Opinion : A MINI milestone …

Chris Cowin highlights how global production of MINI-branded cars by BMW had reached 5.337 million by the end of 2021, and by now (mid 2022) will have overtaken the 1959-2000 global production total for the classic Mini – a figure most sources put at (or near) 5,387,862* – with the majority built in Britain in both cases.

Some will see that as a good thing, some a bad thing – but it’s still a thing…


MINI: marking an important milestone

It’s comparing apples (or an apple) with pears of course, but the fact that we’re discussing the point when MINI (usually capitalised) production outstripped the original Mini’s illustrates the scale of the Cowley operation. The site, now unromantically called MINI Plant Oxford, has manufactured the lion’s share of new MINI models since 2001 (over 4 million) with most going for export, which perhaps masks that scale for some.

However, any such comparison requires a few ‘qualifiers’ and these are therefore set out below:

What counts?

We’re talking about all the cars built under the MINI brand globally since the first new version rolled off the Cowley line on 26 April 2001 – a range of different models spread over several generations have all been badged MINI, so we are not talking about just one model. Currently, the Cowley plant builds the three- and five-door Hatch, Clubman estate and electric MINI.

The production figures for the original Mini do, of course, include variants such as the Riley Elf, Mini Traveller, the Clubmans, the pick-up and so on, going through several ‘Marks’, with often major differences in overseas production – but they’re all generally accepted as variations on a single car rather than a range of different cars.

That said, when some were first unveiled, such as the Riley Elf/Wolseley Hornet in 1961 and the Clubman in 1969 – there were those who attacked them as departures from the original Issigonis concept.

Continuation Cowley

MINI Plant Oxford (the name given to the factory which occupies the old Pressed Steel Fisher site in Cowley) built its three millionth car in late 2016, and 4,065,070 new MINIs had rolled off the line by the end of 2021. UPDATE: Adding 2022 and 2023 production lifts that figure to 4,436,288. So at the time of writing (March 2024) one can say Mini Plant Oxford has built approx. 4.5 million cars.

COVID-19 and semi-conductor shortages have caused problems lately, but the plant can build 1000 cars per day, and the figures show it’s been responsible for around 80% of total MINI output since 2001.

However, locations overseas including Austria, China, the Netherlands and Indonesia also build MINI vehicles, and swell the cumulative global production figure to beyond 5 million. By the end of 2021 5,337,000 MINI branded cars had been built globally.

Something similar applied to the classic Mini, with most production in certainly Australia, South Africa and Spain counting as full-scale manufacture from locally-sourced parts rather than assembly from British-supplied Complete Knock Down (CKD) kits, which would be included in the British production figures.

At the peak (see below) such CKD kits for assembly in overseas locations accounted for as much as half of the Mini production credited to the UK plants.

Matching the best?

The BMW MINI range therefore appears to have achieved in 21 years something it took the original Mini in its various forms 41 years to do – in reality, though, that’s not quite fair. The bulk of production of the original Mini occurred in the first two decades, and production of the four millionth Mini was celebrated in 1976 – so MINI Plant Oxford has been building MINI-badged cars in roughly the same quantities as BMC and, later British Leyland, were building the original Mini in Britain prior to 1980.

The four-millionth Mini was built in 1976, around 17 years after production began. Seen here with Sue Cuff

At the peak in 1971, British Leyland was also building around 1000 Minis a day (at Longbridge), though up to half were kits for overseas assembly, which typically lacked many parts (which would be sourced in the destination country) and were of lower value than a complete car. The kits sent to Innocenti in considerable quantity (50,000 annually at the peak) were certainly far from being a whole car.

Hollowed out? 

Some will say that MINI cars built today are merely assembled from imported components, so the contribution made by BMW’s MINI Plant Oxford to the UK manufacturing sector – and the UK economy – cannot be compared to the past. But certainly body panels for the current MINI are British made (in Swindon in the former British Leyland/Pressed Steel Fisher plant).

Moreover, engines have been built at Hams Hall, Birmingham for many years. That plant, which had built 5 million engines by 2019, also exports them to other BMW plants worldwide (Germany, USA, South Africa) which can be seen as a sort of ‘collateral benefit’ of having MINI production in the UK (without which Hams Hall almost certainly wouldn’t exist).

Volumes compared

With BMW having built over four million cars at Cowley during 2001-2021, the company has been building cars in Britain in volumes that, if not as big as Rover Group in the previous 20 years, equate to more than half of that figure. Rover built 7.85 million cars** (Cowley and Longbridge combined) during the 21 years 1980-2000 inclusive, a period which began with BL Cars being the nation’s largest car manufacturer and exporter.

In terms of output, MINI Plant Oxford (2001 and 2021 models pictured) has achieved around half the total car output of Rover (formerly Austin-Rover) from Cowley and Longbridge combined during the preceding two decades

And perhaps more surprisingly, with production of over 200,000 cars annually (2018 was 234,183 for example), BMW has been building more MINI cars at Cowley than British Leyland built cars there, on average, in the 1970s – when Cowley built Marina, Maxi and Princess (plus 1100/1300 until 1974), and British Leyland was the nation’s biggest car manufacturer.

Output averaged around 175,000 cars annually in the 1970s, but in 1980 only 105,000 new cars left Cowley, while its best ever 12 month period was fiscal 1965/66 when 312,000 complete vehicles of all types rolled off the lines. (Cowley stopped building the Mini in 1968, production then concentrating on Longbridge).

So, it’s wrong to see MINI Plant Oxford as a mere shadow of former glories, even if it occupies far less space than the old plant once did. That said, to be fair, the Cowley estate produced some incomplete cars in the 1970s as well as finished cars – most notably, the painted and trimmed MGB/GT bodies and the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow bodyshell, which were both produced at Pressed Steel Fisher.

Marina production at Cowley in the 1970s. MINI Plant Oxford has been turning out cars in greater volumes than Cowley achieved in many years under British Leyland

What’s in a name?

Some will say all comparisons are meaningless as the BMW MINI cars built in Cowley are far from mini in size, and that it’s a travesty to apply the MINI brand to them. Well, maybe…

My (purely personal) opinion is that – given the economic benefits production of MINI in Cowley brings including employment of 4000 on site and more at Swindon and Hams Hall, business for suppliers, tax revenues for the Treasury and a huge balance of payments boost, we should get over that hang-up, as the MINI brand clearly helps sell cars built in Cowley around the globe.

The latest Volkswagen Touareg or expensive VW Arteon are far from being the ‘People’s Car’ the Volkswagen name once promised. I doubt, though, that people in Germany are wishing ill on VW, thus threatening jobs and prosperity, over the misapplication of a word…


Notes

* 5,387,862 is the figure given in ‘The complete catalogue of the Mini‘ by Chris Rees – defined as the number announced by Rover when production ended for cumulative production worldwide. Almost exactly the same figure is given here on AROnline and, when BMW celebrated production of the 10 millionth Mini (all types since 1959) during 2019, they used a figure close to 5.3 million for the original in its calculation.

There are many other figures (and many ways to calculate them due to the treatment of overseas production, commercial versions etc.) but they are mostly around that point in the ‘five million plus’ range. However, of that total, only around 600,000 were manufactured at Cowley.

An analysis by Ian Nicholls uncovered many of the discrepancies in Mini production figures, problems with the records, potential double-counting and so on. Ian’s analysis demonstrates how it’s been possible for some people to arrive at a grand total of over six million (original) Minis produced.

The figures quoted for cumulative Cowley production and global production of MINI vehicles since 2001 up till the end of 2021 are supplied by BMW-MINI.

** Figure for 1980-2000 Rover production is for ‘Cars’ (so excluding commercial vehicles) from Cowley and Longbridge combined – it excludes Land Rover production.

SMMT/Manufacturer data

Chris Cowin

32 Comments

  1. Most homosexuals are not ‘gay’, nor do they come from the Greek island of Lesbos – and neither is the MINI very small; the name breaches the Trade Discription Act.

    • I don’t see the point of this piece at all. Why is it a controversial milestone? Today’s MINI doesn’t occupy the same market niche as the original. It’s a lifestyle car in the way that the Capri and the Manta were in the 1970s. This is a rather transparent attempt to stir up shitstorm of posts complaining that the current car isn’t the same as the 60-odd year old original. Really?, who could possibly have imagined. A non-story.

      • Well the point – I suppose – was to point out how (love them or loathe them) the MINI range of cars has been a global success (and with around 80% built in the UK – quite a success story for Britain & British manufacturing despite the ownership issue etc.). Highlighting how production is poised to over-take the lifetime total for the classic Mini – typically described as the most popular car Britain ever produced, and the one built in the greatest numbers – serves to highlight that even if (as I wrote) it’s comparing apples with pears rather ..

  2. I still prefer the look of the original Mini especially the Clubman 1275GT shown above (and Sue Cuff!). The current MINI range is “Mini by name but not Mini by nature.

  3. The BMW MINI has not yet surpassed the production figure 5.387 million cars of the Mini, I am thinking if we extrapolate the production figures of the MINI it may take more years of output and even then the figures may infringe the deadline for the demise of IC car production, is the deadline still 2030?

    • The end of ic car production won’t affect the electric MINI which is made at Cowley, presumably they’ll just switch production to all electric in 2030.

    • What figures are you using? As detailed above global production of the MINI had already passed 5 million in early 2021. (4 million is the Cowley figure alone). …. It will probably be impossible to define the exact day global MINI production outstrips the figure for the original Mini especially because (as discussed) that figure is itself vague. But it must be getting close to the 5.387 million figure normally used (I have asked the MINI press department for a concise figure but since April 2021 they have been content to simply say “over 5 million” for cumulative production of the new MINI since 2001). UPDATE – At the end of 2021 global production of MINI branded vehicles had reached 5.337 million.

      • I used the figure 4 million from the article, the Cowley figure, I was not aware the MINI was made anywhere else.

  4. If the internet had existed in 1959, forums like this would’ve been full of people moaning about the original Mini, and how it wasn’t a proper car, and it would never sell.

    • A lot of people did complain, and it didn’t sell very well for the first couple of years. Ford sold a lot of 105E Anglias, also launched in 1959, to people who wanted a “real” car, and arguably made much more profit on their car. The idolisation of the Issigonis Mini arrived in the mid-sixties when it became cool among people who the designer did not have in mind when he penned it.

      • Sales took off after the great & good of the West End found how easy it was to park a Mini & could cope with other aspects of inner city driving. This seemed to filer down to rank & file motorists in due course.

  5. With MINI now very well established the production numbers were bound to overtake the BMC original at some point so I’m not sure what controversy you’re trying to stir up here. People’s views on Mini vs MINI have been firmly entrenched since launch back in 2001 and the topic has become somewhat predictable and boring. But, like the cars or not we can probably agree that BMW’s MINI is a success story for UK plc. With the production milestone passed, surely we can be happy with that?

  6. One thing that must be said, MINI saved Cowley from possible closure and Plant Oxford is one of the most productive and successful car factories in the world. It hasn’t lost a day to industrial action, unlike the Cowley of old, and makes a product people all over the world want to buy. Even the MINIs made in the Netherlands have a large British content, as the engines are produced at Hams Hall.

  7. Another excellent article Chris.
    The success of the BMW MINI highlights what I have been banging on about in recent articles.
    The formation of British Leyland threw away the lead in front wheel drive technology created by Alec Issigonis and his team because the new management believed it was an unprofitable millstone for the company and not to be perpetuated. This year, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the initiation of the ADO74 programme and Ford’s ‘bobcat’ project, which I strongly suspect was a reaction to the success of the Fiat 127 and Renault 5. Previous attempts to replace the Mini in the form of the 9x and the 1968 hatchback Clubman had obviously failed the financial cross examination by the bean counters.
    This is an example of the failure of blinkered British management, who thought they could sell cost controlled fragile rubbish in high volume instead.
    BMW realised that ‘Mini’ is perhaps the most iconic global small car brand there is and had the courage to relaunch it it anew.

  8. We should be proud of the new MINI. It’s been a huge success from day one, has moved with the times with crossover models, and most owners have been very pleased with their purchases and have kept coming back. MINI saved 5000 jobs at Cowley and created over 1000 more at the Hams Hall engine factory, which makes engines for smaller BMWs as well as for MINIs.

  9. Surely articles like this are simply thought provoking or myth busting. I can’t see Chris is stirring up anything – it’s just a point of view based on well-researched statistics.

  10. Thanks Chris for an interesting article (and great pictures). For anyone who thinks the MINI isn’t a small car, I’d suggest that it is by today’s standards. There aren’t many smaller new cars than a MINI 3 door hatch (examples being the Citroen C1, Fiat 500, Suzuki Ignis and VW Up!).
    Of course with ever expanding safety regulations (and humans!) the MINI had to grow much bigger than the 1959 original. But the same goes for any car from recent years, compared to an equivalent from decades ago. Just compare today’s Golf with the 1974 original. Heck, even today’s Polo is bigger than the first Golf.
    And no, the MINI wasn’t a direct replacement for the original, inventing a new class of premium small car. And they’ve expanded the range, with the Countryman and current Clubman not being particularly small. But I think these things are forgivable.

  11. I wonder if BMW Mini had gone into production and stayed at Longbridge, as originally planned, with MG Rover keeping the 75 at Cowley (with the 25, 45 and MGF moved there) would the BMW Mini volumes by now be even higher (also with no need for Dutch and possible German manufacture) due to Longbridge being a larger and less cramped plant?

  12. I drive a modern mini which is very good apart from the high road tax at 161 pounds which is excessive for a small car I look at it ad a British built bmw brand names mean nothing these days look at all the foreign imports like dyson joules roberts radio etch british names on imported products mini are good cars better than the boring boxes other cars look like

  13. I’ve updated this “MINI milestone” article with some more precise data …. For the record cumulative global production of vehicles bearing the MINI brand by BMW since 2001 had reached 5.337 million by the end of 2021, of which 4.065 million rolled off the Cowley (MINI plant Oxford) assembly line.
    That means (given current rates of MINI output) that global production of MINI vehicles will have reached the number usually used for global production of the classic Mini (5.387 million) in early 2022 – almost exactly 21 years after the first BMW MINI was built in early 2001. We’re comparing apples with pears of course (as the article emphasizes). Also worth noting (as explored by Ian Nicholls elsewhere on AROnline) that the 5.387 million figure for global production of the classic Mini is “disputed” with some calculations arriving at a higher figure – some put it as high as 6 million.

  14. The original Mini would no longer be saleable for a number of reasons such as crash safety and emissions performance; it is also TOO SMALL for today’s buyers. As Britons, we should be glad that BM are building the new Mini in Britain, offering jobs in Swindon and business for UK suppliers. Let’s be pragmatic, and quit cutting off our noses (rounded or squared off) to spite our faces.

  15. @ Ken Strachan, the original Mini was only selling to enthusiasts during its last years on the market and couldn’t compete with its rivals for space, refinement and safety. BMW’s 21st century interpretation of the Mini, like the new 500 for Fiat, has completely reinvented the brand as an upmarket small car with many hints to the original Mini and sales have been excellent.

  16. 105.000 card in 1980 must have been the low point of Cowley production. By 83 it was building nigh on 200.000 a year half of them Meastros. Plus 50k Acclaims 30k Rovers and 14k Ambassadors. Joint production of meastro and montego was 188k in 85 plus some Rovers. Combined out put of M cars and Rover 800 in period 87/89 was close to 200k a year.

  17. You’re right Rob – 1980 with just 105,000 cars (Marina-Ital/Maxi/Princess) built at Cowley was indeed a low point. Cowley output expanded in the early 80s following the investment made to build Acclaim, then add the Rover SD1, then start building Maestro/Montego – and (as you say) Cowley was building around 200,000 cars annually in the late 80s.
    But the point I was making (to copy direct from the article) is that MINI production has been running at similar levels and “it’s wrong to see MINI Plant Oxford as a mere shadow of former glories, even if it occupies far less space than the old plant once did.”
    BMW have built 4.25 million MINIs at Cowley in 21 and a half years (April 2001- Dec 2022 inclusive). That averages around 200,000 per year (some years were higher such as 2018 with 234,000).

  18. Absolutely agree Chris. Think it’s great Cowley is still building cars in such numbers and giving work thousands of people. It must be our oldest car plant still in use. 1913 I think Morris started on this site.
    By the way your books are superb, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading them. So well researched. Thanks

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