A history of Mini design as the car marque gears up to go electric

Side view of Mini E
The all-electric Mini E will be released in 2019
(Image credit: Press)

Mini’s inherent paradox is that although it is more than willing to push its brand into new sectors, the company is also more tightly bound to its origin story than many rivals. Yet big change is coming. As of next year, Mini will start selling an all-electric car, the Mini E. Taking stylistic cues from the Mini Electric Concept shown last year, the Mini E should tick all the boxes demanded by millennial motorists, providing it matches its conventional sibling in terms of handling, ride and character.

We sampled the latest version of the company’s best-known model, the Cooper S, to gauge exactly what those qualities are. If anything, Mini is undergoing a new phase of maturity, eschewing the rather cartoonish ‘go-kart’ qualities that it used from the outset of the reborn brand. Today’s Cooper S still has the zest, but with less of the cultural baggage that cluttered up the rebirth of the brand. There’s still an overreliance on bold, retro-esque forms, but the gulf between the 1959 original and the modern BMW-built Mini has never been bigger.

Mini Cooper S dashboard

The dashboard inside today's Mini Cooper S

(Image credit: Press)

By means of illustration, the company recently launched a retro-fitted electric-powered Classic Mini, a one-off that demonstrated the innate rightness of removing the engine altogether. Today’s Cooper S might be petrol powered, but it’s also a genuinely fun car that exudes a class-less simplicity. Admittedly, certain design touches are better suited to LA or Beijing – the Union Jack patterned brake lights, for a start. It’s still the best iteration of all modern Minis and makes a convincing city car, with zesty handling and acceleration.

Oliver Heilmer, Mini’s head of design, has been in the job for exactly a year, although he’s been at BMW since July 2000. Following stints at DesignWorks in California, he returned to Munich to helm the next generations of Mini. But not only that. The BMW-subsidiary is on a design-led journey to shift itself from mildly cartoonish retro design into a real player in future mobility. The Mini E is a first step. As Heilmer notes, ‘electrification is standard already. Then we’ll have autonomous driving. BMW’s autonomous focus is with Rolls-Royce, but Mini will also do it in a different way.’

Mini Classic Electric

The one-off retro-fitted, electric-powered Classic Mini

(Image credit: Press)

The scope of Mini’s offering is changing. The company has branched out into several Mini Living installations, in London, New York, LA and Milan, each of which has explored different ways of using urban space for a new generation of city dwellers. Up until now, these have been purely conceptual, but there are rumblings of a functioning pilot project in the months to come. Most importantly of all, Mini Living would appear to have little or nothing to do with contemporary automotive design. ‘Right now we have a car as a product, but we’re also talking about services,’ Heilmer enthuses, ‘in a couple of years we might be talking about a mindset, a culture, a community.’

Heilmer suggests that Mini is perfectly placed to embrace big changes in personal mobility. ‘One of the mindsets of Mini is to embrace different things,’ he says, adding that the company’s goal is to invest its products with some kind of emotional hook, going on to describe Mini E as an ‘authentic product that’s an enrichment to someone’s life.’ ‘Typical Mini is doing something no-one expected. We have a family, not just a single product.’ Today’s Cooper S is part of a continuum that stretches back to the engineering wizardry of the original 1959 car, all the way to the far future thinking of the Mini Vision Next 100 concept shown in 2016. Heilmer explains the difference between the BMW Group’s use of ‘Concepts’ and ‘Visions’ – the latter being far-sighted pieces of futurology, while Concepts effectively preview what will be in the market in 12-18 months. ‘You have to be careful with pre-communication, especially if it is too different from what you actually present.’

Mini Cooper S profile

Mini Cooper S

(Image credit: Press)

The Mini E will smooth the lines and blur the edges of the current design language, taking advantage of the electric car’s absence of vents and ducts. It points to a cleaner, simpler approach, both in terms of design but also how cars are used. While no-one can accurately predict even the immediate future, Mini would like us to imagine the day when their cars become a desirable, shared resource that are an extension of your living space, seamlessly integrating into your urban existence. That said, a car company still has to sell cars in some form. ‘From an emotional and heritage point of view, customers will still want to own one,’ Heilmer says, ‘it’s about keeping the character of Mini how it is.’ The aesthetics of desire still matter.

Mini E electric car wheel rim

Mini E, wheel trim

(Image credit: Press)

Side view of Mini E electric car

Mini E in profile

(Image credit: Press)

Mini E all-electric car

Mini E, bodywork detail

(Image credit: Press)

Mini E front grille

Mini E, front grille

(Image credit: Press)

For more information, visit the Mini website

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.