Master Class Stylist: Mark Stehrenberger

by pete on January 26, 2010


Mark Stehrenberger is an artist, familiar to most Road & Track and Motor Trend readers for his many projected visions of what the world’s automakers are building next. Mark has also been involved with real life car design and in the past has been a consultant to various automakers such as VW, Peugeot, Renault, Ford, KIA, Subaru, Rolls Royce, Jeep, and Toyota. He resides alternately in Montreux, Switzerland, and Ventura, CA but comes over to Ventura, CA every so often to recharge his batteries (yes, three AAA batteries, not included).

By Wallace Wyss

WYSS: I often look at the major car magazines such as Road & Track, just to see what you are going to predict. Where do you get your information?

STEHRENBERGER: By listening what the car honchos do NOT tell at press conferences, by info obtained from within and without the car makers’ studios, by doing my own, sometimes elaborate and extensive, research, then connecting the dots!

WYSS: Now that you have taught at Art Center in Pasadena and Europe you have alumni scattered around the world. When you go to major auto shows, do you converse with them and get hints as to the direction they are going in?

STEHRENBERGER: Certainly. Many of them are in the midst of climbing the corporate ladder. I’d like to think we have a close family relationship.

What if FERRARI were to join the four-door club? Would Ferrari purists and aficionados tolerate it? Ever the guy who challenges established sets of rules, I put my ideas to paper and came up with a somewhat subdued, more classic design concept. I suppose it was thought-provoking for quite a few magazines published the drawings. Thankfully, to this day, I still have air in all my tires!


WYSS: Once you know who the new head of a design team is, say Walter De Silva, etc. can you pretty well predict the direction they will be taking?

STEHRENBERGER: Only to a certain extent. The automobile industry is changing so rapidly today, and that includes design as well. There is not much consistency anymore; even BMW or Mercedes are now stylistically all over the landscape, in my opinion often with dubious results.

WYSS: Do you feel design of cars has a “national character”, i.e. can you tell a “German design” from an Italian design from a British design?

STEHRENBERGER: Used to be and there’s still some of it. However, it’s waning since most car makers want to appeal to a broad worldwide audience and hire designers from an international pool that seems to rotate constantly…British designers working in France, Japanese designers in Italy, American designers in Korea, etc.

WYSS: Do you feel it is possible for a mid-price car, say a Chrysler , to look like an expensive car like a Bentley or is it just never gonna happen–the cheaper cars go for cheaper solutions?

STEHRENBERGER: It is possible, but that’s not what marketing is all about and wants. We have many examples where up-scaling a brand didn’t work, i.e. Ford Edsel,and recently Volkswagen Phaeton, and others…

WYSS: When you are a consultant, is it only on a current model they need a quick change on, or have you been in touch with advanced design studios?

STEHRENBERGER: All the above. Each assignment is different. Sometimes, it’s just a quick review/critique of a clay model before the design is “frozen”, at other times, it’s a concept car ideation that needs to be done in a hurry that’s ideally done out-of-house to save time and costs. Then again, some styling refreshening and/or updating on existing car models.

When I heard Mercedes was developing a successor to the McLaren Mercedes SLR super car, I designed this concept based on their Maybach Exelero Coupe show car shown earlier. My drawing was featured in a number of international publications. However, M-B subsequently severed their ties with McLaren, canceled the SLR project, and went on to develop a new Gullwing of their own.


WYSS: What method do you use? I seem to remember colored inks, or was it watercolor on illustration board?

STEHRENBERGER: I use primarily pen and ink, ink markers, and designers’ gouache on illo board. I painted in watercolor in the past but moved on to ink markers exclusively.

WYSS: When you went to art school, way back in the medieval ages, they used pen and ink and chalk and such but now at schools like Art Center they are going to computers. Do you feel something is lost when the entire car is depicted only with computer generated drawings?

STEHRENBERGER: Not necessarily! What the design schools did teach in the past was heavy emphasis on sketching in 2D but imagining in 3D. With much practice, it gave you a sharp eye for proportions and nuances in the surface development, thus resulting in solid design skills. Computers do some of it for you now and soon will do all of it and in half the time. They don’t necessarily help you personally with getting a sharp eye anymore since they do the work for you. Judging from some of the stuff I see on the road today as a result of this, I personally prefer the first option. I don’t call it old fashioned, for good design is not subject to fashion trends, it just is all by its own!


Moving right along, how about a four-door Lamborghini, perhaps based on the Reventon? Kids would definitely love to be bussed to school as long as it’s in this family car! I certainly had great fun designing this hair-brained concept, but who knows what’s in the future?

WYSS: The latest Ferrari the 458 Italia seems like a pretty economical design. I mean it goes over 200 mph yet has no wing on the back. Do you feel it once again puts Ferrari in the lead in exotic car design?

STEHRENBERGER: Lately, Ferrari’s come out with some that I think pretty ugly stuff. Gone are the clean lines, great proportions, the emotion that were so typical Pininfarina and Ferrari. Looked like they hired some Asian students away from the videogame arcade. Yes, I understand tastes change constantly, but again, why adding unnecessary clutter to cover up bad design? It’s the oldest ploy in the business! Ferrari didn’t need this. Perhaps the 458 Italia is a new beginning. It’s got some new thinking and design elements (f.e. headlamps) in it!

WYSS: I have never known you to “wallow in the past” always saying “they designed ’em better back then,” but what are your favorite sports or luxury cars going back to the Sixties and Seventies?

STEHRENBERGER: I loved the Ferrari GT 250 ’62, the Lambo Espada ’75, The Citroen SM ’75, none of which I owned. That’s why I’m still dreaming of them! I’m more intrigued by current products, however. I love the Cadillac Sixteen concept (for what it stands for) and new CTS Coupe, the Mercedes CLS (with bigger wheels!), and the new Alfa Romeo 8C, in my book one of the nicest cars on the road today.

The Lamborghini Espada of the 70’s still is one of my favorite cars and now that Porsche, Aston Martin and others offer four-door coupes, I think it’s time to resurrect the Espada. My styling progression drawing series of the new Espada made it into many e-mags, including in the US, Auto Motor und Sport online, in Germany, and others worldwide.


WYSS: How do you like the direction of Lamborghini lately? Do you like the “jet fighter on the ground” “stealth fighter” look?

STEHRENBERGER: Actually, I do very much in that it is totally different from the cookie cutter stuff I see around! With their current design direction, I think Lambo has “the edge”!

WYSS: Aston Martin is bringing out some mini Aston with Toyota and Ferrari is making a Ferrari theme Fiat, do you know is this in anticipation of when the fleet fuel mileage average might doom exotic car makers unless they have a whole lot of little “themed minicars” that they can count into the average?

STEHRENBERGER: Europe and Japan prove that you can produce precious, exciting-looking and fast little pocket rockets. I don’t think the fleet fuel mileage average is the main reason; it’s more the mood of the market place which, at present, is Al Gore Green! But you definitely can have much fun WITH a small car, just not that much fun IN it!

WYSS: Do you think it’s prostitution to have ,say, a Ferrari-themed Fiat 500 or that , in fun , it can result in a great Fiat? Isn’t that like hiring a gourmet cook like Wolfgang Puck to go cook some meals at Burger King?

STEHRENBERGER: Not necessarily. Take Mercedes. They produce the whole spectrum of cars, trucks and busses, from the Smart to the SLS Gullwing, and it doesn’t hurt their reputation as luxury sportscar maker one bit. However, questionable styling and bad fit and finish quality of late does!

Maserati shortened the Quattroporte’s chassis and produced a badly needed new four-seater GT coupe and cabrio. My drawing depicts the new model during early development which lasted several years. Meanwhile, the market has changed and the production model followed a much more aggressive styling direction. Motor Trend and other mags published the projection anyway. I blew it on this one, oh well! .

WYSS: Who are some of the younger generation (let’s say “young” is under 50) car designers who are really going to be significant? I like Franz von Holzhausen who did the Pontiac Solstice…

STEHRENBERGER: Walter de Silva and Chris Bangle are major influences. Adrian van Hooydonk who replaced Bangle at BMW and Ralph Gilles are.

WYSS: As the years have gone on, are you more interested in colors, surface textures and such than in just the basic shape of the car than you were way back when?

STEHRENBERGER: True, primarily new materials and textures.

Right after he finished the sculpture of David, Michelangelo went to work on the classic Ferraro 348, so it seems. It’s that long ago! It was one of my last paintings using ink, watercolor and chalk on a car that I like to this day for its simplicity, size and stunning beauty.


WYSS: The American car industry has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, at least compared to when they were the “Big Three.” Do you feel they did it to themselves by not responding quick enough to changes in public taste?

STEHRENBERGER: Sadly, yes I do to a certain extend. Sad because they hired the best talents in the world with almost unlimited resources, got all the input they needed but neglected to make hay out of it. To me it’s inconceivable arrogance, insular thinking and just pure blindness! Sad because I see the same trend in other industries, such as electronics and consumer products.

WYSS: What about the direction of Maserati? Do you feel that the modern Maseratis have fulfilled their function of allowing Ferrari to sell four door cars without having to sully the name of Ferrari by having four door Ferraris? Or do you see further growth and development for Maserati?

STEHRENBERGER: Maserati has a tough stance in today’s world in that it’s always thought of as second choice to Ferrari. Additionally, other exotic car makers offer now four-door cars as well (Aston Martin, Porsche, soon others!), that look much more up to date ( Porsche cranked out 10,000 Panameras within the first three months on sale!). Maserati also lacks a viable model range.

With these two BUGATTI drawings, which were published in several magazines internationally, I was predicting the direction Bugatti would take to celebrate their 100th anniversary last September: a still more powerful Veyron, 1150 BHP, for the race track, with additional ground effects and wing for better aerodynamics, and an exclusive four-door super car based on the Veyron. As one can see, my versions of the super-light VEYRON PUR SANG and GALIBIER four-door sedan (above) were close.


WYSS: You’ve been a judge at Pebble Beach at one time or another. Do you think all this exposure to the great cars of the past is benefitting today’s designers? In other words, is any of it “rubbing off?”

STEHRENBERGER: I’ve been a judge at a number of concourses, but never at PB. “It’s always good to look at the past to go forward, as long as one is not held back by the past”. Famous 500 year-old Chinese proverb I just made up ten minutes ago… Seriously, yes, today’s designers can benefit from studying the great (and not so great) cars of the past. It’s a learning experience!

WYSS: I know you have two or is it three children who graduated from Art Center. Are any of them involved in car design?

STEHRENBERGER: Three of them graduated from Art Center, Pasadena. My two daughters are successful illustrators, my one son with a degree in transportation designs mountain bikes!

WYSS: I know there’s a lot of fans who have followed your work for 30 plus years but I have never seen your artwork for sale continuously. Can you give us some hope we will be able to order some prints of your work?

STEHRENBERGER: Yes, there’s hope. I chose ten of my works that have “stood the test of time” and arranged with a fine art printer to make 12″ x 16″ and 16″ x 20″ prints on heavyweight watercolor paper, sizes suitable for framing. Each will be signed by me and serially numbered in limited editions. Anybody who wants the list of what will be available can contact me at or

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve September 28, 2010 at 11:14 am

It’s good to see that the fun-loving character that I know Mark to be is consistent wherever he goes! Good interview!

ken Sagan November 2, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Does Mark have a book out on his fantastic car illustrations? I would love to buy one if he does.

Ken Sagan

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