God Save The Mini

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

I discovered the Kinks, probably my favorite band of all time, when I was twelve years old. I was lying in bed, dreading the start of another school week and listening to the AM radio, as was my wont on a Sunday evening. Suddenly that opening guitar riff launched — CC-CCCC-DD-E — and the charged strains of their great Caribbean-inflected rock hit “Lola” came piling out of the wooden, 1940s GE desktop unit that had once belonged to my dad. The song burrowed deep into my psyche. Instantly and irrevocably, I was hooked.

It was some time before I made the connection to earlier Kinks hits (“You Really Got Me,” “A Well-Respected Man”) and even longer before I realized that “Lola” concerned its male protagonist’s romantic encounter with a possibly transgendered individual, a subject, I confess, that would have right freaked me out when I was twelve. I hadn’t realized the Kinks were English, either, although when I found out, it made perfect sense. I was an alienated junior Anglophile from New Jersey who’d already identified Land Rovers, Morgans, and Lotus Elans as his favorite cars, so no wonder I’d found an equivalently outsider-ish Brit band to champion.

Eventually I’d come to realize that the Kinks’ most fertile period was concluding around the time I first saw them in 1973 (not long after the release of their Muswell Hillbillies album, when a peppy little combo who called themselves Aerosmith opened, only to get booed off the stage). But through the twenty-nine albums of theirs I’d buy and the twenty-seven times I’d see them in concert, there was always something great to find. As the ’70s ran their course and the ’80s poured in to replace them, each new album — no matter how far off the band’s majestic peaks — would still boast several great tracks. Then it became at least a few good songs per album, and then it was just one. And finally came the Kinks’ 1989 offering, UK Jive, which was, as the title suggested, jive, pure and unadulterated, with not even a single worthy number. Around my apartment, it was as if someone had died.

Having indulged me in a seeming digression to this point, you deserve an explanation, and it is this: I was thinking of Mini the other day, and it reminded me of the Kinks. Because Mini, a brand I love, had a series of great hits — starting with the original of 1959, the Cooper S of 1963 (just as the Kinks were hitting their stride), and beyond. Then when the chips were down, Mini rebirthed itself, not unlike the Kinks did with latter-day ’70s and ’80s hits like “Come Dancing” and “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” scoring with the fantastically successful BMW remake of 2002, then the excellent convertible and Clubman models, then the Countryman. Most recently, we’ve gotten the Coupe and the Roadster [Driven, page 42]. And if you’ve had a chance to consider these last three models, you may begin to see my point. The hits — as measured by this fan, at least — have stopped coming. The emperor’s threads are not so rocking.

This may not be obvious to BMW yet. The Countryman has sold well, and it’s hard to argue with the numbers — there was clearly an audience for a larger Mini and one with all-wheel drive. But, as I never tire of saying, just because it sells doesn’t mean it’s good for your brand. Like some of the Kinks’ late period hits, I don’t begrudge Mini its Countryman success in the slightest — the company deserves to make loads of money for its maxi contributions to fun over the years. But while I know the Countryman is a Mini, it’s not cute like its forebears, old and new. It’s more, but somehow less.

Taken together with the alarmingly confused styling of the two-seat Coupe and Roadster Minis that have followed, the Countryman suggests a company that is spinning its design wheels. Indeed, each new iteration of Mini appears to set out to prove the limits of the brand’s design language. Surely this can’t be the plan, anymore than Kinks’ leader Ray Davies set out to tank his band.

The problem stems not just from lack of inspiration; it comes from the decision to dramatically increase the specialist brand’s volume and profitability by keeping up with the fashion. While the impulse drove the Kinks to dabble in disco and turgid hard rock in their lesser later years, in the case of Mini, which stood for small, fun-to-drive cars, it manifested itself as the goal became not so much to sell more of its original-formula models as to simply sell more of anything. And how to do that without diluting or losing sight of the brand is clearly a problem that BMW — a company that increasingly seems ready to chase market share at any price, no matter how ghastly the result (yes, you, BMW X6) — has not solved. As the company moves to expand a Mini sales footprint that some might argue was already sufficiently large, it’s hard to say how BMW can avoid the twin pitfalls that have cursed these new models — loss of focus and acute styling oddity. What we are witnessing with recent Minis is the rude place where art, commerce, and BMW’s world-domination plans intersect by colliding.

However, as hideous as the new Coupe and Roadster are and how off-message the 3200-pound Countryman is, there are more worrisome things about Mini. If our experience is anything to go by, quality is off; our Four Seasons Countryman has been plagued by mechanical (clutch) and electrical problems. Senior editor Joe Lorio and I, in Nyack, New York, one day, lazing on a sunny afternoon (to borrow a Kinks lyric), watched while the chrome band that wraps around the trucklet’s waistline peeled off, revealing that it was not chrome at all but shiny plastic tape.
Tres embarrassing in a two-month-old car.

But worst of anything must be the company’s recent announcement that it will abandon the small, lightweight, high-tech Rocketman concept it showed last year. Not only did it look like a Mini — balanced, handsome, and right-sized — it was a reaffirmation of what the brand’s core principles and mission should be. That is, building deluxe small cars with premium engineering and making money doing so.

So rest in peace, Rocketman.

With you gone, we live instead in fear, as we did with the late-period Kinks, when one no longer awaited their albums with anticipation but rather with grave foreboding. Now that the Rocketman is dead, one shudders to think what the next Mini will be. One with third-row seating? A big V-8? To Mini’s German fathers, hear our plea. Spare us the U.K. jive. Please.