Essays : Spiritual – your industry needs you

Keith Adams

Mini Spiritual Too
Mini Spiritual Too – looks like it could be in production today

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?


Keith Adams


  1. Spiritual Too is at least 90% Mitsubishi i (or is it the other way round?). Add an electic motor and you get the i-MIEV at £28k, which is a lot for a Mini. Spiritual is a cousin of the SMART. Ten years too early is therefore about right for the Spritual Too, but Mercedes has been banging out Spirituals for donkeys years…

  2. Back in July 2003, I thought that this was the type of car that MG Rover Group needed. Not just as a new small offering to fill the void of the Metro/100 (and eventually the CityRover which had just been announced) but, just as importantly, a bold new brand to separate it from Rover and MG.

    The more you read about the original concepts, the more you realise how in tune both versions are with today’s motoring. It’s a shame that MG Rover Group was never in a position to actively consider ‘dusting off’ these two ideas to form the basis of a new entry-level model with its own brand identity and design language.

    I wonder what ever happened to the original design concepts? After all, MinKi was saved and was on display in the Heritage Motor Centre in 2009, but what about these two? Answers, please…

  3. Audi A2, FIAT 500, Jaguar S-TYPE, MINI, Rover 75, VW Beetle/Concept 1. That’s not a list to encourage the bean counters is it? Only the MINI prospered…

    Why build this when you could give Gordan Murray a cheque for the T25/T27?

  4. The Spiritual has excellent packaging – it was definitely ahead of its time and very much a successor to the original in that respect. The Spiritual pre-dates the likes of the Citroen C1/Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 107, Smart and Toyota iQ.

    However, the MINI which actually replaced it is a car that the consumers would like. The MINI has the style, character and go-kart feel of the original – just what everyone loved about the original. The huge demand for them and the numbers which have been sold says this: BMW Group made the right decision on the original Mini’s replacement.

    I don’t think, though, that Sir Alec Issigonis would believe so with the new MINI being style over substance.

  5. Andrew Elphick : Audi A2, FIAT 500, Jaguar S-TYPE, MINI, Rover 75, VW Beetle/Concept 1. That’s not a list to encourage the bean counters is it? Only the MINI prospered…

    Why build this when you could give Gordan Murray a cheque for the T25/T27?

    I’m not so sure – the 500, S-TYPE and Beetle are all products of shared platforms. I would have thought that those three were/are good examples of how to get value out of aging hardware pretty effectively.


  6. MINI = SWB Rover 75. Not a big fan.

    I’ve never understood this: back in 2000, Pischetsrieder promised to build a car as radical as the Issigonis Mini – a car a decade ahead of its time, at the very least – but then axed a concept which was at least a decade ahead of its time.

  7. Looks wise, I think this is more a “spiritual” successor to the original 1950s FIAT Multipla. Priced correctly, I think the market would have been more willing to accept this car than it has the Smart ForTwo which is a decent niche vehicle but lacks the versatility to be a real market force (too few seats for most of us).

    The other question, of course, is over whether Rover had the money (and nerve) to build it. Probably “NO” to the latter even if they’d had the former!

  8. I can’t help thinking it would not have offered enough front end crash protection and that may have been the real reason why the Spirituals didn’t make it.


  9. @Richard Moss
    I was thinking that the 5 door Spiritual is similar to the Daewoo/Chevrolet Matiz, which itself started life as a proposal to replace the 1990s Cinquecento. The 3 door is very early-2000s Micra.

    Both may have worked as fuel-efficient city cars, but would not have captured the trendy/”Estate Agent” market in the same way as the BMW MINI did.

    Perhaps they could be relaunched by Tata as the Austin 1100?

  10. One advantage of the BMW MINI vs. the Spiritual is that the BINI was able to be sold in the USA, one of its biggest and most critical markets. I doubt the Spiritual would have been saleable in the USA due to our crash standards, small engines and just being too small overall.

  11. I saw the Spirituals at Gaydon in the 1990s and the photos above don’t do the 3-door justice – in the metal the Mini styling cues are very subtle but, when combined with the tiny size, there’s enough to give it Mini character without being a pastiche, the secret is in the surfacing and stance. I suspect that those styling cues were too subtle for Bavarian sensiblities and that the concept was too avant-garde for their conservative business model.

    Crash protection was the reason the engine was at the back – the front compartment provides the crush zone, like an MGF (a very safe little car). It offered better protection than a front-engined layout.

    The car may not have been quite the fashion accessory the R59 became but would, instead, have sold to buyers needing four usable seats and a comfy (Hydragas) ride. However, being light and mid-engined, it could also have provided a unique proposition as a performance car, just as the original Cooper did.

    Rover proposed to sell the car for less than BMW’s MINI, but had built in a profit margin, something the Germans forgot to add to R59, which is an expensive car to build and sells in small numbers for a car in its price bracket (regardless of the car’s length).

    R59 has only been viable for BMW because its development costs were written off against Rover in 2000 – that’s something the fawning gentlemen of the press forget when expressing awe at BMW’s mini-success, being in thrall, as they are, to the Ultimate Marketing Machine…

  12. I love them both – it’s such a shame because these are exactly where the market is at today and these have such character they’d kill the opposition.

    I agree that they could put this straight into production without styling changes despite fourteen years passing. A testament to the original design…

  13. I like it – especially the stacked headlight version – with nods to the GTO…

    The A2 failed – not because of what it was – but because of what it was made of – and, as a result it was expensive, too expensive for what it was. That, the ‘where’s the radiator?’ idea and all the strange places things were located, put people off. I think I have seen about three A2s since they came out.

    I can’t decide upon the Fiat 500 – in some ways it’s a pretty little thing, but ripping half the bakelite interior out of a Morris Minor Traveller and replacing the bakelite with plastic which reflects so much that it’ll blind you in strong sun tends to put me off. Oh, and has anyone else noticed that the Fiat TwinAir engine looks like someone re-engineered a Lister Model D stationary engine?

    The current MINI takes nothing more than the name – it betrays everything that the Mini originally stood for. However, the Spiritual cars are, as the name suggests, the Mini’s spiritual successors. I hope they are built, but I also hope they are built with the right engines and specs…

    Imagine what Aston Martin could have made of the Spiritual – perhaps a deal with Honda for the Fireblade engine – the best of both worlds maybe?

  14. I always loved the two Spiritual Concept cars, but fourteen years on, they would not have the same impact as they did in 1997. However, the basic package should be developed by BMW and the 5 door would give them a replacement for the Austin/Morris 1100.

    I am afraid that BMW have gone down a blind alley with the Countryman – I saw one the other day and it looks worse on the road than in the pictures and, at £22,000, is way too expensive.

    The market is crying out for a 5 seat, 5 door car with style, low weight, great packaging and ultra frugal engines – 100mpg should be the aim. The VW Up! will show the way.

    Can BMW produce a volume series of models that will sell 500,000 units just as the Mini and ADO16 did in the 1960s from common components? I hope so because I would love a Riley 1100.

  15. Andrew Elphick :
    Audi A2, FIAT 500, Jaguar S-TYPE, MINI, Rover 75, VW Beetle/Concept 1. That’s not a list to encourage the bean counters is it? Only the MINI prospered…
    Why build this when you could give Gordan Murray a cheque for the T25/T27?

    Hmm, I think you’ll find that the Fiat 500 is doing very well thank you…

  16. Simon :
    The market is crying out for a 5 seat, 5 door car with style, low weight, great packaging and ultra frugal engines – 100mpg should be the aim. The VW Up! will show the way.

    Great on all points except style. The Up! has all the style of a microwave oven…

  17. Keith:
    I have loved the ingenuity of these cars since their debut, but BMW made the right decision. (I owned a 2003 BMW Mini, and enjoyed it immensely) – especially if you consider the VW EA76 (a Porsche-designed small hatch for what was to become the Golf) and the VW Up! concept.

    Both cars are Piech designs and used an inline engine mounted transversely underneath the rear seat. Both were to spawn multiple variants, including (in the case of the EA76) a small mid-engined sports car. However, both the Up! and EA76 suffered from the same problem: a lack of weight over the front wheels. A problem that made directional stability in side winds worse on long wheelbase models. That’s why the Up! will come to market as a front-drive small car and VW chose the Golf Mk 1 over the Porsche design.

    Finally, if you look closely, the bumper beam and lower grille of the three-door model, with the large round headlights, are very close to the design of the Mk1 BMW MINI – if you turn the grille/bumper beam upside down!

  18. The Spiritual twins were a missed opportunity by BMW. I suppose they could not get their Germanic sensibilities around such a forward reaching set of concepts.
    By the way, were they running concepts and did BMW whisk them away to Germany?

  19. You may not need to ask BMW – a China Car Times article dated the 25th April, 2010 contained details of the Roewe E1 concept car under the headline “Is the Rover Spiritual back from the dead?” Full details were given.

  20. I’ve always liked these two cars but to me the missing link between the original Mini and the Spiritual has to be the 9X.

    The picture or spec sheet never does the 9X justice, so you really need to see it in the metal (on display at Gaydon) to realise what a fantastic car this was. It really is a clever exercise in packaging and innovation.

    I think the car to watch, if it’s ever made, has to be the proposed Hybrid Lotus Citycar Concept released a few months ago. There have to be more cars like this – it would be a very wise manufacturer which expends some quality time and effort on this type of car.

    Never mind the dwindling oil stocks, getting rid of Arab dictators is a good thing but the stability of the region is undergoing a testing time and oil prices are already going up.

  21. Andrew Elphick :
    Audi A2, FIAT 500, Jaguar S-TYPE, MINI, Rover 75, VW Beetle/Concept 1. That’s not a list to encourage the bean counters is it? Only the MINI prospered…
    Why build this when you could give Gordan Murray a cheque for the T25/T27?

    The big problem with the T25/T27 is how do you keep the interior dry when it’s raining and you need to get in/out? Additionally, how do you get out if you “park” it on its side or the roof?

  22. Well, perhaps if MGR had used its £1bn dowry from BMW to productionise the Spiritual body and stuffed MGF running gear under it, they might still be around today. Instead, they blew it on rear drive Rover 75 V8s and Directors’ pension funds.

  23. Erm, “No” and “Yes” 🙂
    I don’t think the Spirituals would have worked as a “Mini” replacement – it was just too radical for 1997 and, as always with these things, doesn’t sentiment dictate that the car should at least have a “look” of the old Mini ?

    HOWEVER, if you can get away from this “Mini” replacement idea and just take the car for what it is, then I think it does actually look like a great little car.

    Perfect for today’s market? Perhaps BMW were right, maybe it was 10 years ahead of its time.

  24. Simon :
    However, the basic package should be developed by BMW and the 5 door would give them a replacement for the Austin/Morris 1100.

    Well, given the Austin/Morris 1100 was essentially the Focus/Astra/1-series of its day, what possible relevance does this have to BMW today? The Spirituals were tiny cars designed to replace the Mini. The ADO16 was a completely different segment/story.

    Besides, BMW doesn’t own the IPRs to either the Austin or Morris brands these days so it’s all academic anyway lol!

  25. @James
    True – I previously thought Tata Motors had the rights to the Austin name.

    Perhaps SAIC Motor/NAC/MG Motor could sell the Spirituals as the Austin 7 and 8…
    The Roewe version of the MG3 could then be sold as the Austin 1100.

  26. @Will
    Actually, that begs an interesting question as to which company, in fact, owns the IPRs to the Spiritual and Spiritual Too.

    I suspect that the answer may well be the BMW Group and am reasonably certain that they will not be owned by SAIC Motor/NAC/MG Motor so the chances of matching your suggested names to the designs are, sadly, probably pretty slim…

  27. A Spiritual with a Fireblade engine? I’d buy that (even if for considerably more than a dollar)! When can I sign the cheque? Oh, but, of course, the car industry only makes leviathans these days. Alas…

  28. “The modern-day Cooper was chosen against Rover’s wishes and went on to become a 21st Century phenomenon.”

    That say’s it all – while the Spirituals (especially the 3 Door version) would have faced tough challenges from the Daihatsu Cuores and Ford Kas of this world, ten years after its launch, the new MINI still has no serious rival.

    I think that, for one brief moment in the history of the British motor industry, a management team obviously made the right decision…

  29. We all hope that the mini spiritual comes up to the expectations of the consumers.As the car enthusiasts are always looking and waiting for the best compact cars around so this would probably be the one.

  30. @Simon Woodward
    I think that Nanjing Automobile (Group) Corporation own the Austin name. There were rumours a while back of the Austin name being revived – at least in China. See: Nanjing set to resurrect Austin Motor Co., Viknesh Vijayenthiran, Motor Authority, 20th February, 2007.

    Incidentally, that report also mentioned Fiat diesels, which may slot into the MG6…

    @Clive Goldthorp
    I’m not sure who owns the design. The Roewe E1 is similar in concept, if not in style, and would make an interesting Austin 7 with either electric or motorbike engine propulsion. See: Roewe E1 Concept Car – is the Rover Spiritual back from the dead? China Car Times, 25th April, 2010.

  31. For some reason, I like the look of the 3-door Spiritual more then the 5-door Spiritual Too that IMO would of needed more work on the styling front if were approved.

    It would of been interesting to see the Spiritual being powered by the stillborn 3-cylinder K-Series engine from a 659cc to a 1000cc, in 3-door 659cc form Rover would have probably sold the Spiritual by the dozen particularly as a Kei Car in Japan. Not to mention a Hot sub-1.0 litre version of the Spiritual along the lines of the Cuore Avanzato or a Charade GTti, with other possible spinoffs.

  32. I think No36 has hit the nail on the head. No doubt the Spiritual is a far more advanced design then the BMW MINI and would have been as radical as the original Mini was in 1959. But it would have probably generated modest profits and competed in the non-premium, mass market cess pit. BMW cleverly realised that building a conventional car that looked a bit like a Mni that could be positioned as a premium product would have the cash tills ringing, as they have now done for over 10 years. You cant knock them for reading the market so well.

  33. This is true.

    The 3 door looks vaguely Micra-like, the 5 door Matiz-like, neither of which are premium.
    The ‘i’ and the Toyota ‘iQ’ are probably the closest to a Mini MINI, but aren’t huge sellers.

    As for the Countryman – has anyone ever seen a Toyota Urban Cruiser?

  34. Thanks for reminding us of this Keith – I do hope we don’t add the Spirituals to the list that includes the P6B, the P8, the P9, the SD2 and the incredible pininfiara 1100 and 1800’s – please, BMW, if you have a heart, produce these as the next MiNi’s (did a Steve Jobs there!)

  35. Ianto – March 19, 2011
    The Austin brand has no mileage in the UK.
    Which is really sad – I mean what did Austin ever do that was so great?
    Well, yes they did produce this little thing called the Seven throughout the 30’s which revolutionised cars of the time and they did make the Austin Somerset which earned more revenue for the government than any car before or since and they did sell the Somerset to the Japs so that they could make it – and then start their industry …………bugger! Shot myself in the foot now!

  36. @17 I have a 500, and have never known the dashboard plastic to reflect in my eyes, have you actually driven one, or are you just commenting on what you *think* might happen?

    Amused at the TA engine comment also. Because I’m interested how you would engineer a twin cylinder engine?

    As for Spiritual and Spiritual Too. I vividly remember seeing them at the time and wishing these were the ‘real’ new Mini, and being bitterly disappointed with the Frank Stephenson effort that finally transpired. I’ve warmed to R50 over the years, I think he redeemed himself with the Nuova Cinquecento though, and FIAT have proved that they probably have what is needed to make a small car that’s a little more relevant. The MINI really has lost the plot, I feel.

  37. The spiritual may have been ahead of its time and cleverer than the BINI but as far as looks go it makes the Rootes slug look sexy and would have totally sunk in the maketplace, They were right to can it and make the R50

  38. “The two cars were powered by a mid-engined 660cc triple… [which] was a brave move considering BL and BMC had been locked into FWD since the 1959 launch of the Mini.”

    What about the Marina, Ital & dare I say it, the Austin 3 litre.

    Granted the latter one was a dreadful selling anachronism given that the world had moved on from buying three litre cars from bread & butter manufacturers to two litre ones with a premium badge on them. However although much scorned, the Marina & Ital were strong sellers for their manufacturer, in the case of the former, almost always being in the top ten bestsellers.

    Therefore I doubt that Rover would have had any qualms with re-introducing RWD into their product range, not to mention BMW who are still yet to launch a car bearing that badge (chose my words carefully there) with FWD (although they do have an FWD 1 series under development).

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. AROnline live » Tata Pixel : The real successor to Sir Alec Issigonis’ original Mini?
  2. Wayne Sotogi’s thoroughly modern Mini (the 10 ft long variety) « Jack Yan: the Persuader Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.