MOTOR MOUTH: A ghost on wheels

MOTOR MOUTH: A ghost on wheels - When I first saw the Morris Mini-Minor I was holding my father's hand. Even as a seven-year-old, I was astonished. We'd driven to the showroom in a Humber Super Snipe, a huge car of black paint and smelly brown leather.

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When I first saw the Morris Mini-Minor I was holding my father's hand. Even as a seven-year-old, I was astonished. We'd driven to the showroom in a Humber Super Snipe, a huge car of black paint and smelly brown leather.

The contrast was compelling and probably initiated my interest in design.

When I first saw BMW's new Mini, I was disappointed. It seemed bloated and over-wrought, a travesty of Alec Issigonis' purist intentions. But when I drove it, I soon changed my mind. It is brilliant.

The 1959 Mini was a turning point in the history of industrial design: one of the most original and influential machines ever made. How something so radical could have emerged from the stultifying culture of Longbridge and Cowley is an eternal imponderable, but the Mini changed the way people thought about cars. It had more innovations than you could wave a stick at: front-wheel drive, transverse engine, advanced suspension, brilliant packaging. It had been designed from the inside out. Just for once, form actually did follow function. And it showed.

The original Mini was also a blast to drive: its handling, roadholding and steering have hardly been bettered in 40 years. And it was awesomely minimalist. The windows slid (horizontally) and there were string pulls for the handles, leaving the doors empty of stuff so you could store milk bottles there. But it was not perfect: the driving position was atrocious, it had DIY heating, a corrugated ride, medieval electrics, gaps, rattles and leaks everywhere. But these were, so five million customers thought, small prices to pay for cute convenience.

The new Mini preserves the good bits and has subjected the bad to the ferocious scrutiny of BMW. Truth be told, all that's really preserved is a ghostly aura of the past and that famous name. The new car is, in fact, a small front-wheel drive BMW made in Oxford. Mini is now a standalone brand with unique past and present credentials. Quite how BMW expects to recoup the costs of all this original engineering in a one-use application is mysterious, but then I always suspected it knows something we don't.

You could conduct a post-graduate design seminar just walking around this car. BMW probably did. The glasshouse ingeniously preserves the 1959 look without aping anything other than the near-vertical screen. The windows of '59 were poky slits, but the new car is very bright and airy. Again, its face manages to summon up ghosts of rumours of nuances of recollection of the Mini-Minor while actually looking nothing of the sort. Cleverly, BMW makes the car look both friendly and aggressive, much aided by the stance, which has the wheels pushed out to the limit of the envelope in all axes. These wheels are huge, at least as compared with the tiny 10-inch discs of the original car.

A time-travelling customer from 1959 would recognise only the large central speedometer as hommage to Issigonis. The rev counter sits on top of the steering column (a mite too cutely) and all the rest is the sort of stuff you'd find in Blueprint or Wallpaper: textured quality plastics, expressive aluminium gestures and chrome highlights.

I do not like the style of the cabin, but I love its feel. The 2001 Mini feels wide and stable. Front passengers do not get the impression they are in a small car. Even the back is survivable. Whereas in 1959 you sat with your neck bent, your face in your lap and your knees in your armpits, it is a measure of the progress of our civilization that today provision is made for your triple skinny latte. The doors, in the interest of dignity and elegance, open nearly 90 degrees, a brilliant design detail.

It's not true that the new Mini goes as well as the old. It goes far better. Even the base model (Mini One, with more powerful Cooper and Cooper 'S' variants also available) seems fast enough to keep ahead of urban traffic. I doubt you'd want to do a long journey in it, but that's what aeroplanes are for.

The only real question is about consumer psychology. Here the world is in a muddle. Who would have predicted that Talibs would develop soft spots for Japanese pick-ups? A German car whose unique selling proposition is its kinship to a British model dating from before the invention of sexual intercourse would confound MBAs. Imagine writing the business plan! Whoever would want such a car? Me.

BMW's Mini costs: Mini One pounds 10,300, Mini Cooper pounds 11,600.

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