JK: It’s a popular refrain that cars look too much the same these days. You can’t really accuse the P1 of that. But what is your thought as one of our great designers of why that is, what could be done about it, how much of that is a function of regulation, how much of it is a function of manufacturer’s inherent conservatism and the desire not to stick your head up too high.
FS: It’s a whole book. Basically what I think is it costs exactly the same amount of money to design a beautiful car as it does to do an ugly car. When they do ugly cars or boring cars, that’s usually a sign of depression, nervousness. Let’s don’t take a risk. And the cars tend to look boring and to start to look all the same because in that meat market area of cars where they’re not allowed to break out of it because we might lose sales
We might alienate. We might lose more buyers that we would otherwise. So they play it safe. And when they play it safe, that’s when you complicate it even more. …I can’t understand, for example, why Ford today ‑‑ I’m not criticizing Ford ‑‑ why they’re putting the Aston grille on it. People are saying, well, why not? It looks good. Come on — your designer or design team should be creative enough to come up with something revolutionary, fresh, cutting edge. Don’t steal — not steal, but borrow, even though you’re closely connected
With Mini it was completely different story. The Mini had to be a safe bet because of who was going to trust a German company reinterpreting a British icon? They don’t think like us, and then they’re going to make it crazy and Germanic and all that?
So my proposal then was basically just to ‑‑ reinterpret it -- in that first month we asked what the ’69 Mini would have looked like? What would it have looked like in ’79, ’89 and then ’99, so build in the lifecycle. So when they say it’s a retro design, it tees me off because the 911 isn’t a retro design. It’s just an evolutionary process of designing 911, which was what the new Mini was -- what the Mini would have looked like in 2000.
JK: So what do you think of the Countryman?
FS: 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.
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…
JK: Well, if you could go back, though, what do you choose? Like how do you make that next generation that showcases the technology rather than just cheaper to build?
FS: BMW’s a pretty well-off company. So I don't think they should try to make a cheap car. It has its own market to have, you know, a small, luxury car that’s basically classless. You can, kit it out or spec it such that it can be available to anybody. Then again you could kit it out so it could be an ultra luxury car and customize it at the same time. I think that was one of the big secrets to the success of the Mini was, you could make it your own.
Except that I think that the special thing that made the Mini desirable in the original was the amount of character it had and obviously the packaging solutions it offered. And that it was basically a fun car to drive. It wasn't intended that way obviously until John Cooper got ahold of it and turned it into a giant killer. So I think the newest Mini or, say, when they changed in 2006, that’s the point where they should have turned it into another packaging wonder….
There was one solution that they came out with when we were selecting the new Mini back in 2000, one that was done from the UK. It was called the Mini Spiritual. And at that time it was probably not the right car because it didn't really look like a successor to a Mini. It was just a bubble car, basically.
But the MINI Spiritual would have been a good transition from the Mini, current Mini or the 2000 Mini, to the next generation 'cause they did look very futuristic for what they were.