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Major Changes at Mini

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The Mini Cooper was the "jewel in the box" that BMW bought when it paid 800 million pounds for Britain's Rover Group, in February 1994.

Adrian Van Hooydonk talks about the Mini Cooper as a "jewel in the box" that BMW bought when it paid 800 million pounds for Britain's last major car company, the Rover Group, in February 1994.

The car had gone virtually unchanged for four decades. Then it ceased production.

So when the president of DesignWorks/USA learned he would get a crack at remaking the classic model, he did what any auto enthusiast would do. He took the "old girl"—a vintage Mini—for a spin around the block.

There was just one problem, as he slipped behind the wheel on the streets along U.S. Highway 101 in Newbury Park, Calif.

"I didn't fit inside it," said the six-foot-tall designer.

He had to have a sport seat installed, just so he could drive the Mini. And then he fell in love.

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He liked the go-cart handling of what had started out as "an economy box," and then—with a beefed-up Cooper engine—became the darling decades ago of the Monte Carlo Grand Prix by beating Porsche 911s three years running.

As he stepped out of the car that had been a favorite of Britons as diverse as the Beatles, supermodel Twiggy and Queen Elizabeth, he understood the appeal. "It was just huge fun," he said.

But tastes change in four decades. The question: how to remake the Mini into a modern marketing marvel.

Van Hooydonk's American team found itself in friendly competition with design studios at the Rover facility in England and at BMW headquarters in Munich. His own design, which favored the "S-type" racer, was unveiled in a hammered-aluminum prototype in Monte Carlo in 1997.

It helped set the stage for a slightly less radical view penned by American designer Frank Stephenson in the Munich studio. Stephenson's design won over BMW's decision-makers.

But the process was collaborative. The design engineers at the three studios used IBM's CATIA collaborative design software to model work electronically. They traded information, concepts and drawings over a secure virtual private network, to create drafts and digital mockups.

As they employed design and product management software to exchange ideas, designers and engineers focused on existing "design cues." Those included keeping the boxy look, with wheels set at the corners, and preserving the flat roofline to maintain the spirit and look of the Mini of 40 years ago.

This article was originally published on 2002-11-01
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