It changed the way we looked at small cars almost overnight, and sent the Designers scurrying back to the drawing boards – the Mini was little short of a major revolution.
We take a look at the development and subsequent life story of Britain’s favourite small car…
Words: Keith Adams, Ian Nicholls
Mini development story – 1970: big changes ahead
At the end of February 1970, Lord Stokes revealed that BLMC had not made any profit for four months because of strikes. It was to be a bad year for the British motor industry in general in respect of industrial disputes, with major strikes at Dunlop, Pilkington, GKN-Sankey and Lucas hitting production. There was better news on 19 April: BLMC announced it planned to expand its production of Minis in Spain and to export from there to the rest of Europe – in cooperation with Nueva Montana Quijano, British Leyland was producing 85 Minis a day in Spain.
The first Spanish-made Minis were expected to be exported later that year, and the production rate was to be boosted up to a possible maximum of 400 a day. Discussing the Spanish output of Minis at the opening of the Barcelona Motor Show, Richard Bergeson, Managing Director of British Leyland, said, ‘Last year our European dealers were extremely short of Minis. They could easily have sold thousands more it we had been able to deliver them, but we couldn’t.’
George Turnbull warned the 65,000 workers of the Austin-Morris group that it was in serious financial trouble later that year. All its models had been inherited from BMC. This was echoed by BLMC’s Finance and Planning Director John Barber on 27 November. He said: ‘At the moment we are just not earning enough to ensure that we will be competitive in the future, and that would mean contraction, fewer employees and, in the end, death.’ These were prophetic words by John Barber, and ultimately he was proven right.
1971: the big boom
Despite the disruption, total worldwide Mini production increased to 278,950, but total Longbridge production for all cars in 1969/70 was 280,439, indicating that a lot of the increased Mini production was coming from overseas factories. By April 1971, the Morris Minor was finally withdrawn after a run of 23 years. It was replaced by the Morris Marina, a simple rear-wheel-drive car, aimed at the profitable company car market.
Although later much maligned as a car, as business venture, this apparent technical U-turn by BLMC, was a sales success. By 1973, it was Britain’s second best-selling car. Such was the state of BLMC’s finances in 1968, the development of the Morris Marina had taken priority over the Issigonis 9X.
Also launched the same month was the Fiat 127. That car was powered by a 903cc overhead valve, in conjunction with the state-of-the-art transverse engine and front-wheel-drive layout which had been pioneered in the Autobianchi Primula and the Fiat 128. The car was the first of the modern superminis, and won praise for its utilisation of space as well as its roadholding.
The age of the supermini is underway
The 127 was an instant success, winning the European Car of the Year award in 1972, quickly becoming one of the best-selling cars in Europe for several years. Later in 1972 a hatchback appeared. The opposition had not been idle and had been doing its market research – Renault came to a similar conclusion, launching the R5 in January 1972. These larger, more expensive hatchbacks proved to be highly successful and BLMC’s inability to respond cost them sales.
In July, the last Mk3 Mini-Cooper S was produced and, in 2001, the then BLMC boss Lord Stokes retrospectively commented: ‘We lost about £20 per Mini. Then people wonder why I scrapped the Cooper. We were giving more money to Mr Cooper than we were making in profit.’ In August 1971 the Mini Clubman reached Australia, supplanting the round-nosed cars. From now on Australian buyers had a choice from the Mini Clubman GT, which had a 1275cc engine, and the Mini Clubman 1100, which had a locally-made 1098cc engine.
Sir Alec Issigonis officially retired from British Leyland in December, but would stay on as a consultant. At a ceremony at Longbridge, George Turnbull said: ‘We have had to bend the rules because we do not believe that Sir Alec’s extraordinary talents have suddenly waned or dried up… But, I hope perhaps working slightly shorter hours.’
Mini reaches its production peak
1971 turned out to be the peak year of production with 318,475 Minis leaving British Leyland’s worldwide production lines. 258,427 emerged from Longbridge and 60,048 from overseas plants. BLMC’s total vehicle production for that year was 1,062,742, the Mini’s contribution was nearly 30% of that figure.
With the launch of the Morris Marina in May 1971, ADO16 Morris 1100/1300 production ceased at Cowley and with many loyal Morris buyers now opting for the new Marina, the Mini in terms of volume became the dominant car at Longbridge.
In January 1972, BLMC Finance Director John Barber was again issuing dire warnings about the company’s prospects: ‘Unless we can make more vehicles and earn more money we shall not be able to replace our models and our plants sufficiently quickly and we shall, gradually wither away.’
1972: the boom years are good for Mini
Despite its parlous financial state, BLMC managed to find £3m to buy out Innocenti Autoveicoli of Milan in May 1972. Innocenti produced around 700 Minis a week in a country that was second only to Britain in its enthusiasm for the Issigonis design. During the early ’70s, the Italian market accounted for 55,000 Minis a year. It was imperative that Innocenti did not fall into the hands of a hostile bidder, hence the BLMC buy out. Lord Stokes said at the time: ‘This is quite a significant deal. In this market our sales are running at a rate of 60,000 a year, which is substantial. We could achieve 100,000 for only a modest investment.’
The new Managing Director of Innocenti was to be Geoffrey Robinson, the corporation’s Financial Controller. He decided to expand Innocenti’s exports throughout Europe and created the Mini Cooper 1300, a stylish car fitted with disc brakes and a British built 71bhp 1275cc engine that was in a similar state of tune to that in the 1300GT. This car first appeared in March 1973.
In Australia in April 1972, the Morris-branded Minis were now re-badged as Leylands.
Minis made using measured day work
In the autumn of 1972 BLMC at last managed to persuade the Longbridge workforce to accept measured day work in place of piece-work, Cowley had capitulated the previous year. On 4 October, it was revealed that the Mini was still BLMC’s European best-seller, demonstrating, Lord Stokes said, that they were right to keep it as a basic small car. He added: ‘No one can improve on its styling. I think it is a dateless car that will go on for many years yet.’
Later that month, at the London Motor Show, British Leyland celebrated the production of three million Minis. Lord Stokes as always had a comment for the gentlemen of the press: ‘Looking around the show you can see foreign manufacturers have copied our small car design. It won’t take us 13 years to build the next three million — as we fully intend to do.’
As it turned out, it took around three more decades to build three million more Mini-badged cars, and his Lordship lived long enough to see it, but it owed a lot to a nephew of the now-sidelined Alec Issigonis and some men in far away Munich.
By November 1972, Geoffrey Robinson, Managing Director of Leyland Innocenti as it was now called, was reporting record sales of British Leyland cars in Italy. He told The Guardian at the Turin Motor Show: ‘Our success in the Italian market is based on the tremendous popularity of the Innocenti Mini range and we have recently stepped up Mini production at Milan from 60,000 to 75,000 units a year to meet increased demand. This increased production together with the fact that the strong Innocenti dealer network is now also selling Rovers, Triumphs and Jaguars will ensure that we improve our market penetration still further in the coming year.’
1973: the Mini reaches its weekly peak
In March, weekly Mini production at Longbridge peaked at 4100. Yet total Mini production at all plants for 1973 was 295,186, and Longbridge production of all models was down to 253,540 in 1972/73. Because of the strike-ridden nature of BLMC’s UK plants, trying to analyse these figures is futile. This was the time of the ‘Barber Boom’ when Chancellor of the Exchequer in Edward Heath’s Conservative Government, Anthony Barber, pumped money into the economy. An economic boom ensued when demand for new cars rose. Unfortunately, British Leyland’s strike-prone workforce prevented the company from taking advantage of this.
The ADO16’s replacement was announced in May, the Austin Allegro. In preparation for the Allegro’s appearance all the BLMC A-Series front-wheel-drive car transmissions received a new rod change mechanism. Shortly after the Allegro’s launch, former BMC Chairman Sir George Harriman died on 29 May. The same month Keith Hopkins, Director of Publicity at British Leyland told David Benson of the Daily Express about the company’s export performance: ‘The most popular car exported from Britain is the Mini, it is our biggest seller in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. We can sell every Mini we make. Last year we could have sold an extra 150,000 Minis in Europe if we could have produced them. But our total production of Minis was only around 300,000 for the year.’
Also in the summer, BLMC bought out its partner in the Spanish Authi concern, who built Austin-Morris cars, including Minis in Pamplona, Spain. BLMC had ambitious plans to expand Authi. In August 1973 Authi began assembling the Mini-Cooper 1300, an almost identical car to the Innocenti Mini-Cooper 1300 which had been launched the previous March. Now British Leyland had full control of its European Mini manufacturing plants, but having spent some of its precious funds buying them, what would these factories produce in the future? The Issigonis Mini could not go on forever as a competitive front rank small car and the 1972-’74 period saw BLMC dithering about the kind of car to replace it, ADO74, ADO88 or perhaps something else?
The BLMC exodus begins
BLMC Executives started to jump ship, starting with Austin-Morris Sales Director Filmer Paradise, who was replaced by Bernard Bates. Next to go was George Turnbull, who was replaced by Richard Perry in September. As part of the reshuffle caused by resignations, Geoffrey Robinson was posted from Innocenti in Italy to become Jaguar’s Managing Director and Chief Executive. Events began to move quickly…
On the 6 October, the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli War began and then Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar unilaterally raised oil prices by 17% to $3.65 per barrel while simultaneously announcing production cuts. The following day, the 17 October, OPEC oil ministers agreed to use oil as a weapon to punish the West for its support of Israel in the Arab-Israeli War.
It was 1956 all over again, and demand for economical small cars soared and the 14-year-old Mini was now BLMC’s most important car, but could it exploit the situation? Lord Stokes later said: ‘Everyone stopped buying expensive cars in order to buy the ruddy Mini again.’
John Barber: Mini is too expensive to build
On 22 October, John Barber (by now BLMC’s Deputy Chairman and Managing Director) said in an interview in The Times of the Mini: ‘The Mini is a wonderful car though I think insufficient attention was paid during the design stage to the inherent problems of production costs. Even though we have increased the price it is still not a profitable model.’ He added that because of the profitable replacement parts business generated by Mini sales it was, ‘more in the nature of a break-even operation.’
The article then went on to claim that the Mini improved prospects for the group’s dealers by providing them with a more complete range of models. Since it was launched in 1959 Sir Alec Issigonis’s pioneering design had introduced standards of roadholding and passenger space for small cars which had been copied by motor manufacturers throughout the world. For the first ten years of its life, it was widely known that the Mini’s complicated and expensive engineering prevented it being sold at a profitable price.
However, since then, a number of design changes to simplify suspension and transmission, together with substantial price increases, were generally thought to have given the Mini a small profit margin.
‘We priced it at what the market could stand’
Barber added: ‘We priced it at what the market could stand. Then, almost as an afterthought, we would cost it and if it showed a loss, we would have to cost it again. BMC should have said “Where do we slot into the market? We’ve got the most sophisticated car in the world. We can afford to charge £100 more than the wretched Ford runabout.” Then, having got the Mini into the wrong slot, they did the same with the 1100.’
Although BLMC was later criticised for not instigating a brutal programme of factory closures to rationalise the corporation, behind the scenes the firm had cut down the number of road journeys and distances travelled to transport components from place of manufacture to assembly at Longbridge, a process begun by Joe Edwards in the final days of BMC when Mini production ceased at Cowley.
Later that month, BLMC confirmed that their new Financial Director was 47-year-old Alex Park. 1973 had been a dramatic year for BLMC, when blighted by strikes that prevented it from producing to its existing capacity, it announced massive expansion plans. 1974 would also prove to be equally dramatic.
1974: The bubble bursts
On 1 January 1974, the Three-Day Week came into force and was to last until March. It was one of several measures introduced in the United Kingdom by Edward Heath’s Conservative Government to conserve electricity, the production of which was severely limited due to industrial action by coal miners.
The effect was that commercial users of electricity would be limited to three specified consecutive days’ consumption each week and prohibited from working longer hours on those days. If the world wanted Minis, then BLMC would struggle to produce them, at least in the UK. No such restriction applied to imported cars. And when BLMC was working for its allotted three days it was still afflicted by disputes.
Charles Griffin, by then Austin-Morris Director of Advanced Engineering, kicked off the ADO88 at the same time. Unlike the previous ADO74 project, which was designed to use an all-new powertrain, the ADO88 was intended to use the existing A-Series engine and transmission to save money. Originally, ADO88 was intended as a direct Mini replacement. A snap General Election was held on 28 February and Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was returned to power, although it did not have an overall majority. The same day British Leyland announced it was selling the Authi company in Spain to General Motors for £26.7m. BLMC felt it could supply Minis to export markets using other factories and it needed the money.
Bankruptcy for Leyland looms
The Three-Day Week had eaten deeply into the corporation’s cash reserves and it could not remain profitable when operating at below 60% capacity. And by now Authi was losing money and suffering from labour disputes. John Barber, Managing Director of British Leyland, put on a brave face when he said: ‘This is a mutually advantageous deal for General Motors and ourselves. It gives GM an entrée into Spain with already existing plants and enables us to continue to build up increasing support for our dealer network through the new Leyland sales company.’
Although the GM deal later fell through, it marked the beginning of retrenchment for British Leyland. The Three-Day Week ended in March 1974 and production was soon back to normal. Later that month, Daniel Richmond of Downton Engineering and a former BMC consultant, died. Plagued by strikes, things went from bad to worse at British Leyland. 1 May brought more bad news: British Leyland’s first half year loss turned out to be £16.6m, against a £22.8mn profit for the same period the previous year.
Harry Webster, the 57-year-old Technical Director of Austin-Morris, resigned at the end of the month. Webster, an Engineer of immense standing in the motor industry, was the surviving member of the triumvirate chosen by Lord Stokes in 1968 to run the volume car operations of the then newly-merged Leyland-BMC empire.
Why Harry Webster left for Automotive Products
There had been persistent rumours in Midland motor industry circles over the previous nine months that he was far from happy with the reduced status of Austin-Morris and the departure of George Turnbull. Webster joined Automotive Products. The man chosen to replace Harry Webster, and to oversee future Mini development, or lack of it, was Charles Griffin, who had been the loyal sidekick to both Issigonis and Webster. Griffin’s approach to the Mini appears to have been not one of development, but of wholesale replacement with the ADO88.
Unfortunately, this took longer than planned to reach fruition. Also at this time, news was seeping out that the mighty Ford Motor Company was planning a new small car. Ford, which had been reluctant to manufacture a model smaller than the Escort because of the low profit margins on small cars, planned to introduce a new model in the Fiat 127/Renault 5 class in 1976. The small car market was now getting serious.
On 19 June, the last UK-built ADO16 was produced, ending a long and successful partnership with the Mini. A partnership that at its peak had in terms of weekly production volume attained the zenith of British car manufacturing. No other British cars were as popular worldwide as the Mini and ADO16 were in their heyday, before or since.
During this period BLMC Engineer and Product Planner John Bilton investigated the cost penalty of the Mini’s 10-inch wheels. He told Jonathan Wood: ‘…when researching wheels and tyres I found the 12-inch wheel was cheaper than the 10-inch one. It was larger but the tyre was lighter, fundamentally you’ve got less material.’
Cost-cutting measures instigated
Twelve inch wheels were used on the ADO16 1100/1300 and Hillman Imp. John Bilton continued: ‘Philosophically you can’t argue with it, but proportionally it would actually have made very little difference to the Mini’s interior space. The bit you had given away would have been more than compensated for by using a standard product.’
From the end of 1974 the Mini 1275GT was fitted with 12-inch wheels, but it would be another decade before the rest of the Mini range got them. There were more BLMC corporate moves in August 1974, when Austin-Morris Managing Director Richard Perry was promoted to be replaced by Keith Hopkins (below), the 44-year-old head of British Leyland’s Public Relations Department.
On the 10 October, there was a second of two UK General Elections that year; and this time Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won a majority of three seats and this would affect the Mini and BLMC, as we shall see.
The balloon goes up for BLMC
The inevitable happened on 6 December and, after much speculation in financial and industry circles, the newly re-elected Labour Government announced that it was to take a stake in the British Leyland Motor Corporation and act as guarantor for bank loans to provide working capital to keep the company going.
Sir Don Ryder, then a Government industry advisor, was asked to produce a report on the future options for BLMC. British Leyland had run out of money, and now there was no hiding it. December 1974 was perhaps the closest it came to a premature axe as its manufacturer became insolvent.
Austin-Morris had burned through the cash generated by the profitable parts of BLMC such as Rover, Jaguar and Leyland Vehicles, which in turn had starved them of inward investment, and now British Leyland and the Mini were to be saved from extinction by the taxpayer.
1975: starting the year as Britain’s best-selling car
In February, the Mini was Britain’s best-selling car, and to mark the occasion Austin-Morris Managing Director Keith Hopkins and Sir Alec Issigonis posed with a Mini for a PR photo to celebrate. At the same time, BLMC was phasing out the unloved 1800/2200 series, which had sold poorly over the previous decade, only 387,283 were made. Now the only Issigonis cars in production were the Mini and Maxi. The same month negotiations to sell Authi of Spain to General Motors broke down and BLMC announced the company would close down its plants there.
At the Geneva Motor Show the next month Lord Stokes, still nominally BLMC Chairman, and Austin-Morris Managing Director Keith Hopkins talked about the newly-launched Innocenti 90/120 hatchback Mini. Hopkins said: ‘This is another example of the versatility of the original Mini concept which was presented to the public at Earls Court 15 years ago. This new Innocenti will consolidate and improve our position in the highly competitive Italian market where despite difficult economic conditions, sales of the current Mini range are running at 40,000 a year.’
The Ryder Report and its effect on the Mini
Lord Stokes added: ‘The Innocenti Mini is a delightful and desirable car which is selling well in Italy and we are extending its sale to markets outside Italy, starting with Switzerland. We will keep a decision about bringing it to Britain under constant review.’
On 24 April the Ryder Report was published and it recommended:
- That capital expenditure of £1264m and working capital of £260m (both at constant prices) would have to be provided over the next eight years to make British Leyland viable and fully competitive.
- That £1400m (based on assumptions of inflation) would be needed from outside sources to achieve a positive cash flow by 1982, and that there was an ‘overwhelmingly strong case’ for the Government to provide those funds, up to £900m of them by the end of 1978.
- That British Leyland’s operations should be divided into four separate businesses: cars, trucks and buses, special products, and international activities. Each would be a profit centre in its own right with its own Managing Director.
- That at corporate level there should be a Non-Executive Chairman and a staff drastically reduced to the absolute minimum.
- That joint/management/bodies in which Shop Stewards play a major role; should be set up.
- ‘Means must be found’, the report said, ‘to take advantage of the ideas, enthusiasm and energy of BL’s workers in ‘planning the future of the business on which their livelihood depends.’
- That a massive programme to modernize plant and equipment must be started immediately. Much of the group’s plant and machinery was ‘old, outdated and inefficient.’
- That there must be changes in top-level management.
The Government accepted Sir Don Ryder’s recommendations. The upshot of all this was that BLMC was wound up, its Board recommending its shareholders to accept the Government’s offer for their shares. During the transition period, there was a lot going on in the world of the Mini. At the time, weekly production was said to be 3500, when disputes weren’t ongoing. A month long dispute at the Castle Bromwich body pressing plant early in 1975 alone cost 9000 Minis in lost production.
On 28 April, all Mini and most British Leyland production was halted because of a strike at Dunlop, which didn’t just make tyres for the BL baby, it made the Alex Moulton-designed suspension cones. In early May, British Leyland managed to restart Mini production by obtaining some suspension cones from Innocenti in Milan, Italy. The Dunlop dispute was finally settled in mid-May.
The end of the Authi Mini
Authi produced its last Spanish-built car, a Damask Red Mini, in May 1975. Explaining BLMC’s decision to cease manufacturing cars in Spain, one British Leyland Executive said: ‘We just never reached our target of 50,000 units a year in the national market. Yet in terms of productivity, our operation was comparable to the operations of our competitors and to other operations of our company.’
More news from overseas Mini plants arrived when Leyland-Innocenti, the Italian subsidiary of British Leyland, re-affirmed its will to continue activities in Italy. A spokesman for the company, which employed 5000 workers in Milan, making chiefly Minis, said Leyland-Innocenti planned to keep up production and even expand it for more competitive models on the domestic and foreign markets.
Leyland-Innocenti, whose output exceeded 61,000 cars in 1974, had a stock of 8000 unsold cars at the time. The company also announced a Board reshuffle. David Andrews, Albert Lawrence and Percy Plant replaced John Barber, Geoffrey Robinson and Lord Stokes as members of the Board. Mr Plant was also elected President. Signor Pier Giovanni Bella was reconfirmed as Managing Director. However, in the summer and autumn of 1975, British Leyland became embroiled in an industrial dispute as its Milan workforce protested at plans to make 1500 of its number redundant, and make the remaining 3000 employees increase production by 25%.
Authi sold to SEAT
On 22 July, British Leyland sold its Pamplona car assembly plant to SEAT for an agreed price of 1250m pesetas (about £8.8m). The sale included a commitment on the part of SEAT to employ the workers laid off in Pamplona earlier that year when Authi, BLMC’s Spanish subsidiary, ended production in Spain. Authi produced about 200,000 BLMC cars in Spain, 140,000 of them Minis. SEAT is now part of the Volkswagen group and the Pamplona plant now manufactures Polos.
The newly-named British Leyland Limited now had a new Managing Director – Alex Park. His predecessor, John Barber, became the Ryder Report’s scapegoat and was fired. Lord Stokes was given the role of President of British Leyland. British Leyland was reorganised into four separate divisions, with the Mini now came under the control of Leyland Cars, which oversaw all car activity, from Mini 850 to Jaguar XJ12.
The Managing Director of Leyland Cars was Derek Whittaker, while Keith Hopkins now became Sales and Marketing Director for the whole of British Leyland. Also that month, the Mini Clubman received the 1098cc A-Series engine for manual transmission models; the automatics continued to use the 998cc engine. British Leyland also introduced worker participation through new joint decision-making bodies. This was industrial democracy in action, an effort to stop the strikes, boost output and turn British Leyland around.
A shift in the decision-making process
In reality, this made decision-making painfully slow and enabled Shop Stewards, who had no qualifications in business management, to influence events. This is ironic as it was not until 1967 that BMC began recruiting university graduates, and many pundits feel that the recruitment of graduates is what gave rivals Ford the edge over BMC.
Now in 1975 control of the destiny of the Mini had shifted from promoted BMC apprentices and BLMC university graduates to Shop Stewards, many of whom were anti-capitalist in outlook, and there was no business more capitalist than the motor industry, where customer satisfaction was paramount.
Unfortunately, those Shop Stewards not on the joint decision-making bodies were to make their opinions known through industrial action. The whole concept concept of joint decision-making bodies was a sop to the Trade Unions and left-wing Labour MPs at a time when many pundits felt Britain was heading in a socialist direction. The concept would not stand the pressures of the free market.
1976: crisis year
The Innocenti saga rumbled on. As related earlier, British Leyland had said that 1500 of the Milan-based company’s 4500 workers must be sacked and production increased 25% by the remainder – the alternative was that Leyland-Innocenti would be allowed to go bankrupt. Leyland-Innocenti was £10m in debt and British Leyland was refusing to cover the loss unless its new terms were met. The Italian Government had now become involved.
Leyland-Innocenti Director Percy Plant said to the press in early November 1975: ‘If the Italian Government does not come up with some concrete proposals, it’s all over – we shut down.’ Violence reared its ugly head. A senior Italian Executive of Leyland-Innocenti, Personnel Director Valeric di Marco, was shot three times in the legs at pointblank range in Milan later in the month. A Communist terror-group said the shooting was ‘a warning to all those who served the capitalistic repression of the working class.’
Then the Innocenti workforce rejected a possible takeover by Honda and British Leyland announced it was putting its Italian subsidiary into liquidation on 26 November. In its statement the company said: ‘The situation has been reached where, during the past year, Leyland-Innocenti has lost its entire share capital, including a reinforcement of 15 billion lire (more than $22 million) made in July 1975.’
Italian Government sources said that the stiff opposition of the Italian metal workers union to Leyland-Innocenti’s proposal to fire one third of the workers was a key element in the company’s decision to stop its activities in Italy. The same day workers occupied the Milan factory of the Leyland-Innocenti concern. On 4 December Milan was paralysed for four hours when a million people went on strike in support of the 4500 redundant car workers from Leyland Innocenti. The future of the Milan plant was being negotiated by the Italian Government, Trade Unions and British Leyland officials.
Back in Britain in December, it was revealed that Leyland Cars’ financial position was so bad that capital expenditure for future developments had stopped. British Leyland announced a £123m loss with annual output was down 17% due to strikes and the motor industry recession. The Times reported on 23 December 1975: ‘The exceptional losses of nearly £60m relate largely to closures of manufacturing operations in Australia, Spain and, more recently in the Italian Innocenti business.
The Australian closure resulted in a provision of £15.7m in 1973/4, but, despite having sold one factory, British Leyland is making further provisions in Australia, this time of £5.7m. Spanish provisions were originally put at £29m arising from the closure of the Authi business, but following some disposals there, the provision has now been reduced to £19m. Finally, the company faces the Innocenti situation which while still unresolved is going to be costly. Hence, a provision, considered prudent of £34m to cover closure costs in Italy. Included in this total £60m for closures is the cost of making some 16,000 people redundant. The redundancy bill is thought to amount to some £10m.’
Despite the impression given above, Australian manufacture of the Mini did not cease, although the locally-made 1098cc engine was supplanted by the 998cc unit now imported from Britain. In fact, the Zetland factory was closed and production transferred to Enfield, New South Wales, which produced its first Mini in early 1975. The Mini may not have been a money maker, but reducing the number of plants that made it was certainly proving costly. In 1975, the hyper-critical CAR Magazine tested the Mini 1000 and was not impressed: ‘The Mini is an embarrassment. It is painfully out of date in just about every respect except price, but will continue to find adherents regardless; it may not be a good car anymore, but it is a convenient one that the vast majority understand.’
However, CAR‘s veteran columnist LJK Setright was a staunch defender, and later wrote the official Rover 40th anniversary book. So ended 1975. Also in the year Volkswagen had continued the revitalisation of its range following on the successful launch of the Golf in 1974, with the Polo, another entry in the supermini class. Mini production for 1975 was 200,293 compared with 255,336 in 1974. But Authi production had ceased in May 1975 and Innocenti had been strikebound since July and now enduring a workers sit-in, thus explaining much of the drop in output.
March 1976 brought more negative news. Reuters reported from Tokyo: ‘British Leyland has decided to stop exporting its Mini range to Japan because they failed anti-pollution standards which take effect here in April its distributors said yesterday. The statement, by Capital Enterprises Limited, said that about 3000 Minis had been sold in Japan. This compares with 123,000 Japanese vehicles exported to Britain last year. The statement added that distributors here were now considering selling Renault cars in place of Minis. Japanese dealers handling British cars said that Britain had been extremely critical of Japan’s new exhaust emission controls, which it regarded as a non-tariff trade barrier.
The Transport Ministry here said that only one European car, the West German Volkswagen 1200 LS model, had so far passed the anti-pollution tests. It said it had tentatively decided to allow continued imports of foreign cars failing the tests if they were manufactured before April this year Japanese car makers, fearing retaliatory measures against their exports, have urged the Government to give special treatment to imported cars when applying the new controls.”
Ironically, it would be the Japanese market that would later prolong the life of the Mini.
There was more news from Milan in April: workers at Innocenti voted to end a 132-day sit-in at the company’s factory there. More than 4000 workers had occupied the factory when British Leyland decided to wind up the company. The plant was to be taken over by the Argentine-born industrialist Alejandro de Tomaso in partnership with the state intervention board, GEPI. The vote allowed British Leyland to sell some 8000 cars blocked in the factory. After the sell off, Innocenti managed to assemble some more round-nosed Minis from old stock, bringing the total of Minis assembled by the company between 1965 to 1976 to around 450,000. Innocenti then concentrated on manufacturing the hatchback 90/120 model, which although based on the same floorpan and using Mini mechanicals, was no longer considered to be a British Leyland car.
Under the agreement reached between British Leyland, the Italian Government and Trade Unions, a new company Nuova Innocenti, was set up by Alejandro de Tomaso and GEPI to assemble the Minis under licence from British Leyland International, while another company, Innocenti Commerciale, would market the vehicles. Of course, what needs to be asked is how Innocenti found itself in a financial mess? It had been a successful company before BLMC bought it out and became a successful company again after its purchase by de Tomaso.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but one can’t help feeling that British Leyland panicked in disposing of Innocenti, with its ready-made, next-generation Mini. The demise of Authi and then Innocenti not only resulted in a major cutback in Mini production volume, but also signalled the end of British Leyland as a major international player – for political reasons the British Government, as the company’s owner, had no interest in protecting overseas jobs.
British Leyland’s inability to supply the market was costing it market share and the Mini was one of the cars in short supply. In May 1976 it received a major update: the interior gained some fittings from the Allegro and Princess and the suspension was modified, with softer rear springs and damper settings, plus new subframe mounts. In June 1976, BL was discussing ambitious plans with Shop Stewards to make the ADO88 at Longbridge at a rate of 6000 to 7000 a week to make it profitable. The plan was to make Longbridge a one model plant by switching Allegro assembly to Seneffe in Belgium. This was a laughably optimistic plan in the light of events to come. By October, Leyland Cars were talking of an annual production target of 250,000 for the ADO88.
The ADO20 bodies were, in 1976, produced in a very inefficient way. Some were assembled at Longbridge from panel pressings brought by lorry from Castle Bromwich, Swindon and Rubery Owen at Darlaston. Others were brought to the ‘Body In White’ stage, at Castle Bromwich (ready for final painting) while still more were fully painted and trimmed at the same plant. At the time the car was thought to be only marginally profitable. However, in an Autocar interview, Leyland Cars boss Derek Whittaker stated that the Mini was ‘never better than break even.’
In October, the National Enterprise Board approved the planned £100m programme to develop ADO88, with a 1979 launch target. With its apparent demise on the horizon, one can perhaps understand why British Leyland was reluctant to update the Mini. By December a sense of urgency seemed to have gripped those in Government circles to get ADO88 out as soon as possible. The Mini’s UK market share had slumped to 6.5%, although strikes and the inability to supply the market may have been a factor. It was later claimed that in 1976 Longbridge was free of disputes for only 8% of working hours.
Also the Ford Fiesta was due to be launched in the UK and Dagenham was already producing 200 a day. British Leyland’s Mini output was not helped by a never-ending series of strikes at component suppliers Rubery Owen at Darlaston, which made Mini front subframes and wheels among other things. Despite all the problems, Mini production in 1976 rose slightly to 203,575, with around 160,000 coming from Longbridge. And 1976 was the year in which the four millionth Mini was built.
1977: focus on ADO88
By January 1977, Seneffe was reported to be producing 2000 Allegros and Minis a week, with probably the smaller car in the majority, as most continental buyers seemed to prefer the Volkswagen Golf to the Allegro. Seneffe began producing the Mini Special for sale on the continent from 1977 to the end of production in 1981. This was a round-nosed Mini fitted with a 1098cc engine and production amounted to 73,753 cars. This model was produced in response to continental dealers pleas that the Mini Clubman saloon was not popular among European buyers.
Unfortunately, strikes by key workers at the Castle Bromwich body plant brought the Mini lines and British Leyland to a standstill and, by the middle of February 1977, 25,000 workers were laid off. Other disputes broke out, including Mini engine assemblers and then the tool-makers struck. By the middle of March, the number of workers laid off had reached 46,000. The dispute, which had cost British Leyland £12m a day in lost production of all models, was over by 21 March 1977, but its effect had been catastrophic. So how was the Mini faring in the marketplace in the spring of 1977?
The then 18-year-old Mini was still capable of taking 6 to 7% of the United Kingdom market when it was freely available, a position dealers had not enjoyed for some time because of strikes. Despite the month long tool-makers’ dispute which savagely interrupted production of most Leyland Cars models, the Mini still managed to outsell the new Ford Fiesta in March 1977. Mr Peter Green, Chairman of PJ Evans, Leyland Cars’ biggest distributors in the Midlands, said at the time: ‘We can still sell all the Minis we can get. We must have something in the future to enable us to continue to meet this strong demand.’
Dealers insisted that the Mini underpinned the whole Leyland Cars range by bringing in first-time buyers who frequently stayed loyal to Leyland Cars when they progressed to larger cars. It also enabled two- and three-car families to purchase, and service their cars through a single dealership. Dealers were also anxious to cater for the significant Buy British brigade. The paradox of all this it that British Leyland had divested itself of production facilities at Innocenti and Authi and now couldn’t produce enough Minis to satisfy demand from all over Europe. In early 1977, Leyland Cars’ Finance Director, Colin Daniels, instigated new accounting methods, and it was found that in Britain the Mini was actually making a modest profit; but losing money on exports – and overall the car was a loss maker.
The virtual shutdown of Leyland Cars in the spring of 1977, due to strikes, resulted in a rethink about the company’s future. However, the alternative of liquidating Leyland Cars, was too horrific to contemplate to the Labour Government. The April sales figures did not make good reading for Leyland Cars: Ford occupied the first four places, with the Fiesta in third place with 4942 sales. The Mini was in eighth place with 3524; even the Capri outsold the Mini that month. Things had got so bad that the NEB tried to persuade George Turnbull, now a highly-paid international automotive executive, to return to Britain. In the first six months of 1977, there had been 304 disputes in Leyland Cars which had led to the loss of 9,086,000 man hours and a vehicle production loss of 117,394.
In July 1977, Leyland Cars responded to the threat posed by the Ford Fiesta by giving the Mini 850 and 1000 a matt black grille. Then an eleven-week strike at components manufacturer Lucas caused more havoc. The dream of a vibrant British-owned motor industry was evaporating – everybody could see that the abyss had been reached, but no-one knew what to do and dared not contemplate a future without a domestic automotive industry. Further disaster engulfed British Leyland in October 1977, when a recording of Chairman Sir Richard Dobson, allegedly making racist remarks at a private function, surfaced in the media. A media furore followed, and he promptly resigned. In fact, the NEB had already lined up Michael Edwardes to replace him – he started work as Chairman on 1 November.
By the following January, Michael Edwardes had decided to produce two versions of the Mini, side by side at Longbridge; the old ADO20, and a larger version of its proposed replacement, the ADO88, which would later become the Austin Metro. It represented a victory for the considerable body of opinion within Leyland Cars which had long advocated the two model approach. It argued that the new generation small cars – the Fiat 127, Ford Fiesta, Renault 5 and VW Polo – were so much alike that they had given a new lease of life to the then 18-year-old Mini.
All were some 18in longer than the existing Mini, and so similar in appearance, that the Mini was gaining a certain cachet as something different. Certainly, it had outsold the new Fiesta by two to one, taking 5% of the British market in 1977, despite all the restrictions on production.
Opponents, now supported by Michael Edwardes, insisted that it would fall between two stools and lose its image. This view was vindicated by the results of a clinic, a secret viewing of the prototype ADO88 displayed alongside its rivals; motorists were critical of several aspects including appearance and size. The decision to go for the larger LC8 version meant a complete re-skin, which would delay the car until 1980. Much of the existing research and development work on engines, gear boxes, transmissions and suspension, however could be carried forward to the new model.
However, Alex Park and Derek Whittaker were unhappy with the way things were going, and promptly resigned – shortly to be followed by Keith Hopkins. Edwardes decided to rename Leyland Cars as BL Limited, which was in effect an umbrella organisation in control of three subsidiaries: Austin-Morris Limited, Jaguar-Rover-Triumph Limited and BL Components Limited. The Mini fell under Austin-Morris Limited, and its new Managing Director, Ray Horrocks.
In January 1978, journalist Anne Hope visited BL’s Seneffe plant near Mons in Belgium for The Guardian and provided an insight into one of the last remaining outposts of the BL empire. She interviewed Mr Roger Van Driessche, Managing Director of the plant, which made Minis for the European market. He told her: ‘It looks as though we’ll never stop expanding. A year ago it was decided to increase our production from 2000 to 3000 cars a week. We’re on target, too — assembling 2350 cars weekly, which represents a fair share of the production of Leyland. We assembled 82,000 cars last year and should be assembling even more this year.’
Seneffe built what were described as special cars. For Mr Van Driessche had decided that buyers in mainland Europe wanted cars ‘more in line with Continental taste,’ which meant vinyl roofs, different dashboards , plusher upholstery, racier hubcaps and stripes.
‘The accent must also be on quality,’ he insisted. Quite apart from assembling cars, Seneffe was used to store cars and also to prepare them for sale. Cars from the Belgian plant were exported to Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland , Czechoslovakia, Italy and Greece.
By the spring of 1978, economic conditions had improved and new car sales were booming. On 13 May 1978 British Leyland revealed it was preparing to follow its rivals, Chrysler, Ford and Vauxhall, and import more cars from the Continent to meet the demands of the best home market for five years. News of plans to bring in about 10,000 Minis from its assembly plant at Seneffe, Belgium, had already brought protests from some Shop Stewards at Longbridge.
Management countered by saying that the alternative was to sit on the sidelines, while the competition took full advantage of the boom. It had emphasised that Ford, by importing one in three of all its UK sales from plants in Germany, Belgium and Spain, took 30% of the market the previous month compared with BL’s Shop Stewards’ concern stemmed from the fact that BL only recently closed one of the three Mini assembly lines at Longbridge, a move intended to increase productivity and reduce costs. Production on the remaining two was not yet reaching the target quota of 3000 cars per week – in fact management claimed the actual figure was half that, largely because some workers resented the recent closure and re-manning assignments. Shop Stewards were assured that, if Longbridge production improved quickly, Seneffe imports would be reduced. But BL had to act quickly if it was not to miss the summer selling season. And with the Mini still among BL’s best-selling models, it had to be available.
A spokesman for BL Cars said: ‘We are optimistic that employees at Longbridge will accept that our objective is not to “do” them out of jobs but to take full advantage of the very high sales expected. Our American, European and Japanese rivals are building stocks almost daily by bringing in imports. We are only proposing to bring in cars, 75% of which are manufactured in our United Kingdom factories.’
On the 25 August, BL announced it was to close its truck assembly plant in Melbourne, Australia, and stop Mini production in Australia, due to declining sales. Only that month Leyland Australia had announced the Mini 1275 LS and it would become a very rare car. The closure of the plant at Enfield, New South Wales in October 1978, would make 120 workers redundant – the Australian plant had ultimately produced 176,284 Minis.
In September 1978 Austin-Morris and Italian car producer, Nuova Innocenti, revealed it had extended the arrangement under which Nuova made the 90/120 hatchback Mini. Under the old agreement due to expire at the end of 1979, the Italian company had been making around 40,000 90/120 Minis a year. This was followed by an announcement on 15 November 1978 that output of Minis at Seneffe was being reduced by 30%. Also in 1978 Charles Griffin retired, to be replaced by Ray Bates, an ex-Triumph man.
1979: Mini hits 20 not out…
British Leyland had achieved a 25% market share in January and prospects were looking good for 1979. The most vocal advocate of strike action was the Longbridge plant’s Senior Convener and head of the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee Derek Robinson, who because of his open Communist Party membership, was branded “Red Robbo” by some elements of the popular press. The Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee, formed in May 1968 and not recognised by both management and Trade Union leaders, had fought a long drawn out rearguard action against management attempts to reform BL working practices.
At Longbridge, Derek Robinson called for a walk-out over the bonus row, ‘to bring pressure on the company in the only language they know—the language of force. We cannot rely on them. We cannot trust them.’
Longbridge jumped the gun and there was a walk out by its 19,000 workforce. At the time it was reported that the plant produced 3000 Minis and 1500 Allegros per week. The threat of an all-out strike quickly collapsed and soon normal working was resumed, except by Longbridge which held out an extra four days. Eventually, Derek Robinson recommended a return to work, but stated: ‘We can continue in isolation and it will be inevitable that we will slowly sink to destruction. We have had a magnificent strike and we don’t want it to end in utter defeat.’ Such statements made Derek Robinson a marked man in the eyes of British Leyland management.
The root cause of the dispute, bonus payments, was an attempt by British Leyland to motivate its workforce and boost productivity at its plants. Put simply, the move from piecework to measured day work had resulted in a slump in productivity. Nick Boulter, himself an ex-Longbridge worker, wrote in The Guardian in November 1979: ‘Longbridge was built on piecework. Austin saw workers as animals with “Pavlovian” instincts responding to the money incentive only. The method produced good levels of productivity. But the cost lay in a loss of control by management over wage and hence unit costs. Against the wishes of the workers, the company — by then British Leyland — introduced Measured Day Work (in the early 1970s).
‘This has led to a great drop in productivity. Piecework on the track was tough, a jungle, and required that a man was physically fit in order to cope. The idea of the men was basically to get the maximum output with the least number of men and so bid up the rates. If in a gang of six men, four reckoned they could handle the job, then two were ”squeezed” out. It was a dog-eat-dog environment, and few workers would want to go back to it. But it engendered pride and application. One man told me, “when the tracks stopped, you were shouting at them (the Foremen) to get it going because you were losing money. Under piecework, it was the men who really ran the track.”
‘Eddie, who has been at Longbridge for 12 years, also told me: “There isn’t the pride in the job that there used to be under piecework. Then, when a man did a job, he knew that it was his job, and if he didn’t do it right he was called to the front to do it again, and the whole gang suffered. Whereas today, a bloke does a job, and he doesn’t care if it’s right or wrong. It gets left for a rectifier.”
‘Under piecework cash is the stick and carrot. Measured Day Work is supposed to be based on a more scientific approach. Time and motion men — now called industrial engineers — measure the number of men needed to man a track at a given speed. The onus to run the track passes from the self interest of the men to foremen and management. At Longbridge and other BL plants, there are a number of reasons why Measured Day Work (MDW) does not work — in many areas production is down by a quarter on piecework days. Under-investment in plant and machinery is one reason. And the inability of management and supervision to run and organise the tracks is another. These must be important reasons — after all, Ford’s has always run successfully on MDW. But the men themselves put it down, plainly, to a lack of incentive to work. Instead of being paid on output, payment under MDW is made for being present for a 40-hour week.
‘One man summed up the attitude that has developed: “…there’s no incentive to work. Why not take as long a teabreak as you can? If you had the choice of sitting down and being paid at the end of the week, or working and being paid the same amount, which would you do? It’s only human nature.”
‘It is arguable that Longbridge workers have taken piecework attitudes to MDW. Under piecework, shopfloor bargaining was used to bid up the rate for the job, partly through shedding labour. But now the same process of shopfloor bargaining is used to bid up the numbers in each gang in order to make the job easier. The men again saw this as “human nature.” (The work is, after all, tedious). They readily admitted that there was surplus labour on the tracks. But universally they shared the view that the company was “top-heavy with non-producers. Too many penguins walking around, taking money out of the company and putting nothing in.”
‘Their attitude — right or wrong — was that they were not in control of the company, but if that was the way things were developing, then they would get their oar in. But many did this with resentment. One worker, “celebrating” his 49th year at Longbridge said: “Well, I would like to say, that for the people who have been here and have seen the place as it was, profitable, it was a pleasure to come here. You had a pride in your job, you knew that you were doing a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. But we have gradually seen it deteriorate. It’s a crying shame the way its been let run-down to the extent it is. The worst thing they ever did was to bring in MDW”.’
The above may go a long way to explaining British Leyland’s infamous quality problems…
In April, British Leyland experienced a second toolmakers’ strike which collapsed after two weeks and in May 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party won the General Election, and the new Government was openly hostile to loss-making nationalised industries, of which British Leyland was perhaps the worst of all.
1979 was the 20th anniversary of the Mini, and Sir Alec Issigonis briefly returned to the limelight. To celebrate, Austin-Morris unveiled the Longbridge-built limited edition Mini 1100 Special; a round-nosed Mini fitted with the 1098cc engine, wide 10in Exacton alloys and plastic wheelarch extensions. In July that year, the Mini 850 was rebranded the Mini City.
Motor used the occasion of the Mini’s 20th anniversary to quiz Austin-Morris’s Director of Product Development, Mark Snowdon, on the continuing viability of the Mini. ‘Working out model line profitability is not a straightforward question,’ he said ‘It depends how you allocate a proportion of the company’s overheads to that model.
‘If you just look at the direct costs of producing the vehicle, compared to its selling price, then the Mini is substantially profitable, making several hundred pounds per unit. By any normal commercial method of working it out, the Mini is profitable, but if you penalise it with a proportion of overheads related to its volume, then the profitability is very low. If you work out what the profitability of the company would be with and without the Mini, allowing for the facilities you could get rid of by not having it, then on that basis the Mini is profitable.’
In August and September, BL became embroiled in a national engineering union pay dispute. On 10 September 1979, the newly-knighted Chairman of BL Limited, as it was now called, Sir Michael Edwardes announced a massive retrenchment plan for the company. On top of the 18,000 jobs already lost he forecast 25,000 to be axed in the next two years and 13 plants facing total or partial shutdown.
He said: ‘We must streamline parts and slim down the number of people we employ — including staff levels which have grown over the past ten years out of proportion to the volume actually achieved. If ever there has been a company that has projected ‘jam tomorrow’ it has been this one. This time round we cannot afford to back losers in the hope that they will turn out to be winners… Any plants which are not modern or being modernised or perform badly will be phased out.’
Only the previous month, BL’s UK market share had dropped to a disastrous 19.3%. By November, senior union leaders and a ballot of the workforce had backed the Edwardes plan. However, the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee refused to accept defeat and on 10 November 1979 published a booklet, A Trade Union Response to the Edwardes Plan attacking the proposed cutbacks and advocating active opposition. The scene was set for confrontation. On 19 November, BL Limited fired Derek Robinson, the Longbridge Convener and head of the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee.
Longbridge was soon strikebound and other plants struck in support, if only briefly. The Trade Unions demanded Robinson’s reinstatement and pondered over whether to make the strike official. Sir Michael Edwardes and other senior Executives threatened to resign if the dispute was given official backing. For a few days the future of BL hung in the balance until a fudge was found in which an inquiry was launched into Derek Robinson’s dismissal and the workforce went back. Robinson’s dismissal was finally confirmed the following year. On reflection the whole Robinson affair was strangely reminiscent of the dismissal of Frank Horsman at Cowley on the eve of the Mini’s launch in 1959.
Was Robinson the bogeyman that management and the media made him out to be? Certainly, there are many former Longbridge workers who will testify in his favour even today or was is sacking an attempt to decapitate the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee? Whatever the reason, the traumas at Longbridge in 1979, played out in the full glare of the media probably cost BL around 5% of the UK car market, and it never recovered that.
In fact, 1979 was a very good year for the Mini, if not for Longbridge. During the whole of 1978, the Mini averaged 5% of the UK car market, but the publicity resulting from the car’s 20th anniversary had pushed this up to 6.5% by early September 1979 resulting in an embarrassing shortage of cars at dealerships. BL was importing about 1000 cars a month from its plant at Seneffe in Belgium, but the 2800 workers there were not able to increase output to meet demand in UK.
This was partly because of a boom in sales of the Mini in Europe — including huge demand from France and Italy, where there was also a shortage to meet demand. The booming sales of the fuel economic Mini was put down chiefly to the first real signs of reaction to the Second Energy Crisis and the then high cost of petrol. BL admitted that this was beginning to bite, and that the economy end of their range was benefiting. By November BL had managed to obtain several thousand more Minis from Seneffe to import into Britain in an attempt to fill what it believed was a 4% gap between demand in the home market and its supply potential from the company’s Longbridge factory.
Dealers around the country had informed BL that they could boost the company’s share by at least 4% if they had the stock available. BL’s stock levels were now at a record low on the Mini and the company said that it could not satisfy the demand for Minis even if the Longbridge factory was to go flat out. Total Mini production for 1979 was 165,502 which was more than the combined Allegro/Mini output of 127,687 from Longbridge. By number crunching one can calculate that in 1979 Seneffe and perhaps BL’s South African plant built 99,230 cars, the majority of them Minis. UK Mini sales amounted to 82,938, the best since 1975.
So ended the 1970s, which in spite of all the industrial misery, economic and political turmoil and lack of development was the Mini’s most successful decade, with 2,438,187 manufactured.
Into the 1980s
As Edwardes and his team successfully reduced the number of stoppages, the Mini and the company that made it became less newsworthy. In late March 1980 there was a two-day strike by 30 trim shop workers who complained that new sound-deadening material being fitted to the roof of the Mini was causing skin rashes. The management promised further safety checks. This was part of a new sound deadening pack for the Mini announced in May 1980.
Also in March 1980, Jaguar took control of the Castle Bromwich body pressing plant, which meant future Mini bodyshells would now come from the former Pressed Steel plant at Stratton St Margaret, Swindon. Jaguar technical director Bob Knight had claimed that only 40% of bodyshells for the Coventry concern were satisfactory and had to be rectified in-house. In that case, what was the quality of Mini bodyshells like and did Longbridge do anything about below par examples?
By June 1980, BL’s UK market share was down to 13%; a dreadful figure revealing that the company’s brand values were at rock bottom. In August 1980, in preparation for the launch of the Metro, Austin-Morris began to thin out the Mini range: the Clubman saloon and 1275GT were phased out; the Clubman Estate carried on, now with a 998cc engine and renamed Mini 1000 HL Estate; also ceasing production that month was the Mini City/850, which was replaced by a new Mini City with a 998cc A-Plus engine, as would be found in the Metro.
On 8 October 1980, the miniMetro was launched to a media blitz. All of a sudden, the Mini became yesterday’s car, like the Austin A35 in 1959. Yet, the Mini had fought a magnificent rearguard action against the newer generation of superminis, remaining ahead of the Fiesta right through until until 1980. The Metro is credited with saving BL, but if Mini sales had not held up so well, the knockout blow would have been delivered long before its launch. The brand values of the Issigonis baby had sustained sales, while those of more modern BL cars had gone into meltdown.
Britain soon contracted Metro-mania, and the new hatchback was at 8% of the UK car market, and Mini production at Longbridge was down to 1150 per week. The Mini’s future seemed to be as a budget car, competing with equally venerable cars like the Citroën 2CV, Renault 4 and Fiat 126. Moke production began in Portugal that year using CKD kits imported from Australia. By the end of 1980, total Mini production had reached 4,749,816. Total Mini production for 1980 was 150,067.
The long goodbye
Seneffe: the final showdown
There was one more big drama left in the Mini story. On 28 January 1981, BL confirmed that it was closing Seneffe with the loss of 2200 jobs. A further 225 workers at Cowley, near Oxford, who packed kits for the Belgian plant were also to be made redundant. There was considerable bitterness in Belgium over the Seneffe closure, and anti-British feeling was running high among the workers there; some of whom had occupied the plant. The Seneffe closure in March had been under consideration for months, as the BL Board formulated its plan for further retrenchment, and the concentration of car assembly in the Britain.
The Belgian plant was said to have made a loss of 55m francs (£688,000) in 1978, and 132m francs (£1.65m) in 1979. Losses for 1980 were expected to be considerably higher. The decision to close Seneffe caused friction between Britain and Belgium at the highest level. Sir Peter Wakefield, the British Ambassador to Belgium, was summoned to the Belgian Prime Minister’s office that morning and asked to deliver a message to Margaret Thatcher. This was understood to state that it would be ‘desirable’ if the closure decision could be delayed for at least a month. Mr Wilfred Martens’s message stressed the Seneffe plant’s good productivity record, its strike-free labour relations over 17 years, and the drastic impact the closure would have on an already depressed region, where up to a third of the work force were without jobs.
Over 2000 workers at Seneffe continued to occupy the factory, and voted to block the departure of completed vehicles and parts from the works and from BL’s adjoining European distribution centre. Their aim was to impound the 3500 new cars in the centre as a bargaining counter to obtain maximum redundancy payments. Angry union leaders accused BL of foul play over its decision to close the plant, and there was no mistaking the bitterness felt towards BL’s management, Mrs Thatcher’s Government, and all things British.
One can’t help but feel sorry for the Seneffe workforce. They had performed magnificently and had supplied Europe with Minis when strikebound UK factories couldn’t and their reward was redundancy. For them, the closure represented a betrayal. In the 17-year history of the plant, productivity had risen steadily and there had never been a strike. And all this was going on while BL was locked in yet another battle with the Longbridge Shop Stewards.
Also in 1981 BL had to find alternate suppliers of front subframes and wheels for the Mini when Rubery Owen closed their Darlaston factory. Fortunately, supplies of rear subframes were unaffected as they were supplied by GKN-Sankey.
Over at Nuova Innocenti, and as a consequence of Alejandro de Tomaso’s conclusion of an agreement with Daihatsu, the Japanese company, would supply Innocenti with 2000 three-cylinder engines per month, starting at the end of 1981. The original Innocenti 90 and 120 had been joined by the 74bhp 1275cc-engined Mini De Tomaso, as the top of the range model – and Innocenti had managed to sell 220,000 of these cars.
Signor de Tomaso told a Milan newspaper: ‘As for the possibility which has been ventilated of not renewing the British Leyland-Innocenti agreement, I can declare that it is a case of pure invention, based on not knowing the facts. It is enough to consider that, of the 103,000 Minis sold in Europe, 42,000 are built by Innocenti. How can a manufacturer give up 42% of his sales with an easy heart? Certainly, the Innocenti-Daihatsu agreement has annoyed Leyland, also because I kept it secret up to the last.’ The Daihatsu-engined Mini 3 arrived in April 1982 and lasted in production until 1993. 1981 was the last year the Mini appeared in the Top Ten list of the UK’s best-selling cars.
In February 1982, the last Mini Estate HL bodyshell was produced; although the model would not officially be withdrawn from sale until September 1982. In April 1982 the Mini was given higher gearing to make it more economical, but this did nothing for acceleration, and the car lost a little of its buzzbox characteristics. The fact that the ancient A-Series engine could cope with up-gearing was a tribute to its remarkable torque characteristics, even in its tamest form.
And that brings us to the subject of why the A-Series engine was never radically re-engineered to modern standards. Was it a matter of cost or were there other reasons?
Back in the 1970s, BL had embarked on projects to develop overhead camshaft versions of both the A- and B-Series engines. The reason for this was that MG used both engines and, as they exported to the USA where stringent anti-emissions legislation was in force, it was paramount that BL’s existing engines were made more efficient to enable them to remain both legal and competitive by using the more efficient emissions friendly overhead cam layout.
In the end, the OHC B-Series evolved into the O-Series engine first seen in 1978, while converting the A-Series to the overhead cam layout proved to be a technical cul-de-sac. The immediate problem of continuing to sell the MG Midget in the USA was solved by replacing the 1275cc A-Series engine with the 1493cc Triumph engine also used in the rival Spitfire, but an OHC A-Series could be used in the ADO88 and other BL cars. In the event, eleven prototype overhead cam A-Series engines were built in 1975 using Cooper S blocks in capacities of 970cc, 1097cc and 1275cc. The engines used aluminium cylinder heads.
The Engineers obtained the following performance figures for OHC Minis:
- 970cc: OHC 59bhp @ 6750rpm, 51lb ft @ 5250rpm
- 1097cc: OHC 72bhp @ 6500rpm, 64lb ft @ 5000rpm
- 1275cc: OHC 84bhp @ 6750rpm, 80lb ft @ 4500rpm
The above figures look very impressive, and a bluff-fronted Mini Clubman fitted with the OHC 1275cc engine and twin HS6 SU carburettors could reach 100mph. It would be easy to accuse BL of another missed opportunity. However, a look at the comparative figures for the existing overhead valve engines reveal another story. For a direct comparison first we will use the three Cooper S engines and then the standard tune single carburettor engines seen in the mainstream production Minis.
Standard OHC Mini engines:
- 970cc: OHV 65bhp @ 6500rpm, 55lb ft @ 3500rpm
- 1071cc: OHV 70bhp @ 6000rpm, 62lb ft @ 4500rpm
- 1275cc: OHV 76bhp @ 5800rpm, 80lb ft @ 3000rpm
- 998cc: OHV 38bhp @ 5250rpm, 52lb ft @ 2700rpm
- 1098cc: OHV 45bhp @ 5250rpm, 56lb ft @ 2700rpm
- 1275cc: OHV 54bhp @ 5250rpm, 67lb ft @ 2500rpm
Converting the A-Series engine to overhead camshaft simply pushed the peak torque further up the rev range and actually caused more problems than it solved. One of the great virtues of driving a Mini is its remarkable ability to pull top gear at low revs, something that was exploited by Austin Rover and later Rover when the car was up geared.
An overhead cam A-Series engine would have been torque shy where it mattered in everyday driving and that was indeed the case with the 100mph OHC Mini Clubman. The modern solution for the lack of torque where it matters would be to add more gear ratios, but BL’s Engineers decided that a reliable revised transmission in sump gearbox was not feasible. Therefore the decision was taken to opt for the A+ programme. BL had already burnt its fingers with the OHC E-Series engine. The E-Series had been intended to supplant the B-Series, but its lack of torque resulted in the old B-Series going into the Marina and Princess, and even the O-Series was a disappointment. BL would not make the same mistake again.
The Mini returns to Japan
Then, in May 1982 after a gap of 16 years, BL relaunched the Mini in Japan; where the car had recently been enjoying a revival of interest on the second-hand market. The car was equipped with what BL described as cosmetic refinements, such as head restraints and flared wheel arches. The 998cc Minis carried a price tag 10-15% higher than in Britain, where prices ranged from £2999 to £3363. In 1981, BL sold about 1000 cars in Japan.
Minis were first exported to Japan in the early 1970s, but BL withdrew them from the market as Japanese legal requirements on imported vehicles became more stringent. The Japanese promised to make their markets more accessible, following increasing pressure particularly from Europe, and the Mini now had a greater chance of success. The Japanese Minis were prepared by Carbodies, and were fitted with catalytic exhaust converters to conform with Japanese emission rules. This was the start of a new market for the Mini, as a fun car and fashion accessory.
Also, there were more corporate changes as Austin-Morris morphed into the Austin Rover Group, under Harold Musgrove. In September, the Mini Mayfair was launched as the upmarket model in the range complete with Rashelle cloth trim. The owner was well advised to go for the optional Exacton alloy wheels and wheelarch extensions, for they suited the appearance of the car. The Mayfair proved a success and, in November 1982, weekly Mini production rose from 940 to 1050. Although Mini production would decline, the trick for BL was to try and sell as many of the higher-priced models such as the Mayfair as it could.
On 5 November, Sir Michael Edwardes left BL, having drastically cut back on plants and jobs, faced down the Shop Stewards and won in many confrontations. He was replaced by Sir Austin Bide.
Mini Van and Pick Up production ceased in May 1983, after 579,673 examples. Some historians have argued that the decision to axe the Mini Van was a big mistake and that the void was filled by the Japanese forward control vans. In preparation for the Mini’s 25th anniversary that August, Austin Rover unveiled the Mini 25. This had robbed the BL parts bin and saw the return of the 1275GT’s 8.4in front disc brakes and 12in wheels. Shortly afterwards, this became standard fitment for mainstream Minis, over a decade after BL had first realised that this was cheaper than fitting 10in wheels.
Trying and failing to replace the Mini
There were two very real opportunities to replace the Mini during its life, the first being in 1968. Alec Issigonis, working in semi-retirement, had readied the 9X to replace the Mini, a car that was smaller than his original, but was easier and cheaper to build, arguably more stylish and, amazingly, was more commodious, also incorporating a hatchback rear door. The company never seriously investigated the feasibility of producing this car – by 1968 BMH were deeply embroiled in the merger saga with Leyland Motors and the question of what to do with the poor-selling mid-range cars was far more urgent than the matter of replacing the Mini. In fact, replacing the Mini was seen as a distraction, rather than an essential task to be undertaken. It was easy to point to the Mini and note that it still sold in large numbers at the time, but its non-development also showed a lack of forward planning by the new company’s management.
The non-appearance of the 9X is definitely the saddest of all the missed opportunities in this whole story: had it appeared on the market sometime around 1971-72, it would not only have refined – and redefined – the Mini, but would also have challenged the idea that the supermini should be quite as large as it ended up being by the mid-’70s. In addition, it may well have ultimately had a wider market appeal, but it is certain that the 9X would have been more profitable for the company, as it was cheaper to build. What makes this whole episode all the sadder was that this car was fully engineered by Issigonis and production-ready, all development having been completed.
ADO74 and ADO88 notwithstanding, the other real opportunity to replace the Mini came in 1974 and would have potentially been a very inexpensive and effective operation. During the ’60s, one successful deal that BMC concluded was with the Innocenti company in Italy, which agreed terms to build the Mini and ADO16 for European consumption and become a subsidiary of the expanding British car maker. The Innocenti agreement was highly effective and made a fair amount of money for BMC, but by the early ’70s, the Italian management approached Bertone to restyle the car in response to the threat from the new wave of hatchbacks, such as the Fiat 127. The Innocenti Mini 90/120 were the result; a smart and pert small range of hatchbacks, the success of which led to the Argentinean industrialist and supercar producer Alejandro de Tomaso buying the company from British Leyland when they were at a particularly low ebb in the mid-1970s.
It is not inconceivable that BL could have also arranged terms with Bertone to use this body in the UK themselves, building it on a much larger scale and thereby producing a stylish (and cheap) supermini for the ’70s. In fact, British Leyland did consider producing a version of the Innocenti Mini themselves, because it was modern and at 10ft 3ins was only marginally longer than the original Mini. Harris Mann has since stated that this idea was quickly rejected because Charles Griffin had made it quite clear in 1974 that any replacement for the Mini should be larger inside, and the Bertone design clearly was not. Initial planning had also shown that the Innocenti Mini would prove costly to manufacture – even a run of 5000 a year would not have made financial sense – although these problems could possibly have been overcome. Archives show that Harry Webster was thinking very much along these lines, with his re-bodied Mini styled by Michelotti.
Good times, and bad…
Of course, it must noted that back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Mini was not regarded with quite the same fondness as it would be in later years, so the time would have been right to make the change and move the original concept forwards. Moreover, the company was in a perpetual state of crisis between 1968 and 1980 and, as such, did not seriously have the inclination to replace a car that was selling in large numbers. The major crises lay in the mid-range with cars such as the Maxi and Allegro and so, as time passed and the Mini remained in production unaltered, it ceased to be simply an old and inadequate car, and ended up becoming a lovable anachronism that was cherished by people of all ages.
In fact, the Mini’s best year for sales was 1971 (12 years into its life, remember) when 318,475 were built and amazingly, in 1973, it became British Leyland’s best-selling car – and would remain so until the launch of the Metro in 1980. The only BL car that could rival the Mini for sales was the Morris Marina, but as that car was designed to compete in the unique to Britain fleet market, unlike the Mini it had little appeal to export markets.
This probably says more about the weakness of the cars in the company’s mid-range line-up than it does about the strength of the Mini, but ironically, as the ’70s rolled on, the need to replace the Mini became less and less pressing, as it continued to bolster the sales of the company as a whole. The situation was compounded by the fact that as British Leyland worked on its ADO74 Mini replacement, grappling blindly with the task of replacing the elderly car, the money ran out and the project was scrapped so that it could concentrate on the ADO88.
Enter the Metro… and the Mini’s revival
Funnily enough, the emergence of the Metro in 1980 as the new de facto supermini for the company also safeguarded the future of the Mini. Production volumes for the Mini took a fall as people took to the Metro as the new, small BL car, but as Longbridge had been pretty much gutted in a massive modernisation programme in preparation for Metro production, the Mini was also a beneficiary. The Mini continued to roll off the same production line as its bigger brother and benefited from the economies of scale afforded by the new facilities. The 1980 launch of the Metro also marked the point in time when the Mini actually started making real money for the company with its fresh, new A-Plus engine and rationalised range.
Life was quiet for the Mini during the Musgrove years at BL, and as the company became known as Austin Rover and new cars came on stream such as the, Maestro, Montego and Rover 200, the Mini tended to be quietly forgotten. Harold Musgrove intended for the Mini to finish in 1986-87. According to Simon Weakley, a marketing trainee at Austin Rover between 1982 and 1986, the Austin AR6 would be the reason. He said: ‘The AR6 was to be the only car to carry the Austin name, with the Mini set to be discontinued at its launch.’
Business reasoning went completely against the Mini as well, meaning that there should have been no rational reason for continuing its production. One insider put Austin Rover’s dilemma in context: ‘it should be realised that there were lots of reasons why Engineers and Manufacturing people wanted to axe it – it was a 1950s design, lots of difficulties with modern legislation, a pig to manufacture – it was responsible for dragging down the productivity figures of Longbridge, and so on. Musgrove always took the view that it was taking volume away from Metro, too.’
The Metro quite clearly impacted on UK sales of the Mini, and annual production of the car was now down some 100,000 units, despite claims to the contrary by Austin Rover. Sadly, a long hard look at the statistics suggest that most UK Metro sales were not conquests from rival manufacturers but to former Mini owners. This may have aided Austin Rover’s finances as the Metro was more profitable, but it did nothing for the group’s market share and the need to wean buyers away from rival brand’s smaller models, in particular the Mk2 Ford Fiesta which in 1984 overhauled the Metro to become Britain’s best-selling small car. Back in 1978. when the decision was taken to build both the LC8 Metro and retain the ADO20, did BL management really expect Mini sales to collapse as much as they did? In August 1985, Austin Rover was forced to cut back Metro production as a result of the harsh trading conditions then existing in the now overcrowded small car market.
It was during the mid-1980s that a face from the Mini’s past, John Cooper, approached Austin Rover with a proposal to resurrect the Mini Cooper by fitting the MG Metro engine. He was rebuffed by Harold Musgrove, who probably saw such a concept as likely to harm sales of the more profitable MG Metro. However, John Cooper was not to be defeated and began selling tuning kits for 998cc Minis that were exported to Japan.
1986 was to be a year of trauma for Austin Rover although the Mini was now only a bit player in the ensuing drama. 1985 had been the first full year when all the new generation cars funded by the taxpayer, courtesy of the Ryder Report had been on sale, and they had fared badly against Ford and Vauxhall opposition in the all important fleet market. This was revealed in January 1986 when the overall UK sales figures for 1985 were published. The Maestro and Montego had failed to excite the fleet buyers, and were now being produced at half the intended rate, while the Metro was ageing and fading fast.
If Austin Rover thought they could challenge Ford and their conservative engineering with a complete family of front-wheel-drive cars, then they had another thing coming. General Motors and their UK arm Vauxhall had heavily invested in front-wheel-drive technology with a new generation of engines and transmissions, and it was they, not Alec Issigonis’s successors who carried the torch for front-wheel-drive family cars in the UK, while Volkswagen had a second-generation Golf to appeal to continental buyers. The Conservative Government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided they were not prepared to fork out millions more in taxpayers’ money to fund yet another generation of cars that the public might or might not buy, and opened negotiations with Ford to sell them the Austin Rover division of BL.
On 3 February 1986, news of the talks was leaked to the media, possibly by an Austin Rover insider. The Government was accused of being unpatriotic and of sabotaging Britain’s industrial base and by 6 February, the talks with Ford were broken off. With all the furore over the proposed sell-off of Austin Rover to Ford, the landmark event of the production of the five millionth Mini tended to creep under the radar. The date was the 19 February 1986, and the star guest Austin Rover had in attendance was Noel Edmonds…
An Austin Rover spokesman said of the Mini: ‘We will continue making them as long as the public wants to buy them.The car was right from the start and no one can really improve on it.’ Sir Alec Issigonis, now no longer in the best of health, was quoted as saying: ‘Don’t expect me to be modest about the Mini. I’m very proud that it has run for so many years without a major mechanical change and it still looks like the car we designed. Five million people have bought my Mini and it just goes to show that they have a lot of common sense.’
Rebranding the legend
On 1 May, the Government’s frustration with events resulted in the firing of Sir Austin Bide and Ray Horrocks and in their place was appointed Canadian businessman Graham Day as Chairman of BL Limited. In early July, BL Limited officially changed its name to Rover Group Limited, and the Anglo-Japanese Rover 800 was launched.
By September, Austin Rover was reporting half-year losses of £60m. Graham Day decided to take action and sacked senior Executives Harold Musgrove and Mark Snowdon and personally took control of running the volume cars division, soon itself to be renamed Rover. Day’s model policy was to go further down the road of co-operation with Honda, and that meant the demise of the AR6 Mini/Metro replacement as a cost-saving option. It would be easy to condemn the Thatcher Government’s decision to refuse to back the Austin AR6 as a form of industrial sabotage, for small cars were a Longbridge forte, but it could be argued that one of the consequences of the Maestro/Montego debacle was to severely dent the new management’s, and indeed the Government’s, confidence in Austin Rover’s technical ability to alone develop a car the public would want to buy in large numbers.
Moreover, with the cost of bringing AR6 to production estimated at a prohibitive £400m, the decision to cancel AR6 was not a hard one to make. The AR6 might have propelled Austin Rover back to the forefront of small car design, but as related earlier, small cars meant small profit margins, and the AR6 would have required huge volume to pay for itself in an overcrowded and ultra-competitive sector of the market. As related earlier, back in 1976 BL had hoped to produce 250,000 ADO88s a year to make it viable. In the even,t LC8 Metro production peaked at 180,763 in 1983 which combined with Mini production of 49,986 produced a total of 230,749, still short of target and using two models, one of which was difficult to build due to the age of its design.
So much ground had been lost by BL/Rover over the previous two decades, that persuading buyers that had defected to rival small car manufacturers to return to the BL/Rover fold and buy the AR6 would have proven extremely difficult. BL’s management could be likened to First World War Generals – they had continually promised more than they could deliver and eventually exhausted the Governments patience. With AR6 cancelled, the decision was taken to re-engineer the Metro to take the under-development K-Series engine and retain the Mini.
During 1985 and into 1986, Harold Musgrove’s Marketing Department had spent a great deal of time and money on a massive market research programme into the car-buying public’s perception of the company and its products. When the research was concluded, Graham Day and his canny band of marketing experts seized upon the results with great vigour and found that the wider public held the mistaken belief that the Mini was not in production any more. Those who did know that it was still a production model regarded the Mini with great fondness and warmth. These new findings directly affected Graham Day’s model policy and meant that the humble Mini was granted a stay of execution until at least 1991.
The Metro had now lost its sales appeal which resulted in reduced production and the ability to compete on price with rival superminis. To try and fill the void, the ARG marketing machine would turn to the Mini and exploit its niche brand values and use it to appeal to buyers who would rather have something more individual on their driveway than the latest bland, bottom of the range Eurobox.
What happened next in the story of the Mini was quite remarkable. For the first time since 1980, adverts actually started appearing in the press for the car, headed by the saccharin-coated, ‘Minis Have Feelings Too’ Christmas campaign at the end of 1986, resulting in a rally in sales. Barry Devney in the 5 February 1987 edition of the Daily Express wrote: ‘The Mini has won a reprieve — due to the abiding love of women drivers. It was due to be scrapped next month after 27 years. But market research has shown that women are still clamouring for the snappy little vehicle. So much so, that Minis will roll off the production line until at least 1991 and weekly output will rise from 650 a week to 750.
‘Rover Group Chairman Graham Day, said research showed that seven out of ten Mini buyers are city-dwelling women aged 20 to 39. “Women treat their Mini cars with affection and have pet, names for them,” said Mr Day. At Christmas, the Rover Group ran the TV advertising campaign, and sales for January jumped to 1200 – 21% up on last year.’
The resultant publicity resulted in Rover Group consultant Sir Alec Issigonis writing to Graham Day with his views on the company’s small car programme on 24 February. Although Sir Alec’s failing health now meant he was very much detached from modern life and motor industry trends in general, the company’s response was harsh to say the least. Issigonis was notified via his Solicitor that his consultancy was to be terminated, which subsequently put the great man in straitened financial circumstances as his health worsened and he needed more and more full-time care.
Although the Rover publicity machine had only recently publicised the renewed marketing impetus behind the Mini, the termination of Issigonis’s consultancy escaped the media spotlight. It has to be said that this was not Graham Day’s finest hour, and the treatment Issigonis received was shameful, especially as Rover were to further actively celebrate his iconic creation. However, BL/Rover had a history of getting rid of consultants who had done wonders for the Mini, Downton and John Cooper come to mind, and now Sir Alec Issigonis himself joined the list.
After this, many and varied special editions, such as the Mary Quant ‘Designer’ model and the ‘Italian Job’ versions – available in red, white and blue – started to appear, no doubt capitalising on the car’s ’60s appeal. John Cooper was invited back on board, and from May 1989 his performance kit was available as an optional extra on 998cc Minis.
By now Austin Rover had become Rover Cars as part of Graham Day’s upmarket aspirations, and the group had been privatised through its sale to British Aerospace. Graham Day had promoted George Simpson, a Scottish accountant who had joined BLMC back in 1969, as Managing Director of Rover Cars. The Mini was now officially a Rover.
Sadly, on 2 October 1988, Sir Alec Issigonis died. He was 81 years old. Then, in July 1989, Moke production in Portugal was halted by Rover Cars, although it was to be temporary.
A sign of the renewed marketing impetus being put behind the Mini was the campaign to mark the 30th anniversary of the car in 1989. A 40-second TV commercial was aired, directed by photographer David Bailey and featuring model/actress Twiggy which shamelessly harked back to the car’s Sixties heyday using monochrome film clips and Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit Something In The Air as its musical soundtrack. It was all marvellously nostalgic and used to sell the anniversary limited edition Mini 30, which only appeared on a poster in the commercial, with the tag line, ‘You never forget your first Mini’. This seemed to mark the end of the era of marketing the Mini as a budget car, and now the emphasis would be on nostalgia, for the Mini was now a classic car still in production.
The 1990s: Cooper comeback
In July 1990, the Mini Cooper limited edition was launched. The authorisation for the new generation sporty Mini was given in January 1990, and the limited edition RSP (Rover Special Products) Cooper was a last minute addition to the marketing plan. Mechanical development was farmed out to ERA at Dunstable and the first of the 1990s Mini Coopers was built between 27 April to 3 May 1990. At this time, Rover was on a roll, with the acclaimed R8 second-generation 200, and working flat out to satisfy demand.
Graham Day’s vision of turning Rover into a niche manufacturer seemed to be coming true, and the new Mini Cooper was part of that strategy. Featuring a catalysed 1275cc MG Metro engine, the limited run quickly sold out and a mainstream Mini Cooper was introduced the following September. It made a reappearance in a response to the sales of Cooper kits in Japan and also the management’s knowledge that the Mini was now a very real asset to the range which would sell in big numbers, especially overseas.
In 1990 Longbridge produced 46,045 Minis, of which only 10,067 were sold in the UK. Japan took 12,087, France 8977, Germany 4790 and Italy 2680. Even after the original enthusiasm for the Cooper had waned, Japan still took 8508 Minis in 1993. These were major car markets and the Mini could be used to generate showroom traffic for the new generation of Rover cars. Also in 1990, the original A-Series Metro ceased production to be replaced by the K-Series powered R6 Metro/100. The base 1.3-litre Maestro was now the only other Rover to use the A-Series engine, and there were major differences between them. Rover had now moved on at last from powertrains designed in the BMC era.
Aside from the changes to the Mini Cooper range, which are dealt with in that car’s development story, the major change to the standard Mini was the phasing out of the 998cc version in May 1992. A detuned 1275cc engine provided the car’s motive power from now on. The base model was now called a Sprite, in honour of another past BMC car, while the Mayfair continued as the higher-spec model.
During the 1990s, Mini enthusiasts started to get together to form clubs for social activities involving their favourite car. This thriving scene became worldwide, with Germany, home of so many outstandingly successful cars, including BMW, emerging as one of the most enthusiastic nations in their devotion to the Mini. The Mini became a symbol of Britain, a Britain that perhaps no longer exists, or never existed? And at the same time it has managed to have an international appeal. In April 1991, Portuguese Moke manufacture resumed after the rights had been sold to Italian firm Cagiva. However, production halted again in late 1993 and the rights for the Moke now reside in China where bodyshell manufacture has now resumed.
This re-emergence of the Mini continued unabated and when BMW took the reins of the company in 1994, some very real money was thrown at the Mini in order to maintain its compliance with toughening European noise and emission laws. The idea was that the company could keep the Mini in production as long as they needed to because one of the first decisions about future model plans made by BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder, who was in fact a relative of Sir Alec Issigonis, was to produce a replacement for the Mini. Mini, along with Land Rover, was one of the few brands that survived the British Leyland abyss untarnished.
By this time, marques had become ‘brands’ in marketing speak. Car buyers had been offered a succession of mass-market cars. Consumers, so the marketing men claimed, trusted any car badged with the name of a successful car, even if the new car was completely unrelated to the outgoing model. BMW was shocked by what it saw as BL/Rover’s neglect of their most trusted brand, Mini. Millions of drivers had owned a Mini all over the world and enjoyed the experience, and while they had moved on to more sophisticated cars, the basic Mini had remained in a timewarp of around 1969/70 when wind up windows had arrived. The 9X, Innocenti 90/120, ADO88 and AR6 had all come and gone, but now BMW was in charge and had both the money and the will to develop a new Mini.
If BMW could develop a new Mini with the characteristics that appealed to drivers of the Issigonis car, then the company could have a winner on its hands in a growing sector of the market. By this time annual Mini production had slumped to around 20,000 and continued to decline. The nostalgia appeal of the car that had boosted sales in 1989/90 had clearly subsided. When BMW took over Rover, it was being run by John Towers, who left in 1996, a year when Mini production declined further to 15,638. Clearly, post-1994 the Mini was living on borrowed time and was kept in production by BMW who wanted a seamless transition from the classic Mini to their new MINI. The car was now bought by diehard enthusiasts, who accepted the cars faults from the outset. Being a 1959 design it could not compete with more modern designs in areas such as resistance to corrosion and reliability.
In October 1996, the final version of the Mini emerged, known as the Mk7 – with a front mounted radiator, airbag, even higher gearing, a long option list and optional 13in wheels. All the Minis now had identical tune 63bhp twin-point injection engines. Between then and the end of production the Rover Group went through yet another series of traumas culminating in the sale by BMW to Phoenix Venture Holdings in spring 2000, and John Towers returned as boss. The reasons for Rover’s decline are myriad, and the media cited the strength of sterling as the prime cause, but rumours circulating in the motor trade that the K-Series engine was less than robust cannot have helped sale to fleet buyers. Engines like the Rover V8 and the A-Series may have been old fashioned, but at least they were bulletproof.
Ironically, the Mini outlasted the car originally intended to replace it, the Metro, now named the Rover 100, which ceased production on 23 December 1997. In 1997 Metro/100 production amounted to 40,199 cars, while that of the Mini was 16,938. Although BMW had hiked up the Mini’s price, one can’t see how they were making money from the car with such low volumes.
By this time BMW’s vision of the new MINI had crystallised. The German company had learned from the aborted Mini replacements of the past. Its new car would not be a budget supermini like the Metro and AR6, competing in a cut-throat market with pacific rim superminis and established brands like the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Micra and Volkswagen Polo. BMW’s MINI would be a premium priced car that would major on style, build quality and drivability to sell – and history shows the Germans got it right.
The end for the Mini finally came on 4 October 2000. The media and various personalities gathered at Longbridge to see the end of the road for Issigonis’s baby. Also attending were surviving members of Alec Issigonis’s team. To the Quincy Jones composed soundtrack of the film The Italian Job, the final Mini was driven off the production line in CAB1 by Production Line Supervisor Geoff Powell with singer Lulu in the passenger seat after a production run of 41 years.
The end of Mini production effectively meant the end of CAB1, for despite all the hopes expressed for the future of Longbridge in 2000, the hoped for demand for MG Rover cars failed to materialise, and the building remained empty. The last of 5,378,776 Minis now resides at the British Motor Heritage museum at Gaydon.
So why was the Mini so successful? What was it about the car that enabled it to survive 41 years in production? Why is there such a thriving enthusiasm for a crude and archaic car? Perhaps the answer lies behind the wheel of the car. To put it simply, the Mini is fun to drive and it offers sports car handling in a budget car, and not everybody can afford a supercar.
In terms of the motor industry, the Mini had absolutely enormous repercussions. For the first time in history here was a revolutionary car that BMC could produce, that owed nothing to the designs and ideas of others. In fact, the idea was copied far and wide by all companies that had an interest in producing small, economical cars.
The first company to adopt the idea was Fiat, which launched the Autobianchi Primula in 1964. Like the Mini, the Primula was front-wheel drive and transverse-engined, but differed from it in one very important respect: the gearbox was attached to the end of the engine, not unlike the experimental Morris Minor replacement that Issigonis was working on in 1952. Dante Giacosa chose this transmission package because he viewed BMC’s gearbox-in-sump arrangement as being unnecessarily complex and expensive to produce. However, it should be noted that the Autobianchi Primula was somewhat larger than the Mini.
Subsequently, all small cars (with the exception of some Peugeots) have followed the Fiat formula of the transverse-engined, end-on gearbox package, but this does not devalue the genius of Alec Issigonis and his team: in simple terms, Leonard Lord and Alec Issigonis redefined the small car package as they wished it to be, and in doing so, altered the fundamental design of the compact car in much the same way as Henry Ford or Ferry Porsche had altered the concept of car manufacture.
A case of limited development
Park a Mini of 1959 next to a Mini of 1999 and you would not see a radically different car, but you would see one that had been the subject of significant and ongoing development:
|1960||Range expanded to incorporate estate versions.|
|1961||The first Mini-Coopers appeared.
Riley and Wolseley booted versions introduced.
introduction of Porsche Baulk ring Synchro.
|1964||Hydrolastic suspension incorporated, and then dropped in 1969.|
|1966||Wind-up side windows incorporated on Riley/Wolseley models.|
|1968||Synchromesh replaced and gear-change improved by having synchro on first gear.|
|1969||Clubman version added, incorporating Maxi-like front-end styling.
Wind-up windows incorporated on the rest of the range.
|1971||1275GT Clubman-based model now the only sporting version after the Cooper S is discontinued.|
|1973||Dynamo replaced by alternator for the electrical system.|
|1976||Rubber mounting for the front subframe, to improve driveline snatchiness.|
|1980||A-Plus engine added, cars now built on Metro production line, Clubmans dropped.|
|1984||Wheel diameter increased to 12in in order to accommodate larger brakes.|
|1987||Special editions start to appear thick and fast.|
|1992||Lamm convertible version launched, Longbridge versions appear in ’93.|
|2001||MINI launched, but is it the car the British would have produced?|
- Announcement : Still working on securing AROnline’s future - 8 December 2023
- The cars : Rover P6 development story - 8 December 2023
- Concepts and prototypes : Hyundai/Rover Oden (1992) - 9 November 2023