The 2004 Alpine Mini Cooper

An interview with Alpine's car design team, Steve Brown and Mike Vu


Erin Blanton

Erin Blanton wrote about mobile A/V gear at Crutchfield for several years, and worked as a Sales Advisor in our contact center before that. She left Crutchfield to open her own toy store, Pufferbellies, in nearby Staunton, Virginia, which continues to keep her busy.

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Todd Cabell

Todd Cabell is the Senior Director of E-Commerce at Crutchfield. He drives a 2000 Ford F-150 with an Alpine stereo in the dash, Polk/MOMO speakers, a Rockford Fosgate amplifier, and an MTX Thunderform under the rear seat. He hopes to one day outfit his 1962 Mercury Comet with a worthy sound system as well.

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Alpine's Mini Cooper S.

Steve Brown (left) and Mike Vu (right), Alpine's project car design team.

The question on everyone's lips was, "How can they top themselves after that?"

"Everybody" was anyone who's into custom mobile A/V installations. "They" were Steve Brown and Mike Vu, Alpine's project car design team. And "that" was Alpine's award-winning 2003 Honda Civic Si, the car universally proclaimed the best custom installation of the 2003 CES, and maybe ever.

Crutchfield has been following the adventures of Alpine's project car team since CES 2003. We last spoke with Steve and Mike in August 2003, just as they were getting into the thick of the custom work on their top-secret 2004 car. Though we couldn't share it with our readers, Brown and Vu showed us how they'd successfully sawed off the top of a 2004 Mini Cooper and installed industrial-strength steel rails that allowed the center drive seat and subwoofer assembly to slide out beyond the vehicle over four feet. They were preparing to install the motor that would control the seat assembly, to figure out how to attach a body kit, do all of the fiberglass work, mount all the A/V equipment, and slap on a fine paint job.

When we asked Steve if he was at all concerned with topping the Civic Si, he laughed. "This car we're building now has a central concept — there's one thing in the car that makes it different that any other car you'll see." I remember thinking how relaxed he seemed under the mounting pressure of having to get the car completed by CES in January, not to mention the tremendous expectations of everyone within the industry to see if he could match or better last year's car.

Alpine's 2003 Honda Civic Si featured a motorized amp rack/gauge cage, 5 monitors, and center drive.

True to form, though, Brown was all smiles and plans. "I've even got an idea for next year that's gonna be wild," Brown told us with a mischievous glint in his eye.

So, one of the first things I did when I had an hour of free time between press events at the 2004 CES was make my way into the Alpine booth to see how the car came out and to catch up with Steve and Mike. I found them encircled by a group of showgoers who swiveled their heads back and forth from the car, to Steve and Mike, and back to the car again in awe. Finally, I got a chance to chat with the guys about how the installation went.
Crutchfield: So, last time we talked with you guys you were in the middle of the process of re-doing the car. How did the installation end up for you?

Steve Brown: Well, I gotta tell you, it came out better than I expected. We have high expectations, but this exceeded it in every way. It really, really happened with this car.

Alpine's Mini Cooper consistently drew a large crowd at CES.

CF: It looks like you made some changes — I guess that's always what happens once you get into the middle of it. Some things that you wanted didn't work out, other things came up?

SB: Right. Well sure, I mean you come into a car with a basic concept. You have to work it as it goes, because certain things work out and certain things don't. You might have a great idea, but it may not work out in the space that you have or the car that you have or the design that you're trying to achieve. It may make it worse to try to do too much, and do the wrong thing. We really try to do just the right amount of style and just the right amount of product to make the car look like we want, without going overboard.

CF: What are some things that came up that were ideas you had in the middle of the installation process that you implemented that you didn't realize you were going to do when you started out?

Mike Vu: The chrome accents. That came later in the install.

Chrome accents such as these grilles really stand out against the blue paint.
CF: I remember you guys were talking doing a heads-up display? What happened to that?

SB: Yeah, we were. We were thinking about doing a heads-up display, but the problem with stuff like that is, it takes a lot of time to experiment with making it work. I mean, you probably could make it work. But it might take two days, it might take a week, it might take three weeks. And we really don't have that much time to gamble with on these cars, because we need all the time we can get. So, a lot of times ideas come up and if you can make it work in a reasonable amount of time, you do it. If you can't, well — it's not worth sacrificing the rest of the project just for that one idea.

MV: And one sacrifice could mean other sacrifices.

SB: Because honestly, the heads-up display — part of the thing we wanted to do that for was for the visual gauge display. Mike found these Defi digital gauges that really highlighted the install well. That kind of took the cake. And you see on the steering wheel there's a part of that display also.

Seven digital gauges and a control module mounted on the steering wheel provide feedback on vehicle performance. Note the stick shift mounted to the right of the steering wheel.

CF: What is that part on the steering wheel?

SB: That's actually the controller for those other gauges. It controls all the functions of those other gauges as well.

CF: Very cool.

SB: So yeah, a lot of things changed, and you end up with some things that don't work out the way you want and some things turn out better than you thought.
CF: But the seat definitely worked out like you planned.

SB: Oh yeah, the seat. . . you know the seat was the first thing we built on the interior, because that was the main part of the concept we really wanted to get across. The rest of the details on the interior kind of fell into place as we went along. We weren't a hundred percent sure exactly what we wanted to do. We knew we had a basic concept, but until you get in there and see the spaces, you just don't know.

The center seat mechanism electronically motors out from the chassis of the Mini Cooper so the driver can climb in.

Like the monitor — that was really one of those things that just came up. Mike and I started talking about it, about the idea of having one of the monitors come through the arms for the other two monitors. So, it just gives it a neat look. It really gives you a good display in the front of the car with the monitors, a lot of gauges, and of course optimal speaker positioning for 5.1.

Monitors are positioned on interlocking arms that seem to swoop in towards the driver's seat.

CF: It seems like you carried over some elements from last year's car [the Honda Civic Si]. Like with the gauges coming out like that, a little bit of the wraparound cage look, you know?

SB: Well, yeah ...

MV: That's kind of our style, the Alpine trademark, you know.

SB: ... it's just the way that we think, and the way that we ... I guess that's what you're seeing there, the similarity is really just the way that we approach a project.

CF: And sort of the paint, a little bit? I mean obviously Alpine blue is what's tying that together.

SB: Right.

CF: You had the same guy do the paint job again?

SB: We did. We did it a little differently this year. We actually started the car off with silver. So we basecoated and clearcoated the car silver, then he did all the actual blue and lightning, and all the additional color on top of it. So that allowed him a lot of creativity, to add darkness and leave lightness where he wanted to. He could get a lot more shadow. If you look at this car next to the Civic, it has a much more dynamic paint scheme in terms of the color, shifting from one color to the other. Of course, the Civic's much more dark, more of a solid color. So we were real happy with the way that that came out, and we wanted to get away from the kind of human interface, the human aspect of the paint with the Civic — the underwater theme. This is more of a biomechanical kind of theme. Lightning, you know, mechanical stuff. We actually took some electronic stuff apart and showed him what the circuit boards looked like, some of the gears in the DVD player, some of the amplifiers.

CF: So that was his inspiration.

SB: If you look on the hood, you can see a lot of the influences of that.

Circuit boards from amps and the internals of the mobile DVD player were part of the inspiration for the paint scheme.

CF: Yeah! That's great.

SB: So that kind of gives him an idea of what to go with.
CF: What was the most challenging thing for you guys in the second half of the project? I guess the first half was really devoted, a lot of it was obviously trimming the roof off, and then the seat mechanism, the rails and all of that.

MV: For me it was the bodywork.

SB: Mike did a lot of the bodywork.

MV: There was so much sanding involved. I've never done so much sanding in all my life.

The most challenging aspect of the install after the center seat console was the bodywork. Mike Vu: "I've never done so much sanding in my life."

CF: That's right, when we were there [at Alpine's headquarters in L.A. last August] you had just gotten the body kit in. And it wasn't matching up exactly like you'd hoped.

MV: Exactly.

SB: It took a lot of work.

MV: And just to get the curve we wanted, the contours, and just making it look basically flawless, which I think we did a pretty good job doing.

CF: I think you did.

SB: It came out really really nice. I mean sure, we started out — we don't really do bodywork, but it came out really good.

A detail of the subwoofers mounted on the rear of the center seat.

CF: So what's it like to drive it, with the gear shift up there on your right?

SB: It's a trip.

SB: It's like driving a go-cart. Cause when you're inside of it, you're eye-level with the top of that windshield, and you just feel like you're on top of the world. It's a lot of fun actually.

CF: Is that seat pretty comfortable?

SB: It's not bad! You'd be surprised. I mean for long distances it would probably hurt.

CF: But you can get a little massage; put a little Drums & Bass on there.

SB: Exactly. Yeah, the bass works out really good in there.
CF: What are your plans for the car this year? I know this is the kick-off for it — are you guys going to be showing it around the country?

MV: Hot Import Nights, Spring Break Nationals, MERA. . . .

SB: Yeah, we haven't really set the schedule for it yet, but we want to try to get it all over the country. We've got a lot of magazines already committed to it, and there's going to be a ton of coverage.

MV: This kind of car targets a wider audience now, since it's a European car, it's an import. . .

SB: It's got the retro thing going on, a lot of guys like it.

MV: Hot rodders, you know, Gen Y would love it.

CF: Yeah that's right, you're kind of breaking out a little wider than you did with the Civic, which was more the tuner crowd stable.

MV: Exactly.

SB: Yeah, we wanted to go a little more upscale with this car. That's why the paint scheme's a little bit simpler and a little bit more classy, because we really wanted it to have a little more of a European flair.

CF: So, Mike, I know you mentioned to me earlier that it came down to the last day finishing everything up. Was that kind of nerve-wracking?

MV: No, we were confident. It's always like that, no matter what car you build. I mean if you start getting cocky like two-thirds of the way, like "We're going to finish early," it never happens. It's always down to the wire.

SB: Yeah, there's always, especially with new product — there's a lot of sample product in the car that you have to play with a little bit to get it to work how it's supposed to. When you get this product there's no owner's manual, there's no anything. You've got to really figure out how to make it work and what the problems are. It's just new product. And once all the bugs get worked out, then everything's cool. It takes a little extra time.

CF: Did you have that new touchscreen monitor in there? I haven't checked it out.

SB: Yeah. It's actually in the rear. The concept being you can control the DVD player and all the functionality of it through that rear screen.

CF: Well, it looks fantastic guys. Thanks for catching us up on it.

SB: I'm glad you guys got a chance to see it in all its glory.

And so were we!

Thanks again to Steve Brown and Mike Vu for taking some time out of their hectic CES schedule to discuss the new car with us. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the 2004 Alpine Mini Cooper at Hot Import Nights, Spring Break Nationals, and many other car shows this year — it's worth the price of admission alone!

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