Hear From the Modern MINI's Original Designer

Throughout the month of May, MINI Canada is hosting virtual meet-ups on its website to bring fans together in these times of lockdowns and other restrictions.  

This past Sunday, John Cooper’s grandson Charlie had a long chat with Frank Stephenson, the renowned car designer who played a pivotal role in MINI’s 2001 reboot.

While the man also worked on the Fiat 500, Ferrari F430 and FXX, BMW X5 (first generation), Maserati MC12 and most of the current McLaren cars, the modern MINI is the creation he says he’s the most proud of.

Frank Stephenson wants to make one thing clear: his intention was never to design a retro car. Rather, he sought to recreate the spirit and feel of the original Mini in a package with contemporary styling and technology that would evolve nicely over time.

Fifteen different sketches were submitted and considered. Stephenson, who worked at BMW’s California design studio at the time, got the nod. Interestingly, unlike other designers, he didn’t go straight to developing a MINI for the 21st century. Instead, he first imagined what the car would have looked like in 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 and even 2009 to have that sort of genetic link between the cars.  

Like Dennis the Menace, Cute and Naughty

The clamshell hood and round headlights were very important to him, just like the contrasting roof and mirror caps (stemming from John Cooper's original desire to make the Mini Cooper stand out even more on the racetrack). Also, the idea of having wraparound glass—admittedly a real challenge for engineers to incorporate—is an element that gave the model a clean and super-modern look.

The isolated taillights on the rear fenders are another feature Stephenson fought for. That was possible at the time because the build team could do it by hand, but nowadays it would be just too expensive.

“I really liked to find and push the limits of car design and manufacturing while creating the modern MINI. I believe it’s a worthy successor to the original,” he says.

John Cooper himself contributed to the design and applauded the final result, which preserved his legacy and was positively British instead of being just a German MINI (remember, the brand is now owned by BMW).

What about the future and fully electric powertrains like the one in the new 2020 MINI Cooper SE? Stephenson understands the logic, but he definitely prefers to hear and feel the engine turn and rev under the hood—otherwise it’s like losing one of your senses; you’re going to miss it.

Call him old-school? No, just "a romantic,” he confesses, laughing.  

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