Interviews Frank Stephenson has an excellent interview with ex-MINI designer Frank Stephenson that sheds some light on the original MINI project and why it’s not retro.

Q: You left BMW to join Ferrari and Maserati just as BMW shifted towards bold design. Do you agree with the direction BMW has taken? A: BMW could have stayed on the same path but it had to change; there is a limit on evolution. It was decided that a radical change was necessary and, yes, it was shocking to some people. It was like a human with two heads – it might be shocking at first but after a while you get used to it. I’m not going to say whether I like it or not but every design needs a period of refinement.

Q: What do you think about retro design? A: Retro is a sin in my book. It might have worked one time but I believe, as a designer, you’re paid to come up with new ideas.

Q: But wasn’t the Mini a retro design – and you designed the Mini?A: Retro is going back. Interpreting DNA is another thing. It’s like a child; it will grow to be a taller, stronger, smarter, healthier version of your grandfather – you can see the resemblance but it’s not the same. If the Mini had evolved, who’s to say it wouldn’t look like it does today? Is the Porsche 911 a retro car? Absolutely not.

You can read it all below:

[ Does this guy have the best job in the world? ]
  • usaaus

    “Does this Guy Have The Best Job in the World?” I’m not thinking of a better one right now!

  • duncan

    semantics and contradiction. by his argument none of the “retro” cars out today (pt crusier, thunderbird, beetle, gt350, mustang) are any more retro than the mini.

  • dominicminicoopers

    Duncan hit the nail on the head. Good explanation duncan. Frank is really good at spin-city.

  • I think you guys may be missing his point.

  • Giacomo

    As usual!

  • Bud Dill

    Stephenson’s job requires genuine passion to generate tenacious commitment capable of enduring often ruthless critical scrutiny. The marketplace inevitably becomes the final arbiter and determinant of consumer acclaim or rejection. Since there are so many economic factors that impact the design process it is difficult for those of us not directly involved to accurately delineate the degree of compromise that may have diluted the authenticity of many original concepts.

    In the final analysis (as Stephenson suggests) aesthetic freedom must correlate with price and marketability thus the lusciousness of a Lusso vs, the plethora of commercial retro-clones attempting to carve a ridiculous niche in the psyche of the non-progressives amongst us.

    As we have come to observe many concept car designs (that deserve to move from auto show spotlight to roadway greenlight) are either scraped, or severely hacked so as to retain only faint resemblance to their progenitor. Marketing “spin” can and does provide the antidote to “adjust” our perceptions and acceptance.

  • Bryn

    What’s “consummer,” “lucsiousness” and “resemblence”?

  • Richard

    In MINI circles, Frank Stephenson is mentioned with such hushed tones of reverence that I always thought he must be some wizened old master. But now I see he is only 45 and would have been still in his 30’s when he designed the new MINI! I’m feeling very old.

  • Greg W

    To quote Alexander Issigonis; “One thing that I learnt the hard way – well, not the hard way, the easy way – when you’re designing a new car for production, never, never copy the opposition.” – Issigonis. “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” – Issigonis.

    His design of old Mini lasted 42 years.

  • Giacomo

    I like the interview because now I hear more who design my Cooper S. I always hear he was very good, now I know! Mr. Stephenson is a great designer from work I see he has done in his career! He combine always respect of the feeling of the company with fantastic new look, like Ford Escort Cosworth (buyable rally car), BMW X5 (elegant, sporty SUV), MINI (beautiful icon evolution), Maserati Gransport (way it should have been make first time), Maserati MC12 (beautiful race car for street), Ferrari F430 (so strong design!), Ferrari FXX (make my mouth water), Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano (everything a Ferrari must be). Now I know he goed to Fiat and he work too on Lancia. I can not wait to see new designs from him! I think he will help them too much!

  • Trick

    IMHO I think you’re wrong Duncan.

    The Beetle is the most awful offender. I’ll use it as an example: Take a RWD, rear engine car and plop a body that looks similar onto a convenient platform and call it done? The Beetle is a classic example of form before function. The driving characteristics show that—awful ergonomics and it handles like a grocery cart.

    That’s why the New Beetle is going to have the shelf life of a mayfly when it’s all said and done.

    Retro’s a fad. Evolution isn’t.

  • Bud Dill

    F.Y.I. Bryn,

    The first and last quotes you cite are typos just as the comma following vs. Excuuuuuse me!

    Very difficult no doubt for you to inductively fathom as the self-appointed “unofficial” proof reader/ grammarian of this website.

    By the way where can I find the definition of — “lucsiousness”?

  • Giacomo

    Hey …………I’m the original Giacomo! Who is this impostor?!

  • Giacomo

    You are original but I am new. Like Mini and MINI may be? 😉 Still I like your ideas I read from your other mails so we both similar too. I have old Mini (1967) and new (2003) and for me I agree with Bud Dill and Trick because new MINI is new icon and I no think that all new American retro junk will be present 20 years in future at Pebble Beach for example as beautiful and complete car but MINI yes!

  • groland

    Will the real Giacomo please stand up?

  • Richard
    That’s why the New Beetle is going to have the shelf life of a mayfly when it’s all said and done.

    The New Beetle is in its ninth year of production and has had respectable yearly sales. Although I agree with criticisms of its design and engineering, the New Beetle cannot be described as a short-lived failure.

    By the way, how do MINI and the New Beetle compare in yearly production/sales?

  • Giacomo

    Giacomo Gate! I’m going to become, even though I was the Original Giacomo, Ballardini. So there you have it!

  • Ballardini

    BTW…..I like the new Beetle, don’t know much about the mechanicals and all that but I think it’s a nice design with true lineage to the original car. I don’t really understand all the criticism of it, how else would it look? really how else would it look?


  • Gary

    The Sydney Morning Herald is a great web-site… When a big event happens somewhere in the world, it’s always interesting to read about it on…

    I’m still new to MINI ownership, so it’s great to read about how it all came about… I always enjoyed reading the Drive section of the Friday paper in Sydney… Good to see another good article from it…

  • Vanwall

    Nice interview, even tho it must’ve come from a wire service – it’s been in print B4, I believe. Mr. Stephenson has a nice flair for adaptability – going from one marque to another isn’t always easy, and I’m continually impressed with his designs. I can’t say he’ll turn Fiat around by himself, but it helps to have attractive products to offer, something he’ll be guanteed to pen.

    I like his take on the latest BMW designs – such a sea-change is always hard to take – one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship, I always say, unless ya feel like swimming – there are other shores and other cars, albeit not with BMW’s handling, altho there may be some sledgehammers required in my definition of “period of refinement”. 😉

    His view of the Mini/MINI DNA is OK in my book – it’s only the second iteration of the design to reach production, and carries on the syling cues and basics right into this century. Th 911 has kept the basic design alive, and so has Frank Stephenson with MINI. Ford GT, Lambo Miura are almost continuation cars, as well.

    The PT Cruiser has no real antecedent as a production car, so is very much retro; the Beetle’s retro-ness has been addressed by Trick, altho rather harshly regarding its longevity – it is a success as a niche car, no doubt about it, and MINI should do so well; The T’bird and the ‘Stang owe nothing to the models just preceding them – they are totally reaching back to another era. Retro, retro, retro. I’m just as sure about the latest crop of muscle-cars on the show circuit – they all are extreme retro, no doubt about it.

    Just my 36-year-experience-with-the-marque take on it.

    Rob in Dago
  • O(=^=)O Capn
    Bean-counters are the people you don’t want to see. They make you replace parts with plastic. It’s like someone else coming in and dressing your child in cheap clothes. With a premium brand, you can make it from good materials because you can charge for it.

    You can see that in the MINI for sure.

    This is an evolution for sure. The example he used with the 911 is a perfect example. Not retro.

    Hey! Fake Giacomo! Get your own Name! And learn to use proper english. It is a dead give away that you are a fake!

  • Giacomo

    Ballardini, you are too nice! Thank you. And O(0^0))…%&/!”£!!! Let me see you write other language!

  • Greg W

    I’m Spartacus….no I’m Spartacus…and so on and so on. Can Motoringfile have a block on member names please!

  • Ballardini

    W. get over yourself man!

    Giacomo 2 you now Giacomo 1 ….enjoy.

  • Spartacus II

    I am Spartacus too , as well , also 😀

  • Mike

    That’s awesome, I didn’t know he designed the Cosworth Escort. I’ve drooled over that car for a long time. I’d say he’s had a good track record, well ok everything but the X5, bleh.

  • Giacomo

    For me X5 is the best SUV. It still looking very good and fresh now after many years. I like because has strong BMW look but is the very first BMW SUV. I wonder if Stephenson is a private designer and he work for hire? MINI I think is his best design but I read he is making a new competition to it for Fiat. Oh oh! Giacomo 2, now 1, Ballardini you are cool!

  • Trick

    Maybe I harshed out a bit on the longevity.

    I think in terms of automotive history the New Beetle will be held up more as an example of brilliant automotive marketing rather than automotive design. (Let me make it clear, I don’t hate the car. I enjoyed mine, but it lost it’s appeal pretty quickly once the novelty wore off.)

    But I stand by the comments on the fact that there’s a substantial difference between the approaches between Stephenson and Mays.

    Granted Mays did better with the T’Bird, but Ford overpriced it and continued to reduce the quality of materials to something akin to what KFC uses for their sporks. I digress.

    By the way, how do MINI and the New Beetle compare in yearly production/sales?

    MINI has managed to sell pretty much whatever the factory can make. I think this holds true given that sales only drop off due to plant slowdowns. So percentage-wise, I’d put my money on MINI.

    YMMV, but even as early as 2000, I was able to buy the hot ticket NB (the first VW to have the 20V 1.8T in it) for substantially below MSRP. The demand for MINIs is still elevated, I believe it’s still rare to find a MINI for less than MSRP.

    Granted not all of this comes back to design, but large parts of it originate from there.

  • Giacomo

    Yes Trick but I think good design is main selling point and good mean all of the car. Like MINI, everything is familiar but different – better functions make me think always of new improved. Forward, not retro. Beetle bring nothing new for car design, Golf chassis with too heavy and engine in wrong place and painfull package for rear head room. Only racing for this VW is NOS drag in straight line! This is improvement? Thank you for vision Stephenson! I keep my MINI for always!

  • O(=^=)O Capn

    Que uiere que te digo, payaso?

  • O(=^=)O Capn

    Que quiere que te digo, payaso?(no se como salio el q)

  • Giacomo

    !ӣ$%Capn, I proud of you. You learn Spanish for impress me? Thank you but this is a forum in English so please be clear and considerate for the others. Anyway, you still forget s after quiere, so keep practice at home. This forum is about MINI, not languages! Anyway I like MINI design and you like too so I am a friend.


    What does it matter if he speaks broken yiddish? As he said it’s about the forum.