MINI happy returns: A big anniversary beckons for the little car


Few cars are more loved, and next week it will be exactly 20 years since the first ‘new’ Mini — larger than the original and built under the stewardship of German car giant BMW — rolled off the production line at its Oxford factory on April 26, 2001.

The anniversary also coincides with the launch of refreshed versions of the current Mini range — and a move towards an electric-only future.

Mini’s history goes back more than 60 years — to 1959 — when design genius Sir Alec Issigonis revolutionised the motor car by creating a ’10 ft square box’ on wheels.

Class act: The British car has been made by BMW for 20 years although its history goes back more than 60 years

Class act: The British car has been made by BMW for 20 years although its history goes back more than 60 years

It satisfied demand for a frugal car following the shock of the 1956 Suez Crisis, which led to fuel and oil shortages.

More than ten million Minis have been built and sold worldwide since 1959 — and almost as many of the new ones have been built in the 20 years under BMW (5.13 million) as in the previous 40 years of the original (5.38 million).

Yet the timing of the original Mini’s launch could not have been better, arriving as a classless and affordable small car loved by celebrities, royalty and ordinary folk alike, who took it to their hearts just in time for the Swinging Sixties.

 The Oxford factory currently builds the Mini three-door and five-door Hatch, Mini Clubman and Mini Electric on the same production line 

Refreshed editions of the Mini line-up have just gone on sale, priced from £16,605 for the Mini three-door Hatch, £17,305 for the five-door Hatch, £21,305 for the Mini Convertible (pictured)

British car conglomerate BMC — the British Motor Corporation formed from the merger in 1952 of UK car giants Austin and Morris — launched two versions of the Mini: the Austin Seven built at Longbridge in Birmingham, and the Morris Mini Minor built at Cowley in Oxford.

The original Mini was launched with prices from £497 to £537 and two years later in 1961 a sporty Mini Cooper arrived with a 997cc 55bhp engine priced at £680. 

Yet legend has it the original Mini never made a profit.

True icon of the swinging sixties

Monday’s 20th anniversary of production under the custodianship of BMW also comes at a landmark moment for Mini’s 21st century future. 

For just as the original Mini was born of an energy crisis, so the next generation family of the car will meet the challenges of energy and the environment.

Last month, I revealed in the Mail how BMW bosses were going to make Mini an all-electric car brand by 2030. 

BMW CEO Oliver Zipse announced days later: ‘Mini will be the first BMW Group brand to go fully electric.

‘We will be releasing the last model with a combustion-engine variant in 2025. By the early 2030s, Mini will be exclusively electric.’

In the pipeline, among a new fourth generation of Minis, is understood to be a smaller three-door electric city car that could be branded ‘Mini Minor’. 

And a recently shown Mini concept called Urbanaut hints at a future SUV Mini Traveller, but also bears an uncanny resemblance to the 1997 Spiritual Too concept developed by Rover. 

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Expansion is also planned with electric Mini production in China — the result of a collaboration with Great Wall Motor.

Back in 2009 — the car’s 50th anniversary year — pioneering Mini actually carried out government-backed trials using a fleet of early electric prototypes and ‘guinea-pig’ drivers. But things appeared to stall as Mini lost its early lead to rivals.

A Mini timeline 

Birth of the Mini and the Swinging Sixties

Sir Alex Issigonis’s original MINI sketch of the ‘10ft square box’ on wheels that started it all

Sir Alex Issigonis’s original MINI sketch of the ‘10ft square box’ on wheels that started it all

1959: British car conglomerate BMC launches new Mini designed by Alec Issigonis in two versions – Austin Seven built at Longbridge and Morris Mini Minor at Cowley, Oxford, priced from £497 to £537.

Mini designer Alec Issigonis at the Austin factory in Longbridge with two of his creations

Mini designer Alec Issigonis at the Austin factory in Longbridge with two of his creations

1961: Sporty Mini Cooper launched with 997cc 55bhp engine priced £680

1964: Paddy Hopkirk wins Monte Carlo Rally in 1071cc Mini Cooper S.

1965: Mini wins Monte Carlo Rally for second time – Mini Moke launched – Millionth Mini built.

1966: Scandal as Britain’s Minis take top three places in Monte Carlo rally – but disqualified on a lighting technicality. French foul play widely suspected.

1967: Mini ‘officially’ Monte Carlo rally winner for third time – Mark II Mini launched with new radiator grilles and bigger rear windows

Rally star: Paddy Hopkirk wins Monte Carlo Rally in 1071cc Mini Cooper S

Rally star: Paddy Hopkirk wins Monte Carlo Rally in 1071cc Mini Cooper S

1969: Patriotic red, white and blue stunt Minis appear with Michael Caine in classic ‘The Italian Job’ movie

1972: Three millionth Mini built.

1973-4: Rampant inflation (hitting 25% in 1975) pushes Mini price over £1,000

1976: Four millionth Mini

1986: Five millionth Mini after big drop in production during 1980s.

1988: Mini creator Sir Alec Issigonis dies on October 02.

1990: Mini Cooper back into production after 19 year gap.

1992: Mini Convertible launched – at £12,000 the most expensive Mini.

The BMW ‘English Patient’ years

1994: Germany’s BMW buys Rover Group – including MINI – from BAe (British Aerospace) for £800m.

1997: Three Mini concepts shown– BMW studio’s Monte Carlo-styled ACV30 and Rover team’s more radical Spiritual and Spiritual Too.

1998 to 2000: Crisis as BMW’s ‘English Patient’ Rover subsidiary haemorrhages money.

In March 2000 BMW sells Rover to ‘Phoenix Four’ consortium for £10, and Land Rover to Ford. But retains Mini.

Mini Reborn 

2001: April 26. Production of the new Mini begins at BMW’s revamped Plant Oxford in Cowley after production of old Mini wound up at Longbridge. First Mini Hatch launched in July.

2003: First diesel Mini

2004/5: Mini Cabriolet launched – but built in Holland

2008: New estate-like Mini Clubman – with barn doors and single rear door.

2009: Electric Mini trials begin with ‘guinea-pig’ drivers – in Mini’s 50th anniversary year.

Rally driving legend Paddy Hopkirk , winner of the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, with original and modern Mini Coopers

Rally driving legend Paddy Hopkirk , winner of the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, with original and modern Mini Coopers

2010 to 2013: Launch in quick succession of Mini Countryman SUV (built Holland), tiny Rocketman concept, Coupe, Roadster, and Paceman.

2014: First Mini 5-door Hatch

2019: Oxford plant builds its 10 millionth Mini

2020: First battery-powered Mini Electric – with EV and combustion engine versions built on same line. Mini Urbanaut concept car hints at a larger SUV-style Mini Traveller

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2021: March. Mini announces it will be fully electric from early 2030s, with last combustion engine model launched in 2025.

And it was more than a decade before the new battery-powered Mini Electric production car hit the road last year.

Parent company BMW’s association with the classically British Mini began in 1994, when the Munich-based Bavarian car firm bought the UK’s Rover Group from BAE (British Aerospace) for £800 million, gaining Rover, Mini, Land Rover and discontinued brands such as Riley.

In a curious twist, it emerged that BMW’s Anglophile CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder was a great-nephew of Mini creator Sir Alec Issigonis, who died in 1988, and as a child may even have visited him in Birmingham.

Amid growing strains and a crisis which led to Pischetsrieder’s departure, Rover — dubbed BMW’s ‘English Patient’ by Germany’s frustrated media — was haemorrhaging money. 

In March 2000, BMW broke up its UK operations, selling Rover to the ‘Phoenix Four’ consortium for just £10, and Land Rover to Ford.

Mini by numbers 

  • Classic/original Mini Production (1959 to 2000): 5,378,776
  • Modern MINI Production (2001 – 2021*): 5,129,541
  • Total Mini Production: (1959 – 2021*): 10,508,317 *production figures until end of March 2021.
  • New MINIs roll off the Oxford production line at the rate of 1,000 a day or one every 67 seconds.

But, significantly, BMW retained Mini, believing the firm had the greatest potential to grow — while also giving it a small car that could help meet ever tougher emissions targets.

Firstly, three Mini concept models were shown to the public — BMW studio’s more traditional Monte Carlo-styled ACV30, the UK-based Rover team’s more radical Spiritual and Spiritual Too, whose spirit lived on in last year’s Mini Urbanaut concept.

The new Mini was finally reborn on April 26, 2001, when the first new cars — much bigger than the originals because of crash-test protection and changing lifestyles — rolled off the production line at the revamped Plant Oxford in Cowley. Production of the old Mini was wound up at Longbridge.

First customers took delivery of their new Mini Hatch in July that year.

As custodians of the Mini marque, BMW has since celebrated the Mini’s ‘Britishness’ with unique Union-flag style brake-lights.

Designer Frank Stephenson told me that when they were about to present a finished life-size model of the new Mini for assessment and sign-off by the BMW board, his team realised they hadn’t sorted the exhaust pipe.

Rather than engineer one, which would take too long, they took an aluminium beer can, sand-papered off the paint, polished it and stuck it where the exhaust pipe was supposed to be.

Directors were delighted with the car — and particularly the beautifully crafted exhaust pipe, he said. And that’s the design that went into production.

Minis that might have been

Building Minis has also been a key proving ground for global automotive bosses.

The first director of the Oxford Plant, from 2000 to 2003, who oversaw the launch of the first Mini under BMWs stewardship was Dr Herbert Diess, who once admitted to me that meeting the launch deadline was touch and go.

BMW’s current CEO, Oliver Zipse, cut his management teeth as Mini plant director from 2007 to 2008.

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He said: ‘I still have very fond memories of my time at Oxford. It was a real pleasure to work with such engaging and passionate people. Nearly a quarter of whom have devoted these 20 years or more to building our cars.’

Oxford currently builds the Mini three-door and five-door Hatch, Mini Clubman and Mini Electric on the same production line — 1,000 a day.

The Oxford factory and the Swindon body pressings plant employ 4,500 people. Their MD Peter Weber said: ‘I am extremely proud of our teams and the incredible jobs they do. 

‘Their continued commitment and passion over 20 years has helped strengthen Mini’s world reputation.’

Refreshed editions of the Mini line-up have just gone on sale, priced from £16,605 for the Mini three-door Hatch, £17,305 for the five-door Hatch, £21,305 for the Mini Convertible, £26,000* for the Mini Electric and £35,050* for a new special limited edition Mini Electric Collection (* both after deducting the £2,500 plug-in grant).

Mr Toyota lifts World title 

Toyota’s charismatic and Anglophile global boss Akio Toyoda — who has decreed ‘no more boring cars’ — has been named World Car Person of the Year by an international jury of 90 motoring journalists.

The grandson of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda was at the launch in Japan of the Toyota GR86 sports coupé, powered by a 200-plus horsepower, 2.4-litre engine linked to a six-speed manual gearbox, which will arrive in the UK next year, priced from about £35,000.

Toyota's charismatic and Anglophile global boss Akio Toyoda has been named World Car Person of the Year

Toyota’s charismatic and Anglophile global boss Akio Toyoda has been named World Car Person of the Year

Toyoda said he was honoured to receive the award on behalf of all 360,000 Toyota Team members around the world.

‘I would like to change this award from car ‘person’ of the year to car ‘people’ of the year, as it’s the effort of our employees, retailers and suppliers that has made Toyota what it is today,’ he said

‘And I for one could not be a luckier, or more grateful CEO.’

The World Car Awards jury said: ‘Akio Toyoda is the charismatic president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation, where he has spent years successfully re-making his company.’

Electrifying win for VW

Volkswagen’s all-electric family-focused ID.4 SUV was named World Car of the Year in the global awards.

Priced from £40,800 for the First Edition, up to £49,990, the zero emissions car (which no longer qualifies for the Government plug-in grant capped at £35,000), has a range of up to 323 miles, a top speed of 99 mph and achieves rest to 62 mph in 8.5 seconds.

It was chosen from an entry list of 24 vehicles worldwide, and triumphed in the final three that included the Honda e and Toyota Yaris. Britain’s Land Rover Defender was named best World Car design of the Year.

 

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