Why BMW needs to build the MINI Rocketman.

I had a lot of ideas about this blog. The VW Beetle has officially died, and Jaguar/Land Rover have announced an engine-sharing deal with none other than BMW. Both these events brought a little tear to my eye. The Beetle is an icon of a forgotten age and the "new" model launched in the early 2000s always struggled to recapture the magic of the original. BMW and JLR forming closer bonds on engine technology in some way looks like a second change for the companies after the BMW sell off of Rover. All this brings me to the subject of this month's blog; the MINI. On the surface, the MINI brand looks healthy, with sales remaining pretty consistent.

Dig a little deeper though and you will see that sales of the three-door hatchback models are struggling. BMW, has logically launched larger cars to expand the range, but they keep getting larger. For a brand which has always centred around a small hatchback, this is troubling. Can BMW continue to build larger MINIs? I would argue no and that the real opportunity lies with making the MINI small again.

I may sound critical of BMW's managing of the MINI brand but that is only because they did an amazing job of getting the original R50 "new" MINI to market in 2001. This is a story I know well, having written my thesis on the development and launch of this model. It is a story of near disaster and conflict at almost every step from design to production.

BMW identified the MINI as a potential stand-alone brand as early as 1994 when it bought Rover. The Rover 100 was killed off and the original Mini was allowed to slowly fade out of production as the year 2000 approached. BMW was keen on the new MINI being a small sporty car, leveraging the John Cooper name. They selected a concept styled by Frank Stevenson, insisted it had a 3-series driving position and handed the project over to Rover to develop.

The car was compromised from that point on. It had little to no backseat space or boot capacity as styling was a priority over packaging. Even the engine needed special consideration, with all the ancillaries on one side to fit inside the engine bay. After the Rover sale, prototype MINI production had already begun in the old BL Longbridge and BMW was forced to move every robot and piece of tooling to the Cowley factory which they were keeping, now known as BMW Oxford. It delayed the MINI's launch for about a year. When the car did eventually launch, it was met with quality problems ranging from static build up in the fuel filler area to the more serious noisy power steering pumps that failed with disappointing regularity to the surprise of drivers. The motoring press praised the car, but criticized the engine as not being what would be expected from BMW. The Cooper S with its supercharged motor improved things, but bolting on a supercharger smacked of a simple and unimaginative solution to generating more horsepower. Yet, with all these issues, The MINI was a sales success and BMW had trouble meeting demand throughout its six-year lifecycle.

All of that being said, the new MINI was a success, with sales far exceeding BMW's expectations and Oxford's production capacity. The R50-R53 generation car was loved and flawed and full of character that harked back to the original Mini. The hatchback was joined by the convertible in 2004 but it had a short life in terms of production run. I would suspect it was because BMW wanted to softly modify the platform and begin to expand into other body styles beyond the hatchback and convertible and this is where I believe they began to lose the plot.

In 2006, the revised R56 second generation MINI hatchback launched. It looked very similar to the R50 but every panel was new. The front of the car was higher to meet crash regulations. The headlights now sat on the body of the car, rather than rising with the clamshell bonnet as in the previous model. All done in the name of German efficiency. The new "Prince" engine range engine was co-developed between BMW and the French PSA group. Again, more efficiency. BMW bought the John Cooper name and took it in-house. This made business sense but MINI lost an important part of its heritage as the JCW badge is now nothing more than a trim spec option. The Cooper S was turbocharged rather than supercharged this time around too. It lost the iconic supercharger whine but was a more sophisticated engine. This was a better MINI in almost every way and the range began to explode at this point.

First was the Clubman, which was a MINI estate model with barn doors on the back, similar to the original Mini Traveller. This car gets a free pass of sorts as the Traveller was a legitimate model in the past. BMW then took it a step further, with the Countryman, the first MINI SUV. This was the breaking point for many MINI loyalists. This car was in no way a small car. It took the MINI styling aesthetic and transferred it to an SUV. It sold well and served as an upgrade for people needing a bigger car, but was it really a MINI? BMW wishing to further expand the MINI brand, created the Paceman 3-door SUV, and the ridiculous MINI Coupe and Roadster models. These cars only lived a short time, thankfully but it highlighted the dilemma. BMW needed economies of scale to keep MINI independent and viable as a business but there is a limit to which you can stretch a "small" car brand.

That brings us nicely to the F56-generation MINI, the third-generation. This car and its variants are now wholly BMW based vehicles, riding on the UKL 1 and UKL 2 platforms. The engines are BMW units in both 3 and 4-cylinder form. As before, the basic MINI hatchback and cabriolet have grown in size and are now joined by a 5-door hatch that expands the MINI appeal further, while looking exactly like what it is; an awkwardly stretched MINI with an extra two doors. The Clubman and Countryman are also back, bigger and better than ever. The newest model is the all-new and all-electric Cooper SE, built on the normal production line at Oxford.A huge achievement for sure. Electrification and the MINI have been closely linked for years and the MINI brand is perfect for electrification. Small, urban cars that keep people mobile. That sounds very similar to the original pitch for the Mini made by the British Motor Corporation's chairman Sir Leonard Lord all the way back in 1957.

Enter the Rocketman.

 

The MINI Rocketman concept first appeared in 2011 at the Geneva motor show. It attracted a lot of attention as it was a small MINI. Even I was excited by what I saw. Yes, it was a pure concept car but the dimensions were intriguing. It measured only 134 inches long, and appeared to be a modern interpretation of what a small MINI could be. The biggest stumbling block was the Rocketman needed a platform as the UKL 1 couldn't be shrunk to that size. Talks began between BMW and PSA but they broke down and the Rocketman disappeared only to emerge again a year later with a new paint job for the London Olympics. Was BMW teasing us? Possibly. The concept disappeared for a second time after the games and nothing more was said about it, until now.

The current rumour is that BMW is working with China's Great Wall Motors to co-develop an electric platform that could be used for the Rocketman. Not much is known right now but it is apparently a 50/50 deal with Great Wall developing a sister car called Ora R1. If all goes according to plan, the Rocketman could launch in 2022. For the MINI brand, this could give them an entry-level electric model and for BMW, a chance to refocus the MINI brand moving into the 21st century. The Mini was the iconic small car and the MINI began as a small car too. I believe BMW must embrace the idea of a smaller cheaper MINI in their range. Chinese partnership gives both a cost advantage and economies of scale. Car ownership is also changing all around us. More people will choose to rent cars rather than own them and MINI could easily market some type of urban car sharing platform. Imagine a "MINI-4-US" car sharing scheme in all major cities globally!

Here is the thing. I am hesitant to embrace electric cars but even I can see the possibility. I love the MINI brand, I really do. The styling makes me smile and I love the heritage. If I have to drive a small urban runabout then I want mine to have that iconic winged badge on the front. I want the MINI styling all around. I want to see the brand return to its roots rather than being a parody of itself.

BMW, you know what to do. Hell, hire me to help you if you like. You have my e-mail.

 

 

The MINI: A Strategic re-launch of a dormant brand image from LAP Lambert Academic Publishing

Mini and Rocketman image from motor authority.com

All other MINI images from www.autocar.co.uk