Today marks the 25th Anniversary of one of the most significant Minis in the diminutive car’s history.
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Mini 30, the model was suffering – it was, of course, as entertaining to drive as ever, but at the same time it was outdated, noisy, uncomfortable and struggling to find traction in a car market that was evolving rapidly.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.
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.
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.
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!