The BMC Mini Sports project was penned by BMC as a response to the excellent Pininfarina 1800 Aerodynamica – could this wonderful fastback shape be scaled down into the Mini class?
Given a Mini Van floorpan and an overall design concept, BMC’s Design Office devised this interesting-looking supermini for the 1970s. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Mini Sports: A British take on an Italian recipe
It’s interesting to consider how history could have been very different for BMC. With a little more time and patience from the Government, allied with the strong leadership of Joe Edwards (who was being groomed to replace Sir George Harriman in the lead-up to the Leyland takeover of 1968), the corporation really did stand a chance of having a bright future without the interference of Stokes and his men.
Central to the company’s renaissance could have been the groundbreaking Paolo Martin-styled Pininfarina Aerodynamica 1800 and 1100 concepts. The firm really should have pursued these cars – and there’s plenty of evidence that they did in Longbridge. Sadly, in reality, there was no way that was ever going to happen, not while Sir Alec Issigonis was in charge of engineering.
The downsized 1800
Firstly, the 18o0 made it to Longbridge, where technical chief Harry Webster ended up running the car – either during or after its technical shakedown. Then there was the firm’s support of Pininfarina’s second variation on the theme – the smaller, and just as handsome Citroën GS-sized 1100.
However, an even smaller model was pursued. It first saw the light of day in the public domain in the book British Leyland: The Truth About The Cars, by Jeff Daniels, which contains the image (below) of a rather fascinating wooden mock-up. It’s captioned as the BMC Pininfarina Aerodynamica 1100 and, for many years, this has been the conventionally received wisdom.
However, this was a smaller, Mini-based car, that – judging by the Longbridge tunnel location this shot was taken in – was being evaluated by BMC in the UK. Further evidence of this is in the picture at the top of the page published by Car Design Archives – an in-house BMC-branded sketch referring to the Mini Sports, which would have been developed into the aforementioned mock-up
A smaller package
Pininfarina-man Paolo Martin has confirmed that this was not a Pininfarina model, and merely a BMC conflation of his previous designs into a smaller package. He said, ‘The pattern seen in the photograph was not built by Pininfarina, the pitch and length are different – it is probably an attempt to adapt to Mini.’
So, contrary to earlier conclusions, these Italian models had not been rejected out of hand by the British. Longbridge treated them seriously enough to see if it would package successfully on a Mini Van platform with its 84in wheelbase to create an exciting small car for the 1970s.
Based on the Mini Van
According to Jon Pressnell’s book, Mini – The Definitive History, this is very much the case. ‘This mock-up was created at Longbridge as an extrapolation of the Pininfarina originals and stored in the Longbridge tunnels. On a 4in longer wheelbase, the overall length has gone up to close on 12ft, so one can’t see Issigonis having approved. The car seems barely smaller than the 1100 proposal and lacks the elegance of the 1800.’
BMC was feverishly working on a number of projects to replace the Mini and battle in a supermini sector that had yet to be defined. The main programmes were Issigonis’ pet project, the amazing 9X, an intriguing ‘barrel Mini‘ (Project Ant) that we really don’t know enough about, and various ideas by Roy Haynes including a neat hatchback, which ultimately led to the Mini Clubman.
However, the idea of the Mini Sports was possibly far more radical than the rest, at least visually and certainly in a marketing sense of the word. Think about it – BMC’s Pininfarina-inspired model strategy was very simple: three vehicles, based on Issigonis’ front-wheel-drive Mini, 1100 and 1800 platforms and styled to have a clear family identity. Sounds very modern, doesn’t it!
A new marketing direction, too?
The 1800 wore the BMC initials proudly on its nose. It completely dropped the Austin and Morris marque names. Could that have happened for real? Brave indeed – but, with the benefit of hindsight, possibly the correct path to choose, although Citroën GS/CX comparisons might not be too wise considering what happened to that company in 1974.
The funny thing is BMC was slowly grasping its way to just a model strategy of its own, during its short-lived British Motor Holdings era, masterminded by Roy Haynes and Joe Edwards in Cowley. The problem was that the management centre of gravity under Harriman still favoured Issigonis and his Engineering Team in Longbridge – and, as we know, they were set fair for an industrial-scale collision with Lord Stokes and Leyland.
Thanks to Ian Nicholls, Richard Kilpatrick and Car Design Archives