Making a good thing better is hard enough, but making a small thing smaller may be even trickier. Mini invited us to see how they did both when yesterday in Milan they unveiled their new concept car Rocketman, a forward-thinking ride with features that suggest not just a future of more compact cars, but one that boldly uses materials, lighting and other features.
Lit entirely with LEDs, the all-glass roof (also embedded with LEDs) makes for a glittering look, accented by the carbon-fiber body, which also lends fuel-efficiency. Its diminutive size, measuring just over three meters and seating three, is geared for urban markets and, perhaps most impressively saves space with a sliding drawer-style trunk, that can be left open for toting snowboards or other bulky items. Hinged doors make squeezing into tight parking spaces easy and allow passengers to get in the reat seat without too much trouble.
We caught up with BMW design head Adrian van Hooydonk at dinner and learned all about the Rocketman's spirit animal, his predictions for car design's future and more.
Is there a danger of being too cute with Mini?
The lines are more crisp and taut on this concept, because we feel that a Mini should always be like a friend, let's say. But if it becomes too cute, than maybe people will see it like a toy, a teddy bear. Of course we like to appeal to young customers, but Mini traditionally is a car that appealed to people of all ages, cross-gender and all around the world.
The elements in this car, we believe are elements that could do that: keep Mini exciting, interesting fun, endearing, but also something to be reckoned with, also serious. Almost like a British bulldog—a small dog, but people take it seriously.
What are the challenges of designing small?
On a big car, it's easy to make things move, do a door opening or a trunk. On a small car, it's much, much harder. But exactly what Mini stands for, right from the very beginning, is being clever in a small space. And this car is full of ideas for a small space. The way the trunk opens, the original Mini had that too. In a tight parking spot, if a car is parked behind your Mini, you can still open this trunk and put your stuff in. Or the side doors, they have a double hinge that allows you to open the door, even when there's another car parked right next to you.
How much less room does the door need?
I would say one-third, if you have to put a number to it. The Mini has quite a long door, because it's a four-seater but a two-door car. If you open it with one hinge, you hit the other door and then you have to sort of squeeze in. With the Rocketman, we solved both issues. You can crawl in the back because the door's quite long, but you don't have to squeeze in through a narrow opening because of the double hinge.
That's actually why we called the car Rocketman. On the one hand, Rocketman sounds like a brave little guy—and Mini is that, a brave little guy. But this car to us is so full of ideas, that we thought it's rocket science by Mini. That's why we call it Rocketman.
How did you treat the interiors for this car?
Of course we are dealing with a small car, but as a designer you can do a lot to give the feeling or the sensation of more space. We did this in the Rocketman in the sense that there is no dashboard like we know it today.
The dashboard takes up a lot of space. In the old Mini there was only a steering wheel and one big dial, and that's what we've done in this Rocketman as well. But the steering wheel and the big round center dial have grown together into a structure. And then the rest of the dashboard is gone, you don't need it.
The lighting is another feature which I believe can do a lot to create a very nice atmosphere, even in a small space. We've played with that a lot in the car, and we believe that the light or the light color in the future is going to play a bigger role in the whole color and material set up of the car. Right now the light is treated very separately from the materials that we use in the car, and in this concept we made it an integral part. We thought about it from the beginning, it could light up in red or blue or some other colors.
You could customize to your mood, which is something that Mini offers today. There's just one or two LEDs in the Mini interiors today so you can change the color seamlessly from orange to blue. But in this car now, there's big surfaces of light. And the roof of course is transparent which is another element that increases your sensation of spaciousness.
What other examples of industrial design inspired the car?
We're constantly not just looking at other fields of design, like industrial design, furniture design or fashion design, we also have a part of our team—actually a large part of our team located in California—called Design Works. And this design consultancy, we do industrial design for other companies as well. We are actually in touch with other industries, like aircraft industry, or boating. We design airplane interiors or boats exteriors and interiors.
And you always learn, so as a designer you become more creative the more you work on different types of products, or design problems. LED light is something that is coming anyway, also in furniture, also in housing. It is simply very small, it uses less energy.
It led to a whole creative outburst, because now we can position these lights in places where in the past a lightbulb would have to go in and there wouldn't be the space. Without LED we couldn't have done this roof or the illumination of the door panels, or the tail lamps where the air can pass through. It wouldn't be possible.
What about the headlights?
In the headlamps, the way we use LED is we would like to make the light in a way that is soft and homogenous. We don't like to see the dots actually, because we think it's a little bit too bright, a little bit too cold. And we want to have the light be somewhat soft and warm.
What are the features you think are most likely to go to market?
When you've just presented a concept car that's meant to go very far in the future, then that's probably the toughest question to ask. But, the lighting ideas for sure. I would say things like the hinges, or the way the trunk works. This would be possible to put in production.
Also a lot of the surface features, the design the ideas, the form ideas we've put in the car, both in the interior and the exterior. I can see a lot of potential in using those because that is not necessarily technically difficult. That's just a matter of seeing how it was received—judging by tonight that was good but let's see if the broader audience in Geneva sees the car.
And this was also deliberate. If people see this car as part of what could be Mini, then we have just broadened our palette. We've just given ourselves more room to play. Because Mini has such a strong history, such a strong heritage in one car. Of course everything gravitates towards this one original car. Does it look like that car or does it not? I think this concept car will help us widen the palette a little bit, which I think is necessary to develop the brand into the future.