BMW Taps Into the British Psyche

History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce … then as the Mini. An announcement that two new versions of Britain’s most successful car will soon be produced at BMW’s Cowley plant offers coruscating insights into national identity, consumer psychology and the realities of design today.

It was on August 26, 1959, when ice-cream colored Ford Zodiacs with fluted chrome still wafted along dual-carriageways, that the Mini 1.0 appeared. As a small boy my father took me to see one of the first at the Rocket Garage in Liverpool.

What was obvious even — perhaps specially — to a child was ingenuity of a high order. Alec Issigonis’s insistence on compactness and his refusal of “style” produced the most unusual and influential car ever. But Issigonis had a demanding personality: he insisted, for example, that discomfort kept drivers helpfully alert.

Still, like all great art, the Mini defined, in fact predicated, the mood of an era. Remember: the car arrived before the skirt.

Woefully inept management did not realize that the Mini was manufactured at a loss until the Seventies — by which time rights to the name were owned by the industrial calamity that was British Leyland. BMW bought the remains of BL in 1994. It was an act of opportunistic gallantry. The chairman of the Bavarian company at that time was a relation of Issigonis; he did not want scruffy factories, gormless executives and a truculent workforce: he wanted access to the Britishness of Austin-Healey, MG and Riley. But most of all, Mini.

The Mini 2.0 appeared in 2001. Sales-wise, it was a clever way to extend BMW’s product-line without damage to a premium reputation. Art-wise, it was more clever still. Line-up Mini 2.0 against Mini 1.0 and you will see no true similarity; the new car is much larger, heavier, self-consciously cute. So in a sense, it is a travesty of Issigonis’s minimalist vision. The Audi designer Walter de’Silva damned it as “repetition”.

And, it seems, this — combined with the delicious sense of a quality toy — is exactly what consumers want. The success of the Mini 2.0 (and now Mini 2.1 and so on) has delighted and baffled by turns. It proves that car design is a matter of nuance and evocation. The Mini pillages and plays with collective consciousness: the design is of a fantasy, not of a machine. It is an idea, not an invention.

Failure, they say, is a bastard while success has many fathers. There are several claims to Mini 2.0 paternity, but that wonderful shape was the responsibility of Frank Stephenson, a 49-year-old American. Stephenson soon moved on to Ferrari and then McLaren, companies with interesting back catalogs of their own.

Is the future to redesign the past ? The Mini tells us yes.