Home / Car News / 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

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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. Modern cars tend to be wider at the bottom and have a narrower roof when looking at the front or back, they are a bit trapezoidal. In the older Mini, the sides are almost vertical. It could be a square when you look at it from either end. This design is most likely (let me know if I am wrong) to increase hip room but still keep frontal area to a minimum . It is something that I have noticed about a lot of modern cars and trucks and bothers me a bit.

  2. Jason, your version might further look better with some variations to the hoodline so that the headlights don’t quite stick out like sore thumbs like they do in your renders. Of course then this creates a cascading list of design issues (how to make the front end not look to stumpy, redesigning the grill openings, etc.) But still, I don’t hate it!

  3. Fun fact: the first gen “new” Mini’s headlights raised with the bonnet. If you wanted to send a signal to the night sky you could do it.
    I had a ’73 Mini 1000, an 08 Mini Cooper and a ’15 Mini Cooper S JCW. All of them were a hoot to drive.

    Even if the headlights were wrong.

  4. Was fully expecting to disagree with this, but of course this being Jason he raises a good point. I will say having taken apart one of those very headlights the bigger inner lens does look almost exactly like a sealed beam headlight. Pretty sure there’s an image of ARonline or similar where they have a mule of the new MINI which fully just has a sealed beam under the slanted plastic cover.

  5. I don’t mind the headlights, but I wish they’d somehow incorporated a nod to those angled seams in the body where the stampings meet at the front and rear. I know a stand-up seam is aerodynamically terrible, and it was probably only done that way on the original to make the stampings simpler and save costs, but it’s such a defining characteristic of the original shape.

    1. I’m a fan of those seams and also thought it a shame there’s no suggestion of them on the new Mini, until I realised there sort of is – at least at the front. Check out the shutline at the back of the bonnet on the wing which, like those old seams, carries the angle of the windscreen into the wheel arch.

  6. While I agree that your proposal is more akin to a direct translation of Mini, I have my doubts it would have sold as well as what they went with.

    The 2001 Mini’s roundness gave it that bit of “cute” to compete with the new Beetle.

  7. Well, aerodynamics happened between the original mini and the new one. And vertical round headlights in the end just looks heavy. In my opionion, that nobody cares about, the main mistake was the side blinker with the fake vent. Why? it wasn’t on the original mini. However door hinges like the real Mini could have been fun.

    1. I’m going to have to agree with Civic Boy. The slope of the front end on the modern MINI is greater than the rather snub-nosed original, and therefore the headlamps fit better, as well as being more aerodynamic. The second mock-up with the fuller fenders does seem better than the first attempt, but still, the bonnet line would have to be a little less round, and then maybe it’d work. My biggest gripe is the size of successive models the lineup mean they just aren’t “mini” any longer.

      1. “My biggest gripe is the size of successive models the lineup mean they just aren’t “mini” any longer.”

        I get what you are saying, but…

        Length of a 2022 Toyota Corolla Cross (the smallest Toyota CUV) = 175.6″.
        Length of o 2022 Mini Countryman (the biggest Mini) = 169.7″.

        Everything is relative.

        1. This is entirely subjective, but I remember passing a row of parked cars here in Helsinki recently and thingking, what is that hoofing great lump? It was a Countryman. Given what some view as recent crimes in vehicle badging (numbers no longer relating to engine size etc.), I suppose the Mini doesn’t have to be that mini any more.

    2. 2001 is a strange time in aero design. I think auto design was still in the bubble shapes of the 90’s and it wasn’t until the 2005 Mustang and 2006 Charger that really started to explore that vertical grill and headlights. The mini could look quite different if it was designed just a few years later.

    3. Yeah, a classic Mini never really had to worry about aerodynamics because they were typically city cars that never went above 40mph. On the odd chance you drove them on the highway, it wasn’t constant for long periods of time to the point that it made that much of a difference.

    1. Try an F54 Clubman JCW. I <3 mine. 300hp, AWD, its lower than my wife's F56 4 door Cooper S and feels more… solid. Her car feels more nimble and twitchy, but mine feels more like an Audi S4 and hers feels like a GTI if that makes sense. For the longest time, I thought the Clubman was just a stretched Cooper, but its a completely different car despite it looking the same.

  8. As the owner of 3 classic Minis before I turned 20 I admit that I’m somewhat biased, but I never liked the redesign. Jason’s right that the Challenger, Beetle, and now I’d include the iD Buzz, are all high on the list of nailing the modern retro look. I’m sure the slope of the headlights and grille BMW mini was to accommodate euro pedestrian safety requirements, but I can’t help thinking that Jason’s redesign with a more upright grille aping the original would have been another modern retro classic.

  9. 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

  10. 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…

  11. 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.

  12. “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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. 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

  16. 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.

  17. 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?

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. I agree with the redesign to an extent, but that extent pretty much ends when I realized that it has that 4th gen Camaro Catfish face look to it.
    Changes to the grill would need to be done, as would the fenders and and and… you get the idea.

    But I don’t hate the direction you’re going.

  21. Torch, you say the modernized face looks too Porsche-like, given the headlight design, but then you go and give it pronounced fenders and an upright sealed beam which just makes it look like an old Porsche. Take the grille away, and you have something closer to a vintage 911.

  22. We;ve had R56 and F56 Minis, and think they’re great as is….

    But I also think your headlight change looks fantastic. I don’t know that it would have been as well received 20 years ago though. I think the 1st gen new Minis were the right design for the time. Even if they didn’t age the best.

    Now, if you can get them to make the 2025 models look like that……

  23. So…you’re completely unfamiliar with the Morris Minor and its variants?

    As for the BMW MINI. I had an ’05 Convertible. The last new car I’ve owned. Loved it. Never thought the headlights were a problem, but not what you mention it properly done rounds would have been nice.
    I also agree with others that VW has blown it not putting rounds on the ID Buzz is …wrong.

  24. Jason, I was on board with your thought process until I saw the blue Mini rendering. To the sloped hood and the vertical headlights gave me a Porsche 964 feeling that I really liked. BTW, vertical round headlights are a Jeep thing, what’s DT’s problem?

    Comparing the original Mini to the new style… To me it looks like that entire front went from flat slightly forward slope in the original to slightly sloped back in the new. Right or wrong, proportionally the slope looks to be consistent to each style. This comparison needed a side view of each car. I think you’ll find that they are similar, but in keeping with the front of a car is a face logic, one has an underbite (new) and one has an overbite (orignial). Maybe this a new series you could take on Dr. Torchinsky, autodontist where you do a retake on the front end of cars?

    I agree with the thought of the original being a better looking car, but a headlight design coming from a 60 Porsche to the modern Mini and then taking the original Mini looking light to a new Mini and it reminds me of a 90’s Porsche. Well, maybe it’s all about the context around the light and how it fits together with the front end.

  25. The OG’s entire design seems like an intentional celebration of the cars size. The headlights are one of many plumping rather than simply rounding elements that enhance the already much larger size. It seems like they tried to fight off a perception that it was too small. It never worked for me.

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