2002 Mini Cooper
Owners of the first generation of the modern Mini should be doing a happy dance today, because if a certain rumor is true the man behind the iconic, retro-inspired design could be coming home to the brand.
Motoringfile, a site exclusively focused on Mini-related news, is reporting a rumor that designer Frank Stephenson, who currently heads design at McLaren, will return to the BMW-owned brand sometime in the near future.
Now, if you're not a Mini person, you probably have no idea why this is big news. Allow me, a first-generation Mini owner, to explain. See, Stephenson designed the first of the new Minis, which is inarguably the high-water mark for the brand's design. (I'll fight anyone that says otherwise.)
The R50 Cooper and R53 Cooper S did the floating roof 15 years before it was in vogue. It revived the contrasting paint scheme, which you can now find on Aston Martins, Toyotas, and Fords. Side grilles? The Cooper brought them back into the mainstream (for better or worse). What Sir Alec Issigonis' original Mini did for small-car innovation, Stephenson's Mini did for vehicle design.
What's that? You don't like the first-generation Mini? Fine. Here are a few of Stephenson's other designs: first-generation BMW X5, Fiat 500, Maserati MC12, Ferrari 430, and pretty much every McLaren that's come after the 12C. He's also done stints at Pininfarina and Alfa Romeo Centro Stile. Now do you get why this is a big deal for Mini (if it's true)?
But it gets better. See, Stephenson has not been quiet about his disdain for Mini's designs since his departure.
“Oh, my gosh, I don't like it,” Stephenson said when journalist Jamie Kitman asked him about the original Mini Countryman at its launch. “I mean I don't like the whole new trend at all. I think they just wildly abused the brand."
I couldn't agree with that sentiment more. As Motoringfile points out, Stephenson's comments reference the second-gen Mini line—it's not clear how he feels about the third-gen models on sale today (although I'm betting/hoping his opinion hasn't changed much).
Still, it's worth mentioning that today's design environment is quite different than the one that saw Stephenson design the R50. Pedestrian safety standards are far more strict. For example, former Mini design boss Anders Warming, who left Mini last summer, told me at the launch for the second-generation Clubman that the R50's design simply wouldn't work today because of pedestrian safety standards.
In other words, I'm not expecting a miracle from Stephenson. But that doesn't mean I'm not hopeful he won't usher in a return to attractive Minis.