The new BMW-made Mini Cooper (2001-present) is one of the most iconic vehicles of the 21st century. Its nostalgic design predates the retro-inspired Ford Mustang and Fiat 500 by years. But the story of the new Mini’s design is as intriguing as the car itself. And your eyes aren’t deceiving you: the Mini Cooper’s tailpipe is based on a beer can.
The BMW Mini Cooper
By the mid-1990s, BMW wanted to expand into the front-wheel-drive (FWD) market. But it felt building a compact, FWD BMW would betray its RWD sportscar heritage. Its solution was to buy the rights to the Mini Cooper and launch a BMW-built FWD Mini.
But building a 21st century Mini was no easy task. BMW’s designers had to take a car that had remained unchanged for 40 years and update it for the modern era. The team brought on famed designer Frank Stephenson. Stephenson had designed the European Ford Escort and would go on to design the Fiat 500 as well as supercars for Ferrari, Maserati, and McLaren.
The team did a series of sketches, then smaller models. Finally, it sculpted a full-size clay model of the new Mini Cooper to present to the BMW company brass.
According to MotoringFile, Stephenson recalled, “We worked a number of 24-hour days trying to get the full-sized clay model completed for presentation to the board of directors.”
The grueling process came right down to the wire. Stephenson added, “So when we finished the job with just hours to spare, I thought it appropriate that the team have a beer or two to celebrate. That’s when I spotted the problem.”
The problem was that the team had forgotten to sculpt an exhaust tip into the clay.
The Mini’s beer can exhaust tip
Stephenson and his colleagues did not have the time to add a block of clay and sculpt an exhaust tip for their new Mini design. But luckily, inspiration struck Stephenson. He finished his beer, stripped the paint from the can, cut one end off of it, and pressed it into the clay bumper.
The car designers finished rigging an exhaust in the nick of time. The Board of Directors arrived, and their reaction was unanimous. The new Mini was perfect.
The designers had shortened the boxy coupe’s overhangs and widened its lights. The result was modern but decidedly retro, and very reminiscent of the classic Mini.
The Board even loved the exhaust. Stephenson said, “everybody liked it because it was unique yet oddly familiar.”
But there was one problem. Normally, designers sculpt all details, including the exhaust out of clay. Stephenson said that the board, “was concerned that I had wasted a modeler’s time milling the piece when his time could be better spent elsewhere. That was when I felt the need to confess.”
When Stephenson came clean he was met by a stunned silence. Then everyone burst into laughter.
The new Mini Cooper
As various elements of the Mini’s design evolved ahead of its launch, Stephenson’s exhaust stayed the same. The team added a second can-shaped tip to all the cars and designed a smaller tip for the base model Mini One. But the 2001 Mini Cooper’s exhaust tip remained the size and shape of Stephenson’s celebratory beer can.
See Stephenson’s recollections of designing the 21st-century Mini in the video below: