In 1959, BMC launched what became the most iconic of all British cars: the Mini. In 2001, BMW did it all over again. We look back on the past two decades of the brand
It takes just a short hour on a group call with employees at Mini Oxford for us to get a very strong sense of just how unique the Mini brand remains, even though it’s part of a huge corporate company in the BMW Group.
Talking to people who have been part of the reinvention of the brand over more than 20 years, it’s a surprise to hear tales of experimentation, can-do engineering and production and a remarkable freedom to find its own way.
For the first 14 years of its second life, Mini was a kind of boutique operation, making a lot out of not very much, with engineering work executed by outside contractors and the design team based in a small studio in Munich.
As veteran Mini public relations boss Andreas Lampka tells me, the Mini should “never be comparable [to other cars on the market]; we’re happy to be in a niche”. It’s a niche that Lampka insists remains healthily profitable, thanks to strong residual values and customers happy to wait for custom-specification cars from the factory.
By some margin, the veteran of the roundtable assembled by Mini Oxford is Mick Fisher, the longest-serving employee at the factory. He started his apprenticeship at Longbridge in 1967, around the time of the disastrous creation of British Leyland. Indeed, when he joined Austin, the original Mini was just eight years old.
After working on the installation of the Mini Metro at Longbridge, Fisher moved to Oxford to work on the installation of the Austin Maestro and Montego production lines ahead of those cars’ 1982 and 1984 launches – and he’s still there.
The roots of the new Mini project go quite some way back. Twenty-seven years back, in fact, when a small, conservative car maker from Germany bought the Rover Group from British Aerospace (BAe). The automotive world was aghast.
Rumour was that BMW really wanted to buy Land Rover (it was supplying a diesel engine for the upcoming Range Rover 2). BAe insisted that they take the lot. BMW was bent on expansion into new markets, including about-to-bloom SUVs and city cars, but it wasn’t sure the BMW badge was the way it could do so. Buying the Rover Group and its historic brands must have seemed like a remarkable opportunity.
Bizarrely, it turned out that then BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder was the great-nephew of Sir Alec Issigonis, the brains behind the original Mini, who died in 1988. Pischetsrieder is even said to have visited Issigonis in Birmingham as a child.
A reinvention of the Mini was probably the hottest topic that came out of the takeover. It would actually take a bit over seven years for the first new Mini to roll out of the factory, but both Rover and BMW stylists were straight out of the blocks in 1994 working on competing visions of a new-generation Mini.
Roughly, Rover’s thinkers wanted to preserve the sophisticated suspension of the original, as well as its extraordinary interior packaging. BMW had other ideas, crystallised in a kind of reinvention of the Mini Cooper S rally cars: a Mini that was about driving dynamics.
The speed of choosing the design theme – in October 1995 using sketches by BMW’s Frank Stephenson – certainly wasn’t matched by the speed of the engineering. While the design was being worked up by Stephenson and Rover’s David Saddington, the engineering gestation of the Mini was getting lost somewhere between Gaydon and Munich.
Two of the final concepts for the Mini were unveiled in 1997: Rover’s sophisticated midengined one-box Spiritual and, from the BMW studio, the ACV30 two-door coupé, which was clearly a tribute to the Monte Carlo Rally Minis.
The final form of the new Mini appeared briefly on a stage in a warehouse the night before the 1997 Frankfurt motor show. I clearly remember managing to find a cab to attend the preview but being stranded outside within a heaving crowd. Nearly three and a half years of Mini anticipation was coming to a climax.
The brief reveal was the lead on television news programmes (a big deal a decade before Twitter was invented), and it all fed perfectly into the ‘Cool Britannia’ spirit of the time.
One of the people on our video call is Tom Festa, who is currently a future models integration engineer at Mini Oxford, liaising with BMW to ensure that new cars can be built at the factory. Festa remembers attending a meeting reviewing the engineering concepts for the new Mini in 1998.
He recalls: “I met Wolfgang Reitzle [BMW’s hugely influential product chief] and remember the stiffness targets of 30,000Nm per degree; I thought: ‘Wow, we’re in sports car territory here.’ The view was: ‘If the product is right, the business looks after itself.’”
Interestingly, over the course of our chat, it becomes clear that while the Mini’s ambling gestation was less than ideal for the ailing Rover Group, it allowed BMW to see how the Mini could become much more than a solitary halo model; more of a stand-alone brand than Audi’s 1998 TT coupé, for example. Early projections had the Mini down as selling as few as 40,000 units per year. The planned (and indeed half-finished) Mini body assembly hall at Longbridge was suitably modest in scope.
Jason Field, an IT expert at Oxford, was at a meeting in Regensburg, Germany, when BMW announced it was selling the Rover Group in March 2000. It had, after government and media pressure, disposed of heavily loss-making Rover cars and Longbridge to an ex-management team for £10 (Around AUD$20 at the time). The Mini project would be retained by BMW and transferred to the Oxford plant that was at the time building the 18-month-old Rover 75.
The upshot was that the 75 production line at Oxford had to be lifted and shifted to Longbridge and the new Mini installed at Oxford instead.
“It was a unique task: we had to decommission the 75 line and move it,” says Fisher. “The 75 line was scheduled to run until the end of 2000 before we closed it down. We had to fit [the Mini] into what existed; it had to fit inside the plant.”
The team at Oxford had roughly nine months to completely refit the factory, turning it into a BMW plant and get an all-new model rolling off the production lines.
Festa says that by the time the Mini was heading for Cowley (now renamed BMW Oxford), sales estimates had risen to 90,000 per year. Field adds: “It was becoming obvious in the summer and autumn [of 2000] just how popular the car would be. Driving prototypes, I felt like a VIP. People would just flock around.”
“It then became clear we were looking at 100,000 to 110,000 cars in a full year. And it was clear that BMW would need all the capacity at the Swindon [body pressing] plant,” says Festa. It was a run rate rather greater than the slow-selling 75 saloon was managing.
It wasn’t just the task of swapping production lines that was a huge problem to solve. Field recalls that an entirely new IT system, networks and telephones had to be installed: “It was just food, work and sleep for months.”
Kimberley Ragousis, BMW UK Manufacturing’s communications manager, points out that this newest BMW plant also needed to completely reboot its industrial relations. There were “lots of change management and new shift patterns” as part of Mini’s integration.
The way the factory team managed to pull the Mini into existence in record time and in tight space (originally considered suitable for an annual 125,000 units of the 75) clearly impressed BMW.
“The early days were a proving ground for trying things out. It was fantastic. There was a can-do Mini spirit,” says Festa. “There’s a unique feel to Oxford: we always look to see what we can do.”
This was a result of Cowley (as it was under Rover) being treated as the poor relation of Longbridge, according to Festa. “The attitude from Rover was often ‘there’s no money’,” he says. “That teaches you to engineer solutions.”
It’s fascinating to listen to members of the Mini team talking about this period; they even reveal that the very first pilot-production Minis had to be pushed around the skeleton production line.
Very quickly, Oxford was adding new models, including the supercharged Cooper S. Festa says that adding the drop-top Mini was very important but that “the Cabrio launch was a challenge”. He explains: “The Cabrio wasn’t in the line-up at the beginning, and we had to find a way to integrate it into the plant. There was lots of extra engineering work in the sills and adding overall torsional stiffness.”
“The Clubman was the first project I led,” says Festa. “We not only had the single side door but we also had the split rear doors for first time.” The challenges for body alignment, given that the boot doors closed over the tail-lights, were massive. “We adopted BMW standards for sealing and water ingress,” he says.
Oxford’s reputation for “sweating the assets” was bolstered by three other notable projects. Festa calls the Mini E “one of the most cost-effective projects ever”, involving electrification of the exciting architecture and a tie-up with on-board diagnostic data loggers.
“We leased the cars to 100 people, and the real-world driving information that came back to us showed just how people adapted to EVs. This was back in 2008. It was a serious car, smooth and quiet, not a toy.”
The other project that Oxford led inside the BMW Group was creating the Mini Roadster and Coupé siblings. “It was, quite frankly, a peanuts project, but they’re now collector’s cars,” says Festa. “They were done as a pair to maximise the synergies, but they were the first BMW derivatives that were done without prototypes; we went straight to production tooling from 3D CAD [computer-aided design] work. Virtual reality engineers still talk about the lessons learned developing those two cars.”
The Roadster was also one of the first BMW Group cars to use 3D printing to create a prototype component, engineering a rain channel straight from digital files. Despite being maligned by many enthusiasts, the sibling models went on to sell around 90,000 units between them.
Oxford’s 13 or so years as an innovative corner of the BMW empire yielded many other examples of short-run and customised models. It produced the high-performance John Cooper Works models, created more than 20 ‘shopping special’ Clubmans for the upmarket Peninsula Hotels, made the Rolls-Royce-trimmed Mini Goodwood and established a line of JCW GP hardcore hot hatches.
“It’s always a challenge to make a profit on a small car. We have to make the business case,” says Festa. That mostly ended in 2013, when Oxford underwent a “hard restart” with the introduction of the third-generation Mini hatchback, which was a fully fledged BMW product, based on an all-new architecture.
The Mini underwent a profound character change, growing up from being a widely varied family of small and often unusual cars into something of much higher quality and possessed of a more serious presence.
What does the future hold?
Lampka insists that Mini, even in its latest more upmarket form, is very well placed for the future. “Premium isn’t a matter of size, and Mini doesn’t have another real competitor,” he says. “It will go further upmarket. A cheaper version [of the Mini] would lose its appeal. Becoming a mass manufacturer wouldn’t make sense.”
In the pandemic-hit year of 2020, Mini sold a total of 292,000 cars around the globe, taking a 16% hit on 2019. But at a typical 345,000 sales per year, it remains relatively small.
“We’re happy with where our figures are currently,” says Lampka. “The contribution margin [of each Mini] isn’t comparable to another model. Around 20% of the base price [of a Mini] is added in options by customers. We make money on each model; these cars aren’t sold on price.” Indeed, Mini sold a healthy 20,565 JCWs last year.
“We have authentic volume and have never had an overflow of cars,” continues Lampka. “In Germany, ordering a [bespoke] Mini and having a three- to six-month wait is fully acceptable.”
Interestingly, he makes two other observations, both pertinent to other British brands. First, he points out that one of the advantages of Mini is that BMW is “not managing counter-expectation”, because buyers have a built-in “good expectation” of it. Second, “some might say that the chassis is over-engineered, but that’s part of the brand”.
In the automotive market of the future, Lampka also hints that the days of exploring every niche, chasing every competitor and aiming to constantly grow volumes might be over; that the future might be with manufacturers making cars that aren’t, as he puts it, comparable.
“For example, the Rover 75 was too ‘comparable’ to other cars,” he says. “But British brands are in a better position [today] than many mass car makers. How many cars does Rolls-Royce need to sell to be the epitome of luxury?”
Lampka doesn’t mention Range Rover, but it’s another good example of how the uniqueness of British cars could again turn into an advantage, especially when moving upmarket and avoiding competing in the most crowded segments.
Of Mini’s future, he will only say that the 20% “hybrid or fully electric” share of the current line-up will be a rather higher proportion when the next-generation Mini arrives post-2023.
He explains that the “50-50” Mini EV project in China with Great Wall Motor is a bespoke solution for an overseas market – but also a pointer to the future. “Currently, imported Minis in China are virtually the same price as locally produced BMW 3 Series,” he explains. “But across the globe, Mini will be a very electrified and very urban brand.”
Wolfgang Reitzle: A hugely respected engineer, Reitzle was an early proponent of premium brands being capable of growing into major players and set the direction for BMW’s Mini. The Mk3 Range Rover was his brainchild, and he correctly believed it could go far upmarket. He was hired by Ford to run the Premier Auto Group in 1999 but left in 2002 after insisting he needed a US$1 billion investment plan, and became CEO of chemicals firm Linde.
Tom Festa: Currently future models integration engineer, Festa is a long-term Cowley employee who has been at the forefront of Mini UK, overseeing the creation of some very diverse models from the Clubman estate to the first electric Mini. That latter project, in which real-world driver data was beamed back to base from 140 cars, established that the average daily journey was just 50 kilometres, making a huge argument for EVs.
Bernd Pischetsrieder: Buying Rover was an audacious move by BMW, with the treasure trove of classic brands a huge temptation. But Rover never sat well within the group, and it took nearly five years to launch the 75, which didn’t sell in big numbers. By 1998, BMW was paying to reinvent Rover, Range Rover and Mini and the massive losses led to boss Pischetsrieder stepping down. He joined the VW board, serving as chairman from 2002 to 2006, and now sits on Daimler’s supervisory board.
Gert Hildebrand: Mini’s characterful first design boss turned out a significant number of new models and concepts over a 10-year stint despite having a relatively small team and a very limited toolkit. He oversaw the GP hot hatch and the extremely well-received Rocketman concept as well as the Cabrio, Clubman estate and game-changing Countryman SUV. His Roadster, Coupé and Paceman coupé-SUV were all created by inexpensively leveraging existing models.
Oliver Heilmer: Heilmer has been in Mini’s designer hot seat for more than three years, but we’ve still seen only a couple of concepts and the recent hatchback facelift from his studio. The ructions in the automotive world as legislation pushes car makers towards electric vehicles have clearly disrupted Mini’s new model plans.
In a 2018 interview, he said: “Mini is an urban brand, and that’s something it should continue to embody in the years to come. So for me, Mini in the future will be pure electric. Clearly, much still needs to be done in terms of infrastructure, but I’m positive about the future.”
Heilmer’s sporting electric GP was due in 2019 but has yet to appear. His Urbanaut EV concept also hinted at a larger Mini to come and is strongly reminiscent of Rover’s Spiritual from 1997.
2001 Mini hatch: This car achieved that most difficult of tasks: it reinvented the original Mini after 40 years. An impressively small package for a 21st-century car, no matter what the sceptics said. Focused on driving pleasure, it became a bigger seller than BMW had envisaged. But that led to growing pains as Mini struggled to become a stand-alone brand.
2020 Mini Urbanaut: It looks like a way-out concept, but the Urbanaut is actually a strong hint at how the Mini range will expand. At 4.46m long (the current Countryman is just 4.29m), it also gives a clear signal to a new, larger Mini SUV. Its flat floor, extra height and maximum interior space also hint at the rumoured all-electric Mini Traveller MPV.
2008 Mini E: This fully engineered electric car was made in tiny numbers but was a very significant experiment for the whole of the BMW Group, providing hard evidence for typical driver usage, average daily mileage and the willingness of drivers to adapt to a limited range. It helped to inform the BMW i sub-brand and the development of the BMW i3.
2010 Mini Countryman: Although it was derided by enthusiasts, the Countryman SUV was the family-friendly Mini that the brand had long needed. Engineered and built by Magna in Austria, it went on to sell 100,000 units per year and is probably responsible for BMW’s decision to integrate Mini fully into BMW. It also broke the Mini mould and proved that there was an appetite for larger Minis, so long as they had enough character.
2011 Mini Rocketman: Inspired by the dimensions of the original Mini, the Rocketman concept was just over 3.4m long and had a 2+1 seating layout. Based around a carbon-composite structure of the kind later used for the BMW i3. Double-hinged doors and a glazed and backlit roof were flights of fancy, but that didn’t stop huge enthusiasm for production of a ‘real’ Mini successor. It’s now poised to appear as an EV in 2022 as part of a tie-up with Great Wall Motor.