Club doorman

Mini has addressed one of the few shortcomings of its standard hatchback – lack of space – with the new Clubman, but, as Nargess Shahmanesh-Banks discovers, the company has balanced this application of good sense with a heavy dose of its trademark eccentr

Mini’s reincarnation under BMW Group’s savvy direction has been a huge success story. More than a million Minis have rolled off the Plant Oxford production line in the six years since the first generation hatchback was born. The family has grown to include a convertible, and matured into a more premium brand in its second generation, offering genuine metal, leather and wood inside. In fact, the brand has become so posh that virtually every car is built to order.

Yet, BMW Group believes that many potential customers were put off buying the car because of its limited internal space. Hence, the Clubman is now born, a Mini estate, based vaguely on the Morris Mini Traveller and the Austin Countryman, and closely linked to the 2005 Shooting Brake concept car.

Size was the first obstacle. This is, after all, a ‘mini’ car, even though the dimensions are nothing close to the original, 1960s car. The wheelbase of the current, standard hatchback has been stretched by 80mm, increasing leg room, and the rear overhang extended by 160mm, giving the car an extra 100l of boot space, now 260l. ‘In terms of proportion, this is as far as we could go,’ says the Clubman’s designer Marcus Syring, who leads the exterior design team from the main studio in Munich, Germany.

‘Then, we thought,’ says Syring, ‘what is the story behind the Mini? It has to have go-kart handling.’ Hence, the wide track, big wheels which sit at the very farthest corners, the short overhang and masculine shoulders which give this Mini, just like the hatchback, an agile feel.

This may be an estate car, but BMW Group knew it needed to make it very different from the average example. Syring explains that the car had to be more masculine than the hatchback, and so he created a stiffer rear-end that is straighter and consequently, he notes, masculine.

This also allows for a larger, more accessible boot, says Syring, ‘As Mies van der Rohe once said, “Form follows function”. This, too, expresses functionality through design,’ he explains. It also fulfils Mini’s desire for individuality.

The quirky design features don’t end there. The hinges for the van-like split rear doors have been pushed back to the very edges of the car. It is a practical solution, which makes loading very easy, but, by doing so, the rear lights have ended up being inside the doors. According to legislation, tail lights cannot be mounted on doors, for the simple safety reason that the doors could not be opened at night.

‘This is when we decided to do something completely new to motoring,’ boasts Syring. They literally made cut-outs of the lights in the two doors, leaving the tail lights mounted on the car. The result is visually quite comic, yet adds to the eccentricity of the Clubman.

‘We didn’t want to do retro design,’ he notes. ‘The Clubman has to carry the heritage, but be up-to-date with technology, which is why this was a great and individual solution.’

To complete the playful design language, the team came up with a 40cm-wide rear-side coach door, named the Clubdoor (known generically as a ‘suicide door’), on the driver’s side only. A conventional sliding door was considered, ‘but this would require external rails that [did not suit] our chic design’, says Syring.

Again, legislation played some part in deciding on which side to put the Clubdoor, a subject that has ignited debate. Putting it on the left would require the fuel filler to be redesigned, while regulation in the US (a big market for the brand) does not allow for the fuel filler to be mounted behind the rear wheel in case of high-speed collision.

The rear overhang would have also become much longer to accommodate it, and so the door, to the annoyance of many UK critics, has found its home on the right. ‘We liked the way it made the car asymmetrical,’ says Syring. ‘From the left, the car is fast-looking, almost coupé-like in styling, but, from the right, we added an extra B pillar, which makes it look structured,’ he says. ‘There is no need to be symmetrical like everyone else.’ l

The Clubman will account for about 25 per cent of production once it is sold globally, and it goes on sale in Europe on 10 November. Next to join the family is a Mini SAV (sports activity vehicle), planned for 2012

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