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:
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.
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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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…
* 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.