It’s 1997, and Rover’s strategy for the Mini’s replacement is rapidly taking shape. It’s two years on from the memorable meeting at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon which shaped the future direction of the Mini marque. There had been several models presented to the BMW and Rover board and they were split evenly between Rover’s modern interpretation of Issigonis’ brilliant original and BMW’s more sporting neo-Coopers.
We all know the outcome of that – the modern-day Cooper was chosen against Rover’s wishes and went on to become a 21st Century phenomenon. BMW boss, Bernd Pischetsrieder, also went on record as saying that he liked the Rover proposals, but felt they were a decade ahead of their time.
Unusually, Rover developed its failed Mini proposal into a Motor Show concept and revealed it at the Geneva Motor Show for the world to see. It was part of a massive Mini PR offensive – to clearly show the world that Rover and BMW were co-developing a new age car to replace the 1959 original. It started out with the Mini ACV30, then the Spiritual twins, followed by a mock-up of the final production model at the Frankfurt Motor Show later that year.
The fact that the concept also spoiled the launch of the technically brilliant Mercedes-Benz A-Class was hardly a happy coincidence for BMW and Rover.
What, though, of the Spiritual twins? The two cars were powered by a mid-engined 660cc triple under the rear seat. That was a brave move considering Rover, BL and BMC had been locked into FWD since the 1959 launch of the Mini. The three-door car measured 3048mm (2mm less than the Mini), but was blessed with a supermini-sized interior, while the five door 900kg Spiritual Too was 3650mm (about the length of a Ford Ka), but boasted an interior claimed to be as large as the BMW 7-Series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Geoff Upex wryly commented at the time of its unveiling: ‘think of it as the 1100 compared with the first Mini.’ It was this car that would have offered – and continued to offer – the most usable package today.
Both cars were, in short, an impressive piece of packaging – overseen by Oliver Le Grice and David Saddington – and clearly Issigonis would have approved despite his ambivalence to the rear-engined layout.
Looking at the car through the eyes of someone in 2011, it’s clear that the Mini Spiritual twins would offer buyers the car they really need right now. Fuel consumption would have been impressive with the standard 660cc power pack, but, with a small diesel or electric motor, the Mini Spiritual would offer the world something as useful today as the original Mini would have done in the tough years of the early 1970s (over a decade after launch), when it became BL’s best selling model during the recession.
Would Spiritual have done the same today?
Pischetsrieder was correct, though – the Mini Spritual twins were a decade ahead of their time. For proof of this, one only needs to look at the Audi A2, a car conceptually similar, which proved a flop on a marketplace that was rapidly falling in love with ever larger, more luxurious cars. Clearly the MINI that did emerge in 2000 was the right car launched at the right time but that doesn’t stop the Spiritual twins looking incredibly exciting for lovers of the unusual – with aluminium underpinnings and plastic outer panels.
There will be a smaller MINI in the next few years, but wouldn’t BMW just be better served by simply dusting off the Spiritual blueprints and pushing it into production, along with a big, fat thank you to the British Engineers who came up with the concept?