By Leslie Nichol
Britain, which gave the world the Mini, is almost certain to get another one, from Italy. At a time when everybody is demanding economical motoring, the Italians have produced an exciting new version of the masterpiece created 15 years ago by Sir Alec Issigonis. Marketed by Leyland Innocenti, British Leyand’s wholly owned Italian subsidiary, this snappy three-door car made such an impact at last week’s Geneva Motor Show that its introduction to Britain is now being actively considered.
Why aren’t we making a new Mini instead of the Italians ? The basic answer is cash, the stuff British Leyland boss Lord Stokes is so short of. For it would cost millions to retool a Mini production line. British Leyland says the new Italian job was aimed at a particular niche in that country’s car market, where high cost of fuel and progressive vehicle taxation related to engine size have given rise to an extremely large small car sector. Innocenti’s model is available as a basic 998 c.c. ” 90,” or a more luxuriously trimmed and equipped 1,275 c.c. ” 120.”
At its launch, Keith Hopkins, managing director of Austin Morris, 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.”
Lord Stokes said yesterday: “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.”
Any move in that direction will be eagerly awaited by the thousands of young drivers in this country who are starving for a new-look Mini. Sir Alec’s baby bulldog, with world-wide sales of about 300,000 a year, has sold nearly 4 million and is the biggest selling export car ever to come out of Britain. It tops Britain’s sales charts, at the moment. But how long can that situation last when, with a design badly in need of a face lift, it is competing against an invasion of small foreign cars ?These include:
Renault’s R5 series, the 845 c.c. 5L costs £1,207 and the 956 c.c. 5TL £1,326. This snubnosed front-wheel drive job is coming off the production line fast, nearly 350,000 in 1974. It swept into the British charts in late 1972 and in Paris it has stolen the Mini image.
Citroen’s 2 CV6 (602 c.c), potters along at about 60 miles per gallon at 40 m.p.h. and in this country has a three-month waiting list. Fiat salutes the belt-tightening phase with its 126 (597 c.c) range from about £924 to £988. And there’s a new three-door 127 (903 c.c). just entering Britain for £1,345.
Honda joins the mini chorus with one of the neatest movers in its range, a three-door Civic (1,169 c.c), at £1,214. And from Japan’s import specialist Datsun, there’s the Cherry 100 A (988 c.c.) two and four-door cars. Cheapest saloon £1,122. with a months waiting list for the three-door estate.
But despite all this overseas “talent,” the message from the Lord Stokes camp is that the Mini produced here will remain unchanged for sometime. At a time when it has knocked Ford’s Cortina from the top of the fuel-saving league table, it may seem to be an odd time for Lord Stokes to alter its suit,a suit that’s become a great British institution. But with young drivers casting covetous eyes on the trim, up-to-date lines of the foreign invaders. Sir Alec Issigonis should turn to his drawing board again.
It’s a good bet that he could soon take Lord Stokes for a ride in another tough baby which would K.O. anything else the world has to offer.