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…