about that balance. I’ll get up at 6 a.m. and beat myself up on a high-decibel Ducati all day. So when I get on the boat, all I want to hear is the birds and the water.

“And there’s no laws against drinking and driving on the river, so we’ll just smoke a pipe, drink some whiskey and chill.”

Designing McLarens, rocking Ducatis, boating on the Thames with Beatle posterity, in a craft of your own design: Sorry, Dos Equis, you cast the wrong guy.

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