The
MINI – icon of the ’60’s, immortalised in the film ‘The Italian job’ (‘you’re
only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’) – has finally died. The name lives
on under a new owner and it is arguably a reincarnation, but something ended when
the last Mini rolled off the Longbridge production line this week. Its design
was innovative and brought a new wave of ‘superminis’ to Europe. Even more remarkably,
after the production run of 41 years, the last Mini was recognisably a descendent
of the original. The basic shape was never changed and it is hard to envisage
any of today’s new model releases lasting that long.

It was as ’60’s-esque’ as
Terence Stamp, Marianne Faithfull or Mary Quant. Anybody who drove a Mini drove
one because of its…well novelty, its difference, its individuality and because
it was fun. Oh, and, at least at the beginning of its life, it was cheap too.
Just don’t expect it to be a long distance tourer and you’ll be fine.

Originally designed by engineer
Sir Alec Issigonis on a napkin, it became a transverse-engined small car with
a big personality. It lasted in production for 41 years. It was peculiarly British
and strongly identified with the Union Flag. The model Twiggy had one and ’60s
pop stars and trendies in ‘Swinging London’ took it to their hearts. But the
design was a real mould-breaker. The transverse mount for the engine was revolutionary
and spawned a new generation of small cars and ‘superminis’. Interior space
was class leading and the car was affordable too. Handling was different also:
with the four wheels pushed out in the corners to maximise interior space, it
handled like a go-kart.

Launched on August 26, 1959
by The British Motor Corporation (Bmc) in response to fuel rationing due to
the 1956 Suez crisis, the 10ft-long, 4 feet high, 4 feet wide economy vehicle,
with its front wheels driven by the gear box and the final drive built in the
sump of the engine (and a rival to the German bubble cars) took on a life and
personality of its own. Able to carry four adults (OK, not four large ones all
that comfortably) and luggage, its racing credentials were also proved with
the Mini having won the Monte Carlo Rally, with Paddy Hopkirk at the wheel.

Although its US life was
short-lived due to safety and emission regulations, with less than 10,000 units
sold in America between 1960 and 1967, the Mini still managed to achieve sales
surpassing 5 million in total. With the final demise of the Mini at the Rover
MG Group factory in Longbridge, Birmingham (4/10/00 – RIP) and 60`s singer Lulu
(still looking good) driving the final Mini off the production line, it is the
end of a chapter in both auto and British social history. As anchored to, and
symptomatic of, a period of rebellion as the Jaguar E-type, it brought a quirky
look and smile to many a passer-by.
























Mini
factfile


The
first Mini cost just £496 after tax.

A
Mini 2000 now costs about £8,500.

The
Mini became the star of the Monte Carlo rallies in the 1960s.

Fashion
queen Mary Quant designed the interior of a limited edition Mini in
June 1966.

Named
car of the century by Autocar magazine in November 1995.

137
versions of the car have appeared since 1959.


In Japan, the car was hugely
successful, trading on its quintessential Englishness and sporty reputation.
Many were sold with Cooper conversion kits. But more than that, it could have
been built for Japanese urban motoring conditions. Export shipments to Japan
kept the car going during the 1980s and 1990s, in spite of many forecasts that
it had had its day. Eventually, Rover invested in bringing the car up to the
bare basics of safety standards, toughening the structure for crash worthiness
and extensively modifying the A Series engine so that it could meet (scrape
through that is) tougher emission standards. Expensive though that investment
was, the car was still, though, a primitive vessel by the standards of newer
models. Under BMW‘s stewardship, the car was a victim of the ill-fated ‘Roverisation’
marketing strategy. Make Rover a premium badge and set prices accordingly was
the theory. In the late 1990s, it moved from being a budget car for the economy
conscious to being a niche model aimed at buyers prepared to pay for the car’s
charms. The price was increased by about a quarter to about US$12,000. The Mini
was firmly re-positioned as a premium ‘heritage’ product and Mini branding began
(maybe BMW was already hedging against what eventually transpired..). It was
being done partly to ready the market for the successor R50. Export volumes
held up, but sales in Britain fell off as the more expensive model came up against
a host of new and competitively priced City Car entrants, such as the Fiat Cinquecento
(now the Fiat Seicento) and Ford Ka. As the City Car segment (‘A’) in Britain
and Europe started to boom, the Mini seemed to be the forlorn old uncle looking
on. Rover executives and dealers rued the lack of investment in the Mini earlier
on. Now they just had to wait for the successor. There was to be a dramatic
twist.

After the messy and noisy
divorce of Rover from BMW this summer, BMW has retained the new Mini. It is
quite an irony for this British icon. At the Paris show, the German auto giant
launched the new Mini. It was hardly the first glimpse: many will remember the
unprecedentedly early and triumphalist wheeling out of the prototype car at
Frankfurt a few years ago. Partly, that was to dispel some of the criticism
building in Germany of BMW’s purchase of Rover Cars. Here was some hard evidence
of ‘fruit’: ‘My, my, what a wonderful Mini – those Rover people are clever after
all!’

The new version is being
made at the Cowley plant in Oxford, following BMW`s decision to sell Rover to
the Phoenix Consortium earlier this year. The new BMW Mini – set to go on sale
next year with its German parent hoping to sell 200,000 units per annum – enjoyed
a largely positive response when it was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show. The
Paris show debut – rather than ‘Brum’ (Birmingham, UK) later this month and
originally planned for the launch – emphasises the European sales ambitions
for Mini that BMW has. Indeed, as BMW surveyed the wreckage of involvement with
Rover, executives appear to have decided that Mini is an asset that has to be
worked hard.

A family of Mini variants
is planned – including a cabriolet, an estate (wagon), MPV and possibly a pick-up.
All the models sit within the Mini brand, which, of course, needs to be totally
re-built to sustain that. However, initial investment in branding is strong
and there is talk of a global Mini strategy, including sales to the US. Expected
pricing of US$15,000 to start says it all. New Mini is definitely not a cheap
and cheerful urban runabout. Will it work? Will the market be prepared to pay
such a sum for a Mini?

At just-auto, we are sceptical.
If the Mini branding builds too far on the heritage, then the risk is that the
pricing strategy is undermined. If it does not, then a new brand will have to
establish itself in a very competitive market segment. Just look at the range
of vehicles offered in the European supermini (Segment ‘B’) sector and their
pricing. Ford Fiesta in the UK starts at around US$10,800. Is this model competing
higher up? It is only slightly longer than a VW Lupo. It will be a challenge.
While the interior finish is smart, rear space looks cramped. It could be a
tall order. VW’s luxury Audi brand may be strong enough to support the small
A2, but could BMW work the Mini in the same way? Remember, VW had to back down
on ambitious new Beetle – a similar ‘heritage concept’ – pricing in Europe.

It may be built in Britain,
but it is built in Britain by a German carmaker. The new Mini’s engines come
from Brazil where they are made in a joint venture with DaimlerChrysler. Identity
will not be as clear-cut for the new Mini as it was for the original. Market
positioning could well be problematic. Whether this version of a timeless classic
can maintain this unrivalled reputation of its elder cousin, having picked up
the ‘European Car of the Century’ in 1999 – voted by 130 top journalists worldwide
– remains to be seen.

An
example of the original Mini, that began production on August 26, 1959,
until its final demise at the Rover MG Group factory in Longbridge, Birmingham
(4/10/00)
The
new BMW Mini – set to go on sale next year with its German parent hoping
to sell 200,000 units per annum