Opinion : MINI EV leaves the UK – keep calm, carry on?

MINI Electric production leaves Cowley

News that BMW is to axe production of the MINI Electric and relocate it to China has seriously derailed the UK’s intention to spearhead what disgraced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the ‘£1bn electric car revolution.’

The final UK-built MINI Electric will roll off the line at Cowley next year, leaving the factory producing an all-ICE line-up. It seems like an odd decision given the European market’s headlong rush into its electric future – but China and Korea are where the fastest EV progress is being made, and where the majority of the world’s battery packs are sourced.

From a global perspective, the move makes sense for BMW, but it does rather leave Cowley reliant on BMW sticking to its word and continuing to keep faith with the plant. The BMW Group’s Head of MINI brand, Stefanie Wurst, says that ‘Oxford will always be the home of Mini.’ Hmm…

Cowley MINI production: good beyond 2030?

However, one can’t help but think its future could well be limited unless BMW commits to a reintroduction of EV production in the UK in 2030 when the final ICE-engined MINI rolls off the line. With the current state of the UK economy and the lack of a Brexit trade deal with the EU still playing heavy on BMW’s mind (despite the public denials), one can see the company cutting Cowley loose as a volume production site for MINIs.

Yes, the factory will get the next MINI from 2025, with the company confirming that the next-gen Cooper and Convertible will be built here, but it does rather set Cowley’s future into a fixed timeline. Let’s face it, 2030 isn’t that far away.

And the verdict is still out on the UK’s electric car future as it stands today. Britishvolt’s plans for a large-scale battery plant in the north-east of England are faltering and in need of a bailout, yet Stellantis has confirmed that Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant will be the centre of EV operations here in the UK.

What’s the political endgame?

But with politics in turmoil, and Tory Secretaries of State coming and going with increasing speed and desperation, the industrial policy of encouraging EV production and development here looks to be taking a back seat.

Boris Johnson’s starry-eyed COP26 promise that we’ll see hundreds of thousands of green energy jobs in the UK now looks increasingly hollow as we stare down the barrel of Prime Minister Truss/Hunt/Sunak/Mordaunt/whoever’s oncoming austerity.

Before the current ruinous shenanigans in Westminster, one sensed there was a desire to see the UK car industry ‘go electric’. Prime Ministers May and Johnson and the former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng all expressed optimism that this would happen – but that now seems to be slipping away.

An alternative future for Cowley?

The future of Cowley had been put under the spotlight when reports emanated from Germany that BMW was looking to sell it to Joint Venture partner Great Wall, which has lofty European ambitions.

But the company issued a denial, telling the Financial Times, ‘As we move towards becoming an all-electric brand by 2030, Oxford is an integral part of this strategy. Oxford plays a key role in the production strategy of the BMW Group with its high flexibility, competitiveness and competence — also with regard to electromobility.’

So, MINI and Cowley will remain synonymous and are safe beyond 2030, despite the current move away from EV production? Yes, but I’m not so sure it’ll look like it does now. I’m confident, though, that MINI-badged cars will be built there beyond that year – albeit maybe not in the volumes we’re currently used to – and possibly alongside some future Great Wall products. GWM Ora Funky Cats (below) look like something you’d see being built here – assuming geo-politics play nicely for a little longer.

Keith Adams

28 Comments

  1. As I understand it, the move to Cowley dates back to the 2018 deal between BMW and GWM to jointly develop and build EVs in China. The next Mini EV will share its platform with future GWM EVs and be built in the same plant. China will account for far greater Mini EV output than U.K./Europe, at least until the ICE ban takes effect so the move makes sense from an economy of scale viewpoint, particularly given the Chinese have much more battery cell and pack production capacity than currently exists in the U.K.

  2. To be honest, from a business point of view, building small cars in China or India and exporting them makes more financial sense, as manufacturing costs are much lower. What the potential backlash will be from customers is another thing. The US’s stronger stance against China, shown by Apple moving some iPhone production to India, does make you wonder if this will affect sales, or are they hoping Chinese and far East sales will grow and cover this?

    • Not until the public is to ready to denounce products made outside and pay a premium for “made in UK” products. While its a patriotic move, its a economic folly.

  3. This is an interesting one although it does make sense for the time being.

    As I understand it, the plant is also absorbing production from the Netherlands which is ending which is a good thing and the ability to make EVs is not going which also a good thing.

    I am cautiously optimistic especially as I can’t help thinking that we might see a large scale change in direction to see carbon capture fuels or hydrogen join the mix too

  4. I wonder if China is to become what Japan was in the car industry in the seventies and eighties and become a dominant player by making reasonably priced, reliable cars. Just as people sneered at the first Japanese cars to arrive in Europe in the sixties, the Japanese rapidly improved their cars in a short time and by the late seventies, had a major share of the world car market. Remember the MG6 was treated with derision when it arrived and had few sales due to terrible marketing and a tiny dealer network, but now the current range of MGs are sold from a much bigger dealer network and are nearly as good as cars made in Europe and Japan. Perhaps the rise of the Chinese MG and electric Minis made in China is a taste of things to come.

    • I think you’re bang on. It’s also rather like where the Korean firms were after Japanese cars became commonplace in the West. We already have Chinese cars in the UK (wearing the MG badge), and they’re bound to grow massively over the coming years.

  5. I live in the North East and the Britishvolt plan to build a massive battery plant at Blyth was lauded with claims of creating hundreds of quality jobs. However now it is learnt that the project has stalled (temporarily?).

    This news about MINI EV moving to China is another sign of their World dominance in all areas of manufacturing (shipbuilding, Cars, toys, phones etc etc.) A great shame this will affect the British MINI operation, but we reap what we sow.

  6. China isn’t the low cost country (and sound economy) it once was – now superceded by Vietnam and Indonesia. I think Cowley is limited by its size – shame they didn’t keep the site across the main road. Not convinced that Britishvolt is a serious proposition. Presumably ICE production at Cowley ensures that Hams Hall stays open. Apparently Swindon has had recent major investment – you don’t put massive presses in if you’re about to close it down. Doesn’t seem 5 minutes since GWM were making unauthorised Fiat Panda clones.

  7. Well that means I won’t be buying a Mini EV anytime soon and yes I could afford one if I wanted one.
    China is a very aggressive and authoritarian state and will threaten, bully and blackmail any Govt, Country or company if it thinks it can get away with it.
    I know BMW is not a Chinese company but anything that benefits the Chinese state such as foreign investment and building factories there which helps to increase its influence is bad.
    So I don’t want my cash supporting the Chinese economy so wherever possible I do not buy anything Chinese. And yes I know they make loads of components that go into stuff but I do some research and if I can I don’t buy anything I know is significantly Chinese made or owned.
    I see more issues with Chinese expansion in the next 5 to 10 years (Taiwan?) so in the same way I’m appalled that ex-RAF pilots are training their pilots to maybe fight our in a few years (equivalent to ex-RAF pilots training the Luftwaffe in 1935) I don’t want my cash supporting the Chinese economy so it can take over more of the world by stealth or force.

      • So everything in the worlds is made in China is it?
        And yes i know millions of items and components are made in china and then used in bigger stuff made everywhere in the world, so no one can be China free that would be kind of impossible.
        But China, well the CCP run by Xi, is not nice, just look at the treatment of workers in China, the Uyghurs, how they run Hong Kong despite the agreements they signed, the future of Taiwan and the way they run their Belt Road Investment scheme. Basically they lend less developed countries loads of cash so Chinese companies can build shiny new infrastructure facilities (ports, dams, Mines etc) and when they struggle to meet repayment obligation they are “encouraged” to adopt policies that help or benefit China. Basically China has been accused of operating a deliberate policy of Debt Traps by making loans that could never be paid back, with some countries “agreeding” to handover part of their territory due to the debts.
        Now obvs if people are happy with the they are free to ignore it, but for me I I’d rather not so avoid Chinese goods “if possible” (sometimes its not) so if I want or have to have an electric I’ll buy a European.

    • Well said. I concur with every word. And now Xi has elected himself to a third term China will become an even more totalitarian and closed state.

  8. It’s nothing to do with the B word, or where batteries are produced. It’s all about profit. The UK minimum wage outside London is £10.90 per hour.

    In China the minimum wage varies by region from just over US$ 200 to 400 per MONTH.

    The £ to $ exchange rate is unusually low at the moment as we all know, so just over £4,000 a YEAR at best with the current rates, and just over £3,000 a YEAR when the rates are more normal, in the most expensive employment region – Beijing. Away from there, it could be almost half that.

    So will BMW be reducing the price of the MINI given that they will be paying so little in wages compared with the UK?

    Didn’t think so!

      • Don’t be so patronising and sexist Flon.

        Why aren’t they honest though and tell the truth. They want cheap Chinese labour. Maybe customers in the UK will wake up one day and boycott the cars before it is too late.

        • That is exactly what capitalism is………..maximisation of profit and screw the consumer as much as possible.

          What has your gender got to do with you not understanding capitalism?

        • Patronising yes, sexist I don’t see in that comment. It’s true though that capitalism is about pushing costs down and profits up. Bottom up consumer decisions won’t make much difference – markets can and should be regulated because companies cannot be trusted to “do the right thing” on their own.

  9. China is the world’s biggest market for EVs. It also has the biggest capacity to make them, and BMW is a major investor in that capacity. The joint venture with Great Wall Automotive called Spotlight Automotive was announced in 2019 was built at Zhangjiagang in Jiangsu province with a capacity of 160,000 vehicles/year. With BMW Oxford reduced to making ICE MINIs only, powered by some of the output from Hams Hall you do have to wonder what happens to those plants after 2030.
    And of course there is a Brexit element to this – how could there not be. The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement requires that EVs made in UK must have 55% local content and batteries must be assembled in the UK or the EU to qualify for tariff-free trade from the end of 2026. So even if BMW does decide to switch Oxford to EVs at some later stage there are still regulatory hoops to jump through for tariff-free access to the EU market. Same applies to any other manufacturer in UK looking to sell EVs in Europe.
    But with regard to China, recent political developments there, threats to Taiwan etc I think we are right to be cautious. And a final thought, how ‘green’ is an EV made in China using largely coal-fired energy sources and shipped halfway round the world on a diesel-powered ship. Surely it is only ‘green’ at the point of use.

  10. Lots of big decisions to be made by all the major car makers, car assembly being just one issue.
    Certainly if BMW are to stay in the UK, they will have to decide whether to convert Hams Hall over from engine production to produce batteries or electric motors. Ford have said nothing about the Dagenham diesel factory, which faces a steady decline, though have committed to converting the Halewood gearbox factory to producing electric motors.

  11. You would have thought with all the problems that occurred during the pandemic, you would have thought to bring back manufacturing back to the UK.

    • Certainly relying on China too much is dangerous.

      If the worst happens, as China start threatening Taiwan, leading to sanctions and reprisals, then those China ONLY made electric Minis will be a bit embarrassing.

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