The Mini was first launched in 1959 and has become a motoring icon. Andy Goundry charts its development.
The original Mini, launched way back in 1959, took the world by storm, being taken to people’s hearts in a way unique in motoring history. It found favour with every age group, became a motor sport legend, and even found itself starring in the 1970’s film, the ‘Italian Job’, considered even today by many motoring aficionados to be the very best film, ever. Indeed, its very name soon became a byword for anything chic, diminutive and stylish – just think ‘miniskirt’.
However, after a long and successful 42-year production run of over 5½ million cars, by 2000 Mini sales were declining, and a replacement was inevitable.
By then owned by BMW, this gave the car’s manufacturer a challenge. Should they break from tradition, or seek to capitalise on the world’s love of the little car by introducing an updated version? In the event, they combined the best elements of both options, creating in the new MINI a car which was still recognisably a Mini, continuing many of the styling features of the original, but now underpinned by thoroughly modern engineering and quality measures. Some of these, in truth, were long overdue. Not even its best friend could have described the original car’s comfort levels as class-leading, but the new version changed all that. Although slightly bigger than the original 1959 version, the new MINI introduced new standards of driver and passenger luxury accompanied, increasingly importantly, by much improved safety thanks to measures such as the immeasurably stronger bodywork.
The first new MINIs rolled off the production line at BMW’s Plant Oxford on 26th April 2001, and quickly became a sales hit, even making an appearance in a remake of the ‘Italian Job’ film, albeit this time sadly playing second fiddle to the human stars. In its first year of production the new MINI sold nearly 40,000 cars worldwide, ten times the annual sales of its predecessor, confirming that BMW had certainly found the recipe for success with the new MINI. Indeed, in 2015, almost 340,000 new MINIs took to the roads, far more than the best-ever sales recorded for the original car, which never achieved more than 100,000 sales annually.
An all-new second generation MINI was introduced in 2006, incorporating a number of engineering improvements, notably new and more efficient engines including for the first time, diesel options. Over time, the range has continued to expand, the original 3-door saloon, Clubman estate and Convertible being followed by the Countryman, an altogether bigger model, but still recognisably a MINI, the 2-seater Coupé and Roadster as well as the unusual Paceman and for the first time a 5-door saloon, showing just how far the MINI brand has progressed since those early days, from the traditional 3-door model to the wide range of attractive models available today. At the top of the range, the John Cooper Works MINI provides enthusiasts with a focused but practical performance car with a motor sport pedigree, being very similar to the cars which compete in the MINI Challenge race series.
The latest generation MINI arrived in 2014, bringing with it a range of new and highly efficient petrol and diesel engines. Initially, the 3-door saloon was the first model to be launched, with each model in the range being updated in turn. The latest models to be launched are the John Cooper Works Convertible and, for the first time, a Clubman fitted with four-wheel drive – the Clubman All4. Interestingly, the John Cooper Works models, JCW’s as they are known by enthusiasts, now form an amazing 8% of all MINI sales, a testament to the all-round abilities and practicality of this little pocket rocket.
The latest Clubman is a great example of the MINI brand expansion. Gone are the days of a cramped back seat. The Clubman now has four large, wide-opening doors, with plenty of room inside for four burly passengers and their luggage, comparing favourably for space with say a Volkswagen Golf, not traditionally considered in the same size range as a MINI. The increase in size and usable space comes without losing the traditional MINI benefits of sharp, go-kart-like handling and sheer fun to drive, and the All4 package adds even further to the limpet-like cornering abilities of the car. To further emphasise the Clubman’s move upmarket, all versions are equipped as standard with such goodies as satellite navigation, whilst the options list includes all the features one would expect from a premium brand, such as active cruise control and automatic tailgate opening.
For many years, MINI production has taken place at their Oxford factory, and that continues today. Plant Oxford has seen massive investment over the years, and is in every sense a state of the art car manufacturing centre. Just to give you a flavour of this, the Body Shop, where the body shells are welded together from a number of sheet metal pressings, is home to an incredible 1,200 robots, each carrying out its allotted task of positioning components, clamping, measuring, welding or bonding with unerring precision. The Assembly Building continues this impressive level of automation, with for example the vast numbers of components which have been shipped in from over 300 suppliers being carried to their allotted place in the building using a fleet of robotic transporters. All highly impressive stuff: Plant Oxford is vast, and almost like a self-contained city. Indeed, it has its own fire, ambulance and security services, not to mention its own railway, on to which many of the 1,000 cars made every day are loaded to start their onward journey to every part of the globe.
MINI offer a 2½ hour tour of the plant at very reasonable cost, and this makes a fascinating day out for both petrol-heads and non- petrol-heads alike, although for safety reasons no youngsters under 14 are allowed, unfortunately. The guides are generally long-serving MINI people, and are full of interesting information and anecdotes. Did you know for example that Plant Oxford carries out development testing for Rolls Royce, who are, of course part of the same BMW empire?
Or that since the start of MINI production in 2001, the Plant has produced over 3 million cars which have been exported to over 110 countries. See www.mini-production-triangle.com/facts-figures/plant-tour.aspx for more details
So, if you have not considered a MINI as your next car, maybe thinking it is too small for you, why not visit your local dealer and see the range for yourself – you might be very pleasantly surprised.
Andy Goundry has had a close involvement with Minis ever since starting his career in the motor industry as a Student Apprentice at BMC Longbridge, where the original Mini was designed and built. He then spent his entire working career in vehicle design and development, and, since retirement has continued a close involvement with vehicles, writing for specialist magazines and websites, as well as producing his own motoring website www.autonews.uk.com