The MINI Concepts of the 1990's

A while back Ian Cull posted short article on his MINI blog about a recent purchase of the original Rover press release about the MINI Spiritual concept. It got me wondering how many of today’s owners know the rather turbulent and interesting history of the MINI in the 1990’s. That turbulence is reflected in the three concepts that BMW and Rover built in the mid 90’s and the design process that surrounded them.

Various government backed companies that manufactured the Mini through the years were less than successful on the business side of things. In fact British Leyland, Rover, etc tried to kill the Mini more than once (first to avoid converting the engine to run on unleaded, then to avoid increasing safety requirements) but English public opinion was too negative. So when BMW bought Rover and the Mini there was quite a bit of hope for the future.

Development on some of these concepts took place independent of BMW which was also creating what would eventually become the E50 and then the R50 – the new MINI. Here’s an excerpt from Robson’s “New MINI” that details some of this time period:

“Even as early as 1994, designers on both sides of the channel dusted off their sketches of Mini-sized cars and started turning them into models, both scale and full size. Though neither knew that the other was running rival projects, Fave Saddington looked after MINI work at Gaydon, while Frank Stephenson ( an American citizen with much experience at GM and Ford before he joined BMW in 1991) forged ahead in Munich.


Even so, it was not until an absolutely seminal date – Tuesday, 17 October 1995 – that the two teams faced each other, when their respective offerings were shown to BMW’s directors at a presentation and viewing at a top-secret meeting in the BMIHT Heritage Centre at Gaydon.

Knowing that the integrity of the MINI brand had to be preserved at all costs, both teams – British and German – had thought in terms of evolution. After 1959 the Mini, as a style, had not advanced at all, so several ‘might have been’ re-generations had never taken place.

Both teams, therefore, tried to think along the same lines. What might have happened how might it have happened and what should a forth or fifth generation Mini look like?


The two concepts that came out of the Rover side of the design team were the Spiritual and the Spiritual2 (seen here in dark blue). The two Spiritual concepts were much more a radical departure from the design that eventually won out. They tried to be as revolutionary in the 90’s as the Mini was in late 50’s. Designers tried to envision a future of more cars, more people, less space and more expensive fuel. In a sense they tried to push the same set of circumstances that led to the original Mini a bit further. In one of the more radical departures in terms of original Mini design the Spiritual was to have a flat three cylinder located under the rear seats driving the rear wheels!

Rover’s press release at the time called the Spiritual 2 “a full four-seat family car achieved in a package of just 3.1 metres [10 feet, the same as the original Mini and much shorter than the MINI]”, Interestingly even the press release that accompanied the prototypes at the time of release mentioned that they were never really meant to be the “new Mini”. They were meant to simply be “a free-thinking approach to the long-term challenges of a future generation.” Of course now we know that they were indeed proposals for the next Mini. In fact the Rover design team left that October 17th meeting with relatively high hopes that their design was to be chosen. Here’s another excerpt from Robson’s book:


“Leaving the meeting with the impression that their offerings had been preferred over the massed ranks of MINI (BMW) offerings, they were soon cast down when it became clear that BMW’s designers thought that they, too, had been chosen to take their own projects a stage further.

This meant, effectively, that the British designers then wasted much of the winter of 1995/1996 working on further refinements of the Spiritual concept. When Rover Group’s marketing staff realized that control of this project was slipping away from them, they were so distressed that they worked up, and issues, an internal document criticizing what the Munich studios were offering instead.

The German E50, they suggested, had been styled first, and packaged second, was not thought to be an ‘Issignois way’ of doing things, was thought to be ‘only better than average’, and that it” doesn’t truly shock with innovation”.


p>This of course is truly fascinating considering how succcessful the new MINI has become. While BMW may have designed the MINI backwards (shape first, engineering second) they did an amazing job with the execution of the final car. No one can argue with the success the new MINI has found in the last 3-4 years.


The ACV 30 on the other hand traded much of the Mini’s functionality for a more aggressive, rally inspired look. Obviously the market for such a vehicle probably wouldn’t have sustained it’s sales for very long. That being said the ACV 30 was a fully drivable prototype and debuted at the 1997 Monte Carlo Rally. I was going to school in England at the time and remember the ACV 30 being all over the papers for a day or two. It was quite exciting to see a reinterpretation of the then current Mini and I think many were just happy to see an English automaker looking to the future. However BMW was keen to let everyone know that this was not the new MINI that would be debuting later at the Frankfurt Auto show in the fall.


According to Robson’s “New Mini” the ACV 30 was created by the Munich design team and was presented as one of the five ideas at that fateful autumn meeting in 1995. Interestingly this Munich team was lead by none other than Adrian Van Hooydonk, who would go on to create the current 6 and 7 series and later become head of BMW design.

Of course the team that he lost to was lead by none other than Frank Stephanson, who would go on to be head of all Ferrari design.

Looking at the ACV 30 and what would become the eventual new MINI, one can’t help but get the feeling that great minds think alike. The toggle switches among other things were eerily similar on both concepts.

When viewed with the benefit of time passed they certainly are interesting concepts. However, I think it’s fair to say none would have been as successful in today’s market as well as the current MINI.

For those interested you can see couple photos of the winning concept, the car that eventually became the current MINI, here. BTW this is one of the first MINI related sites I ever put together back in the summer of ’02 🙂

Note: A big thanks to Ian Cull who helped with some information in this article. Also it’s worth mentioning that, while this is meant to be a quick introduction into this topic, it’s certainly not the last word. Much more can be found in Graham Robson’s book “The New MINI“. It’s a must have for any serious fan of the new MINI.

  • David

    Great read!
    I just bought a 2005 Cooper and have been devouring information on this car. I stop at everyday to see what Gabe has posted. A great site and I appreciate the attention to design details.. just like the MINI.

    Keep up the great work!


  • RB

    Like wise with me and this site.

    Never would have bought that thing! Looks like something that Fiat would design…like their MultiPla van, shown here……RB

  • James

    I like the two Spiritual cars, not as a replacement for the classic Mini, but they might be fine additions now to the MINI brand.

  • I wonder if anyone has tried to design a 90's Mini with todays MINI interior. It would be quite interesting.

  • DoubleNick

    Gabe,thanks for the info. I just ordered the book. Please continue your great service.

  • Vanwall

    I remember seeing the trade news articles when the Spirituals were unveiled, in fact there was some buzz even B4 that, and none of the independent views were positive. These were most definitely not ground breaking or particularly clever, IMHO, and looked much like any number of other design studies from other manufacturers and studios from that period that were stillborn as well. They didn't appeal as a continuation of the “Mini” product line as was then in production – they were too far outside the niche market for the Mini.

    The flat motor under the seats wasn't new either – VW had a whole series of cars planned around something similar twenty years or so B4, and there was a minor revolt at the top there that led to a wholesale switch to FWD, and scrapping (literaly!) of the design studies and all existing prototypes. Perhaps the BMW executives realized the folly of radical design changes for the Mini was making them go down the wrong road. Or maybe they remembered the VW lesson.

    Let's face it – Stephenson's MINI is a brilliant interpretation of the fundamental Issigonis breakthrough. The BMW design group he led must have realized the SHAPE was the thing, the mechanicals were irrelevant to the concept, and could be engineered from the inside out to whatever level of performance was desired, while leaving the iconic Mini look.

    The ACV 30 I always viewed as a Hard-topped Frog-eye thingamajig, and while it kinda looked Mini influenced, I couldn't quite squint m'eye enough to see a Mini there. Bulbous Bouffant, as far as I'm concerned, but eh, whatever – it wasn't going to be the new Mini either, and I knew that as soon as I saw a pic of it. Thank God BMW made the right choice.

         Rob in Dago

  • As always Rob – well said. I think Frank Stephenson (and the other designers on the team) did a fantastic job of creating a design that looked as if it had evolved from the original. They created a design that was successful in many of the same ways the original Mini was yet had a modern look about it. Granted it wasn't as a revolutionary concept in terms of mechanicals but hey – there are only so many of those to be had 🙂

  • Al

    Actually, I kinda like the design of the ACV30. I would have bought that just as readily as I did my '04 MCS.

  • Pete

    whoa, they all look stupid! 🙁 thank goodness they never used those concepts for real,the acv30 isnt bad from the side, but it looks too much like the original from the front, not bad, but not much like a mini, i love my 04' jcw s, its great, hmm, i wonder if the acv30 perhaps, had a bigger engine?

  • Graham Robson

    You might like to know that a fully revised/updated of my NEW MINI book appeared in the spring of 2005 – including all Cooper S, Convertible and modern John Cooper Works derivatives.

  • David M

    I am looking for a 1995 Mini Engine. I am in Japan, On Okinawa actually and have the oportunity to pick up a 95 at a very good price. problem is the previous owner did not know that it required OIL. Any recommendations on how to get an engine or parts of the block and pistons would be appreciated. Dave

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