I should probably have offered these thoughts whilst we were discussing ‘retro’, but a recent article on another site made me reflect on the plight of Mini, or should that be MINI?
I’ll dive straight in and state immediately that I abhor what BMW has done to the design of the Mini. If ever there was a lesson as to what can go wrong with second-hand design, this has to be it. When I see one of the latest generation 3 door hatches (to mention the 5 door would be more gratuitous, but unfair because there never was a 5 door version of Issigonis’s original) something stirs within me, and it’s not nice.
Everything about this car’s design is lazy, clumsy and unimaginative. To call it a caricature would be unfair to that genre of art, as, more often than not, there is at least a hint of wit in it, whereas the 3rd-gen MINI is witless. I have managed to source a very helpful photograph depicting the four generations of this iconic car to help illuminate my point, although you’re going to be well with my drift by now.
Let’s just forget any comparison between the 3rd-gen MINI and Issignonis’s little Austin/ Morris for the moment, there is scant point. The first incarnation of the BMW MINI was a rather nice piece of design and engineering which, taken in the context of the era in which it was launched, was a tasteful homage to what went before.
Most notably, there was some packaging genius in the housing of the engine, which enabled a remarkably short front overhang. Now, I realise that this car would probably struggle with today’s pedestrian impact legislation as a result, but it still rates as a landmark piece of design engineering which no one else could mimic at that time. Although clearly a lot bigger than the original car, it still looked compact, light, and unfussy.
Furthermore, although the design was clearly meant to accentuate the (incidental) sporty heritage of the Mini, this mien was integrated with a deft touch, rather that smeared tastelessly at every opportunity. The interior (not pictured) was a relatively simple design, coupled with some humour in the detailing. Yes, the central speedometer dial was rather daft, even more so considering that feature was dropped from the Mini decades before that car went out of production, but it worked, partly because Japanese amusements such as the S-Cargo had been there in the more recent past.
Jump now to the current, 3rd-gen car (the intermediate car was a less appealing kind of uber-lifting of the first), and all I can see are over-proportioned details (the rear lights, the lower front valance and fog-light assembly on the Cooper S, the oddly-sited and angled headlamps) on an over-inflated interpretation of the 1st-gen’s bodywork. This new car looks huge, heavy, puffy and ungainly. This is all the more bemusing when you consider that at least some of the engines must be more compact than before given that they are now 3 cylinder units – recall that much of the design of the Mini was driven by wrapping bodywork around an engine layout and a maximisation of interior space.
“Nippy” is a much-used term to describe the Mini – I’d never use that term to describe the new car, however well it drives. The interior is crass and cack-handed mix of generic small-car (air-vents, for example) interspersed with MINI-isms. Overall, it’s anti-progressive. Moreover, it looks like the lifeless bit of a dead end.
Put a different way, if you were to extrapolate from this design to its next regeneration in your mind, I’d suggest that the result does not stand thinking about. People moan about what VW have done with the latest Beetle, but I much prefer it to the 3rd-gen Mini, particularly on the “classic-look” wheels.
I think there is a real risk that BMW will see MINI’s sales wilt during the lifetime of this generation. I’m convinced it needs to either dump the entire current design language and root amongst the essence of Mini to create something completely fresh, or just go for a more stripped and minimalistic re-interpretation the original themes. I had thought that the “Rocketman” concept was hinting at something akin to the latter (albeit the much earlier Spiritual twins worked better to my mind), but some of the more attractive elements of that concept have been lost en-route.
In terms of the former thought, for me there is much about the i3 which has the essence of “Mini”. Not so much, perhaps, the external design, but the innovation in the concept, the interior, and the attempt to minimise the space-impact of the drivetrain and maximise the utility of the interior space. So, maybe MINI will die and be replaced, more strategically, by the i3 and its near family and descendants. Perhaps they could give a future i2 a name like MIN-I, or i-MINI … Either way, it’s time to put this piece of second-hand design out of our misery.