Blog : It was 20 years ago today

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Ian Nicholls

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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.

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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

UK 201,207
Austria 83,783
Netherlands 57,019

Total 342,009

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?

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17 Comments

  1. I remember reading in Autocar in the late 90s that Reitzle had decided to commission new tooling to build a final run of well-built Minis with properly fitting panels, I always thought that sounded a bit pie in the sky but wonder if there was any truth in that rumour?

  2. From Ian to Ian
    Sadly this was not true.
    Many owners of Mpi Mini’s have found that the inside of the front panels were not painted leading to corrosion and expensive nose jobs.

  3. @ Ian SW, there’s an immculate R reg Cooper in BRG in Whitehaven that has a real quality feel to the interior with wood and quality fittings everywhere. It seems for all the Mini was priced very high, better safety features, a much better engine, decent build quality and beautifully made interiors made the car a desirable product for the car’s disciples. No one seriously by 1996 would want a Mini powered by a 998 cc engine, no crash protection and spartan interiors.

  4. Speaking as somebody selling these things new, let me give my opinion.
    The Twin-Point injection was very good but it was quite literally a home made affair by a sole Longbridge engineer that only made production once he’d demonstrated his extra curricular activities were nothing short of genius. It masked the extra long gearing that actually made them bearable on the motorway.
    There were electrical gremlins; the front mounted radiator cooling fan always ran, I cannot recall if it was a wiring fault or a sensor fault, but after 18 months or so there was a retro-fit fix available from the factory.
    The SportsPack was ultra trendy, but a bloody nightmare. They rode acceptably, but tramlines and handled terrible. However, they could chew through the tiny front ball joints in as little as 1,500 miles.
    The bodies, although painted beautifully, rotten something terrible. The steel was reputedly Italian and bought on price rather than quality. It showed, and these things fizzed while sat in the showroom,
    And sit in the showroom they did as the starting price was a smidgen under £10k.
    The options list was extensive and presented in groovy ’60s esq brochure. But the prices were astronomical.
    We sold pre-reg ones heavily discounted, but the likes of the Paul Smith models were all but unsalable. Quite the opposite to the situation now.
    One thing however; people queued to test drive them, even if they had no intention of buying. I think if they’d been cheaper, we’d have converted more as they were still a very appealing package by the end with the MGF seats, steering wheel and that torquey, yet refined A+ engine.
    I could go-on but my GLASS EYE is WEEPING at the thought of it all….

    • Why weep? – As noted above the 96 cars where just an exercise to keep the Mini legal, in production and on the radar until the R50 went on sale. In that respect it didn’t really matter how well it sold. It did its job as the production numbers for current cars above testify

  5. I bought my Min in 1989 (I thought it would be my last chance to but a new one- ha!), being an Mini-nut I understood I was buying a 1950s car, with outmoded equipment and which was pretty much hand-built using worn-out tools, so could accept the shortcomings in fit and finish – I can get my fingers underneath my passenger door, the panel is such a poor fit, but I do wonder what those expecting to buy a car built to 1980s standards made of their new purchase?

    The Sportspack cars were so cruel to ball joints because, quite apart from the weight of the things, the 13″ wheels were of an unsuitable offset. The rally cars used them for photoshoots but ran on more suitable aftermarket wheels. Beautifully styled wheels though! Rover had been fitting big arches and 13″ wheels to German market specials since the early 90s, fitted with Revolutions, as seen on the Lamm convertible.

    There’s nothing better for a Mini than 10″ wheels on 165/70s, the square-shouldered 165/60x12s on mine grip wonderfully but at the limit they skip across the road, whereas the 10 inches allow the car to roll on the sidewall and flow much more smoothly. Those big round sidewall also provide a degree of cushioning from the road. Actually, I reckon most of the compliance in a Mini’s suspension system comes from the tyres and the springy seat cushions.

    Rover/Austin did do a lovely paint job, didn’t they? Some of the posh “premium” cars I see these days have orange peel that could pass for Artex. Perhaps BMW should ask the Chinese if they could have the Longbridge paint shop back?

    • With Britain set to leave the EU and its tariff-free market of 440m customers excluding the UK, asking Daf/Nedcar for its plant looks a better move than asking SAIC for Longbridge back, regrettably.

      • Manufacturers like the flexibility that the contract builders (Magna Steyr and Nedcar) can provide.

        Nedcar is ultimately a replacement for the Magna Steyr production, as the next generation Countryman will probably be made in Cowley, with a different BMW group product being made in Austria instead

        Nedcar fits in better than Austria geographically, as pressings will come from Swindon and engines from Hams Hall

  6. I had a green Mini for a while as a management car – you could see why since the paint on the flitch panel was so thin you could see the ecoat underneath. Rusting on Longbridge products wasn’t helped by the deletion of undercoat wax and even this wasn’t handled properly since we had to pay to keep a large tank of it warm for many weeks and eventually be disposed of rather than used up.

    I never worked out how the late commonisation to use Rover 800 front seats got through given how much space they took up.

    I always thought the old Mini tooling would end up in India but given that the Chinese are making Moke clones it might only be a matter of time before they try it with Minis (Lifans and BMW legal people notwithstanding) especially given the very high prices old ones fetch.

  7. The Mini stopped being a big seller when the Metro arrived and was only kept in production because of its cult following and healthy export sales. TBH by the late seventies cars like the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo were more practical, safer in a crash, better on a long journey and better made, and the Mini was becoming an antique with noisy, crude engines, terrible crash protection, a tiny boot and a dated interior.

    • Indeed it was one of those much loved cars that probably lived on longer that it realistically should have (together with the Beetle, Transporter, 2CV, 500 etc). A Metro-100-200/25-MINI lineage makes more sense if it is seen as successor models (if in spirit rather than actual marketing), rather than jumping from a 1950s bubble-car-fighter to a modern hatchback.

      I remember reading that towards the end it was especially popular in Japan, who both love small cars (though I don’t think a Mini met Kei regulations?) and retro British (see the retro bodykits for Micras etc. the MG RV8 sold particularly well in Japan – useful when the UK hit a recession in the early 90s).

  8. I had one of the 1994 anniversary editions with “Jamboree Trim”, i loved it and i missed it for years after i sold it for a Rover 100, then another 100, then a 200 Tomcat (2nd hand), and today when i see one, i still think i wish i had not gotten rid of my little MIN….

  9. We had a 1999 Cooper from new. Lovely little car. Nicely put together. The taller gearing and sound deadening made long distance journeys easy. Compared to our previous 1275E, it wasn’t anything like as lively, but the more relaxed ambiance made up for it. Only real complaint was the old second gear synchromesh problem reared it’s head at 35k miles.

    Sadly it was rear ended badly by one of life’s idiots. The insurance repaired it but we got rid shortly after. It just wasn’t the same. We still miss the little car.

  10. My first car was a used ’67 white Austin Mini 850. Yes, it was basic but did have a radio fitted by previous owner and looked a bit better after I had some paintwork resprayed and new wheeltrims added. I only kept it for 11 months but it was my stab at independence on the roads. Happy days!

  11. The high price may have gone some way to cover the cost of the new cylinderblock.

    They left the factory with steering all over the place,and I agree about the corrosion.

    Mems 1.9 is an excellent engine management system developed jointly between Rover and Motorola and much better than single point injection used on the earlier Minis.

    One of the best Minis is a carb cat (open loop) cooper.

  12. Our ‘s’ works (MPI) Mini Cooper Sport has been with us since we bought it from John Cooper garages in Sussex in September 2000 and has covered 51,000 miles . Yes , if you show it a rain drop it will go rusty but, we love it to bits. it has never let us down and gets admiring comments wherever it goes.

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