Twenty years ago – on 1 October 1996 – BMW made a significant announcement through its British subsidiary, the Rover Group. The Mini Mk7 MPi was announced at the Paris Motor Show, the final incarnation of the Issigonis car. It was intended to tide the brand over until the launch of an all-new Mini funded by BMW.
However, in order to make the Mini legal to sell beyond 1996, Rover had to fit a twin point injection system, side impact bars, an airbag and raise the gearing. The final drive was now a ludicrously high 2.76:1 to meet EU drive by noise regulations. This came as a shock to those who had learnt to drive in old Mini’s fitted with 3.765 and 3.44:1 ratios. The Mk7 was only available in two basic versions, Mini and Cooper, although there would be limited editions in the remaining years of the car’s life. All versions now used the same 63bhp Mpi A-Series engine.
There was also a significant hike in price with the car retailing at £8995 for both versions. On top of this, the owner could specify the £800 Sportspack complete with 13in wheels, which did nothing for handling and raised the overall gearing even further. The Sportspack look was particularly popular in Germany, which had been taking more and more Minis as the decade progressed, something that would have been noticed by BMW. On paper the investment by Rover was not justified by the sales. Production slumped to 15,638 in 1996, but this was all part of a long-term strategy by BMW to keep the Mini brand in the public eye.
On the back of ‘Cool Britannia’, the Mini had become a cult car, but the enthusiasts preferred to customise used examples rather than shell out £8995 plus for a new one. Cars could be picked up cheap then customised using the many services from aftermarket suppliers. BMW rather controversially pursued many of these businesses for using the word ‘Mini’ in their trading names.
At the same time, Rover announced that it was to spend £400m to develop a new Mini for the new millennium. The new model would be built at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham, its ‘spiritual home’ for nearly 40 years, and would safeguard or create an estimated 8000 jobs directly and indirectly.
‘It will be a completely new car but it will be unmistakably a Mini,’ said a spokesman.
Rover said production of the new Mini was likely to reach at least 100,000 a year. Output could be even higher, depending on when Rover re-entered the US market. Rover said the car would use a new 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine to be manufactured in a $500m plant that BMW and Chrysler were to build in South America.
Dr Walter Hasselkus, Rover’s new Chief Executive, said: ‘I hope today’s news will end speculation that the Mini could be built anywhere other than in the UK. This is yet more evidence of BMW’s confidence in Rover.’
Sadly, Longbridge lost out to Cowley, but BMW’s boldness in pursuing its new Mini project has paid dividends.
MINI Production 2015
In both 2014 and 2015, MINI production has exceeded that of 1971 when 318,475 Minis left British Leyland’s worldwide plants, meaning the brand is now more popular than ever. We can also see that the much-maligned Longbridge factory would have had the capacity to produce all these cars from from one site.
In 1964/65, it produced 376,781 vehicles. But what does the future hold for the MINI brand?