Blog : The mystery of the Pininfarina Mini
It’s interesting what looking at an old information source with fresh eyes can turn up. While over at my mate, Richard Kilpatrick’s, place yesterday, we got down to talking about BMC and how with a little more time and patience from the Government, allied with the strong leadership of Joe Edwards (who was being groomed to replace Sir George Harriman in the lead-up to the Leyland takeover of 1968), the corporation really did stand a chance of leading a bright future without the interference of Stokes and his men.
Richard mentioned the groundbreaking Paolo Martin-styled Pininfarina Aerodynamica 1800 and 1100 concepts and we then discussed how and why BMC really should have pursued these cars – even though I know in my heart of hearts there was no way that was ever going to happen, not while Sir Alec Issigonis was in charge of engineering. Then I had a little recollection: a while ago, regular AROnline Contributor Ian Nicholls mentioned that a downsized version of the Aerodynamica concept, which was smaller than the Citroen GS-sized 1100, had been under consideration.
I’d already noticed that Richard had a copy of British Leyland: The Truth About The Cars, by Jeff Daniels, and flicked it open to a page with the image above of a rather fascinating wooden mock-up. It’s captioned as the BMC Pininfarina Aerodynamica 1100 and, as far as I know, this has been the conventionally received wisdom – but, like Ian Nicholls, I know that this is a smaller, Mini-based car, that – judging by the Longbridge tunnel location this shot was taken in – was being evaluated by BMC in the UK.
When you look at the image above, it’s clear this is a much smaller car. Although we have no real frame of reference for scale, the wheels look like 10in Mini Clubman items and the overall package of this three-door car (not five door, like the 1100 and 1800) is shorter, taller, more supermini shaped.
Even more interestingly than all of this – Pininfarina-man Paolo Martin has confirmed that this was not a Pininfarina model. He said, ‘The pattern seen in the photograph was not built by Pininfarina, the pitch and length are different – it is probably an attempt to adapt to Mini.’ So, clearly despite many of us assuming that these Italian models had been rejected out of hand by the British, someone at Longbridge treated them seriously enough to see if it would package successfully on what looks like a Mini platform. Indeed, Harry Webster himself liked these cars and he used to drive around in the 1800 – enough for fellow workers to call it the ‘yellow peril’.
Anyway, since I first posted these thoughts, a couple of readers have pointed out that, according to Jon Pressnell’s book, Mini – The Definitive History, this is very much the case. ‘This mock up was created at Longbridge as an extrapolation of the Pininfarina originals and stored in the Longbridge tunnels. On a 4in longer wheelbase than a Mini [the Mini van - Ed], the overall length has gone up to close on 12ft, so one can’t see Issigonis having approved. The car seems barely smaller than the 1100 proposal and lacks the elegance of the 1800.’
There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that BMC was feverishly working on a number of projects to replace the Mini and battle in a supermini sector that had yet to be defined. The main programmes were Issigonis’ pet project, the amazing 9X, an intriguing ‘barrel car’ that we really don’t know enough about, and various ideas by Roy Haynes including a neat hatchback, which ultimately led to the Mini Clubman. But the idea of a Mini-based Pininfarina-styled hatchbck was possibly far more radical than the rest, certainly in a marketing sense of the word.
Think about it – BMC’s Pininfarina-inspired model strategy was very simple – three vehicles, based on Issigonis’ front-wheel drive Mini, 1100 and 1800 platforms and styled to have a clear family identity. Heck, the 1800 even wore the BMC initials proudly on its nose, dropping the Austin and Morris marque names. Brave indeed – but, with the benefit of hindsight, possibly the correct path to choose, although Citroen GS/CX comparisons might not be too wise considering what happened to that company in 1974.
The funny thing is – BMC was slowly grasping its way to just a model strategy of its own, during its shortlived British Motor Holdings era, masterminded by Roy Haynes and Joe Edwards in Cowley. The problem was that the management centre of gravity under Harriman still favoured Issigonis and his engineering team in Longbridge – and, as we know, they were set fair for a industrial-sized collision with Lord Stokes and Leyland.
That said, it’s good to wonder what might have been.
Thanks to Ian Nicholls and Richard Kilpatrick for reminding me to explore these ideas further…