MINI MK 3
The Mk3 Mini, known internally as ADO20, arrived in the fall of 1969. Although the Mk3 received luxuries like wind-up windows and internal door hinges, other changes were aimed at reducing manufacturing costs: Trim was simplified and the complex and expensive Hydrolastic suspension was discarded in favor of rubber springs. The model range was also streamlined, abandoning most of the badge-engineered variations and establishing Mini as a separate marque with Mini 850, Mini 1000, Clubman, Clubman Estate, 1275GT, van, and pickup models.
The Mini’s basic design was now more than 10 years old, but its popularity continued to grow. By 1971, annual production had topped 300,000 units and BLMC celebrated the sale of the 3 millionth Mini in October 1972. Newer rivals like the Fiat 127/Autobianchi A112, and Renault 5 had moved the game on technologically, but the Mini was now a known quantity and its personality still compensated for many of its shortcomings. The energy crisis that followed the OPEC oil embargo in late 1973 only enhanced the Mini’s appeal. For a time, it was the only BLMC product to sell in reasonable numbers.
Those strong sales were not particularly welcome news to British Leyland management because the struggling conglomerate had still not managed to make the Mini profitable. After the cancellation of the Cooper, Lord Stokes admitted that British Leyland was losing £20 (about $50) per car and the production shortfalls during the energy crisis only made things worse. Worse, the Mini was now stealing sales from other, more profitable models, leaving BLMC in an ugly position: they couldn’t afford to cancel the Mini, but the more cars they sold, the more money they lost.
Work began in early 1974 on a Mini replacement, code-named ADO88, but its development was extremely protracted. BLMC’s precarious finances led the Labour government to nationalize the struggling automaker in 1975 in order to forestall either collapse or foreign buyout. Development funds were naturally very scarce and the ADO88 program wasn’t approved until October 1976. Badged miniMetro, it didn’t go on sale until October 1980.
MINI IN TWILIGHT
By the time the Metro appeared, Mini sales had fallen to about half of their early-seventies peak, but the Mini was still selling too well to cancel. Like Ford’s Capri, it was well past its prime, but buyers still regarded it with great affection.
In 1981, British Leyland reorganized its passenger-car divisions into a new Austin Rover Group (ARG). Austin Rover decided that the Mini’s sales didn’t justify the cost of any significant updates, but declared that it would remain in production for as long as it sold. Just as Ford did with the Capri, ARG pruned the model line and offered an assortment of special editions to prop up its still-limited profit margins. The Mini Cooper returned in 1990 and remained part of the Mini lineup until the end.
By the early nineties, the Mini was a niche item, no longer a mass-market car. What little advertising Rover Group (as ARG was now known) bothered to give it traded heavily on nostalgia with appearance packs designed to evoke past glories. Despite the Mini’s quintessential Britishness, the home market now accounted for only about a quarter of sales. Another 25% went to Japan, where the Mini had become a cult object. The Mini was long gone from the U.S. market; it had never really caught on in America and British Leyland had made no attempt to certify it for federal safety and emissions rules.
The Mini was coasting toward a natural death when BMW acquired Rover Group in 1994. BMW director Bernd Pischetsrieder (remarkably enough, a distant cousin of Alec Issigonis) saw the Mini brand as one of Rover’s greatest assets. He authorized a final update of the existing car to meet the latest European safety, emissions, and drive-by noise regulations and began development of an all-new Mini for the new century. Although BMW divested itself of Rover in May 2000, it retained ownership of the Mini brand.
The final Mk7 Mini remained in production until October 4, 2000, expiring about six months before the introduction of BMW’s all-new MINI. The Mini outlived both its erstwhile successor, the Metro, and its creator: Sir Alec Issigonis died in 1988. Total production of all Mini variants was 5,387,862, and we doubt BLMC, Austin Rover Group, Rover Group, or BMW made much of a profit on any of them.
Profitable or not, the Mini was a watershed vehicle. It had few direct imitators (discounting BMC/British Leyland relatives like the 1100), but it redefined what a small car could and should be. The Mini was a challenge that no automaker in that segment could ignore, although its competitors’ responses varied widely. Fiat technical director Aurelio Lampredi decided he could do Alec Issigonis one better, resulting in the Autobianchi A112/Fiat 127, which became the template for almost every modern supermini. Ford and GM measured BMC’s losses and made a deliberate decision not to follow the Mini, leaving them to play catch-up in the seventies. The Mini Cooper, meanwhile, was the spiritual ancestor of a whole genre of sporty little cars. There were sporty small cars before and after the Cooper, but few that approached its cultural impact.
Alec Issigonis has taken a lot of criticism in the past four decades for the Mini’s high production costs and lackluster financial performance. Issigonis was notoriously inflexible and the Mini was undeniably more expensive to produce than a conventional car, but we think the fact that BMC and British Leyland couldn’t figure out how to make money on such a popular product says more about the company than the car. BLMC eventually admitted that setting a price £25 or £30 higher probably wouldn’t have hurt the Mini’s sales and would have transformed it from a liability into the asset it should have been. (Indeed, BMW’s positioning of the new MINI as a “premium” subcompact has been very successful.)
Furthermore, if Issigonis hadn’t been so ferociously stubborn (and Leonard Lord and George Harriman so cooperative), we suspect the Mini would never have made it to production and today’s automotive market would look very different. Some people might prefer it that way, but we think a world without the Mini would be a poorer one indeed.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources included Keith Adams, “Drawings & prototypes,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 25 March 2010, “miniMetro,” AROnline, 12 February 2009, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 26 March 2010, “The Issigonis 9X,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 26 March 2010, and “The Whole Story: BMC>Rover History,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 19 June 2009; Keith Adams and Ian Nicholls, “Mini: The development story,” AROnline, 14 February 2010, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 27 March 2010; “Alec Issigonis,” Design Museum – British Council, Design in Britain, 2006, designmuseum. org, accessed 23 March 2010; “Austin Mini Cooper, Saab 850-GT,” Car and Driver Vol. 9, No. 1 (July 1963), pp. 68-73; “Autocar road test 1918: Austin Mini-Cooper S 1,071 c.c.,” Autocar 12 April 1963, pp. 608-612; John Baker, “Wolseley Hornet,” Austin Memories, n.d., www.austinmemories.com, accessed 27 March 2010; Richard Brenner, “Auf Widersehen, Pet: The Last Mini,” CAR December 2000, pp. 102-104; Chris Bishop, ed., The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare (London: Amber Books/Barnes & Noble, 2004); Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); Roger Carr, “Car Carshow Classic: 1960 Austin Seven (Mini) – The Future Started Here,” Curbside Classic, 16 December 2014, www.curbsideclassic. com/ curbside-classics-european/ car-carshow-classic-1960-austin-seven- the-future-started-here/, accessed 16 December 2014; Mike Covello, ed., Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946–2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); “Early history of the Morris Minor,” The Minor Site, 2001, www.theminorsite. co. uk, accessed 23 March 2010; Matthew Field, commentary, The Italian Job, writer: Troy Kennedy-Martin, director: Peter Collinson, producer: Matthew Field, U.K.: Oakhurst Productions, 1969; DVD, Paramount Pictures, 2003; “Hasta La Vista, Mini,” CAR December 2000, p. 217; “History of the Minor: A Car Is Born,” Minor Mania, n.d, www.minormania.com, accessed 23 March 2010; Ray Hutton, “Mini Happy Returns,” Car and Driver Vol. 35, No. 2 (August 1989), pp. 73–78; “John Cooper,” The 500 Owners Association, n.d., www.500race. org/ Men/ Cooper%20John.htm, accessed 25 March 2010; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Donald Neff, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower Takes America into the Middle East (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983); Ian Nicholls, “The Mini Clubman,” AROnline, 31 December 2009, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 27 March 2010 and “The Mini Cooper,” AROnline, 16 May 2009, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 25 March 2010; Paul Niedermeyer, “Curbside Classic: Austin Mini – Yesterday’s Mini, Today’s Micro,” Curbside Classic, 16 May 2011, www.curbsideclassic. com/ curbside-classics-european/ curbside-classic-1959-week-mini- yesterdays-mini-todays-micro/, accessed 16 May 2011; David Phipps, “Mini-Cooper S vs. [Ford] Falcon Sprint,” Car and Driver, July 1964, reprinted in Falcon Performance Portfolio 1960–1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 94-98; John Pressnell, The Mini (Shire Library) (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd., 2004); Graham Robson, Cortina: The story of Ford’s best-seller, Second Edition (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2008); “The Autocar road tests: 1843: Austin Seven Cooper,” The Autocar 20 December 1961, pp. 663-666; The Italian Job.com, n.d., www.theitalianjob. com, accessed 27 March 2010; “The History of Mini,” MiniWorld, 2009, www.miniworld. co. uk, accessed 27 March 2010; Craig Wash, “Mini Mark! Part 5: Mini Cooper 1961-1971,” Rugby Classic Mini Owners Club, n.d., www.rcmoc.org.uk/ bitsnbobs/ files/ minimk_Coopers.pdf, accessed 25 March 2010, and the Wikipedia® entries for for “Mini,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMC_Mini, accessed 25 March 2010, and “The Italian Job,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Italian_Job, accessed 25 March 2010.
Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and British pound came from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 British Pound, 1948-2007” (2007, fx.sauder.ubc. ca, accessed 2 January 2010) — in general, we assumed a rate of $2.80/£ through 1968. Exchange rate estimates represent the equivalency of the dollar and the sterling, not U.S. retail prices. Please note that exchange rates listed are approximate and are provided for informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on historical currency trading, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
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