Frank Stephenson: MINI Has Lost it

Frank Stephenson, exterior designer of the R50 and R53 MINI was interviewed earlier this year on the occasion of his latest creation debuting – the McLaren P1. Frank, a long time reader and friend of MF created the R50 during a time of intense turmoil and competition amongst BMW and Rover designers and engineers. The resulting car is often looked at as the most pure of not best looking modern MINI to date. Even if a lack of pedestrian safety standards certainly gave the design team much more freedom, it’s hard to argue the R50 isn’t design success.

It’s with that success that Frank moved onto Ferrari and Fiat where he oversaw everything from the F430 Scuderia to the Fiat 500 to the Maserati MC12. From there Frank moved north and to McLaren where he cleaned up an already in progress MC12 and designed the already mythical P1. So to say he has some credibility around MotoringFile and the general automotive world is an understatement. And that begs the question, what are his thoughts on the modern state of MINI design? Yahoo Automotive’s Jamie Kitman caught up with Frank earlier this year and talked specifically about that amongst other automotive topics. Keep in mind that this interview happened earlier this year and thus doesn’t include reactions to the new F56. However the full interview is well worth a read but the MINI specifics portions (which you can see after the break) are particularly interesting.

To say Frank dislikes the R5X MINI range would be an understatement. We can’t say we agree with him but it’s easy to understand his perspective. While he didn’t have to deal with the raft of new crash standards with his R50, he is clearly qualified to have an opinion.

Check it out after the break.

countryman accessories

Jamie Kitman: So what do you think of the Countryman?

Frank Stephenson: Oh, my gosh, I don’t like it. I mean I don’t like the whole new trend at all. I think they just wildly abused the brand. And they’ve gone away from their roots in such a way that now the buyers are not the same buyers.

JK: When the next Mini has got three rows of seats and a V-8, I’ll know that they’ve really lost it.

FS: They’ve lost it. [When] they chose to change the design, [c. 2007] perhaps that would have been the best moment to break away and really innovate like the original Mini did. With all the new technology today, how would you reinterpret a small car with the technology that BMW’s capable of using for that type of car?

You can imagine a very small car like a Mini with the innovative packaging again, putting maximum amount of space around the very limited four occupants, for example, how to carry luggage and all that. So I was hoping for a breakthrough, creative look to the new Mini to the new, new [second-generation] Mini.

r56 vs r50

JK: It seemed like what they did was, they mostly concentrated on cutting costs.

FS: They did. The original wasn’t cheap to build that way, I think that’s one of the things that happens when you do get a bit risky. … And it was expensive, of course, to build. Had it not been, then it probably wouldn’t have looked like it did. It probably wouldn’t have been as successful.

JK: No, it felt very special in a way.

FS: Yeah, it was a small BMW, basically. So you were getting the quality and the technology of the BMW on a small platform. And, of course, companies are always in the business of trying to make money, so how to make it just as desirable with maybe a higher-volume share in technology for platforms and engines with other companies. So it suffered maybe a little bit from that. But yet the car still sells very well.

There’s a whole new segment of buyers for the car. Maybe the older ones are still linked to the original 2000 Mini. The newer buyers are coming in because they like the reputation of ?? the spirit of the Mini. Yet it can accommodate family or, you know, going out to the mountains like a small SUV or something. So it’s a bit of everything for everybody. But, of course, the Mini was ?? it is more of a niche car. I think its original intention was put families on wheels in a small, limited amount of space.

Now, of course, volume means that they just get bigger and bigger…

Read the entire interview at Yahoo Automotive.

Some of this is quite interesting to read and some of it is expected. The one thing that I think Frank misses is the amount of BMW technology and engineering in the R56 and F56 has increased dramatically as compared to what was in the R50. Gone our the Rover parts or the donor engines made in Brazil for instance. The car is now basically 100% BMW in regards to supplier components and engineering. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is of course up to all of us to decide.