Cheeky, quirky, animated — call it whatever you want, but there’s a certain personality that Mini has cultivated since it was re-launched under BMW ownership in 2001. A big part of the brand’s success is its cult-like owner community of Mini enthusiasts, who have continued to fly the checkered flag throughout the brand’s significant growth and change over the last 14 years. At the Detroit auto show this year, we spoke with Mini U.S. product planners Chris Potgieter and Pat McKenna for an inside look at the minds behind Mini madness. Check out these six things you probably didn’t know about Mini.
1. The current-gen, F56 Mini was designed first as a John Cooper Works model.
Potgieter and McKenna tell us that driving performance and fun are the biggest draws for customers interested in Mini. And although you won’t see Mini breaking any track records or taking names on the drag strip, a fun-to-drive personality is a defining characteristic of the brand’s ethos. That’s why the current generation of the Mini was designed from the outset as a JCW model, rather than as an afterthought performance version of the higher-volume Cooper and Cooper S.
“We had to make sure there would be enough room for the additional cooling and the performance that we wanted for a JCW Cooper,” said Potgieter.
Good news for JCW fans: there are plans for Works variants of every new Mini model.
2. JCW Minis are frequently cross-shopped with Porsche.
At first, it sounds a little far-fetched for someone interested in the near-flawless sports-car dynamics of Porsche to also have a hotted-up front-wheel-drive hatchback on their radar. Apparently there’s a closer relationship than meets the eye, though.
“It’s a performance-minded customer,” says Potgieter, “but it’s also the community you buy into when you sign up with one of these brands. Porsche has a very similar following to Mini when it comes to motorsports, especially in terms of cars that focus on character instead of horsepower.”
Looking for the return of the even wilder Mini GP? You’ll have to wait until the end of the car’s current life cycle.
3. “Let’s Motor Hard,” almost didn’t happen.
During development of the latest Mini, the message that shows up on the center-mounted display after you switch into Sport mode wasn’t always so cheerful. It explained in technical terms what Sport mode activated. Faster throttle response, higher shift points for automatic models, heavier steering, and for JCW models equipped with adaptive dampers—a stiffer ride. But Mini product planners realized that message would have gotten old fast, so they changed the text to simply read, “Let’s Motor Hard.” Somehow three words says it all the better.
4. Mini owners love to row their own.
All Mini vehicles come standard with a manual transmission, and that’s great news for a huge contingent of Ministi. Between 15 and 20 percent of Cooper and Cooper S models are sold with manual gearboxes, which rises to a whopping 45 to 50 percent for JCW variants. These days only about four percent of new cars overall are sold with three pedals, so Mini shoppers are keeping the stick-shift flame alive.
5. There’s a major commitment to brand separation from BMW.
Mini benefits from BMW engine technology and chassis engineering, but there’s an important line that they look to maintain between the two nameplates. In fact, BMW once advised Mini that if the Cooper S and JCW hardtop didn’t switch to a center-mounted twin exhaust, and kept the split exhaust on the base model, it would make room for a spare tire. But Mini wouldn’t budge, insisting that sporty models need to maintain certain design icons for the sake of personality. Much of the Mini experience is about a kind of playful exuberance, and that comes down to the details. Minis even have a totally different set of chimes and sounds than BMW, which are designed to be snappier and more cheerful (video below). Gimmicky? Sure. But it’s this goofy minutiae that Mini customers can’t resist.
6. There was at one point a high-ranking Mini manager with a vendetta against neckties.
Maybe it’s because they’re restrictive, or symbolic of serious business. Either way, Potgieter speaks of a former Mini manager who used to literally cut off people’s ties with a pair of scissors if they wore one into the office. Clearly the tactic worked: “Even for the auto show, I’ll wear a jacket and slacks but no tie.”