Drive Story : Mini Cooper

The MINI is as British as rain on a spring Bank Holiday, or a spicy Chicken Tika Masala – and to celebrate the fact, we take a brand new Cooper S back to its roots by cruising what BMW executives like to call the ‘MINI Triangle’, the triumvirate of factories responsible for building new R56.


Playing the triangle…

BMW's factory at Hams Hall was our starting point...

BMW’s factory at Hams Hall was our starting point…

THE security guard looked puzzled: ‘You want to take a picture of our sign? Er, okay…’ Obviously, it’s not a common occurrence for MINI enthusiasts to seek out the factories that are responsible for producing their cars, and photograph the rather grey and monolithic frontages from the car park – and yet, here I was on a grey, drizzly and somewhat uninspiring spring morning…

But, for me, it was an important pilgrimage to make – and photograph for posterity. In the increasingly global car industry, sometimes we lose sight of just where ‘our’ cars come from – looking no further than the BMW Group, it’s possible to buy 3-Series models built in South Africa, and X5s put together in the USA. The company is now producing cars in China, as well – so it’s nice to know that the MINI is a very British success story.

So, having decided it was time to take in our trio of factories responsible for the MINI, there was the small matter of what car to take. It seemed logical to take the 173bhp Cooper S model, as it’s potentially the most interesting off the shelf MINI. After our comments about the standard model’s lack of power, I reckoned the journey would be a whole lot more fun with a few more horses at my beck and call.

Disappointing start

Setting out for Birmingham’s Hams Hall factory, snugly located in the M42/M6/M40 hub, getting reacquainted with the MINI v3.0 was a quick affair. Mainly because as we crawled along the A14 and onto the M6, there was little else to do than grin and bear our choked up roads before concentrating on the new car’s interior.

And one phrase sums up the Cooper S cabin perfectly: business as usual. With black chequered upholstery and contrasting Mellow Yellow colour line features, it was certainly visually arresting – and as the miles piled on at near-walking pace, the light, yet positive clutch, the snick-snick-snick gearchange, and supportive seats certainly came into their own. There’s a lot to like about the v3.0’s interior, despite all the jibes we’ve been seeing all over the press about that controversially oversized speedo.

For one, you can see out of it – I know that seems pretty obvious, but sit behind the wheel of many of the MINI’s rivals, and you’ll soon get used to craning your neck in order to see round bulky A-pillars, or second-guessing at angled junctions because of bulky three-quarter panels. Good visibility is getting rarer these days, and yet it really de-stresses the driver.

It’s a shame the same can’t be said about the heater, ICE and trip computer controls, clustered in the centre console. In short, they’re a bit Fisher Price – the heater controls a pair of illegible vertically mounted rotary knobs in grey plastic, while the two knobs that sprout from the speedo and centre console would look out of place on a £30 Alba stereo, let alone a heftily priced premium hatchback. The air conditioning is switchable (but not climate controlled on our car), and also costs a whopping £660 extra – unforgivable at this price.

Perhaps the morning gridlock was putting me in a mood for nitpicking, but as Birmingham loomed in the distance, I’d found the interior annoyances (those controls, the stalks, the rear view mirror that obscures a disproportionate amount of the shallow windscreen, the ridge in the steering wheel…) stacking up – a shame considering just how few the previous generation MINI had in its armoury.

Relief in the bends

Peeling off the motorway was a blessed relief, though, and as I headed for the business park that the Hams Hall engine plant is located on, open roads presented themselves. Diving into the first empty roundabout revealed near supernatural levels of front end grip, which were easily exploited by the quick rack steering. Accelerating hard into the exit, kissing the apex, and heading for the next straight raised the first smile of the day. There is a barely perceptible amount of turbo lag corrupting throttle response, but it’s not enough to spoil the fun, and once you’re boosting fully, acceleration is just as impressive as the old supercharged car. Sadly, the move to Turbocharging has denied the Cooper S of that trademark whine, but in the long run, the new, blander engine note is probably a step in the right direction.

Just like the standard Cooper we recently drove to Geneva, confidence builds very quickly – and soon you find yourself hooning the S into anything resembling a corner, just to experience its grin-inducing chuckability. That would probably explain why the Hams Hall factory came into view all too quickly.

Considering the sheer number of engines the plant produces, the compactness of the factory, and the quietness of the surroundings, comes as something of a surprise – even if its modernity doesn’t. Because it produces four-cylinder engines for a number of models in the BMW range, we were disappointed not to see much in the way of MINI-branding anywhere around the factory grounds… and calling the place ‘BMW Plant 12.0 Hams Hall’ is simply too dull for words.

Time to push on to Swindon…

Although the Cooper S is obviously designed to stir the synapses in bends, it’s actually pretty good on the motorway. By the time we hit the M42 in order to join the M40 and head south for the body pressing plant, the traffic had cleared and it was time to learn all about the ability of the S to cover miles at speed. Within a few miles, a good news story soon emerged – stability is four-square solid, and in sixth at the 70mph limit, you’re embedded deep into the meat of a substantial torque curve, which means instant on tap acceleration just when you need it.

The Boost stereo system might look pretty shoddy, but it sounds good – and because there’s a relative lack of engine and wind noise to compete against, you don’t have to crank it up to enjoy it fully… yes, the Cooper S has all the necessary credentials of an excellent fast lane weapon. Sadly, its front end styling belies the performance available, and we reckon that most owners will come to the conclusion that it looks too tame – for true motorway presence, it needs a more aggressive face and Xenons.

Meeting the factories

Although it’s good on the motorway, we cut across the challenging roads of the Cotswolds for some light relief, and more B-road fun, and by the time we’d made it into Swindon, all of those MINI annoyances that dogged the start of the day, had melted away – these cars have that effect on you.

Rather like Hams Hall, the Body Pressing Plant in Swindon is far smaller – and quieter than you’d think. It’s also obvious that the company is rather proud of its MINI connection, as there are banners proclaiming it as the plant that brings you its bodies draped over most of the frontage, while the BMW link has been toned down. We love the full-sized R56 bolted to the wall outside… it seems like a great venue for owners’ club meetings to us, assuming you can navigate the town’s roundabouts to get there.

Now we’d seen where the engines and bodies come from, it was time to visit the factory where they are married together…

Swindon and Oxford are near-neighbours, and on the run along the M4 corridor and up the A34, the number of MINIs on the road increased markedly. Perhaps they don’t like to roam too far from home… although as we headed into Cowley after a straightforward run, the international nature of MINI is brought home by the banners and posters telling the people of Oxford just how many countries their car is exported to – it’s clear that the city and its car are mutually proud of the association.

The sheer size of the unromantically-named BMW Plant Oxford is an eye-opener after Swindon and Hams Hall, and provides a suitable end point for our drive. The assembly operation is spread across a number of halls – each one linked by an internal road network – but, despite a number of prayers to the great god of lead news stories, we didn’t spot any pre-production prototypes lurking around.

There’s obviously plenty of history around the site, and the sawtooth roof lines and looming chimneys of the factory buildings are a stark reminder of how skylines used to look right across the industrial heartland of Britain. Our strident Mellow Yellow Cooper S sitting on its 16-inch Winder alloys was an ultra modern contrast to its olde-worlde surroundings, and a clear indication that both worlds can thrive together in perfect harmony.

Having now seen the MINI Triangle, and got a feel for the sheer scale of this very British operation, and toured its route in the star product of this lively operation, we can now see why the people close to the operation are so proud of what it has achieved. Our security guard might not have understood what lay behind our enthusiasm, but we’re sure he approved.


MINI Cooper S specifications

Vital statistics
Engine cpacity 1598cc
Power output 173bhp @ 5500rpm
0-60mph 7.1 seconds
Urban mpg 24.8mpg
Extra urban mpg 41.5mpg
Combined mpg 33.6mpg
CO2 emissions 164g/km
Wheels/tyres Run flat 195/55R16V
Length 3699mm
Height 1407mm
Weight 1130kg
Luggage capacity 160litres (seats up)

MINI factories factfile – inside the triangle

Opened in May 2000, the BMW Hams Hall factory was set-up to produce the Group’s four-cylinder Valvetronic engine range. The factory initially ran under capacity because four-cylinder engines were a minority in the BMW range – and there was no longer a mid sized Rover in the corporate plan – but production ramped up quickly with the introduction of new niche models such as the X3 and 1-Series. With the introduction of the R56, production of the joint PSA-BMW engine has meant that production was ramped up again.

Plant Swindon produces specific body components for MINI, which are delivered as pre-assembled units to Plant Oxford. Since the introduction of the R56, Plant Swindon plays an increasingly important role in the MINI production triangle in the UK as it increases the volume of pressings and sub-assemblies supplied to Plant Oxford. Plant Swindon employs around 1100 associates.

The largest factory in the triangle, Plant Oxford’s roots lie in the Morris Car Company. Although the current plant occupies only a quarter of the footprint of the BMC factory when it was at its height, it is certainly more productive. From a workforce of 4500 associates, nearly 200,000 MINIs roll off the production line every year. There are 12 miles of production line within the factory and each car takes about 10 hours to build. Such is the size and importance of Plant Oxford, it has its own rail terminal.

Posted in: Drive Story
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

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