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BMW’s Mini: A new life for a legend

August 1, 2001, by Bill Cawthon

Next spring, a sort-of-new car will hit the streets of North America. It will be new to many, especially the young; but to those of us on AARP’s mailing list it will be familiar. After a 34-year absence, the Mini will have returned. By the time the first one lands on American soil, Minis will have already spent over six months on the roads of England and the Continent and will have even been available in Japan. Fortunately, scale collectors around the world can have their own Mini long before the real ones are exported from England. New for August is Herpa’s 1:87-scale Mini in both standard and metallic finishes.

In the real world, test drives conducted by the motoring press indicate BMW has done a good job of re-creating the British classic. Both journalists and spectators had a positive reaction and advance orders totaled more than 3,000 in the United Kingdom alone. Worldwide, BMW hopes to move about 100,000 Minis a year. They all will be built in at the Cowley works in Oxford, home of the original Mini and its designer, Sir Alec Issigonis.

A number of purists complain the new Mini is a bit of a fraud. Instead of the solidly British car it replaces, today’s Mini is a German design with English styling cues. What these people forget is the man who designed the original Mini was half German. Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis (1906-1988) was born in Smyrna, Turkey. His father’s family was Greek and his mother was the daughter of a Bavarian brewer.

The elder Issigonis, who ran a marine engineering business, had become a naturalized Briton and after World War I ended, the family was evacuated from Turkey along with the rest of the British community. Alec Issigonis’ father died during the journey and the family was nearly destitute when they arrived in England. Fortunately, Alec was able to attend school for three years, studying engineering, a field for which he had shown a natural flair. After leaving school, Issigonis worked as a draftsman and eventually wound up at Lord Nuffield’s Morris operation in Cowley. (Before he was elevated to the peerage in the 1930s, Lord Nuffield (1877-1963) was William Morris. That’s where the company name originated.)

Issigonis spent most of the War years working on a new automotive design. This was to become the Morris Minor, one of England’s most successful cars ever. The entire design team for the Minor consisted of Issigonis and two assistants. When the Minor had its first showing in 1947, Lord Nuffield hated it and called it a “poached egg.” Fortunately, for his car company, most Britons did not share his opinion and they bought over one million during the next eleven years.

In 1952, Morris and Austin merged to become the British Motor Company, the first of the mergers and conglomerates that eventually swallowed almost every English car company. Issigonis disapproved of the merger and went to work at Alvis.

In 1956, the Suez Crisis created fuel shortages for a number of countries including England. Sir Leonard Lord, the head of British Motor Company, called for the creation of a miniature car, not unlike the micro-cars that were so popular in postwar Germany. By this time, Issigonis was back at BMC and almost single-handedly produced a design that would meet Lord’s criteria and (although they didn’t know it at the time) become the most popular English car ever made.

The Mini made its debut on August 26, 1959. Originally, it was produced as the Austin “Se7en” and the Morris Mini Minor, a version for each of BMC’s original members. It was a very plain and simple car with few creature comforts, a harsh ride and very questionable crash-worthiness. On the other hand, it would transport four people, was quite frugal with gasoline and was priced under $800.

The Mini was not a success at first. In fact, it took a royal act to inspire public interest in the little car. When Queen Elizabeth II was seen behind the wheel of a Mini, sales began to take off. Later, when the Beatles each bought one, the car became a “must-have” for the trend makers. Among notable Mini owners were Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood (I would have loved to see Eastwood fold up into Mini-size), Paul Newman and Brigitte Bardot.

In 1961, racing driver John Cooper (1923-2000) opened up a world of possibilities when he added some tweaks to the Mini and produced the Mini Cooper. The Cooper S followed in 1963. As time went on, the Mini Cooper series became a racing phenomenon, winning three times at Monte Carlo (1964, 1965 and 1967) and becoming a favorite on the SCCA circuit. Nicki Lauda drove a Mini to his first competition victory. Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren and Ken Tyrell were just some of the professional drivers who owned Minis. Enzo Ferrari owned a trio of Minis. The first Mini Cooper remained in production only until 1969 but Rover revived the brand in 1990 to rekindle declining sales.

Minis also made their mark in media. The open vehicles seen in the Patrick McGoohan cult classic, “The Prisoner” were Austin Mini Mokes. These were a sort of proto-SUV originally designed for the British military. In 1969, a trio of Minis joined Michael Caine in “The Italian Job,” a movie still noteworthy for its driving sequences.

The Mini became a distinct brand in 1969 with the new badge appearing on 1970 models. By then, it had appeared as an Austin, a Morris, a Wolesley and a Riley. In addition to the little sedan and the Moke, the Mini was produced as a station wagon, a convertible, a panel delivery van and a pickup truck.

By the time the “classic” Mini ended its 41-year production run, a total of 5,387,862 had been built in 137 variations. On October 4, 2000, the final Mini came off the line at Longbridge.

The Mini’s longevity wasn’t always assured. In truth, the design was very obsolete by the end of the 1970s and it was becoming more difficult to design a Mini that could meet the increasingly stringent safety and emissions requirements. Several times during the consolidation of the British automobile industry, the Mini was slated for extinction. Each time, it was brought back. In 1996, while it controlled the Rover Group, BMW decided to create an all-new Mini. The first concept was displayed at the Frankfurt International Auto show in 1997 to rave reviews. The final production version was shown at Le Mondrial De L’Automobile in Paris last September. The Mini’s first American showing came during the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The new Mini uses lots of the visual clues of the Issigonis design, but that’s where the similarities end. The new Mini is a thoroughly modern car. The base version, the Mini One, uses a 90 hp Tritec 4-cylinder engine that BMW builds in Brazil as part of a joint venture with DaimlerChrysler. The upscale Mini Cooper S will have a 115 hp version of the same engine and a supercharged version is supposed to be ready in time for the North American introduction. Only the Cooper versions will be sent to the United States.

BMW has big hopes for the little car. They are hoping to capitalize on the same kind of 60’s nostalgia that made the New Beetle a success when it was first introduced. Of course, BMW is also hoping that Americans won’t remember that the Mini was not a big success in the United States. From 1961 to 1967, it was imported as the Austin 850 and the Morris Mini Minor. BMC sold only about 10,000 Minis in that entire time. The 1968 Federal vehicle standards ended the Mini’s stay in America. Of course, the passing of three decades means lots of changes. Americans have accepted the small car along with the giant SUV and, like the New Beetle, BMW’s Mini is really a much better car than the one it replaces.

The new Herpa models use the 1997 Mini concept car as their prototype. The company did an earlier run of models for BMW in 1999. Herpa claims to have re-engineered and modified its model to match the production version but that clearly isn’t the case. The Herpa models still have the five-spoke wheels of the first prototype while every version shown in the last year has the seven-hole disks that will be on the production Mini Cooper.

Other than the blooper with the wheels, the Herpa models look to be quite accurate. Even the roof-colored outside rear-view mirror is captured. As with most Herpa models, the customer has a choice of two finishes. Model No 023023 has the standard finish in what Herpa calls “Flamenco Orange.” The closest color BMW lists is a red they call “Gotcha” in the U.S. and “Chili Red” everywhere else. From the computer photos, they look quite similar. The 033022 model has a black metallic finish that probably translates to BMW’s “Tux.”

While North America will be getting only the Mini Cooper, there is also a base model, the Mini One, for England and other countries in the EU. The main spotting feature is the roof. The base Mini One models have a body-colored roof while the Coopers have either a black or a white roof, depending on lower body color. One option on the real Mini will be a roof painted like the Union Jack for those who never quite got over the psychedelic era.

For those with a taste for the traditional, Herpa still offers the Mini Cooper and Mini Mayfair. The Mini Mayfair was an upscale model introduced in 1982, long after the Mini (and most of the rest of the British brands) had left the U.S. The Coopers are all perfectly fine for North American layouts or collections. Even the “facelift” models are fair game. The major spotting differences are pieces that were frequently added to base Coopers as aftermarket items. You might want to add some decals, rally lights and such to produce one of the little racers that did so well in competitions around the world.

Promotex Online lists all of these items, except for the new Mini in metallic finish, as in stock and will be happy to put a new Mini Cooper in your hands without delay. The metallic version is in production and will be on Promotex shelves soon.

Oh, and if you want more information on the full-size version, be sure to visit the Mini web site. Take a moment to register and the nice folks at BMW North America will keep you informed of the latest Mini news.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005