It’s perhaps not surprising that the Mini was a big success in Ireland as the cars were launched at a time when British firms dominated the Irish car market. As noted in Bob Montgomery’s excellent book ‘Motor Assembly in Ireland’, Ireland had for many years a thriving local motor assembly sector with the vast majority of cars sold in Ireland assembled by local firms and BMC was no different from other manufacturers.
BMC had separate dealer networks for Austin and Morris in the UK and the same was true for overseas markets. In some countries, this separation even extended to all (or most) marques having separate representation (importer/assembler/distributor) in a particular market. For Ireland, this meant the Morris Mini-Minor would be imported, assembled and sold by Brittain Dublin and the Austin Se7en by Lincoln & Nolan. Later on, another firm Booth Poole, which assembled Wolseley, would be responsible for the Hornet.
The launch of the Morris Mini-Minor and Austin Se7en in August 1959 was an international event with cars available in 100 countries including Ireland. On the day it was launched, a line of newly assembled Mini-Minors were driven down O’Connell Street by Brittains (below). Of course, as the cars were assembled by two separate companies there was the curious situation of two different promotional campaigns for essentially the same car. Brittains, in an early advert, focused on the car’s size saying ‘It’s Miniminoraculous’ as it was able to park in small spaces while Lincoln & Nolan linked back on the Se7en’s eponymous forbear.
Mini proves popular in Ireland
However, regardless of how either company promoted it, they were both available at the same price of £459 10s, ex. Dublin as they used to say back then (with the all-important heater costing £10 more). The cars found a ready market thanks to the strength of the Morris and Austin brands at the time though which car was more popular would be open to question. In simple brand terms, Morris always outsold Austin thanks to the Morris Minor’s enduring popularity though Austin did enjoy a brief surge past their Oxford stablemate in the mid-60s. Regardless of brand, what was true was that they both had huge dealer networks by today’s standards.
This was demonstrated in an Irish Times supplement in 1964 promoting the arrival of the new Austin 1800 when Austin’s Irish dealer network was listed on a page. In Dublin alone, Austin had 40 main and retail dealers (Morris had a similar number, though some of these were shared with Austin) and 49 spread across the rest of the country. That was a lot of dealers but it should also be remembered that many were a fraction of the size of the typical modern-day dealer plus they were often multi-franchise. What’s more, these huge networks also had to compete for a market that was far smaller than today though it would increase markedly during the course of the decade.
In terms of the cars themselves, they were very similar to those sold in the UK, though they did have a few differences. For a start, they used a fair proportion of local content such as glass which came from Tipperary (the Shamrock-engraving on the windows is a giveaway to that) and tyres (naturally from Dunlop in Cork). Another key difference was that the paint options sometimes differed too which was again a result of it being locally sourced. The net result of all this was that the Irish-assembled Minis had their own unique character.
Merger of distributors
As the 1960s progressed, the Mini continued to sell well for BMC, but there were changes with the local companies. Brittains would take over their smaller Austin rival in the mid-1960s and in 1969, it merged with Smiths (the increasingly successful Renault assemblers and distributors) to form Brittain Smith, which became the largest Irish-owned motor group. The merger wasn’t a success and less than a year later they demerged due in large part to BL’s (which now existed) unhappiness with their own agent having a close relationship with a key competitor.
BL’s creation actually coincided with the gradual fall in the firm’s Irish sales. After BL was created, they sought to sort out the mess of competing distributors which existed in many overseas markets. Ultimately, they were seeking a single market representation and ideally a company they controlled. Ireland was a little different.
On 1 January 1970, British Leyland (Ireland) was created, though this subsidiary only looked after the specialist brands with Triumph and Rover at first, a little later Jaguar. This meant that Brittains would continue with the Austin Morris models. This split representation was clearly a stop-gap measure and so it would prove. While the 1960s had seen success for Brittains with the Mini and BMC 1100/1300, the early 1970s were a lot tougher. One reason was the poor performance of the BL-developed models in the marketplace which meant the firm depended more and more on the Mini for volumes.
Another was that Irish motorists’ tastes were changing. The end of the 1960s saw the start in the rise in popularity of a number of European makes, chiefly Fiat and Renault along with a brief surge in a newly-invigorated Chrysler. The result of all this was that Morris and Austin sales began to tumble shown by BL’s overall market share falling from 27.2% in 1970, to 15.3% in 1973. The Mini too was less popular and was now only eighth in the sales charts in the same year. Possibly as a result of this, Brittains took on the Datsun franchise (below). However, the Oil Crisis would see a surge in the Mini’s popularity in 1974 as it finished that year in fourth place and regained its title as Ireland’s best-selling small car.
British Leyland restructures in Ireland
Matters, however, were about to take a worrying turn for BL in Ireland. The increasingly fractious relationship between them and Brittains finally ruptured in early 1975 when the firm was ‘sacked’ by BL. The result was that over 800 assembly workers would lose their jobs and the firm that had a link back to Morris since 1913 was at an end. It also meant BL imports were embargoed and sales ground to a halt. Months of uncertainty followed and significant damage was done to BL in the country as a result.
Eventually, a solution was found and the Mini was to play a key role. As part of an agreement with the unions, BL agreed to locally assemble the Mini and the unions would allow imports of their other cars to recommence. A new company was created, Leyland Cars Ireland and the slow rebuilding of the firm’s battered reputation was started.
Following a high-profile advert in December with the slogan ‘It’s good to be back with Leyland’, the new company started operations with a significantly reduced dealer network and a restricted model range with Allegro and Marina cars blocked from being imported for a time. In January 1976, former Opel assembler, Reg Armstrong (Motors) started to assemble the Mini and thus became the latest company to do this for the Irish market (the third or fourth depending on how you count it). While Leyland had high hopes of attaining 12% of the market, the firm’s targets were blunted by lacking cars in important sectors and strong competition from rivals, especially the increasing popularity of Japanese brands.
For Leyland, this meant they relied on the Mini for volume sales and, luckily for them, it proved remarkably resilient against newer rivals. In fact, the Mini was still one of Ireland’s most popular cars and finished in the record car sales year of 1978 in eighth place with a market share of 3.1%. However, that impressive performance was balanced against a poor one for the rest of the Leyland range, as the Mini accounted for nearly 50% of the firm’s total sales (Leyland finished the year with 6.5% of the market with the newly-reintroduced Allegro and Marina making no real difference to the firm’s market share).
Irish assembly’s days numbered
However, the days of local assembly were about to end. In February 1979, BL announced they would not renew the Armstrong assembly contract and this time there was not going to be a change of mind, so 170 workers lost their jobs. For BL, the result of all this was another embargo that blocked their imports and saw their market share plunge to just 3.4% (less than the 1100/1300 had achieved on its own at the start of the decade).
After these changes, the Mini, now an imported car, did continue to find a market in Ireland with the budget-priced City proving particularly popular and indeed, for a time in the 1980s, the Mini City was Ireland’s cheapest new car. The Mini even saw occasional limited editions too such as the Spree which was fitted with a vinyl roof, sunroof and also side stripes (that were also fitted to a diverse range of other country-specific limited editions at one time or another) and the Tripper. However, Mini sales were on a downward trajectory and from 2916 cars in 1980 (which accounted for over 69% of Leyland’s total Irish sales), the car would drop out of the Top 30 bestsellers list in 1985.
While the car was no longer popular new, it still played an important in the Irish’s motoring scene. There was, of course, the car’s long-standing role in motor sport. In the 1960s, the Cooper S had dominated the Circuit of Ireland and the Mini was still around in the 1980s in rallying as well as in sports like auto testing. The Mini was also the first car many people owned as they provided a very cheap way of getting your first set of wheels – indeed, mine was a 1991 Mini City.
This long-term Irish love affair with this characterful car was proven by the warm reception that the BMW MINI received from the press and public in 2001 and it still remains to this day. The Mini has not one, but two clubs devoted to it: the Irish Mini Owners Club (which itself celebrates its 30th birthday this year) and the MINI Club of Ireland. Recognition too of the car’s appeal was shown in May 2017 when Westport was the location for the 2017 IMM (International Mini Meeting) and saw some 1200 Mini/MINIs converge from all over the continent.
And it’s also proven here today with the events at Mondello and in these articles here. Yes, the car has a special place in Irish hearts and there’s no doubt it will continue. After all, who can ever forget their first Mini?
(Note: This article has been reproduced from a book called 60 Years of the Mini, which was published by Mondello Park to mark its recent Historic Festival. My thanks to Leo Nulty for giving me the chance to write the book.)