The CAR Inquisition: Oliver Heilmer

New design chief Oliver Heilmer believes future Minis should prioritise character and clever packaging, without being constrained by the past

JUST OVER A year ago, BMW Group design boss Adrian van Hooydonk admitted to CAR that of all the brands under his remit it was Mini – at that time without a head of design – that required the most help.

‘I think it’s the one that needs the biggest push,’ he told us. ‘After its relaunch, Mini stayed on its track for just a little too long. Now it’s time to make a departure.’

While Mini keeps growing – it topped 360,000 sales worldwide in 2016, and neared 380,000 in 2017 – some aficionados believe that the brand has strayed too far from its original ethos; the current range is too big, as are the cars themselves.

In September 2017, group veteran Oliver Heilmer was brought in from his role as president of BMW’s Designworks division in LA to take Mini to its next stage. He’ll be leading the change – but in which direction?

‘For me, it’s less about whether Mini is a small-car brand and more about working to fulfil customers’ future needs,’ he begins. ‘In the late ’50s there was a specific need for Issigonis to invent that size of car, but maybe future demands will be different. And it was just one car. The advantage we have is a range of specific characters within the brand. The small one has to stay small but with the others we are able to expand into other markets where size is not the biggest issue. That’s why the Countryman is so successful. If you have a family it’s a fantastic car; the Clubman too.’

On that basis, could a Mini bigger than the Countryman be on the cards for the US, where the Countryman still appears small?
‘I think any Mini should feel “mini” and be a really clever use of space.
Making cars bigger but keeping the same concept is not a clever thing. And we have the BMW X1, so naturally we’d like to avoid overlapping.’

What about some of those retro features inspired by older Minis that have had mixed success – such as the toggle switches (now ditched), the cartoonish, ever-expanding centre dial and the Clubman’s rear barn doors? Is Heilmer concerned too many Mini features try too hard to be different when customers simply need more practicality? ‘My aim is to do things that are purposeful, authentic and easy to understand. I strongly believe that has to be the future. As for the dial, there are many things that could affect it, such as speech, gesture and touch, so it’s not defined yet. The Vision Next 100 concept didn’t even have a screen.’

Minis are currently designed in Munich by a 40-strong team, and a permanent UK studio for this quintessentially British brand isn’t on Heilmer’s wishlist, although he does concede it’s a valid question: ‘In terms of understanding the culture, we run projects here and have regular contact with our UK-based agencies.’

So, what’s most important to Heilmer? ‘You fall in love with a product because of the human touch within its design,’ says the man who appreciates the function of architect Mies van der Rohe as well as the feasible fantasy of good sci-fi books and films. ‘It could be in the execution or the materials. And the more you reduce the geometry, which I believe in, the more you have to take care of the details. Our team is not coming from the classic path of exterior, interior, colour and trim and then visualisation. It’s the other way around. The user experience is how we “go in” now.’

Heilmer is enthusiastic about the 2019 production Mini EV – ‘technology, combined with that character and size of car is unique’ – and further off, Vision Next 100 ideas such as AI, membership-not-ownership and greater personalisation.

The opportunity for Mini as an electric and connected urban brand is huge. The challenge for Heilmer will be delivering globally desirable designs while skilfully treading the line between authentic heritage and nasty pastiche.

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