MF Interview: Former MINI Design Chief Gert Hildebrand (Part 1)

A few weeks ago MINI announced that Head of MINI Design Gert Hildebrand was to leave at the end of 2010. Over the years we’ve enjoyed a great relationships with MINI executives and none more warm than with Gert. So both sides thought a final interview was in order. It gives him a chance to properly say goodbye to MINI fans and us a chance to ask all those questions we’ve always wondered about.

Due to the length and depth of the interview we’ve split it into two parts. Look for part two tomorrow (focusing on the present and future).

Part One

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview Gert. It’s been a privilege getting to know you over the years and we feel it an honor to interview you upon your departure from MINI. We have lots of questions for you that span the past ten years so let’s jump in…

MotoringFile: In almost ten years at MINI, what has been your biggest challenge?

Gert Hildebrand: The biggest challenge was to keep a balance between the historical responsibility to a very rich past and the need to move along with new concepts and evolutionary-managed modern form language.  Not to stick with retro-heritage  but not spoil the design with fashionable fast living features and styling on the contrary.  As a German national it was of course important to keep the Britishness of the brand and product intact. If this was achieved under my watch it’s up to others to judge. But this was and is essential to the past and upcoming success for MINI.

MF: Tell me about the first few years – what were they like as you were building the brand?

GH: MINI DESIGN started Jan 2001 in a 40 square-meter room in the BMW/FIZ building with 4 designers:  frank Stephenson (Exterior), Marcus Syring (Exterior/Interior), Jaennette Ohlhauser (Color/Trim)  Marisol Manso(Color & Trim) and myself.  The first thing that Marcus and I did was the MINI ROADSTER which itself was based on an earlier speedster that Frank did. From there we started to create the broader portfolio strategy. This first few days of work defined all the products we have on the market today (plus a few to come). After that it was just working to get them approved and protecting the unique aesthetic and characteristic parameters. In fact that work continues to this day! The work could be summed up by this: ANALYZING, DEFINING, IMPLEMENTING (DOING)

MF: What kind of impact did Frank Stephenson leaving for Fiat have on MINI design?

GH: Frank is a great guy and without him the first MINI R50 R53 and MINI at all would not be what it is. There is also Tony Hunter and Eric Bellinger which created the interior of the first generation MINI (which is a big part of what MINI is all about.) The combination of heritage is brought about by both the exterior and unique interior in a MINI. There are few cars on the market where the interior is as crucial as an aspect to the overall design. It’s important that no one forgot the work and the importance of that work. And thusly no other brand is so much connected and discussed in the matter of interiors as MINI.

But back to Frank, he worked nearly one and a half more years inside the MINI design team before he left (for Ferrari/Masserati, Alfa, Fiat, and then finally on to McLaren). The success of his MINI made him coveted by many renowned brands. Ultimately he was headhunted away by Montezemmelo.  To lose a key-person out of your team it is always a loss on diversity and personality. This was especially the case with Frank who had a very positive character which you can`t replace easily. But as with everything life goes on.

MF: Continuing that thought – Since the R56 was released there has remained a very vocal minority who prefer the R50 generation of MINIs. Some like the supercharged engine, some like the steering feel. Then there are some that just prefer the styling of the original R50 and R53. How do you handle/respond to those critics?

GH: A subject without critic and discussion is a dead object. I like the way MINI is discussed inside the communities, media and also between friends. I think it is right that there are preferences for certain models and styles. Think of it this way; year the car industry produced around 58,000,000 cars. MINI will sell around 235,000 cars. You can see that 57,765,000 customers made a decision against buying a MINI. Because there is variety, diversity and different needs buyers made other choices But we made 235,000 MINI owners happy. 1.8 million in the last ten years under my stewardship and over 7 million in all.

MF: How has European and worldwide legislation changed automotive design in the past 30 years?

GH: Dramatically. 95% of our work is designing around government and  organizations (like TÜV, N-cap, JD-power etc) rules and legislations. This will increase in the next few years with additional pressure and will influence the proportion of cars, especially front overhang and pillar structure diameter dramatically.  Also the cost and price of cars is very much influenced from this pressure and environmental issues. Pedestrian impact, implications of Co 2… there is a lot to come.

MF: How do you feel about the current state of global automobile design?

GH: The advancement of the Koreans (Peter Schreyer), Kia, Hyundai are really interesting. Upcoming Chinese?? Losing Italians??? All over the world, the BRIC countries are investing dramatically in the most important asset of the car-industry: designers, design departments, design education and brands. The established companies will face fierce wind blowing towards them because the demographic advantage and the hunger of creating and leading this industry is now in the new countries. All together the near future still will bring some mediocre design from the new companies, but in their second generation they will have learned.  The overall quality of design in general at all car manufacturers is on  a very high level, because  the big companies are all investing in design departments and the aesthetic of cars. They know that DESIGN is purchasing reason number one.

MF: How much has negative critic on your work effected you as a person and designer? For instance the MotoringFile comment section can be notoriously harsh on new ideas and new MINIs. How have you handled that?

GH: If you work in an subjective field like design you always have to be ready to be shot at.  Design and especially MINI design is walking on a thin line and it is not our or my job to make everybody happy. Instead it’s the targeted group of customers which we like to appeal and like to please. For a sensitive person (and all designers should be that) critique always hurts. But it can and is counter-balanced with all that positive reaction to our work. Also it is easier to be negative in an online environment than be positive…that’s nature of communication.

MF: Now that four years have passed, tell us about the real story behind the GP. I’ve heard it was your baby. Is that true?

GH: I wanted it green with red roof…….everybody was laughing, because it looked like an x-mas tree. But was from my side connected to the classic MINI GT..(look at Clarkson’s video)  but now the JCW  has a red roof…….and you can order it in green.

In order to find out about the lightest, most aerodynamic and fastest MINI the project was started as what we call a U_BOOT (submarine) project. The GP idea was done at the skunk-works of the PL (product line) engineering from two guys  Jürgen Märkert (body) and Peter Frank Weber (engine).

That’s it for today. Check back tomorrow for the rest of the interview when we talk about the present and future of MINI.