The man making MINI cooler – and smaller

NO car captured Anglo cool like the British Motor Corporation’s Mini of the 1960s, the Mods’ car of choice. Bought by BMW in 1994 (as part of Rover), Mini became MINI in 2000, but remains irresistibly hip; the ride of choice for young British urbanites whose European equivalents would drive Fiats around Rome and Milan; or VWs around Berlin and Munich. To celebrate the recent launch of the MINI Countryman, VIPs were invited to a field in Docklands for a Champagne BBQ and a performance by rapper Timbaland. Clearly, this is a very cool lifestyle brand, not just a car.

Last week, just ahead of the Paris Motor Show, MINI threw yet another glitzy bash, this time in Soho, to announce its new scooter concept. Witness the birth of three magnificent, globular scooters in bright colours, one of which is overtly inspired by the mods of the 1960s (see right).

Given the tremendous pitch of activity swirling around MINI just now, it seemed a good time to meet the gatekeeper of its style: Adrian Van Hooydonk, the Dutch-born chief designer of BMW group.

I meet him folded into a booth at MINI’s Park Lane showroom during his visit to London to launch the scooters. Tall, elegant, and soft-spoken, you wouldn’t think this was one of the world’s greatest manipulators of steel. Yet when he talks about design, the clear-sightedness, precision and passion that led him to become chief of design at BMW become clear.

But first, what’s a man like this – used to copious space for complex dials, leather and bamboo – doing designing scooters?

“As a designer, it’s very interesting, as there’s no predecessor to a MINI scooter,” says Van Hooydonk. “And two-wheel transport is getting another look, as functional rather than just leisure objects.” (Indeed – Daimler has just brought out a Smart scooter, at exactly the same time as MINI).

“In Munich where I live, I started to see a lot of people reconditioning old scooters and I could see the idea from the 1960s reforming. Now, with traffic the way it is, two-wheelers are looking like the way to get you where you need to go faster. And the idea of an electric scooter with zero emissions became obvious.” But obvious for MINI? “No. Because we’ve never done one. But the brand is for young people in an urban environment and the scooter makes sense.”

How does Van Hooydonk reconcile the Germanic ownership of MINI with its innate Britishness? “It’s an international brand now; that’s the way it goes,” he says, with just a hint of resignation. “Everyone knows in their heart that MINI is British; there is so much heritage. But like with fashion, we are giving it a new spin; in the same way that Burberry reinvented itself on a global stage. British culture is always reinventing itself; picture the old red phone booth next to the skyscraper. MINI now appeals to those who like heritage and those who don’t.”

Scooters aside, what does the future hold in automotive luxury, from a BMW perspective? “Sustainability is going to be a large part of the premium market in future. To own a premium vehicle, it will have to have green credentials.” There is a lot of effort going into this – and a good few car concepts floating about, with longer range hybrid and electric motors.

As for appearance, we can expect cars to reflect this greener incarnation, with aerodynamic, lighter looks. “Imagine a look where body panels seem to float instead of being connected. Typically you hide aerodynamics, but now they will become a natural part of the design.”

BMW’s watchword is modern luxury – a concept Hooydonk likes to express with
sustainable materials such as bamboo, and by moving away from the traditional leather, wood and chrome towards warmer colours, cloth instead of leather (such as in the 5-Series GT), and wood cut in a different way. His own white Z4 sports brown leather and aluminium dash. “In the future, luxury is going to be defined by simplicity. Almost a kind of zen style.” So long as elegant creatures like Hooydonk are in charge, we have plenty to look forward to.

MINI’s E-Concept scooters will be on show at the Paris Auto Show, 2-17 October.