You won't be able to buy a 2002 Mini Cooper until next March. But parent BMW would like to sell you a cuckoo clock in the meantime. Instead of a bird popping out on the hour, a little red Mini hatchback helps to keep time. Rather than chirping, it revs its engine and toots its horn.

To the usually serious Germans, this is the equivalent of an inside joke. Take the symbol of Bavaria - a cuckoo clock - combine it with a little car that has been a British icon for 40 years, and put a wacky spin on it.

"Mini is definitely a different brand within the BMW family," explained Jack Pitney, general manager of BMW's U.S. Mini division. "It's a quirky, fun brand, and things like the cuckoo clock reflect that."

The clock, which is available on the Mini's British Web site for $70, symbolizes the marketing thrust behind the little retro car that is joining the ranks of such popular, emotional vehicles as the new Beetle and the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

The original Mini - and its sporty sibling, the Mini Cooper - is remembered by some as the little British car that supposedly inspired the miniskirt trend in the 1960s and was owned by such celebrities as the Beatles, Peter Sellers and members of Britain's royal family. The Mini hasn't been available in the United States since 1967, when it fell victim to new federal safety and emissions regulations. The 2002 version, which will be marketed in the United States as the Mini Cooper, will be priced from around $18,000 and will be a bigger, more powerful version of the original, featuring such contemporary items as six air bags, xenon headlights and an optional navigation system.

Despite its new size, Mini still will be one of the smallest cars in America when it debuts, with a wheelbase that's more than 18 inches shorter than that of the new Beetle. No wonder some cartoons circulating on the Internet show the Mini parked vertically on its rear bumper next to more conventional cars.

Mini also will be one of the more eccentric small cars on the road, with a jazzy, squarish appearance. Buyers can choose from 14 colors, including bright yellow, and pair that up with a black or white roof with matching side-view mirrors. It's harder to describe Mini's personality, except to say it has an almost endearing, human quality. "The front end has a real face with a real smile," said Richard Steinberg, U.S. BMW Mini brand manager.

Eventually, BMW will offer a Mini with an automatic transmission and may spin off a cabrio version, Steinberg said.

Even a year before Mini hits the U.S. shores, Pitney says "the buzz is close to a fever pitch."

BMW dealers aren't supposed to be taking orders or assembling waiting lists yet, but some already are. Only 70 of BMW's 345 U.S. dealers will be awarded Mini franchises in the next few weeks, and they will be required to build separate showrooms to house the new brand. Those anointed dealers will be posted at miniusa.c om, signaling buyers that orders will be taken at last. BMW says it hopes to take custom orders for as many Minis as possible.

Buyers will be notified at each milestone along the way, from the date the car is assembled at the BMW Group's Oxford plant in England to when it is loaded on the ship bound for U.S. showrooms.

Like the new Beetle, the return of the Mini triggers memories of first cars, first dates and first kisses, according to consumers and analysts. Allan Fraser of Warren reminisced about the Mini on the BMW Web site. "I owned one in 1963," he said. "I went on (my) honeymoon in one. Leaving my wedding reception, all the guys picked up the back to stop us from riding off."

But other buyers seem confused by Mini-mania. "If it's a BMW, why doesn't it say so?" asked Shari Lemonious, a 36-year-old Detroit resident who checked out the Mini at the 2001 North American International Auto Show as part of the Detroit News 2001 Consumer Panel. "If Im going to rive a BMW, I want everyone to know it's a BMW."

Lemonious was referring to the fact that the Mini doesn't have any BMW badging on it. But in reality, BMW is working hard to keep Mini as a separate brand within the larger parent company.

"They're trying to make the Mini into a cult car," said John Wolkonowicz, a partner in the Bulin Group, a Northville-based automotive consulting firm. "I think it will be one in Europe, especially the UK. They will go berserk over it. But people don't remember it here. Those who get excited about it here will like it for what it is, not what it was."

His partner Jim Bulin says Mini is likely to have a greater cross-generational draw and more appeal to young males than the new Beetle. "The Mini is not saddled with the baggage of having been for another generation," Bulin said. "It's a vehicle even young guys could get excited about."

BMW said it expects Mini to appeal to groups that include classic-car fans, buyers age 35-50 who may purchase the Mini as their third vehicle and young, affluent buyers age 20-34. "Our research shows those young buyers are fashion-forward and adopters of new technology," Pitney said. "Virtually all of them have PDAs (personal digital assistants like Palm Pilots). It's basically a whole new customer for BMW." He adds: "Here's the best way to describe the Mini. It's not a car for introverts."