From Allegro to Cosworth Steve Harper’s varied portfolio. Pen for hire: Steve Harper looks back on a career in car design. So says the pragmatic Steve Harper, the man behind the Escort Cosworth and MGF – among many others – as he relates the realities of 40 years in automotive styling to Richard Heseltine. Portraits Tony Baker Archive Steve Harper.
“You come up with lots of ideas in this job, but most of them end up in the bin”
He stares unblinkingly before breaking into a smile, and not for the first time. Conversation with car designer Steve Harper has rapidly descended into a game of spot the music reference. Scrolling through the renderings from his bulging back catalogue, you cannot help but notice the brief annotations, some of which are more esoteric than others. As of right now, we’re confronted with a dazzling flight of fantasy that appears to have been named after Stevenage’s finest-ever cowboy goth act, Fields of the Nephilim. You have to laugh.
Spend even five minutes in the company of this prolific artist and it is obvious that he takes his work seriously, but not necessarily himself. While he may be dressed from head to toe in black, save his signature red shoes, he is the antithesis of your typical design pseud. As such, he is great company. The walls of his SHADO design consultancy in Paignton are awash with sketches and more besides, each telling a story of a four-decade career in which he has penned everything from sports cars to SUVs, motorcycles to fairground attractions and more besides.
“I have always liked cars,” he says, enjoying a cuppa. “I used to draw around my Corgi toys as a kid and I suppose that is what started it off.”
A career in car design beckoned, but the road ahead had its fair share of potholes: “My careers master at school didn’t understand what I was on about. Industrial design meant nothing. This was back in the ’70s, remember. I was told that the best thing I could do was to become a technical apprentice.” So, like his father and other family members before him, he joined The Austin – or rather, British Leyland by then – and went to work at the Longbridge plant. Nevertheless, our hero continued to sketch, and not always in his own time, his efforts attracting the attention of one of his supervisors.
“He told me that I should be in the ‘colouring in’ department rather than in engineering and he would have a word on my behalf,” Harper says. “(Longbridge studio chief) Harris Mann was very supportive and that led to me going off to the Royal College of Art in London in 1979-’1980 as part of my apprenticeship. Most of the other students had been through art school, but I was the only one who had a proper grounding in engineering. After that, I went back to work in the Austin-Morris studios at Longbridge. My first job was to create some stripes for the Allegro.”
It was at this juncture that he became aware of the sort of political machinations that typify conglomerates: “The thing about this industry is that there are a lot of delicate egos. Studio chiefs are looking over their shoulders, convinced that someone is after their job, and often with good reason. I’ve experienced this several times in my career and you don’t want to get caught in the crossfire. Back then, there was a major rivalry between the Longbridge studio and the Rover studio in Solihull. When David Bache from Rover became the overall design director, it was pretty obvious which way the wind was blowing.”
Having worked on all manner of projects, only to see them canned – including a Metro replacement codenamed AR6 – Harper chose to become a pen-for-hire in 1984. The freelance life proved shortlived, however, because he joined Volvo’s Dutch studio a year later.
“I loved working in The Netherlands,” he recalls. “It was a breath of fresh air after Austin- Rover. I worked under Peter Horbury, and that was the start of a long association with Volvo.” It began with contributing to the revival of a sports-coupé proposal that in time became the 480ES. Harper then followed Horbury back to the UK in 1988 and threw in his lot with Mike Gibbs’ MGA consultancy in Coventry. “It was a new company that had the latest computer-aided design and modelling systems,” Harper explains, “which meant that we could turn around projects in a fraction of the time of the bigger manufacturers’ studios. That was why we did such a lot of business. One of my first projects was the Bentley Turbo R. I styled that in my bedroom.”
While at MGA, Harper became embroiled in a performance car legend with which his name is inextricably linked: the Ford Escort RS Cosworth. Myth and reality sometimes overlap when discussing this vehicle, with names as diverse as Ian Callum and Frank Stephenson being associated with it, but Harper claims the design as his own: “I am not going to sit here and say that the RS is all mine, but I have the renderings! I don’t think one of those guys in particular ever even came into the studio. At that time, this would be 1989, MGA was working on a lot of different Ford projects including the Escort van and the Galaxy people-carrier, which I started under a cloak of secrecy in Wolfsburg.
“Doing the RS was a fantastic experience because it had to work on so many different levels. It was a rally car but also a road car. And then on one hand, you had [Ford Motorsport’s] John Wheeler saying he wanted a car to be sharpedged and aerodynamic, and on the other there was [Ford Europe’s design director] Dave Turner saying it had to have a rounded, ‘soft’ shape.
“I spent a lot of time listening to what rally drivers wanted, and what we ended up with was a car that produced around 40kg downforce front and rear, but one that could also accommodate countless different types of tyre.
Everything on that car was there to serve a purpose. The spoilers weren’t decorative, and the same goes for the vents. Of course, when you look back at projects you did in the past you invariably want to change things, but I am proud of how that design came out given what little time we had to turn it around.”
Intriguingly, some of the RS Cosworth’s styling themes were also applied to a hotted-up MG Metro, the MGA studio producing a pair of prototypes for Rover Special Products shortly thereafter. The SP wasn’t adopted as a production model, however, but Harper’s dabs are all over a car that did make the leap from rendering to reality: the MGF. The genesis of the design stretched back as far as 1984, but in 1990 Harper was given the task of producing a new outline: “That and the RS Cosworth are the ones that I am best known for, but of course you inevitably get into the ‘who did what’ stuff. This was the first new MG sports car for decades, plus it was also the first production MG that was midengined.
It was a real opportunity to redefine the brand. I was influenced by the Ferrari 250LM to some degree, especially with the high waistline. I didn’t get to see the project through to the end, though. My design was subsequently massaged by Gerry McGovern, but if you look at my sketches and the finished article, they’re basically the same thing. I got into a bit of trouble when I talked to Autocar after the car came out in 1995. They ran something along the lines of ‘The man who really styled the MGF’ and that did not go down well. At all.”
He laughs at the memory, but the small matter of authorship and who should rightfully claim it is never far away. “It isn’t as though I am always thinking about it,” he counters. “If I’m asked about the MGF, or the Cosworth; whatever, I will say what I did. The thing about car design is that it is a collaborative process. You cannot be precious about it, but some people are. It’s funny how they only want to claim credit for successful designs, though!” It’s a valid point.
At around the same time, Harper was also involved in an off-the-books scheme to reawaken an altogether different type of sports car: the three-wheeler. “If you think back to a time before the Grinnall Scorpion,” he says, “everyone made basically the same product – cars that looked like pre-war Morgans. They were angular, coffin-like things, but this was a mid-engined machine so there was an opportunity to do something new. Mark Grinnall had, up to that point, been doing V8 conversions for Triumph TR7s so this was a radical departure for him, too. Again there was some Ferrari influence: I borrowed a little from the ‘Sharknose’ 156 Formula One car from 1961 for the front end. I was happy with it and I still think that the Scorpion looks good given that the design is now 26 years old.”
One proposal that didn’t make the cut, though, was an Aston Martin coupé that only ever existed on paper and in model form: “That was done after Ford took over [in 1991]. The idea was to spin off something extra from the Escort RS Cosworth. It was up against what became the DB7, which was a much simpler thing to do and there wasn’t a business case for my car. Looking back, I think they made the right decision.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, but also stillborn, was his beefy-looking Montego estatebased soft-roader that foretold the likes of the Subaru Legacy Outback.
By 2000, Harper had returned to Volvo, this time in Sweden, and helped move the styling direction on from cubist right angles into something gentler. He developed and refined models such as the S40, the hot S60 R, the C70 and wellreceived C30 before returning to the UK in 2008 to establish the Steve Harper Art & Design Organisation (SHADO) studio .
In addition to training the next generation of Magic Marker-wielders, he remains as busy as ever, racking up air miles working for umpteen different organisations in the Far East. These included SAIC, parent company of the MG brand for which Harper led the MG Icon crossover vehicle project in 2012.
A venture close to his heart is the bold SHADO Inspiration EV, his idea of budget transportation for the masses in emerging markets, and one that he hopes will make it into production.
“The problem with this job,” he says ruefully, “is that you come up with lots of ideas, but most of what you produce ends up in the bin. I think the worst thing is when you see a car that you had a hand in waiting to be crushed in a scrapyard. It’s a reminder that what you’re actually designing are ‘white goods’. That said, I have been fortunate in having been able to do some cars that people know and like and which are now viewed as classics. That’s a nice feeling.”
And with that it’s back to musical references. Your starter for 10 is…
Clockwise: Harper with models for what evolved into the MG Icon crossover (bottom left) – note R-R Silver Seraph backdrop; he revived Volvo’s sports hatch model with 480ES; stillborn Aston was based on Escort RS running gear.
Clockwise: signature rearwing treatment of Escort Cosworth comes together; high haunches of MGF were inspired by Ferrari 250LM; the production Grinnall Scorpion, and the sketch for what began as the Trackster/Speedstar.
Clockwise: the artist at work; Bentley Turbo R was styled in his bedroom; proposal for Bitter Tasco supercar; 1989 concept rendering for Escort RS.