Replacing the Mini was never going to be the work of a moment, and was generally regarded as being one of the toughest gigs in the industry. The MINI development story tells how this happened.
After years of deliberation, Rover started serious work in 1993, which was soon bolstered by the arrival of BMW the following year. What we ended up with sparked controversy with enthusiasts, but the Rover-engineered project became a huge hit with buyers.
MINI: Anglo-German success
Like all iconic cars, the Mini had proven almost impossible for the company to replace. However, this mere fact did not stop BMC and all of its antecedents from trying, and the resulting proposals have been discussed at length in the Mini and Metro stories.
The Mini replacement seemed to be treated as an issue to be left of the shelf, only to be taken off and viewed at intervals, then put straight back when it became clear that, for whatever reason, the company was not in a position to undertake the task.
Where they tried before
Below is a brief list of all the cars that tried to fit the bill and the reason for their resultant non-appearance:
|Year||Car||Reason not launched|
|1968||Issigonis 9X||Cancelled by BLMC on the grounds of cost.|
|1968||Barrel Mini||Part of ADO74, cancelled by BLMC.|
|1974-75||Innocenti Mini||Too costly to build at Longbridge.|
|1973||ADO74||Cancelled by BLMC on the grounds of cost.|
|1977||ADO88||Developed into the Metro.|
In reality, had the Mini been a normal car, it would have been desperately in need of replacement by 1970 and, as can be seen, Issigonis himself certainly felt this way. The 9X was the car that would advance the Mini concept but, because of post-merger financial and management troubles, it was passed over – allowing the original to live on.
So, the Mini lived on – and on – and on, but as Rover entered the 1990s, the need to do something about it was becoming more pressing: the A-Series engine was unlikely to pass forthcoming EC emission regulations, drive-by noise ratings and, as it had been replaced by the K-Series in the rest of the range, it was becoming uneconomic to produce it.
Passive safety was also becoming more of an issue with buyers – and, although the spectre of the EuroNCAP test and airbags was still some time off, it was clear that they were looming on the horizon and the Mini would be unable to accommodate such devices. Further problems centred on the fact that the Mini was exceptionally labour intensive to produce (one of the reasons that Longbridge was cited by BMW as being so unproductive), and was practically hand-built. It is fair to say that the workers at Longbridge found the Mini a pig to build, as well.
Mini replacement gets serious
Because of these concerns – and the fact that, in the long term, the Rover Metro would need replacing, Gordon Sked asked his Design Team to forward proposals for a new Mini. These first seeds of the new Mini were sown in 1993, at the Canley Design Studios, and because Rover was also thinking about how to replace the Metro at the same time, it was proposed that this car could replace both cars.
The task of replacing the Mini was a massively tall order, so Sked encouraged the Designers to not be constrained by current thinking, and be as adventurous as they liked. Concepts were soon drawn up – and it became apparent that the Designers, David Saddington and David Woodhouse among them, saw the potential of for an entire range of Mini models to be created.
Indeed, it was the creation of David Woodhouse that was winning the most plaudits within Rover: his three-seater city car, with a McLaren F1-style central driving position, showed promise, and was considered seriously enough for a Metro-based mule to be built.
One that got away…
Technically, the K-Series engine and Hydragas suspension were proving their worth for Rover – and, because of their excellence in the Rover Metro, the possibility of using them in the new Mini was granted serious investigation.
Engineers at Gaydon created a Mini prototype, nicknamed the ‘Minki’ – essentially an interconnected-Hydragas suspended Mini, powered by a three-cylinder Japanese K-Car power unit (i.e., 660cc). Engineers reported being pleased with the prototype – and, as Dr Alex Moulton had been saying for years, the Mini could achieve larger car levels of handling and ride using an intelligently configured version of Hydragas.
However, as this stage of the project was reached, Rover found itself being sold to BMW by their masters at British Aerospace and, as a result, Gordon Sked and his team awaited BMW’s reaction to the new Mini project.
They need not have worried: BMW CEO and architect of the BMW-Rover deal, Bernd Pischetsrieder was very aware of the value of the Mini and he was quite happy to let Sked’s team at Canley continue to shape the new car. In fact, Pischetsrieder, a British car enthusiast and great-nephew of Sir Alec Issigonis made it quite clear that he would allow the British to control their own projects: ‘I want to make it clear that Rover’s and Land Rover’s design and engineering operations will remain fully functional and largely independent from us here (in Munich).’
Pischetsrieder also made it clear that he was happy with the ‘Portfolio’ models and, beyond that, he entrusted the British to produce a new Mini – the most British of cars. One of the first acts of the Bavarian regime was to cement the Mini project, giving it official backing, funding and a codename: R59.
Pischetsrieder went further, though. Taking the project under his wing, he went about recruiting the remaining leading lights from the original ADO15 project: John Cooper, Jack Daniels and Alex Moulton. All three men were keen to get on board – Moulton allowed Pischetsrieder to drive his Hydragas-suspended 1966 Mini Cooper, and the BMW CEO came away impressed: ‘Pischetsrieder wanted to know all the background information of the original project… he seemed impressed,’ Moulton recalled.
New Mini finally takes shape
By late 1994, Project R59 was beginning to take an interesting twist. Despite the proclamation of the BMW CEO that Rover would be allowed to get on with the business of developing the R59, stylists in Germany were also busily working on styling proposals for the new car. From the original perception that BMW and Rover both wanted the same thing from their new baby, it became clear that Munich and Canley had wildly differing ideas on how it should look.
Predictably, Rover wanted to produce a car to replace the Issigonis Mini which was created with the same sense of radicalism, and David Saddington, freshly promoted to the role of MG and Mini Design Director following his successful work on the R3, was keen to follow in the footsteps of Issigonis. With that in mind, Saddington’s team worked on a 10-foot long, four-seater Mini.
Certainly, David Woodhouse and Oliver Le Grice, another Designer who worked on the 1993 project, looked forward with relish the prospect of working on such an important project, but they were mindful of the fact that the new Mini needed to be either an economy car, a performance car or a fashion icon. To try and be all three in an all-new package was not, in their opinion, going to work.
Rover goes one way, BMW another
BMW, on the other hand, under Chris Bangle were cooking up different ideas completely: both in Munich and BMW’s California styling studios, a new Mini-Cooper was emerging. Chris Bangle stated that, ‘we thought it unfair to put the new Mini in the shadow of the old one,’ which meant that his idea of a replacement would not be a 10-feet long cube, but a car that paid merely lip service to the original. BMW thinking, therefore, was that the new car should be the new Mini-Cooper as opposed to the new Mini – and replacement in this form had a high-profile proponent: Wolfgang Reitzle.
Development of the Mini continued in Germany with this very much on the Designers’ minds – and they asked themselves this question: if the Mini-Cooper had been subjected to a continuous development programme through the years, like the Porsche 911, what would it look like today? That was the issue in its entirety: Rover wanted an economy car, while BMW wanted a small sporting car.
1995 was the crunch year for Project R59 and, in the summer of that year during a management ride and drive appraisal of the opposition, Rover showed their idea for the new Mini. Technically, it followed the predictable (and some would say correct) path of a K-Series engine, subframes and Hydragas suspension, but BMW in Munich were cooking up an alternative, which comprised of a Z-axle at the rear and McPherson struts up front.
The infamous Gaydon Shoot-out
As the year wore on and both teams continued development of their own versions of the Mini, it was becoming obvious that very soon BMW would have to ditch one of the design offices’ ideas and put their full weight behind the other. The date on which this decision would be made was 15 October 1995, when Rover and BMW Designers met up at the Heritage Motor Centre to present their rival full-scale proposals.
Rover brought three cars to the shootout, it is unrecorded how many BMW brought along, although it is thought to have been between three and six. BMW have refused to go on record as to how many models were brought and who was responsible for them – the company’s statement to Autocar magazine reflected this: ‘We don’t want our Designers to be known as the one who made model xyz which failed in the internal design competition.’
Rover’s three proposals have been documented
|Concept:||Practical four-seat hatchback, designed with strong Mini styling cues, transverse K-Series engine.|
|Revolution||Designer:||DRA Design (Run by Roy Axe)|
|Concept:||Running on the same mechanical package, but not retro-styled, described as, ‘looking like a typical small European hatchback’.|
|Spiritual||Designer:||Oliver Le Grice|
|Concept:||Powered by an under-floor, rear mounted K-Series engine, Hydragas subframe suspension and full four-seat capability in a package little bigger than the original Mini.|
The Spiritual was also shown in long-wheelbase form, showing that the design worked in a larger package: at the presentation, the Sprituals were called Mini and Midi – and, as recorded in Autocar magazine, one insider had this to say on the Spiritual proposals: ‘When we explained our models called Mini and Midi, they wondered why the bigger model wasn’t called Maxi. We all had a good laugh, and then had to explain.’
I was there: some surprises in store
Geoff Wynd, an Automotive Engineer now based in Australia, happened to be at Gaydon at the time. He recalled it was a very strange day: ‘I had travelled to Germany for a trade fair but the secret agenda of my trip was a visit to Gaydon. I thoroughly enjoyed the displays and spent the best part of the day there. At one stage, I was wandering around the building and looked into an access door that had been left open.
‘Inside was an auditorium area where a number of vehicles were arrayed, including small Renault, Peugeot and Fiat models, but more importantly, two or three mystery ‘cars’ under dust covers. It didn’t take too much imagination to realise what was going on, given the subject of a new ‘Mini’ was a perennial in the auto press. It was all I could do not to dash in and peel the covers off the mysterious automotive lumps. A little while later I noticed executive-types being driven into the centre and it was apparent that something serious was going on.
‘Now, something not mentioned in the story or anywhere else that I know of: that day I saw the drivetrain of a K-Series BMW motorcycle being taken into the auditorium. As an engine built in sizes up to 1200cc, it seemed conceivable that it may have been considered as an engine option for the new car, particularly if the vehicle were to be true to the size of the original Mini.
‘Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case and, as your story explained, not even the other ‘K-Series’ would become the MINI’s engine. The story does mention a small engine from a Japanese ‘Kei’ car being used in the Minki development vehicle, so perhaps a suitably-adapted BMW bike engine may have been a natural progression of this thinking.’
BMW wins out
BMW’s models were presented in a sporting way and it has been said that none of them really paid homage to the Issigonis original, apart from minor retro detailing. An American, Frank Stephenson, produced one of these models.
In attendance and having the final say as to which proposal would be successful were Pischetsrieder, Reitzle and the Rover Board – and the general consensus was that the favoured models were those of Frank Stephenson and David Saddington. The feeling was that the Mini should be a contemporary and conventional small car, with a retro sporting appeal, and it was these two models that captured this spirit the most accurately.
Tony Spillane was one of the famous BL ‘Hydragassers’ who had worked on Minki with Dr Moulton as well as Spiritual – in the end, he summed up BMW’s feelings: ‘Pischetsrieder was impressed by our concepts, but was clear on his feelings – they were ten years ahead of their time, and what BMW and Rover needed was a car that would be relatively simple, and therefore get into production as quickly as possible.’
Many people within Rover championed the Spiritual hard, but BMW was unmoved: this car did not accurately reflect the spirit of a Mini for the 21st century. However, one thing its publicity within the company did do was to move the emphasis of the new car back towards being a roomy car – something that Stephenson’s coupe-like proposal certainly was not.
The project loses focus
Because of this, for several months, the project lost focus and neither Rover nor BMW knew whether it was Saddington or Stephenson’s design (i.e., the British or German design) that the company was going with.
The question was eventually answered by Rover’s design boss, Geoff Upex: he decided that Saddington would be the car’s design chief and Stephenson would report to him. In other words, the American determined the style and the package would be the responsibility of the Briton.
Anglo-German politics hit home
In the following months, both Saddington and Stephenson argued each design change but, in the end, the American’s E50 2+2 proposal was enlarged to match the 1995 Evolution proposal – all in the interests of practicality. The difficulty was that, in the background of this uncertainty over the packaging of the new Mini, the project management and engineering was now being handled by Germany – and Stephenson, a BMW employee working within Rover, was proving to be the object of a fair amount of suspicion.
Because of this Munich-Gaydon infighting was beginning to prove counterproductive and, in May 1996, the entire project was handed back to Rover, the project was renamed R50 and it got a new Project Director, Chris Lee.
If the intra-departmental infighting had proved counter-productive, the handover to Rover opened up a further can of worms. The Engineering Team at Munich found the decision dented their pride considerably – and the man chosen to oversee the handover, BMW’s development chief, Burkhard Goeschel rushed the task unnecessarily.
Chris Lee had told his opposite number that he would need six weeks to gather up a team and get the project running up to speed, but according to an insider, and reported in Autocar magazine, Goeschel replied, ‘Chris, you don’t understand. When I get off the plane in Munich all work will have already stopped.’ BMW had disentangled themselves from the R50 project and, to make matters worse, when Gaydon started work on it, they found many parts of it unfinished or in a state of disarray.
The French connection
According to designer, Salvatore Catalano, Rover’s design team may have had some inspiration from an usual source. He says, ‘at the end of 1995, Rover France involved the students of the IED – European Institute of Design in Turin – in a research project. There were two themes: a new saloon and a replacement for the Mini. I was one of those students and worked on both concepts.
‘In July of 1996, the presentation took place and Rover acquired all the original copies of the sketches. I only had two pictures left. Months later, the acquisition was made official by BMW, which was interested in having me as an intern. Personally I see that my proposal has given rise to several ideas which are then applied to the standard versions; some applied to the ACV30 prototype.
‘Even the direction indicator placed diagonally, in memory of the original welding line on the mudguard. So at the origin of the new Mini there is also a Sicilian designer. Who knows if and where those drawings are kept!’
The Mini project comes home
What they inherited at Rover was a BMW platform – as defined in 1995, it featured struts up front and a Z-axle at the rear. The engine and gearbox had yet to be decided but, worse than this, no one had told Moulton and BTR Development that their work on the Mini was no longer required.
This was a appalling manner in which to treat Moulton, simply because his second Mini-based prototype, the ‘Minki II’, was proving more than capable of getting the job done. Ironically, it was alongside BMW Engineers that this mule took shape – and, running a K-Series engine, it was proving to be a more than effective tool. In fact, the Minki II had met all the targets asked of it by BMW, when sadly, in September 1996, the call came from BMW that their services were no longer required.
By the end of 1996, the project was proving to be something of a poisoned chalice for Rover and, when it became apparent that BMW would not tolerate any slippage in the project despite the handover from Munich, things started to get difficult. Rover was hamstrung by the fact that they needed to learn the new (to them) chassis using a R&D Centre that was miniscule in comparison with BMW’s.
…and then grows to include BMW. Again
Because of this, a second team was set up in Munich, who would act as a resource for Rover to call upon during the development of the new car. Unfortunately, the shadow team, as they were called were not at all helpful in their outlook towards Rover – and piggy-in-the-middle, Chris Lee, was beginning to find himself in an increasingly difficult position, trying to arbitrate between the two sides, instead of actually managing project R50 forwards.
The other problem that Rover was encountering was that Wolfgang Reitzle had frozen the R50 styling – even though the engine and gearbox had yet to be confirmed. Saddington had expressed concerns that using the existing low bonnet line, the K-Series engine would be a very tight fit, and wished to raise it. BMW’s response was that the K-Series unit was at fault for, ‘not having a space efficient package’ and Wolfgang Reitzle himself told Saddington that, ‘I will sort out the problem of the engine’, without actually stating how.
All in all, it was a very frustrating experience for the Engineers working on the R50, because they felt that BMW were not giving them all the information that they needed – especially since the car that they were now preparing was not the one that they would liked to have introduced as a replacement for the Mini. Nevertheless, Reitzle was as good as his word and duly announced that BMW and Chrysler would co-develop a new engine for the Mini, to be produced in Brazil.
The engine bombshell
To say that this was like a bombshell dropped over Gaydon was an understatement of grand proportions: the assumption was, that even accounting for its tight packaging, the K-Series engine would be the engine of choice for the new Mini – certainly it deserved to be being, as it was, the replacement for the A-Series engine. If this decision left the Engineering Team at Gaydon monumentally disappointed, it did at least remove one more question mark – the choice of engine for the car.
As development continued, there were further issues. Despite post-launch hints from BMW that it was a mostly German engineering effort, former MINI Development Engineer Robin Hall was keen to point out (in an interview for CAR in 2001) that, initially, BMW’s input into the MINI amounted to setting a number of parameters.
‘The brief from BMW was for a MacPherson strut front and Z-axle rear-axle layout. That was it. There are no BMW components in the systems and they were entirely designed at Rover’s Gaydon Engineering Centre in Warwickshire. The geometry, component stiffness, durability, compliances – all were specified and designed by Rover Engineers.’
Hundreds of British Engineers
Hall was the front-axle system Engineer responsible for the packaging, design and integration of the MINI chassis. ‘When we started, very little was defined. BMW didn’t ask for any BMW components, it let us go away and get on with it. Even the Mini’s engine and transmission was engineered at Longbridge and Gaydon. The engine was worked on at Powertrain, who also did the gearbox, which is based on the unit used by Rover. The Cooper S uses a Getrag box, but the development was carried out at Longbridge. I’d say there were hundreds of British Engineers on Mini, maybe as many as 300 or 400.’
There was no room in the MINI’s engine compartment for a conventional two-shaft gearbox. BMW had wanted the car to have a Getrag gearbox, but the original UK-based Engineers put in the R65 gearbox instead, because it was £100 per car cheaper, more compact and had no inherent cyclic vibrations, so a mass damper was not needed. The R65 was an existing major component, which was already being manufactured on the Longbridge site, and was in large scale use in other Rover Group front-wheel-drive cars.
Chris Lee and his team stuck to their convictions, produced rafts of evidence regarding costs, performance and service experience. Back-to-back tests, evaluations on the road and comparisons of torque capacities were all made. In addition, major improvements to the R65’s change quality, a reduction of free play and healthy attention to warranty claim records were all needed before Rover’s R65 won the argument.
Rover 200 simulators
Hall added: ‘We started development with simulators. There were two types: Rover 200s with a mock Mini chassis and 200s with the MINI’s Pentagon engine. The supercharged K-Series simulator was a cracking car. In the end, over 200 simulators were built at Longbridge and we learnt a lot. The idea was to get the design to what’s called production release a year or so before the MINI was due to go on sale. We knew what the MINI had to be – the best-handling front-drive car in the world. We were very happy with a Z-axle concept, although it’s not great for space.
‘Some people also argued for double wishbones at the front, but BMW insisted that the MINI was a BMW and had to have struts. However, it wasn’t easy to make the front suspension work. The MINI has a very compact front end. We worked very hard to minimise torque steer and the complexity and detail work in the chassis is on a much higher level than under a Puma or Lupo. Success has a lot to do with component stiffness. For example, the MINI has a two-piece box-section chassis arm with 1.5 metres of welding in it. The flex in the suspension components is less than 10 per cent of that in the bushes. The stiffness of the mounting points is good for NVH.’
Hall was responsible for the MINI’s EPAS set-up, too, after a late-in-the-day decision to change the system: ‘Until 1999, the MINI’s steering was fully electric with a powered worm-drive. But it was almost surreal: there was no kick-back or feedback. On rutted roads you couldn’t feel anything, even at the limit of adhesion. I had overall responsibility for the whole front end and didn’t like it.
‘The steering department said it could be fixed with a tweak to the steering, so BMW told us to get it sorted. But instead I knocked together a simulator with an electro-hydraulic Rover 25 rack. The original simulator had a Ford Escort rack modified for the right geometry and it felt good, but BMW drove both and chose mine.
‘Fully electric steering was a pet project at Rover and several Engineers had tried it in a Mondeo, where it worked well. It was just inappropriate in a Mini – there was no joy. It was very hard to package a steering pump on the Mini engine. It’s extraordinarily tight under the bonnet. We had to re-write the rule book on tyre and component clearances – in fact, we threw the rule book away. There’s meant to be 15mm clearance for tyres.
‘Now there is actually a benign foul in extreme circumstances. It was a packaging nightmare – or miracle – and only got done thanks to computer-aided design. We needed a lot of suspension travel to cope with bumps and the 17 inch wheels on the Cooper S were an absolute nightmare to accommodate. I think the sweetest handling MINI was one with the smallest tyres – it’s a pity the run-flat tyres were added late in the day.’
So, another triumph of British engineering ingenuity that was brushed under the carpet.
Getting the sales and marketing right
In terms of marketing and sales of the MINI, as early as 1998, it was clear that BMW wanted the car for itself to sell through its own channels – and not through the existing, patchy, Rover dealer network. Didier Maitret, President of BMW France told the press, what had previously been unsaid outside of corporate headquarters.
‘The future MINI has nothing to do with the one we’ve known so far. It will be a small premium car, costing around 90,000 Francs. As it is, Rover dealers were expecting a price tag of 70,000 Francs. But for this price tag, they already have the 200. Furthermore, Rover already has to promote three brands (Rover, MG and Land Rover). Under the BMW umbrella, the new MINI will be the new introductory model into the BMW range, priced below the Compact 3-Series.
Our dealer network is more powerful and better suited to promote the MINI, as buyers will most likely have means and would expect good buy-back conditions on their current, sometime expensive, used cars. And finally, there are 4000 BMW dealers around the world, and only half as much for Rover.’
The year of the concept
1997 brought the arrival of the concept cars on the scene – first the ACV30, which was announced at the Monte Carlo Rally. This coupe-like model sat on an MGF chassis and was based on a Dreamworks proposal for the car, shown at the Gaydon shoot out in 1995.
If the car added nothing to the development of the MINI per se, it did publicly showcase the fact that Rover was now seriously developing a Mini replacement and, even if this was not the car to do it, the ACV30 did begin the process of softening up the public. Actually, the Ivan Lampkin-styled interior formed the basis of the final solution, sporting a prominent centrally mounted speedometer and lots of bare metal.
The second concept car appeared at that year’s Geneva Motor Show – the Rover Spiritual. The Oliver Le Grice proposal was shown in both forms and dubbed the Spiritual One and Spiritual Too. Reaction from the public was somewhat lukewarm – but the original thinking behind the design was certainly not lost on them.
The project was now reaching finalisation and yet, even during 1997, Rover at Gaydon was encountering communications problems with the shadow team. Chris Lee was still finding that Munich seemed to be hindering the progress of the project. This anecdote, again taken from Autocar, demonstrates what the English were up against:
‘A prize example is the new MINI’s braking system. As part of cost-cutting, rear drum brakes replaced discs. Functionally, they were up to the job and Reitzle reluctantly agreed. Project costs were adjusted accordingly. Then, by complete accident, in a casual conversation some weeks later between a Rover Engineer and a BMW brake specialist, the German revealed that drum brakes were not being engineered.
‘There were so many times like that when we just didn’t know what they were going to do next. It was so baffling. We desperately wanted to show that we could do a good job, but they seemed to want to stop us,’ adds the R50 veteran.
The big boss steps in
The problem between Gaydon and Munich was now so ingrained that Bernd Pischetsrieder had to intervene by hiring a consultant firm, Unicorn, to step in and arbitrate between the two sides. The two advisers sent in were soon nicknamed, The Prince and The Priest, by the people they were there to supposedly help. The advice given was questionable to say the least: Rover should stop trying to understand BMW, just start swimming with them.
Whatever the results of this were, further pressure was placed on the team when a running mock-up of the car was shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1997 (see video below) – the styling was basically identical to how the car would be launched two years hence.
If this gave the impression that the Mini was nearly ready, it was a false one – the car was a cut and shut based on a Fiat Punto. Reaction to the definitive article was more positive than it had been to either the ACV30 or Spiritual concepts – and BMW and Rover came away from the show in a more positive frame of mind. For a while, anyway…
The final stages of development continued on their way: prototypes were built, road testing was undertaken and, being a BMW first and a Rover second, it spent much time pounding the Nurburgring in Germany – a place where BMW Development Engineers honed their production chassis to perfection. Longbridge was the chosen factory to build the new car – this was not a foregone conclusion by any means – and all was looking good. There were further hiccoughs though: Buckhard Goeschel sacked Chris Lee and in his place Peter Morgan was installed – unjust treatment for a man who had endured so many trials and tribulations getting the troubled car into a production-ready state.
The MINI’s harrowing development had one final twist: after the resignations of Pischetsrieder and Reitzle during the night of the long knives, the MINI (and Rover) had lost their most powerful ally within BMW: the CEO. The new regime stripped Rover of responsibility for the project and placed Project R50’s first Director, Heinrich Petra, back in charge: BMW had taken the project back.
As a result of this, in June 1999, the final development of the car was undertaken by BMW and most of the 30 Development Engineers who had worked on the car for the previous three years decided to stay in England with Rover. This was around the time that Alchemy approached BMW management with a possible exit strategy.
Hall recalls the end of Longbridge’s involvement and, in early 2000, BMW suddenly asked for the MINI computer files to be hurriedly downloaded to German hard drives: ‘BMW had finished the assembly building at Longbridge and wanted to ramp up production for a January 2001 on-sale date.
It all looked fantastic when we went to a BMW pep talk in February 2000 explaining what they were going to do. The old dyed-in-the-wool Rover people were sceptical but I was taken in.’ And with that, the partnership was over.
The new MINI became embroiled in BMW’s MG Rover sell-off in 2000, with John Towers pleading passionately to the Germans that the car should remain under British control, and start its production run in Longbridge, as originally planned.
BMW would have none of that, realising just how hot a ticket the name and product would prove to be in the future – and MINI remained under German control, with the production facility being installed at Cowley (dispassionately re-named BMW Oxford), following the remarkably rapid transfer of the Rover 75’s production line from Cowley to Longbridge.
The political situation did not overshadow the MINI’s launch, though – and journalists greeted it warmly.
What the papers said
MINI was officially launched at the Paris Motor Show in 2000 (and, at that time, ‘Mini’ became ‘MINI’ at BMW’s insistence), after what seemed an eternally long gestation period. Still, the unveiling was optimistic with management pushing the boat out on the day. The entire management team was present at the show to introduce the car, with the presence of the most senior – Joachim Milberg and Dr Helmut Panke – proving the company’s commitment to its new baby.
Alongside, Burkhard Goeschel and Frank Stephenson fielded any questions about the product itself. Management was bullish about what they expected from the MINI, and it certainly made a splash when it finally broke cover at the show.
Frank Stephenson used the show to make the comment: ‘The MINI Cooper is not a retro design car, but an evolution of the original. It has the genes and many of the characteristics of its predecessor, but is larger, more powerful, more muscular and more exciting than its predecessor.’ Although the shape was no great shakes in terms of novelty, having been unveiled in prototype form nearly four years previously, it was greeted warmly by buyers, keen to get into the new car.
July 2001 saw it hit the UK market – and, to accompany the launch, there was an innovative marketing campaign, pitched directly at the young and well-to-do urbanites who’s parents took the original to their hearts in the Swinging ‘Sixties. If anyone out there didn’t know what a ‘MINI adventure’ was by the end of 2001, there was probably little hope for them…
There were members of the original Mini set who felt the new incarnation didn’t sit comfortably with the original Issigonis maxim that a car should have the biggest interior possible within the exterior envelope available. Alex Moulton, a keen fan of well-engineered small cars was scathing: ‘It’s enormous – the original Mini was the best packaged car of all time – this is an example of how not to do it… it’s huge on the outside and weighs the same as an Austin Maxi. The crash protection has been taken too far. I mean, what do you want, an armoured car? It is an irrelevance in so far as it has no part in the Mini story.’
John Cooper, on the other hand, was highly enthusiastic – happily lending his name to the performance version of the new car, while his Sussex garage worked hard on developing its own go-faster kits.
On the road
Despite certain misgivings that MINI simply wasn’t ‘mini’ enough, and that its fashion icon status might stop buyers treating it seriously, the sheer amount of work that had gone into chassis development shone through brightly.
After testing the MINI Cooper in May 2001, Autocar magazine was moved to comment: ‘Far more interesting than the engine is the MINI’s chassis, especially its ability to involve you in the action and even let you alter your cornering line using both throttle and steering. Yes, there’s a hint of lift-off oversteer in extremis, but mostly there’s so much grip that the only slip you’re likely to encounter will be mild and at the front axle if you push really hard through a tight corner. This is a car you aim through corners confident that you’re going to clip a blade of grass.’
This story of chuckable handling and pointy steering was echoed all over the place, and soon a new generation of road testers had fallen for the charms of a small car named MINI.
Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for the performance. Even in Cooper form, the new car failed to impress, with most criticism aimed at the rather indifferent Chrysler engine. Autocar was not enamoured by this aspect of the MINI: ‘With 116bhp and tipping the scales at a portly 1125kg, the Mini’s sprinting ability slots it into warm-hatch territory.
‘Good traction helps pull the car to 60mph in 9.3sec, but accelerating from 0-100mph takes a lengthy 28.4sec. Nor did the MINI enjoy the standard Autocar flexibility tests, and managed only a 9.7sec fourth gear 30-50mph time. A great lugger it is not. Thank over-tall gearing for that. Sure, the Mini has enough performance to make it fun, but it’s no GTi; at least not in a straight line.’
It was obvious that the MINI was crying out for more power.
Less than a year later, all those who craved genuine GTi-matching performance from the MINI would have their prayers answered. The Cooper S version featured an Eaton supercharger, and a useful boost to 163bhp. Criticisms of lacklustre performance were banished, with the resultant improvement in power and torque knocking a handy two seconds off the 0-60mph time. Chassis and braking modifications were introduced in order to keep it all in check…
Beyond that, the John Cooper Works conversion gave owners the chance to take their MINI out to a full-fat 210bhp. Although the Works version was an aftermarket conversion, it was offered through MINI dealerships, and that meant the option was taken up by a large number of owners.
Autocar loved it: ‘The Works offers extra willingness to rev and better throttle response, but the matching of the extra performance with the revised Mini’s gear ratios. It still needs working to extract its full potential, but you no longer suffer a trudge around the rev counter waiting for the power to arrive. It’s now a gloriously frantic affair, goading you into driving in classic all-out Mini style. A louder exhaust complements the increased induction noise, although the supercharger scream dominates.’
As well as successfully exploiting the Cooper name and working on a stream of ever quicker versions, the long-anticipated convertible model made an appearance in 2004, finally adding a new body variation after three years in production. The MINI story has been an amazingly successful one.
Members of the (now-) classic Mini fraternity were initially sceptical, but many have accepted the new pretender to the throne – Mini Owners’ Club meetings are now contain a distinct mix of old and new. Most tellingly, though, the MINI enjoyed an extremely long honeymoon period, with strong demand for new and used models keeping values high long after the novelty should have worn off.
There were glitches along the way, with a flurry of recalls adding a slightly sour taste to the early success of the car – yet, despite this, the MINI’s strong image remained undented.
A big success
BMW Oxford (nee Cowley) was quickly up to full production capacity, and it remained so throughout its first five years of production – churning out 700,000 examples in that brief period of time. Undoubtedly, the MINI has been a success – and remained as fresh five years into its production run as it did the day it was launched. The second-generation version was launched in late-2006, and retained much of the existing car’s style.
BMW learned a lot about small car manufacture along the way, and the Gen. 2 MINI was less expensive to build. The Chrysler engines were replaced by a range of BMW/PSA powerplants, although the supercharged option disappeared.
Patently, this is not the car Rover would have produced had BMW not entered the equation – most Designers and Engineers at Gaydon preferred the back-to-basics charm of the Spiritual concepts. BMW’s top brass were reportedly pleased by the Hydragas suspended K-Series powered concept, but were probably correct in pursuing the design they did because, although Sir Alec Issigonis wouldn’t like the car (it’s far too cramped inside) and certainly wouldn’t have designed the car that way, 21st century buyers have warmed to the modern-day Cooper incarnation.
The success of the MINI also raises many poignant ‘what if’ questions with respect to MG Rover’s fortunes – especially if you get a MINI and an early pre-Project Drive Rover 75, place them side-by-side, and start looking closely at the myriad of similarities between the two. Perhaps it’s best not to think too hard about it…