Essay : The two-millionth Mini

The Mini hit its big landmark in 1969, a seismic year in the history of BMC>Rover.

IAN NICHOLLS recalls the day the two millionth rolled off the production line – a day when BMC and BL met, and a point in time when everthing started going downhill forever…

George Turnbull (left) smiles for the camera, while Sir Alec Issigonis (right) puts on a brave face...
George Turnbull (left) smiles for the camera, while Sir Alec Issigonis (right) puts on a brave face…

THURSDAY June 19th 1969 the British motor industry reached an important landmark – it was the date the first British car to pass two million in production terms. The number one UK single was, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, by the Beatles, (although only Messrs Lennon and McCartney played on the recording), and the number one UK album was ‘Nashville Skyline’ by Bob Dylan.

How very Sixties.

And the car to reach that landmark had been owned by all four Beatles – the Mini.

The first British car to top the one million landmark was the Morris Minor in January 1961, and that was followed by the Mini in February 1965. The ADO16 caught up fast in March 1967. The common denominator for all three was their designer, Alec Arnold Constantine Issigonis.

In the week proceeding the two millionth Mini, the Queen’s birthday honours list had conferred a knighthood on their designer. In June 1969 the weekly production of the Mini from all of BLMC’s plants was running at nearly 7000, and it was the fifth best selling car in the UK with 8.1 per cent of the market.

The chairman of BLMC, Lord Stokes was quoted at the time: “The success of the Mini is a great tribute to its original concept, and its continuing popularity all over the world shows the public’s faith in this reliable, high quality little vehicle. I see no reason why the Mini, albeit in other forms, should not continue for another 10 years.”

BLMC deputy managing director and managing director of the Austin Morris Division, George Turnbull, also added to the applause for this landmark event: “The Mini will be the backbone of our production in the Longbridge plant – the biggest in the group – for many years to come. Over a third of the vehicles we make in the Austin Morris Division are Minis, and especially after all these years of experience it is a high quality smooth running job. Moreover, Harry Webster our chief engineer, and his team have many good ideas up their sleeves for keeping the Mini ever fresh in the future”.

And so the great day came, June 19th 1969, the media were present to see Sir Alec Issigonis and George Turnbull and Mini number two million come off the Longbridge production line, as the accompanying picture shows. What is interesting is to look behind the public relations façade.

The previous year, 1968, had seen the BMC-Leyland merger. Sir Donald Stokes had moved many ex-Triumph men such as the Canley firms boss, George Turnbull and technical director Harry Webster into Longbridge. The Leyland men believed that Alec Issigonis was responsible for many of BMC’s problems and moved him sideways from his all powerful post of BMC technical director to one of research and development.

The month before the two millionth Mini, May 1969, had seen the delayed launch of the the last Issigonis car, the Austin Maxi, to lukewarm reviews. In short, the newly honoured Sir Alec Issigonis was held in low esteem by his new masters. Of course one could speculate that Issigonis’ knighthood was a form of compensation for his deposal from a position of influence, given to him by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, upon the recommendation of his friend Lord Stokes, BLMC chairman.

But we have no evidence for this. On June 19th 1969, whatever his true feelings, Alec Issigonis went along with the PR exercise.

George Turnbull had managed Triumph which also manufactured a small car launched in 1959, the Triumph Herald which would be defunct by 1971. One wonders what went through his mind when he posed with Issigonis. How was it that a small firm like Triumph ended up controlling the once mighty BMC?

In 2001 Lord Stokes had this to say about Alec Issigonis and the Mini: “I liked Issigonis very much, but he resisted any changes whatsoever to the Mini, to make it more fashionable. It was an expensive car to make – there were so many different body pressings. We lost about £20 per Mini. Then people wonder why I scrapped the Cooper. We were giving more money to Mr Cooper than we were making in profit.”

Whatever one’s views about subsequent events at British Leyland, George Turnbull and his team in the Austin Morris Division inherited a failing company and managed it far more competently than the outgoing BMC management, the figures prove this. Sadly as the Seventies began the model range began to age rapidly and the new generation of post-Issigonis, Leyland backed cars failed to sell in the same numbers.

The ADO16 would also top the two million mark around 1971/72, but the hits would become fewer and further apart for BMC>Rover. In June 1969 BLMC seemed to be on top of the world, masters of small car design, who would have thought that it would all end with the ignominious CityRover?


Ian Nicholls
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