It’s the 20th anniversary of the MINI (R50) going on sale – how time flies – and, to mark the occasion, Keith Adams takes out 30 minutes to chat to Frank Stephenson, the car’s stylist…
It’s an interesting story of what wasn’t always a smooth process.
Frank Stephenson: the man who made the MINI
Frank Stephenson has an enviable CV with some of the most iconic cars of the past 30 years coming from his pen. Like many Designers, he had a hand in the Ford Escort RS Cosworth (as did Stephen Harper, Ian Callum and many others), the BMW X5, Ferrari F430, Maserati GranSport, Fiat 500, the McLaren P1 and the MINI.
His time at BMW kicked off in the early 1990s, where he worked on the BMW X5 under Chris Bangle, before joining the MINI programme after his design proposal was green-lighted for production in 1995. It’s the lead-up to here, where we pick up Frank’s story, where he tells all about his time working with Rover on the R50 programme, and what he thinks of the car today.
KA: When were you called in?
FS: The Mini replacement project was underway before the BMW takeover in January 1994, so when I came in, the project was on something of a slow boil. As it was, Rover’s planning was in flow, and there had been a few attempts, but there had not been enough energy for it to become a full project. So, we had Rover doing something and BMW was also beginning to think about how it was going to replace the Mini.
When BMW took over, it was working on getting all the brands aligned. The idea was that there would be the small cars, BMW in the middle and Rolls-Royce at the top for a three-pillar strategy. The MINI brand would support this thinking.
KA: What was going on?
FS: Quite a lot! We were going to try to come up with a new 21st century MINI just after the BMW X5 programme started to crystallise. I came from the new BMW SUV project, which at the time was something of a showcase for us, to work on the Mini replacement. Rover was working on the 200, its version of the new Mini, while the team in the gearbox factory at Canley was working on the Rover 75.
KA: What happened in 1995?
FS: Both Rover and BMW marketing teams decided that the new Mini programme would be so much stronger under the BMW’s leadership, and the impetus behind it was ramped up. BMW invited several studios to come up with proposals – and concepts from Giugiaro, BMW in Munich, Rover in Canley, Designworks in LA. Each design proposal was conceived to look like a 21st century Mini, but with the added requirement that they should be at least 3.6m in length in order to get a five-star crash rating.
With the initial kick-off, all of the Designers set about creating their proposals. In Munich, there were five Designers and we didn’t see what each other was doing, effectively working in isolation. That way, there were no overlaps. The teams were split up around various studios, and we had five Clay Modellers between us. Leading up to the October 1995 deadline, we’d all be building a full-size clay model.
KA: Tell us about the shootout at Gaydon
FS: This was a big moment in the Mini programme. There was a 14-member committee, with seven Rover and seven BMW executives. Some were from Finance and Purchasing, which lead me to wonder why the finance guys would have a say in this.
These guys sat around and decided on the cars. I wasn’t present, but I received my information from Chris Bangle – it was a unanimous approval for my Mini proposal, with no discussion about using other designs. This was good as it gets, and it was a very happy day for me. And that was that – BMW Design out of Munich got the gig to create the 21st century Mini.
The Rover guys had voting power at Gaydon, but they went for the one that most honestly represented what the 21st century Mini should look like – and that was mine. They felt that my proposal carried the emotion of the past, the tech of the future – and, most importantly, it looked like a Mini. They saw the DNA link between the original and the new one.
KA: How did working with Rover go?
FS: How was it? Like dancing with wolves. After I was asked to do the R50 theme, things settled down. I was back in Munich and, once I was happy with it, the plan was to digitise the model and send the data back to Rover in England. It’s 1995 and the car is planned for late 1990s – and it would not be deemed credible to do the car in Germany. So the idea was to send me to Rover and let me stay there to take the project from clay model to production.
Within a month, it was fully digitised and at a stage where it could be milled out into a clay model. This model would be made real as faithfully as possible.
At this point, Geoff Upex and Dave Saddington took me round the new Design Studios in Gaydon, and it was great to see the new facilities. I was looking for the clay model for the MINI, but I couldn’t find my car. They pointed to a full-sized model, saying it was that one. I was puzzled – that’s not the one I did! They said this was a globalised version of the car and they did the global modelling job while I was in Munich.
KA: Why did the British team want to change your Mini?
FS: They told me that they thought it was looking better this way – and had modified it here and there. I was aghast. My mission was to take my theme into production, and now I felt like a cowboy in the Indian territory. Dr Reitzle said I should call him if I encountered any problems, and I felt ridiculous calling in the first week. But it did need returning to the theme I did.
They wanted influence in the design, but it was too late in the game to do this. I couldn’t budge. I didn’t want to get into an argument. In the end, I suggested we convert my model by doing it again. They had 18 modellers, I had two apprentices. It was easy to get it back in shape, but they weren’t allowing me to push ahead with my design.
KA: How did that feel?
FS: I wasn’t getting support from Munich, as there were no Engineers to support me. Internally, I was upset I didn’t get the full ammo.
Reitzle would come over every three months – and, on the first occasion, he asked why were things different with their and my models? They kept changing things over the course of a year, and they wouldn’t accept the design as it was. Reitzle put his foot down, and forced the design to be as it was – and with full engineering support. All of this was about reverting it to the original design.
KA: How did it progress from there?
FS: In 1997, we took a ‘solid surface’ R50 along with some others to a few events for market research clinics, and it walked all over all those cars. But it was de-badged. This process helped the Rover guys understand that we had a hit on our hands with the new MINI.
At the Frankfurt Motor Show, it was shown to the public for the first time. We did an offsite reveal of it and that car (above) was made up of the MINI body (but it was all Fiat Punto underneath), and we put it together quickly. As you can imagine, it caused a commotion – the press jumped up, tried to open it, and it was a chaotic situation. The car turned to the right instead of the left as it should have done when it left the stage, and the press got hold of it.
From that moment on, Rover got on and we agreed unanimously to continue in this direction.
KA: What about engineering design changes?
FS: There were none at all – I hate those excuses. That’s why they pay us – where there was a problem, we found a solution that worked. The bonnet clamshell was there from the beginning, because I wanted to replicate the diagonal flange on the original Mini. This was an important visual cue, and what better way to achieve it than to make it a bonnet split line. It gave great access and looked dramatic.
Rover Engineers were upset about how the headlamps were going to work – if we left holes in the bonnet, it could be dangerous, but if we integrated the headlights, there could be vibration issues. But we found all the solutions. They said they couldn’t press that large piece of metal for the bonnet, but the Engineers solved the issues. They integrated the headlights, put two locks on it, and hydraulic struts so you could slam it shut.
I always felt uncomfortable splitting the grille: the jaw of a bulldog, that’s how I explained it and why I went in that direction. There are not many ways you can join them.
KA: What lasting memories do you have?
FS: I felt like I was going to Rover as a spy. They were upset their designs didn’t make it. Spiritual 1 and 2 were great designs, but they were not Minis, they were more like bubble cars. They weren’t passionate Minis for Mini lovers – they were thinking a long way ahead. They were trying to emulate Issigonis rather than caring about the way the Mini looked.
It was an enviable project to be involved in – we were going make waves. It’s turned the British car industry around, the whole experience of a premium small car. It was a small BMW under the skin in terms of engineering.
KA: Was it a career highlight?
FS: It was definitely one of the most recognisable ones. It was the most fun and an incredible story. How often do you get to redesign an icon like the Mini? You always want a project like this as a Designer. It opened doors for me…