Cheap and cheerful motoring


Ford had a good time when it stripped down the Mini and announced that it cost £30 more per car to make than it was sold for.

by Allen Therisa in Products

The small, but influential, Mini
The small, but influential, Mini

That's right; the Mini was a loss-maker and thus, measure for financial measure, a commercial mistake.

The French would never have put up with that kind of nonsense. When the SS Normandie was sailing half-full between Le Harve and New York, it didn't matter. What did matter was that the most beautiful sea-borne creation of the Twentieth Century remained what it was; the embodiment of France in art and design, until the Normandie burnt to death in a cold and frozen New York harbour, in 1942.

The British riposte to the sleek engineering divinity of the Normandie was the Queen Mary, an equal if differently loved and financially more successful creation of wobbly Empire values and setting suns on Mahogany fireplaces (at sea!), today sitting alone and quietly rusting off the coast of Los Angeles.

Queen Mary: A conference centre.

By the time the Queen Mary was waddling across the Atlantic, deserted by the middle and upper-class patrons that had made Cunard's confidence ring, the French had another, achingly modern super-liner on the seas and ploughing its way into a financial disaster. The Boeing 707 cut journey time between New York and Europe from days to hours and in the process killed the sea-borne prestige of nations, consigned The French to listless obscurity and sank the pride of long-established sea-faring nations. And in the decade of liberation and grand consumption, of mass medication and free money, nothing on earth epitomised the quickening consumer shift from them to us as the Boeing 707 and the Mini.

The Mini was and, debatably, still is the world's best-loved small car. Produced originally by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) and its less than illustrious successors (British Leyland, most infamously) from 1959 to 2000, the most popular British car ever has since been replaced by the New MINI, launched in 2001, and which is now a leading model for BMW.

The original (and much smaller) Mini is considered to be an icon of the 60s and its space-saving front-wheel-drive layout has influenced a generation of car-makers. In a recent international poll for the award of the world's most influential car of the Twentieth Century, the Mini came second only to the Ford Model T.

Some distinction. Some car.

Revolutionary and distinctive, the two-door Mini was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis and manufactured at Longbridge and Cowley (as well as in Australia, Belgium, Chile, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela and Yugoslavia). The Mini Mk I had three major updates: the Mk II; the cute and reassuringly cosy Clubman, and the Mk III. There was also a series of variations on the base model, including an estate car, a pick-up truck (huh?), a van and, most annoying of all, a Mini Moke. The Mini Cooper and Cooper 'S' were sportier versions of the basic model and were hugely successful as rally cars, winning the Monte Carlo Rally three times, as well as being film stars in their own right (see The Italian Job).

The Mini originally came about because of a fuel shortage in 1956, caused by the Suez Crisis. As a result of Eden's new-fangled non-glory, sales of large cars slumped and there was a boom for so-called Bubble cars, which were mainly German in origin.

How ironic.

Leonard Lord, the head of BMC, decreed that something had to be done, and quickly. He laid down some basic design requirements (that the new British car should be contained within a box that measured 10 × 4 × 4 feet and the passenger accommodation should occupy six feet of the 10-foot length) and that the engine, for cost reasons, should be an existing unit.

Enter Issigonis

Car design genius Sir Alec Issigonis, with his skills in designing small cars, was a natural for the helming of the project, and the team that designed the Mini was made up of Issigonis, previous collaborators Jack Daniels and Chris Kingham, two engineering students and four draughtsmen. Add a garden shed and you have the absolute epitome of everything right (and wrong) with British engineering greatness.

Together, by October 1957, Issigonis and his team had designed and built the original Mini prototype, which featured a range of design innovations (sliding windows, front-wheel drive, welded body seams), all of which resulted in a car with minimum overall dimensions and maximised space for passengers and luggage.

Despite its utilitarian origins, the classic Mini shape has now become so iconic that by the 1990s, Rover Group, the heirs to BMC and British Leyland, were able to register its design as a trademark in its own right. Today you can still buy versions of the original Mini from loving loyalists, while the new Mini, in its fatter, less groovy BMW version, appears in major European cities today which are fast becoming clogged with these smart, not-so-little cars, as they dash about, apparently winking at their larger, more ugly compatriots.

As a commercial opportunity, BMW recognised (not unsurprisingly) the Rover prize that was literally for the taking, and extracted that prize (or "value" as it is commonly called in commercial terms) as part of its exit from its abortive take-over and re-conditioning of Rover seven years ago. The fact that it then made the Mini the contemporary success that it is should also have come as no surprise: British design and engineering genius coupled with German investment and commercial expertise = Money in the Bundesbank.

Was it anything other than this? We may be able to ignite inspiration and capture the cultural moment where transportation is concerned (Concorde, the Range Rover, the QE2 and the Intercity 125), but successful manufacturing is not something the British do. Far better to wash the cars and serve the coffee on the trains than to produce the vehicles and make any real money from them.

Ford may have had a good snigger at its lumbering BMC sometime competitor and its rinky-dink little car. It may also have been correct in pointing out the fact that as a commercial proposition, at that time, it was a loss-leading disaster, but nobody should question the pleasure and the inspiration that the hot little car has given its owners and the people it passes on the street. Its more grown-up and muscular children carry on its tradition today, driving the kudos and the legend into the future, and BMW will be happy about that.

The Mini: Pleasure in driving.

And for looking at, also. 

Recent articles: