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Thoroughly Modern Mini Unveiled at Paris Auto Show

Showroom: Concept for the updated British econo-box was designed at BMW's studio in Newbury Park.

October 04, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Enthusiasts cheered when word came late last year that a new version of the vaunted Mini was under development and that the iconic British people-mover would be exported to the U.S. once again, beginning in 2002.

Hidden beneath the veddy, veddy Britishness of the new Mini (this despite the brand being owned by Germany's Bayerische Motoren Werke) is that the concept for it was designed in Southern California, at BMW's DesignWorks studio in Newbury Park.

The new Mini is a modern reinterpretation of the squat four-passenger, front-wheel-drive car--the original econo-box--that Britons and other Europeans have been buying essentially unchanged since it was introduced in 1959.

The production version--a bit bigger and more muscular than the original but undeniably a Mini--was unveiled Thursday at the Paris Auto Show, and BMW executives said European sales will begin next year.

The two U.S. versions will be branded Mini Coopers, after the performance model that race-car builder John Cooper developed in 1961. Souped-up Minis and Mini Coopers became staples on rally courses and racetracks across the U.S., driven by fans who loved their go-cart-like handling.

With a base price of $1,300, the Mini also provided economy-minded motorists in this country with an alternative to the $1,700 Volkswagen Beetle. But when beefier U.S. automotive emissions and safety standards took effect in 1968, the Mini couldn't measure up. Imports stopped at the end of 1967.

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So when the new Mini Coopers begin landing in the U.S. early in 2002, their arrival will end a 35-year hiatus.

Ivan Lampkin, a BMW designer since 1992 and senior designer at DesignWorks for the last year, worked on the concept and production versions of the Mini as interior stylist. The 33-year-old graduate of London's Royal Academy of Art says the project was successful precisely because the concept came from Southern California rather than Europe.

Highway 1: And why is that?

Lampkin: The sheer distance helps one focus on the product. You get to lose the baggage of the [BMW] corporate image and products and go back 40 years to the original Mini.

Highway 1: The new Mini certainly is its own car, but it draws heavily from the original. Was the intent to pay homage?

Lampkin: We were looking to the Mini's rally heritage and its fun-to-drive heritage rather than the fact that it was a piece of packaging genius, the first transverse-mounted engine in a small car that seated four adults. The packaging is no longer innovative, so we used the fact that it was a fun car for drivers on a budget, and it will be marketed that way. But the Mini is all about personality, so it also will be marketed as a car for drivers who are trendsetters--and that wasn't part of the original, which was designed as a classless car.

Highway 1: Pricing in the U.S. hasn't been set, but can you give us an idea of how much of a ding it will it make in the ol' budget?

Lampkin: I've heard that it will have a base price of about $18,000. There will be two models in the U.S.: a 140-horsepower Mini Cooper and a 160-horsepower Mini Cooper S.

Highway 1: That's an improvement from the 35-horsepower original. What are some of the carry-overs?

Lampkin: It has the characteristic friendly face and compact, glued-to-the-road look with the wheels out at the corners and that roof like a cap. And it has a hint of the original's spartan interior, although the original was very spartan with cloth seats, rubber mats, no air and an optional heater.

Highway 1: That must have been fun in foggy London.

Lampkin: Well, the heater is standard in the new model, and air conditioning and leather seats are optional. It also has six air bags and a lot more head, shoulder and legroom.

Highway 1: It sounds like a thoroughly modern Mini. You worked on your part of the concept at studios in England and Germany. How does it feel to be in sunny Southern California now?

Lampkin: It certainly wasn't a punishment to be sent here! I lobbied for it. Being here is great for a car designer because L.A. is such a car-obsessed place. I live in Santa Monica and spend an hour commuting each way, and I see cars from all over the world--and with all kinds of customizing and personalizing. And seeing all that has a great deal of influence on your thinking as a designer.

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