Exclusive Interview: Gert Hildebrand, Chief Designer of Mini

At this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, we had the chance to talk to one of the world’s most experienced car designers, Gert Hildebrand, currently the Chief Designer at Mini. He has worked for some of the most important car makers (Opel – Kadett E and the Opel JUNIOR show-car), Volkswagen (Golf III, IV, Sharan facelift and the Bora), Seat (1998 Toledo and Leon) and Mitusbishi, so you can imagine we had a lot of questions for him. Since 2001, right after the new MINI was introduced, he is Mini’s Chief Designer.

First of all, we’re curious about the two concepts. They’re based on the JCW (John Cooper Works)…

Gert: Yes, they’re based on today’s MINI, they’re based on the One, Cooper, Cooper S, John Cooper Works. It’s always the same: cheap metal but you have different drive trains and different engines.

We’re curious if, at some point, the Coupe and the Roadster will take over some of the JCW market.

G: But it could be on top of that, because it could have higher efficiency, be faster. But in the moment, that’s difficult to answer, because we speculate the Coupe could be lighter and it has better aerodynamics. So, it could have the same engine, but higher performance. But in the moment it’s still a concept and we are far away from the production.

They are going into production, right?

G: Yes, that was announced.

Will they change a lot?

G: In the development, cars always change and have to be adjusted to laws, to regulations and to manufacturability. But the production version will be more or less what you see here.

Let’s talk a little about the design process, because we (and assume our readers too) don’t know much about that. How do you start designing a new car? I mean, when you look at that blank sheet of paper, what do you think about?

G: Fortunately, we don’t have a blank sheet of paper, we have the whole Mini history. And with the concepts Coupe and Roadster we could already base the idea of having a roadster and a coupe on the cars we already have. So we know how much different we have to make it, because it has to look different, otherwise it makes no sense.

But what about designing a new car.

G: You always have to start with what customers want and what is your perceived customer. At Mini, we know exactly, more or less, who is driving our cars. And then you can say “ok, do these people need another car?”, because they changed the habit of living, because they’re young, because they have family, they have kids, a house and that sometimes they need a different car. That’s one direction. I mean, people start with a normal MINI, then the MINI was to small, they want a Clubman. And then they had more money, they bought a convertible or if they need some sort of four doors they can have a crossover.

On the other side, we have new customers, who are not driving a MINI today. Because there’s not enough space or they don’t like the design. And this is the other side.

These are the two directions we have to look at. And we talk to the customers. We are also customers, because we’re 25 people and we are all customers. And then we figure out how much MINI a concept has to be and how much we make it different from what you know.

And speaking of design…how do you mix creativity with the other aspects of car manufacturing?

G: We have engineers, we have the designers, we have marketing and we have production. The production people tell you how you can build cars, because the production plant has a certain technology and you can only produce cars which they can build. And you have to design it so it can be built. Marketing people know the customer, pricing, service and networking, while engineers tell you all the rules, the strength and the stiffness of the components. And we take everything, put it together and make a nice car out of it.

So you have to please all the other three departments…

G: No, no, no, it’s a fight.

Oh, it’s a fight?

G: Yes, it’s a positive, constructive fight. The point’s not to please anyone, because if you please somebody, you only get mediocre results

So who usually wins?

G: The best argument. We often have good arguments because we know the main reason for sales is design. People buy things because it looks nice. The functionality is also, of course, important, the car has to do what it’s expected from it…it has to be safe, it has good quality build, comply with standards, all cars have to do that, (Audi, Volkswagen and we have to have that too).

We also want to ask you about the MINI range. Though Mini had more models over the years, everybody remembers only the original, small Mini. And right now there are six models in the range. Aren’t you afraid that with all these new models, MINI’s “that something special” will fade away?

G: Yes, people forget, because historically, Mini had more models. Right now we have six models (three now and three to come) and is very delicate to balance it out. But on the other side, our society got so diversified compared to the society in the ’50s and the ’60s. Because now the society is so diverse in gender, race, countries, language, traveling that it’s not possible anymore to cover the big customer range with only one car. And we found that out and started to expand our product range. It’s more sensitive, you are right, but I think it’s necessary in order to keep the company running and reach new customers. The best example is Volkswagen. It started with one Beetle and now they have everything. And BMW as well, started with one car and now their range is so diverse. And people also request an alternative. For example, because next week we’re going to have elections, in Germany, historically we had only three political parties and now we have six or seven.

What do you think is MINI’s best feature? Its looks, its driving feeling, which is great by the way, we drove a MINI Cooper S Cabrio about a month ago and it was fantastic.

G: I think it’s a combination. Because if a person looks good but is stupid, it does not help. And the same’s with a car. You can’t say the driving is more important, or the design. I think what you see has to be followed by what you experience. It’s like with people. I think one without the other is not possible. But the car’s look…I mean, we have five senses, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching, but seeing is 80 percent of our perception. What you see is your first, most important information. And that’s design. And then the rest (what you feel, what you smell) is the rest of the 20 percent. And the same’s with cars..what you hear, what you feel, what you smell. And this combination gives you quality. If it sounds bad, if it feels bad, then it’s negative and you don’t accept the car. MINI always had the special go-kart feeling, but we know the car wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t for the great design.

We know you worked in the past for Opel, Volkswagen, Seat. what made you take the Mini challenge in 2001?

When I came to Mini, the new MINI was already out and I said to myself: “the classic Mini was 40 years unchanged in production, so it would be a good job for me to keep this car unchanged in production for another 40 years. I’m a lazy guy and I would have nothing to do”

But after two months it got boring so we started creating some new cars.

So how do you see Mini in 40 years?

G: [speaking like an old person] I..don’t…know…because…I…will…be…very…old. Seriously talking, I think we will develop in a single evolutionary way. I don’t know what my successors will do, but I really think we have a corner stone of flawless Mini which I can lead into the future.

Speaking of the new MINI, how do you relate to its creator, Frank Stephenson?

We had a very good relationship. He worked for me in his last two years at Mini so I appreciate very much what he and the team did before I came, I mean creating the new MINI. They had the chance to create this icon, it was not me. On the other side, I’m lucky to inherit something I have not done, I can openly speak about the value of this task. That is possible for me, I can really appreciate what was done. I think it’s a chance of a lifetime for a designer and they did it very good. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Frank took another step in his career, he went to Ferrari and he’s now chief designer at McLaren. I think it was difficult for him to get a boss, but for me it was a chance of a lifetime to work for something so small and cute, but whenever we see each other, we have a good relation

We read a couple of interviews with you on other blogs and we’re curious what do you see Mini online?

I don’t communicate actively, but I read blogs (a few, because today there are so many, you can’t follow all). Also my colleagues and marketing are reading the blogs. And we also have the MINI Space blog and we take these things serious.

And does the bloggers opinion count in any way?

G: Of course, because for example with the MINI Roadster, we had good feedback and we could go to marketing and show them “here, this is what people want!”. The blogging system is a very good marketing system. Though it’s very difficult, because 80 percent of the comments are negative, because it’s easy to criticise something when you didn’t even drive it.

And one final question…what other car, beside MINI, would you drive daily to work?

G: Morgan Plus 8, with the Rover engine, not with the new engine. If I will have money I will buy one, but I’m a poor designer 🙂

Thanks a lot for your time!

G: Thank you too!

We had a lot more questions for him, but we didn’t have a lot of time available. Still, we think the interview turned out great. On this occasion, we also had the chance to meet Stephan Breschan, the new chief executive of BMW Romania, and Agnes Weiss-Tar, BMW’s Corporate Communications Manager for Central and Eastern Europe. It was great meeting them all and big thanks go to Alex, who made it possible.

Special thanks to our partners, who made our experience better: Mercedes Benz and BMW (cars), Sony (A380Y DSLR camera), Mio (Moov S555 GPS device), Vodafone (mobile internet) and Acer (Travelmate 8371 Timeline laptop).

Leave a Reply