Blog : Raise a glass to… 25 years of the Mini Cooper RSP

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Craig Cheetham

Today marks the 25th Anniversary of one of the most significant Minis in the diminutive car’s history.

 

rsp cooper 1

Without the Cooper RSP, it’s arguable that the Rover Mini may not have survived much beyond the dawn of the 1990s. Already over 30 years old, the Mini continued in production due to a steady drip of demand, with the UK, Japan and France being its main markets.

Yet, despite a number of special editions, including the poshed-up, leather-trimmed Mini 30, the model was suffering – it was, of course, as entertaining to drive as ever, but at the same time it was outdated, noisy, uncomfortable and struggling to find traction in a car market that was evolving rapidly.

Enter the RSP – which stood for Rover Special Products. It was, to all intents and purposes, a ‘proper’ Mini Cooper, in every sense of the word. Rover Group, having emerged from the mire of the Austin-Rover years, had been watching some of the work that legendary tuner John Cooper had been doing with existing customers’ Minis – notably versions of the Sky Blue, Rose, Flame Red, Jet Black and Red Hot that had been exported to Japan. And they liked what they saw.

How Rover told its dealers about the RSP at launch
How Rover told its dealers about the RSP at launch

After a decade of indecision on the Mini’s future, Rover boss Graham Day finally gave the green light for a new Cooper, conceptualised by the very man himself. John Cooper stamped his mark on the Rover Mini and, on 10 July 1990, the RSP was announced. It was to be the first Mini since the 1275GT to feature the biggest production version of the A-Series engine, and in order to get it into production quickly, it borrowed features from other models in the Mini range, including leather seats from the Mini 30, a poshed-up handbrake gaiter, red carpets and a red, leather-clad steering wheel.

Other identifying features included white bonnet stripes featuring John Cooper’s signature facing outward towards the wings, a new ‘Mini Cooper’ bonnet badge featuring rally-winners’ laurel wreaths and 12-inch Minilite-style alloys.

The car also came with a standard fit Webasto sunroof, colour-coded side body mouldings, Philips R570 radio-cassette and smart ‘Mini Cooper’ labels stitched into the seats.

Under the bonnet, the engine was identical to that in the MG Metro – the standard 1275cc A+ unit with a single carb, producing 60bhp, although there was the option of a John Cooper Garages ‘S-Pack’ that would push this up to 78bhp.

RSP-Cooper-6

Body colours were restricted to three options: Flame Red, British Racing Green and Black, each with  white roof.

Initially, the RSP was a limited edition. Just 1,650 were built, 600 for export and 1,050 for the UK market. However, its popularity was sufficient for Rover to commission a standard Cooper almost immediately and the rest, as they say, is history. Indeed, the export angle is a relevant one today, too – with the RSP now reaching the 25-year milestone, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to values now they’re eligible for export to the USA.

From 1990, then, the Mini reinvented itself and survived right up until the 21st century – a remarkable achievement for a car that was already an antique – and yet another demonstration of how, against all the odds, Rover managed to pull off yet another marketing masterstroke.

Cooper RSP - the car that kick-started the rebirth of the classic Mini...
Cooper RSP – the car that kick-started the rebirth of the classic Mini…

Without the RSP, we might not have a Mini at all today. It could have been taken out of production before BMW came to the table, and have been dead long before its Rover-engineered replacement was ever ready. And we certainly wouldn’t have had a whole generation of ‘modern’ Rover Coopers to go at.

Happy birthday, wee fella!

 

Craig Cheetham

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

20 Comments

  1. One small correction : MG Metro was 72 bhp DIN, so the engine was not the same as in the Cooper RSP

  2. Nice little car the Cooper RSP. If I bought one, Brit Racing Green would do for me. Last Mini I drove was a 1985 hire car in IOM.

  3. I was there in 1990 when these cars hit the dealers, don’t remember the Webasto Roof being standard. Also vaguely remember the engine being 70 bhp.

    The 1.0 litre was 45 bhp, the standard Metro 1275 was 60 bhp and MG/GTA was 70ish BHP.

  4. The Rover Mini Cooper did use the MG Metro engine. It used an unleaded small valve head, in use on the MG Metro from 1989, combined with a catalytic converter. This sapped some 12 bhp in all.
    It also explains why Rover needed the K-series engine to meet emissions legislation.

  5. My ’99 Cooper in BRG was the best car I’ve ever owned in the ‘hooning about with a big stupid grin’ stakes.

    Should never have sold it.

    Nice to know it’s still on the road and being well looked after, though.

  6. 1990 was the year Rover got everything right. Remember this was the year there were waiting lists for the 200 and 400, as the cars were so good, the Metro had been drastically improved for the nineties and even the Mini was given a new lease of life with a Cooper version. It wasn’t to last, of course, but for about 4 years Rovers were far more desirable than their rivals.

    • There was also a 12-week waiting time for the new Maestro diesel models in the Summer of 1990 after the 2-litre Prima diesel engine was introduced into car range from March of that year.

  7. The role of RSP was certainly very interesting as not only did it have to be careful not to ‘step on the toes’ of those involved in mainline design projects, but its main remit was to deliver engaging new image enhancing variants that could enrich the relevant brand and also be commercially viable.

    Other variants they conceived included the Range Rover CSK, MGR V8 and Land Rover Defender 90 SV. RSP also conceived and completed much of the development for projects such as the R8 Rover 200 Cabriolet and Coupe and 400 Tourer before they were eventually absorbed as mainline projects. And let’s not forget the Mini Cabriolet and Rover Metro Cabriolet either which were also courtesy of RSP. As were many of those special edition models which did not have the same degree of specialist engineering content.

    In 1994, after just five years as a stand-alone entity, the RSP operation was disbanded. From that point onwards the next meaningful specialist model to be unveiled by the Rover Cars division with significant trim and engineering changes was the Rover 200 BRM unveiled at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show. However, some of the RSP’s sentiments were still evident – a small team of design engineers devoted to the project who brought specialist knowledge from a number of different areas, to create a commercially viable low volume production model.

    • I forgot to include the 1991 Rover 820 Turbo 16V in the list of projects conceived and managed by Rover Special Projects (RSP).

  8. The mini RSP would have been in production longer had rover give it a bit more bhp it should have been minimum 90 bhp considering the extra weight.
    Then i reckon it would have sold like hot cakes.

  9. In 1990 Ford were producing very underwhelming cars. You had the new Escort, which was awful and unreliable, the 1989 Fiesta offered little over its predecessor, and the Sierra was an ageing rwd car with new engines that were developing a bad reputation for problems. Also the Granada seemed to lack class and just looked like a big Sierra. You can see why Rover’s classier ands better made cars were stealing sales.

  10. I may be mistaken (my memory isn’t what it used to was) but I’m sure that some years ago I drove a Standard Mini Cooper S (one of the last ones) that had single point fuel injection and a (Jack Knight?) 5 speed gearbox.
    Could this be true or am I halluscinating?

    • @ Alistair
      You are correct it was possible to order a cooper S with a jack knight 5 speed box, But very expensive it was. The RSP should have had a 5 cog box fitted along with 90 bhp then what a superb mini it could have been.

  11. Raise a glass for this one ?

    For sure!

    But is it a glass half full or half empty?

    Product development at Rover/Austin Rover/Leyland/BLMC/BMC was certainly very haphazard….this is great car but any other company would have designed a whole new model over all those decades……

  12. 1990. My Dad’s Superb 216GSi. My brother in law’s also superb 3dr 214Si. And my Mum had a 1 year old Mini Racing Green (the car that tested the water for the Cooper return).

    Today? I have a 1990 Mini Cooper “Mainstream”. A car that is even rarer than the RSP, because people realised to preserve and restore the RSP, but not the mainstream.

    The RSP was exciting, but it came about thanks to the 1989 Racing Green/Flame Red, which need to be remembered in the same context.

  13. I’m pretty sure I used to convert these at pre-delivery. There was a kit in a wooden box including a cylinder head & the bonnet stripes

  14. “From 1990, then, the Mini reinvented itself and survived right up until the 21st century – a remarkable achievement for a car that was already an antique – and yet another demonstration of how, against all the odds, Rover managed to pull off yet another marketing masterstroke.”

    Or, being mean, a sign of how BL/ARG misread the market by NOT selling performance Minis between 1980 and 1990!

    Indeed, it’s notable that when BMW decided to launch a new Mini, their model was entirely about style, handling and performance, while the Rover people were interested in practicality and space efficiency.

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