BMW Group Hires Oliver Heilmer As New Boss Of Mini Design - It's About Time

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain
bmw group hires oliver heilmer as new boss of mini design its about time

In Oliver Heilmer, BMW Group’s Mini brand will finally have a design chief after being rudderless for much of the last year.

Anders Warming, Heilmer’s predecessor, resigned the post last summer. The 42-year-old Heilmer, who makes his way up the corporate ladder from BMW Designworks in California, won’t actually undertake his new role until September.

“With his design expertise and experience, Oliver Heilmer combines continuity with the freshness and vision Mini stands for,” Adrian van Hooydonk, head of BMW Group Design, said in BMW’s official statement. In other words, Heilmer is both an insider, as part of BMW Group Design for 17 years, but also an outsider, as the BMW Designworks boss who previously held a post in interior design at the BMW brand.

Regardless, Heilmer has his work cut out for him. In the hugely important U.S. market, Mini sales in 2016 fell to a six-year low, and sales are declining further in 2017.

To a large extent, Mini’s styling destiny is set in stone. Mini can’t reinvent the wheel. Mini can’t adopt Aston Martin’s grille as the new company face as Ford did. Mini can’t abandon the box like Volvo did with the first S80. Mini can’t go all-in on big rig styling like Dodge did with the Ram in 1993.

Mini is Mini. Yet Mini must become fresh again.

After huge lineup expansion, Mini is now more restrained. The Coupe, Roadster, and Paceman did not earn replacements. But that’s not to say the lineup is entirely sensible. Beyond the conventional two-door Mini, there’s a four-door squeezed between the two-door and the elongated Clubman. Both the Clubman wagon and similarly sized but low-slung Countryman crossover are available with all-wheel drive.

Mini also relies on its most maxi models for the majority of its U.S. sales. The three four-door models account for 62 percent of Mini volume in 2017’s first four months. The Countryman, bolstered by the launch of a second-generation model early this year, is the overall top seller. Granted, some of the affection for the Countryman has also been lost — even in the brand’s traditional home market.

What to do with Mini? That was TTAC’s question in mid-May. The answer, for now, seems to include the hiring of a new design director. At BMW Designworks, a consulting firm responsible for the design of skis and shoes, urban furniture and mouthwash bottles, Oliver Heilmer was up close and personal with unique products in disparate industries.

Now he must breathe new life into the Mini brand, where iconic design was met with great hoopla in 2001, but where Alec Issigonis’ 58-year-old design philosophy is entrenched.

[Images: BMW Group]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and and the founder and former editor of Follow on Twitter @timcaincars.

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  • Hpycamper Hpycamper on Jun 01, 2017

    Reliability is my biggest complaint with MINI. Wish more automakers would offer the configurability that MINI offers. I wouldn't ask them to make major changes to the look any more than I would ask Porsche to make big changes to the 911.

  • 997S 997S on Jun 01, 2017

    Interesting commentary – one of my first cars was a Mini Cooper 997S. My first car was a big Healey. My first new car was a BMW 2002. A year ago I bought the new six door Mini Cooper S Clubman and I love it. It has been completely reliable, fast and handles great. i've always bought cars that I like, not because others thought they were great. Time has proven my judgment.

  • Dukeisduke I still think the name Bzzzzzzzzzzt! would have been better.
  • Dukeisduke I subscribed to both Road & Track and Car and Driver for over 25 years, but it's been close to 20 years since I dropped both. I tried their digital versions with their reader software (can't remember the name now), but it wasn't the same. I let it lapse after a year.From what I've seen of R&T's print version, it's turned into more of a lifestyle thing like The Robb Report. I haven't seen an issue of C/D in a while.I enjoyed both magazines a lot when I was subscribing. R&T for the road tests (especially the April Fools road tests), used car reviews, historical articles, and columns like Peter Egan's Side Glances and Dennis Simanitis's Technical Correspondence. And C/D for the road tests and pithy commentary, and columns like Gordon Baxter's, and Jean Shepherd's (that goes way back to the early '70s).
  • Steve Biro It takes very clever or amusing content for me to sit through a video vehicle review. And most do not include that.Tim, you wrote :"Niche titles aren't dying because of a lack of interest from enthusiasts, but because of broader changes in the economics of media, at least in this author's opinion."You're right about the broader changes in economics. But the truth is that there IS a lack of interest from enthusiasts. Part of it is demographics. Young people coming up are generally not car and truck fans. That doesn't mean there are no young enthusiasts but the numbers are much smaller. And even those who consider themselves enthusiasts seem to have mixed feelings. Just take a look at Jalopnik.And then we come to the real problem: The vast majority of new vehicles coming out today are not interesting to enthusiasts, are not fun to drive and/or are just not affordable.You can argue that EVs are technically interesting and should create enthusiasm. But the truth is they are not fun to drive, don't work well enough yet for most people and are very expensive.EVs on the race track? Have you ever been to a Formula E race? Please.And even if we set EVs aside, the electronic nannies that are being forced on us pretty much preclude a satisfying driving experience in any brand-new vehicle, regardless of propulsion system. Sure, many consumers who view cars as transportation appliances may welcome this technology. But they are not enthusiasts. I don't know about you, but I and most car fans I know don't want smart phones on wheels.There is simply not that much of interest to write about. Car and Driver and Road & Track are dipping deeper into nostalgia and their archives as a result. R&T is big on sponsoring road trips for enthusiasts - which is a great idea. But only people with money to burn need apply.And then there is the problem of quality in automotive writing. As more experienced people are let go and more money is cut from publications, the quality and length of pieces keeps going down, leading to the inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy.Even the output on this site is sharply reduced from its peak. And the number of responses to posts seems a small fraction of what it used to be. This is my first comment since the site was recently relaunched. I don't expect to be making many in the future.Frankly Tim - and it gives me no pleasure to write this - but your post makes me feel as though the people running this site have run out of ideas and TTAC's days may be numbered.Cutbacks in automotive journalism are upsetting. But, until there is something exciting and fun to write about, they are going to continue. Perhaps automotive enthusiasm really was a 20th century phenomenon..
  • THX1136 I think that the good ole interwebs is at least partially to blame. When folks can get content for free, what is the motivation to pay to read? I'm guilty of this big time. Gotta pay to read!? Forget it! I'll go somewhere else or do without. And since a majority of folks have that portable PC disguised as a phone in their pocket, no need for print. The amount of info easily available is the other factor the web brings to bear. It's perhaps harder now to stand out. Standing out is necessary to continued success.In an industry I've been interested (and participated) in, the one magazine (Mix) I subscribed to has become a shadow of it's former self (200 pgs now down to 75). I like print for the reasons mentioned by another earlier. I can 'access' it in a non-linear fashion and it's easily portable for me. (Don't own a smarty pants phone and don't plan to at the moment.)I would agree with others: useful comparison reviews, unique content not easily available other places, occasional ringers (Baruth, Sajeev, et al) - it would be attractive to me anyway. I enjoy Corey, Matt and Murilee and hope they continue to contribute here.
  • Daniel J I wish auto journos would do more comparisons. They do some but many are just from notes from a previous review compared to a new review. I see where journos go out to a location and test drive and review a vehicle on location but that does absolutely nothing for me without any comparison to similar cars. I also wish more journos spent more time on seat comfort. I guess that doesn't matter much when many journos seem to be smaller folks where comfort isn't as important. Ergonomics are usually just glossed over unless there is something very specific about the ergonomics that tick the journo off. I honestly get more from most youtube reviews than I ever do about reviews written on a page.