Proposition: Tow away the old visionaries

A new Mini needs a brilliant new designer, argues Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
The Mini will be 40 in 1999. And to celebrate the fact, it was revealed this week that Bernd Pischetsrieder,chairman of BMW (which owns Rover, which makes the Mini), plans to gather members of the original Mini team to help shape a replacement car. While some key members of that team, such as Alex Moulton (of Moulton bike fame) are still very much alive and inventing, the man behind the Mini is not.

If ever a car was largely the work of one man, that car was the Mini and the man was Sir Alec Issigonis. When it was launched in 1959 the diminutive yet spacious, chic and radical Mini was like no other car; it was a brutally functional little runaround, a mobile interpretation of Mies van der Rohe's famous dictum: "Less is more."

Issigonis, a brilliant engineer, had little time for bourgeois notions of comfort: the Mini, like the original and equally long-lived Land-Rover was more tool or apparatus than conventional family saloon. It was deliberately blunt in appearance and free from flamboyant stylistic devices and decorative glitz. In trying to save as much weight as possible, Issigonis thought that Mini-owners could manage without even a heater (but in this, at least, he was, mercifully, overruled).

Issigonis's car was revolutionary, the recognisable labour of one man's engineering vision and, although unprofitable for many badly managed years, it was as fashionable as Twiggy and baby doll dresses in the mid-Sixties. It was also a superb race and rally car, the subject of endless customising, and a plaything of the rich.

So who will play the role of the new Issigonis? Alex Moulton, a suspension designer, will no doubt give the new Mini a ride as good as any small car's; he will not, however, be responsible for the whole design. Yet, if Bernd Pischetsrieder is sincere when he says "there's no point in doing a new Mini if it's just another small car", he needs someone to bestow personality on the vehicle.

Design committees, especially in Britain, are rarely radical. The new Mini will face spirited competition from, among others, Mercedes-Benz (the Swatch car), Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen, all of which are working on new Fiat 500-sized minicars to go on sale before the turn of the century. The market is expected to buy 500,000 such cars in 2000; Pischetsrieder hopes that 150,000 of these will be new Minis. That seems unlikely unless the car has real character, or offers something new.

Artist's impressions in this week's Autocar magazine show a bland, slightly fatter, slightly taller Mini that is part Issigonis-inspired, part Fiat 500 or Lancia Y10, shot through with a dose of Japanese retro-styling. In sum, it appears to be an attempt to be all things to all drivers and tedious to the point of stupefaction.

If Mr Pischetsrieder (whose grandmother was Issigonis's aunt) wants a Mini that will undermine maxi opposition, he should be looking for a designer as radical and single-minded as Issigonis who will create a car that looks and works like no other. He might choose a woman. He might go for a new type of engine, new materials or a car that breaks the cosseting mode of the British notion of comfort (the car as building society interior on wheels, as object of veneration, rather than mobile hold-all).

He should be thinking laterally, as Alec Issigonis did and Alex Moulton still can. If we must have a new Mini, Herr Pischetsrieder, please forget the one you own now, and start looking, pdq, for a new Issigonis.