Opinion : What if BL had introduced the Innocenti Mini in the UK?

Innocent Mini UK

It’s a question that many people asked throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, and yet we’ve never really looked too deeply into. The story of BMC, BL and Rover is littered with frustrating and tragic what-ifs, but the question of whether BL should have introduced its own version of the Innocenti Mini 90/120 really does bear pulling off the shelf and dusting off once again.

Back in the early days of AROnline, I remember putting this question to ex-BL Public Relations guru Ian Elliott to gain some understanding and insight. He told me that, in the months following the October 1974 launch of the Innocenti Mini in mainland Europe, BL did talk to Bertone and explore using this car’s body in the UK. The original plan had been to build it on a much larger scale than in Italy, and thereby give the company an opportunity to introduce a stylish supermini just when it needed it most.

Certainly, the company’s boss, Lord Stokes, was quoted as saying at the time of the 90/120’s launch: ‘The Innocenti Mini is a delightful and desirable car which is selling well in Italy and we are extending its sale to markets outside Italy, starting with Switzerland. We will keep a decision about bringing it to Britain under constant review.’

Quickly rejected on cost grounds

On paper, this plan had everything going for it – it was a hatchback, just when everyone wanted one, it looked great alongside rivals such as the Fiat 127 and  Renault 5 and, at 10ft 3in, was only marginally longer than the original Mini, thereby fitting the brief of the Issigonis original (and only just a smidgeon lengthier than the sublime Mini 9X, which was still – ostensibly – under development at the time).

The original idea of using the Innocenti’s panels as the basis of a cheap rebody were soon blown out of the water. Initial planning had also shown that the Innocenti Mini would prove costly to manufacture – even a run of 5000 a year would not have made financial sense – although these problems could possibly have been overcome. Archives show that Harry Webster was thinking very much along these lines, with his re-bodied Mini styled by Michelotti.

Harris Mann later confirmed that this idea was quickly rejected because Charles Griffin made it quite clear that any replacement for the Mini should be larger inside, and the Bertone design clearly was not. In the background of this, British Leyland was heading towards bankruptcy and a Government bail-out in 1975. The idea of spreading production further in such a climate was inconceivable, no matter how appealing the idea might have been.

But the idea didn’t go away…

1975 was an annus horribilis for British Leyland with the Government bail-out and the Ryder Report, while in Italy, the Innocenti factory remained paralysed by strikes and industrial action. The company decided to wind-up its Italian operation (which it had only taken full control of in 1972), and that resulted in a 132-day sit-in by the company’s workers. By May 1976, Innocenti was no longer BL’s, and had been passed over to De Tomaso in a deal brokered by the Italian Government and the unions.

Even if the will had been there to bring the car into the UK, no one at BL would have been able to make that plan happen. By 1976, the matter of the Mini’s replacement looked like it had been finally settled, and all attention was heading in that direction. The ADO74 programme had been cancelled, to be replaced by the ADO88, which would eventually become the Austin Metro.

And yet, in 1978, the idea to import the Innocenti Mini surfaced again – this time as a premium product to be sold through Jaguar-Rover-Triumph dealers. One can see why as BL’s market share tumbled from 35% in 1976 to nearer 20% by the end of 1978 – and the main beneficiaries were the latest-generation superminis such as the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo as well as the evergreen Renault 5 and Fiat 127. BL had nothing with which to meet the challenge.

The Innocenti plan would have seen around 5000 per year imported, and some sales targets were set around this number. But, alas, no one at BL would push the button, lacking the confidence in the profit-and-loss situation. As for De Tomaso being allowed to import any into the UK, the answer was contractural ‘no’ from BL, which supplied the engines to the Italian company at the time. What a shame…

The Innocenti Mini did come to the UK, though

Towards the end of 1979, with the Metro’s launch still almost a year away, Islington-based dealer London Garages Limited offered the Innocenti range in limited numbers, and offered the option to convert the car to right-hand drive.

Pricing was interesting. The 998cc 90L cost £3515, the 1275cc 120L was £3675 and the range-topping De Tomaso version came in at £4040. For comparison, a basic 1.1-litre Ausitn Allegro cost £3085 at the time, while £4100 would have bought you Triumph Dolomite 1500. Of its rivals, a Ford Fiesta 1.3 Ghia cost £3616, a (much faster) Renault 5 Gordini was £4149 and a Volkswagen Polo GLS would set you back £3333.

In terms of performance, the Cooper S-engined Mini De Tomaso was quick enough to entertain by late-1970s standards – the 0-60 mph sprint took 12.0 sec, compared to 10.9 sec for the Cooper S, 12.9 sec for the Mini 1275GT, 13.0 sec for the Ford Fiesta 1300S, and 12.3 sec for the Fiat 127 Sport. Its maximum speed of 94.7mph wasn’t quite so impressive, but still good compared with its rivals.

Should they have done it anyway?

If BL had been more switched on in the months leading up to the launch of the Innocenti Mini, it should have perhaps taken up an option on the car with a view to bringing it into the UK. At the start of 1975 (when it would have arrived), the UK supermini market was booming – and, although the Mini was still doing decent numbers, BL had nothing with which to charm more aspirational buyers who were flocking towards the stylish Fiat 127 and Renault 5.

It’s unlikely that the car would have reinvented the market in the way the Mini originally did following its launch in 1959, but by then, the small car market had matured into the supermini market, and was a fighting ground for all the major carmakers, desperate to capture sales from all those people downsizing in the wake of the 1973/74 Energy Crisis.

More importantly, had the Innocenti Mini 90/120 hit the UK early in 1975, it would have beaten the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Chevette and Volkswagen Polo onto the market – and maintained a decent presence in the hottest sector of the market before the Metro arrived in 1980. Maybe, just maybe, the presence of the Innocenti in the UK lineup could have allowed BL to concentrate on the LC10/LM11 Maestro/Montego instead of the Metro between 1976-1980…

…and imagine how that might have played out, with the Maestro going on sale in 1980 instead of 1983…

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

29 Comments

  1. I’ve always liked the Innocenti Mini 90/120 to me it was one of the most stylish cars that BL introduced in the 1970’s,but it was surprising that the BL board decided to build the Allegro in Italy rather than build the 90/120 in the UK,along with the Australian Leyland P76 the Innocenti Regent was one of BL’s worst overseas disaster,lasting less than two years before being pulled from the market. Had the 90/120 been launched in the UK in 1974 not only would it have trumped other domestic manufacturers by offering a hatchback,but it’s only competitor would have been the Renault 5 as other small cars such as the Fiat 127 & Peugeot 104 weren’t yet hatchbacks.

  2. Not sure how well importing a built up car would have gone down with Longbridge unions but maybe the 120 could have been sold as a Triumph to test the sporty hatchback water? Suspect that “Not Invented Here” syndrome had a lot to do with it.

  3. The Innocenti Mini would have needed to be further adapted for the UK market, such as including a 5-door hatchback, an automatic gearbox (unavailable on the Innocenti Mini) and featuring some form of Allegro / R6 Metro style interconnected Hydragas suspension, etc.

    Additionally if it butterflies away the need for the Metro in favor of an earlier launch of the Maestro, then it potentially opens up the possibility for the AR6 (and related Maestro/Montego replacements) to reach production.

    Would definitely be interesting a hot hatch version with some form of MG Metro Turbo / ERA Mini Turbo engine, even better if a production version of the 59-84 hp 1.0-1.3 A-OHC engines reach production.

  4. This is from the draft of my Austin Morris story….
    “Then on October 22nd Leyland Innocenti announced its Bertone styled 90/120 hatchback Mini. Codenamed P53, it had been instigated by Innocenti because they were tired of waiting for British Leyland to produce a replacement Mini.
    Inherited by Geoffrey Robinson when BLMC bought out Innocenti in May 1972, he nurtured the project, and did his best to keep cost information out of the prying eyes of British Leyland’s bean counters.
    The main problem with the P53 was that its interior packaging was inferior to the original Mini, and was not a genuine four seater, although it was good enough to carry children in the rear. Geoffrey Robinson was of the opinion that the car needed an extra 9 inches, and that would cost an extra £1 million, around £10 million today, which Leyland Innocenti did not have.
    When questioned why the P53 90/120 would not be sold in Britain, British Leyland responded with;
    “When a new Mini does arrive from BL it will be a completely new package not just a shell.”
    With production of the P53 having begun in September, Leyland Innocenti began to run down production of the traditional shaped Mini, which finally ended in January 1975.”

    • Is there any connection between the above and a seemingly parallel proposal investigated at BLMC for a comprehensive re-jig of the ADO20 Mini? Which prior to being killed off by the 1975 Ryder Report entailed, giving it a full tailgate, folding rear seats and wrap around bumpers. Also a 2 door model without the tailgate. Also a 5 door Clubman fronted saloon sitting on a wheelbase 10 inches longer than the estate.

      https://www.aronline.co.uk/cars/mini/archive-mini-proposals/

      Also regarding the re-bodied Michelotti Mini, was it simply referring to a Mini that carried over styling cues from ADO70 Calypso or another project?

      • To clarify with the Michelotti Mini, was the styling planned to be eventually used on the Mini saloon to replace it and the Clubman as opposed to just the sportscar project?

    • If Geoff said that it needed an extra 9 inches, why did they base it on the Mini saloon and not the estate/van? It may not be 9 inches but would have given the extra room? Or why did they not use the 1100/1300 as the basis? It looks like a usual BL problem lack of vision and bad decision making.

  5. Every year the mini got less and less competitive. What was done to address that? Nothing.
    Problems too small, too noisy, no hatch back. Gears in stump, harsh ride.
    Does the Inocenti solve that? 2/5.
    Were there other cheaper solutions. Yes, the clubman front gives space for a revised transmission. Hydrolastic/Hydrogas improves the ride. A hatchback based on either the elf platform or the estate platfrom. Small E-series or A+ developed earlier. Did any of that happen? No. The mini became a sort of sacred cow that could not be touched.

  6. The car should have been planned for UK manufacturer from the time of its conception, it was absurd that BL financed a re-skin yet then failed to leverage it across its markets. However you can see why not.

    The car had inferior packaging than the Mini, retained the harsh rubber suspension, and at pre Oil Crisis when it was being conceived, the perception was that people would be trading up half a size in their cars every 5 years or so (See Cortina Mk1,2 and 3).

    However had Management decided to bring the car to Longbridge, they would potentially have retained a position as a volume car manufacturer after the failure of the Allegro as when 74/75 came, the world had changed.

    1st the Oil Crisis happened and the resulting recession meant that car class sizes remained relatively static till the late 80s.

    2nd It would have been a logical replacement for the then 5 year old Mini Clubman as the “Premium” Mini.

    3rd Moulton had a Hydragas Mini as good as ready to, combining this with the Innocenti would have created 8/10ths of a Metro some 5 years earlier.

    4th with the failure of the Allegro meant that their was capacity at Longbridge to build more Minis after the Allegro failure to get market traction. It could also have been returned to Cowley, the Maxi had been a sales flop so its line could have been reverted to the Mini, with its purpose replaced by a Princess with a tailgate.

    However even if none of this was recognised, it is hard to understand that the people signing off the investment into this smart little car, also signed off the Allegro off for production around the same time. Surely they must have realised how bad the Allegro styling was, when reviewing the plans for the new Mini.

  7. Whatever the arguments which rage over style, packaging, build costs or design origin, the fact is at the time British Leyland couldn’t supply its own domestic market with its own existing and outdated products. Their market share was there for the losing.

    But assuming management hadn’t lost control of the Unions and the Unions of their collective senses, the argument for this car makes sense, both in original Innocenti form and in LWB Mini estate/Van platform (think mk2 Polo). This from the company which pioneered tailgates on the A40 and MGB GT. Whatever were they thinking of by retaining a boot lid?

    Moulton had already re-designed cost effective rubber cone suspension in what would be privately launched as the ‘Smootha Ride’ kit 25 years later. Honestly. 25 years later to launch the cost neutral refinement package for what was widely criticised from Day One in ’59. I’m not blaming Moulton, I’m blaming Longbridge.

    Then we have the E-series, originally designed for 1300 application, later launched in 1500cc and then at great ingenuity launched as the compromised 1750 engine. Thankfully the tooling was put to good use from ’83-’93 under the R and S-series as blogged elsewhere on this forum. Either way, an E-series could fit anywhere an A-series could and it was usefully lighter and cheaper to produce.

    So we have the skilled workforce (design and assembly), we have the style and concept, we have the power trains, we have the suspension, we have a variety of wheel bases on exiting platforms. We even have a great brand although that was then unknown by most. What we never had was the will. By the time Edwards arrived, the game was up and he was all about a managed decline.

    • If the E-Series was lighter than the A-Series with the ability to fit anywhere an A-Series could, why was it regarded as a tall heavy engine that aside from the odd E-Series Mini prototype (more of which needs to be written on) was only really fitted into the one-off Andy Saunders 1750cc Mini?

      It is also my understanding that the E-Series can in some respects be best described as an underdeveloped precursor of sorts to the later Volkswagen EA827 (originally designed as a 1200cc engine), albeit with 6mm shorter bore centres and siamese bores.

      Additionally if the 1.3 E-Series was not considered to be a significant improvement over the 1.3 A-Series to warrant further development (that is on top of being considered under-powered in the Maxi prototype), then perhaps the 60 hp 1.3 Volkswagen EA827 can give some insight into the unbuilt 1.3 E-Series since it’s output is roughly the same as the regular 1.3 A-Series OHV despite featuring OHC yet the later 1.3 A-OHC prototype’s output was quoted as being as high as 84 hp.

      The smaller Audi 50 / Volkswagen Polo used the smaller EA111 engine basically a downscaled version of the EA827 as opposed to the latter, so doubt the E-Series even a properly developed one would be able to adequately cover the lower-end of the range and replace the A-Series. Which probably explains why Issigonis began development of the 750-998cc 9X engine initially as the Italian market specific Mini-Mini project before it evolved into 9X, the engine if similar to the E-Series itself being a underdeveloped British analogue of sorts to the Volkswagen EA111.

      Otherwise more or less agree.

  8. The Innocenti effort reminds me of a Talbot Samba, and in my view would have been a similar flop for an identical reason, namely the appalling packaging compared with the original Mini .

  9. This article suggests bad timing was the reason the car was never sold by BL in the UK. The car was launched by Innocenti just as BL was imploding. Nobody was going to take a punt on a car with marginal costs associated with it then. When the dust had settled Innocenti was no longer part of BL making it harder to do a deal. What I cant understand is how this car looked so good damn good and could have held its head up style wise right into the 90s whilst BLs domestic offerings where absolute dogs. During the period concerned the Allegro, Metro and Maestro all came and went. Why didn’t BL adopt the Bertone 90/120 as a corporate style for the 80s?

    • The Innocenti Mini (plus proposed advances considered for the Mini in general) also raises the question of whether ADO16 could have been similar rebodied (and updated) along similar lines or even in the form of a revived ADO22 that carries over the Bertone styling.

      ADO16 was said to have been selling very well into the 1970s despite the lack of updates prior to the Allegro, suggesting the company should have pursued a cost-effective evolutionary approach to updating and replacing both the Mini and ADO16 instead of pretty much going bankrupt by trying to adopt a clean-sheet revolutionary approach when the capital simply did not exist to realise such grand projects (though the formation of BL itself did not help matters).

    • It is amazing how history gets re-written sometimes. BLMC’s troubles really were nothing to do with the products, but were the result of appalling labour relations . As far as the cars were concerned, the Metro was a huge success, lasting from 1981 to 1998, and it was a lovely car to drive. The Maestro lasted from 1982 to 1995, and again was a pleasant car particularly in its more powerful versions , with splendid all round visibility , plenty of room, and a very comfortable ride. This Innocenti was a small, poky, badly packaged creation, very typical of Italian cars of the period, and in my view would have been an absolute disaster on the UK market

      • BL problems was a mix of bad labour relations, poor management and poor products. The M Cars, other than the Metro never met their sale targets and although not bad cars they looked out of place in a changing face of the market. They were also fighting a losing battle because of the Allegro, and the issues of quality of the Princess, SD1 et al.

      • I think you over estimate the quality of the 80s products. Leaving aside significant reliability issues, the Maestro was a dull looking car with a lack of showroom appeal. The success of SD3, a car with less room and a worse ride shows that showroom appeal is more important for a lot of customers

        • Also it was competing against the Mk3 Ford Escort & Mk2 VW Golf during the golden age of the hot hatch didn’t help things, especially how the early 1600 MG versions were withdrawn after not long on the market.

  10. On a camping trip to Paris as a student in 1981 I remember walking in a trendy up market neighbourhood on the banks of the Seine and being struck by the sheer number of Minis and similar sized cars parked at the roadside. Among these were Innocentis, Autobianchi A112s (from recollection 5th series with the plastic inserts) and regular BL and Innocenti Minis. Something told me that these cars had something in common. Erroneously I though that the Autobianchis were ‘real’ Minis re-skinned and Innocentis were the impostors.

  11. Fascinating information on the Innocenti. I’m sure it’s packaging issues were a major consideration in its failure to appear. But for those of us who remember the period, Lord Stokes was constantly attacking imports for destroying BLMC. It would have been political suicide if on one hand he demanded curbs on Japanese cars and on the other happily imported the Innocenti. Curiously, I wonder would it have worked if badged a Wolseley Hornet as a compromised but stylish mini luxury car…and assemble it in the UK.

    • There was only one issue that prevented the Innocenti Mini being marketed in the UK. It was contractually excluded from the UK market, by BL.

    • The last thing BL needed was reviving a moribund marque like Wolseley, which was already selling low-volume versions of mass-produced cars.

    • Given the the Mini Clubman was 5 years old at time, the logic would have been to launch it as a new Mini Clubman selling above the “cooking” model.

  12. The point is that it could have been sold as a premium product which needs a name…they were still selling Vanden Plas Allegros…perish the thought they’d add in a grill!

      • I assume that this is simply a tweek to the front of the marina, in which case it would be a complete waste of time and money, addressing none of the inherent problems of the car which was already past it’s sell by date. A bit like the Ital upgrade.

  13. The Innocenti Mini would have been a perfect car to sell alongside a large supermini, akin to the 104 3 and 5 door models. With such a range, it’s poorer space efficiency to the original Mini wouldn’t have been an issue, especially as by that stage Minis were being bought as the sole car for a family, but as the second car. And wasn’t that mainly because of the thicker seats and larger boot anyway?

  14. I’ve mentioned this before… In 1977 I was working on a job in Tunisia and we hired an Innocenti Mini to drive from Tunis to a town called Sfax. It did very well, carrying our 2 suitcases & equipment cases there & back. Considering its size, the performance was adequate. I don’t think I had heard of the Innocenti brand till then. Good times.

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