Home » Here’s What Mini Did Wrong When It Modernized The Classic Mini Look In 2001

Here’s What Mini Did Wrong When It Modernized The Classic Mini Look In 2001


I know it tends to get eye-rolls from a lot of design snobs, but I appreciate a good retro-update design. When done well, the translation of a fundamental design from one era into the vocabulary of another can deliver some striking and memorable results. Think about the Volkswagen New Beetle or the third-gen (2008 and up) Dodge Challenger, or the modern Fiat 500s, and so on. The now-BMW-owned Mini got a modernization in 2001, and while I genuinely like the new Mini, there’s a huge conceptual design problem, and I think it’s time to address that.

If you’re somehow unaware of the original Morris/Austin Mini and its legacy, you’re lucky that I like talking about it, so prepare yourself for a vigorous synopsizing: After WWII, there was a real need in Britain for a good, cheap, fuel-efficient people’s car, pretty much the exact same motivation that birthed the Volkswagen Beetle in Germany, the Citroën 2CV in France, and the Fiat 500 in Italy. The Suez oil crisis of 1956 hit Europe hard, and this really emphasized the need for small, fuel-efficient cars in the UK.

Though small “bubble cars” with incredible fuel efficiency like the BMW Isetta and Messerschmitt KR250 were available, British Motor Corporation (BMC) head Leonard Lord hated them, and wanted to “drive them off the streets by designing a proper small car.” That’s what the missive was to the lead engineer of the project, the brilliant Alec Issigonis, and the result was the Mini.

The Mini’s final design, going into production in 1959, was ingenious; it was a 10-foot-long car made up of a big box with a smaller box up front, and that smaller box contained a transverse-mounted four-cylinder “A-series” (as it was called) engine. The transmission was mounted in the oil sump of the engine for maximum space efficiency, and while modern cars generally don’t do that, the overall transverse/FWD layout eventually became the dominant automotive design of the future. (The vast majority of cars today use it).

The Mini, of course, went on to become an absolute icon of motoring, and when BMW bought the Rover group in 1994, one of the jewels of that IP crown they acquired was the Mini brand, and the company fully intended to produce a new, modernized FWD small car with clear Mini heritage.

The final design chosen was from BMW’s own Designworks, and was led by American designer Frank Stephenson. The goal was always to make a car that would be unmistakably a Mini. Overall, I think they were quite successful, as you can see:

I think it’s a very good updating of key Mini design elements — well, all except one key element: the headlights.

I like the way the new Mini’s headlights look, but I feel like a crucial mistake was made here when updating the old design, and that’s this: The original was not used as a model for the update. In fact, it’s even worse, because the lights that made it onto the re-designed Mini look like wonderful modernized adaptations of an entirely different headlight from the same period.

And, continuing down this worsening chain of issues, that headlight that the new Mini’s resembles is a familiar and common one, being best known for its use on VWs and Porsches, but also showing up on other European cars of the era including DKWs, Mercedes-Benz vans, Maicos, and other cars. It’s this light I’m talking about:

We all know this headlight. Just look at it compared to the light designed for the 2001 Mini:

Look at that! Is there any way not to see the 2001 Mini headlight as a modernization of the old Hella lights used on all those VWs and Porsches? It has the same slope, same slightly ovoid shape, the same chrome bezel, the same lights-under-glass design–it looks clearly inspired by that light, and very much not by the simpler round and very vertical sealed-beams of the original Mini.

Can I say for sure that the redesigned Mini used the Hella lights as inspiration? No. But they sure look like them, and in design, that’s what counts.

I feel like this is a big deal because the whole point of a retro car is to update the design of the original, not mix in design elements of other cars of the original’s era. The 2001 Mini would be great if the original Mini looked like this:

And while I do think that the Mini with those Hella lights looks kind of cool, the original Mini never looked like that. It’s not really a Mini anymore; some part of its essential character has changed with these lights. But that strange hybrid you see above there, that is the car that the 2001 Mini looks like it used as its source.

The original Mini’s vertical, simple round headlights helped give it that bulldog-like face that we all know. If the 2001 Mini design had been actually true to the original car’s face, I think we may have seen something more like this:

That’s what the Mini redesign should have looked like in 2001. At least, that’s what I think. [Editor’s note: I get your point, Torch, but I don’t know about that look. -DT]

See what I mean? Headlights are a crucial design element, and you can’t just throw an entirely different-looking set on a car and expect it to still feel like the same car.

Our Secret Car Designer suggested that making the fenders a bit fuller as they lead up to the headlights would help clean up the look, and, you know what? He’s right:


You may think that this problem is long over – someone born in 2001 is old enough to buy a beer in America now. But it’s still relevant because all Minis since that first 2001 re-birth have used the sloping, wrong lights as a template, and now we’re here:

Those lights have evolved and changed and developed, all along the lines of the ovoid 2001 originals, and the end result is now something very, very far removed from the original source. Does this front end feel like a Mini at all, anymore?

The Mini’s face seems to have evolved into something a little shocked, maybe a bit scared? It’s a far cry from the plucky determination of the OG, and I can’t help but think it’d have ended up in a very different place if they just stuck to the correct lights from the get-go.


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60 Responses

  1. Oh boy, that render is bad.
    -and no ,i cant think of a better way to make it look good!
    I think we just have to accept the modern mini will never look right.The rest of it isn’t really a mini shape anyway

  2. form follows function. the mini, the beetle, the microbus and the fiat 600 were designed to do a job and nothing more. a people hauler that was inexpensive to buy and operate. add that brillant designers hit the look as well. now you have stylists fighting engineers while both are waving computer printouts proving their requirements are top. my, i now own a scion xb, a japanese mini with a skooch more room and about equal performance. i would be driving a kei truck if i didn’t need 70 mph capability. faster, bigger, heavier are still the sales mantra…

  3. I’m pretty sure Frank Stephenson said on his YouTube channel, where he does an episode on designing the MINI, that they design team wanted to imagine the original Mini had been restyled over several generations to the point of their 2001 model, so it would be a modern evolution not a pastiche.

    Seems fair to assume the vertical front end with circle headlamps would have evolved into something more sloped and headlamps ovoid at some point in the imagined models across the forty years in between original and 2001 model.

  4. I get your point but it is a stretch to say they failed or they missed the mark updating the essence of the original Mini. Not sure your update would have had more success or respect.

  5. “the exact same motivation that birthed the Volkswagen Beetle in Germany, the Citroën 2CV in France, and the Fiat 500 in Italy”
    You’re just going to dis the Subaru 360 like that?
    I get your point with the Mini headlights but I feel that aesthetic sensibility trumps historical accuracy in this case. The original retro Mini is a supremely well developed design in the looks department. They got it so right that subsequent Minis don’t even need to reference the Austin design as it’s easier to just reference the MINI Cooper.

  6. I doubt the shape of the headlights was a primary consideration in the design process. It was more likely a result of making something that feels like the OG while still fitting with the profile of the nose.

  7. Headlights, bah!

    Here’s the issue between OG Mini and 2001 Mini:

    “The final design chosen was from BMW’s own Designworks, and was led by American designer…”

    The new Mini is twice as wide as the old one, so that us fatasses can squeeze in there

  8. Pump those drum brakes really quick there, fella. An article from Torch that’s about headlights? The world has truly gone insane. I can hear all those tail-light-themed strip club patrons gasping when they hear about this

  9. Hey Torch, sorry to be that guy but I think the sloppy new design is due entirely to pedestrian safety crashes, which aren’t a thing in the US but definitely regulated in Europe, the main market for theses.

  10. Noooooooo!!
    We had two R53 Coopers, a 1.6S and JCW, and loved them both until their alternators failed at crucial times.
    The styling feature that always bugged me was the chrome sticker on the grille trying, and failing, to be an extension of the grille itself. Why couldn’t they have depressed the bumper slightly underneath the grille and completed the shape in that space?

  11. The upright headlights make it look like one of the worse Kei car conversion kits available for a Daihatsu or something!
    Just had a thought for Adrian Clarke to design: a retro-styled modern car that’s not actually based off anything from the past.

  12. What bothers me isn’t the design of the Mini headlamps; I think they are great. What bothers me is the fact that two jars of fireflies taped to the bumper would be more effective at lighting the road than the stock lamps on my R55. If ever a car cried out for the full rally lamp treatment from the factory, the 2nd gen Mini is it.

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