Future Classic Friday: BMW MINI
Fans of the original Mini were distraught in October 2000, when the final Issigonis-designed Mini rolled off the production line at Longbridge.
Some of the tears were because a British icon had finally died after an astonishing 41-year production run, but many were in anger at the divorce between the newly formed MG Rover Group and its former parent, BMW.
During the dissolution of the former Rover Group, BMW had allegedly cherry-picked the best bits, taking Land Rover technology to help develop its own range of premium 4x4s before selling it on to Ford, then keeping the iconic Mini brand for itself, leaving MG Rover pretty much high and dry, with just the 25, 45 and 75 models to help keep it afloat - a move that left fans of the British marque foaming at the mouth.
The eventual demise of MG Rover is a well-documented story, and there are many that believe that, if the Mini and Land Rover brands had remained within group ownership, there would still be a Rover today. But history is just that, and the 'BMW' MINI (note the use of uppercase letters, to distinguish the newer, larger car from the mini Mini) sold like the proverbial hot cakes from the very day it was launched.
To be fair, much of the development of the car was carried out by Rover. Its codename, R50, was in-line with other Rover Group projects, and the chassis and body were engineered at the company's Gaydon HQ, largely by British engineers. There was American input, too, with Chrysler-sourced engines (arguably the launch car's weak point) and styling from the pen of Californian designer Frank Stephenson, who famously stuffed a beer can into the back of the clay model when the original styling buck had been created without an exhaust tailpipe. The feature remained in the exact same position on the production car...
The original plan, before BMW sold its 'English Patient' to the Phoenix Consortium for a tenner, was to build the R50 at Longbridge, on the production line vacated by the labour-intensive original Mini. But with the separation from MG Rover, BMW elected to keep the newer, more efficient Cowley plant, now known as MINI Plant Oxford, in which to produce the car. It was, arguably, the beginning of the end for the famous Birmingham plant.
Despite the emotional impact the BMW sale had on die-hard fans of British cars (some of which is still felt even today), the MINI arrived to a rapturous reception. The slightly gruff engines were easily offset by the BMW-inspired build quality, cute retro styling and impeccable handling, which was further exploited later in 2001 when the supercharged Cooper 'S' arrived. The MINI was a sensational hit, and won multiple awards.
Its acceptance in classic car circles, though, is tempered somewhat by the impact its departure from the Rover Group had on the British company. Rover died four years after the MINI arrived in a highly protracted death, its assets sold to China and its production lines idled. Cycnics suggested that the MINI wasn't a Mini at all. That it was too big and bulbous, badly packaged and merely a cheap pastiche of the original, rather brilliant, design.
And in many respects it was. But in others, it beat the original hands down. It was comfortable, for a start, and was also superbly well screwed together. Even now, 16 years since its debut, its rare to see a rusty example, such was the exacting nature of BMW's manufacturing quality. A 16-year old Rover Mini, on the other hand, could probably be hoovered up.
So, emotions aside, is the BMW MINI now a bona fide classic? Well, it's a car that has won hearts and minds, many of which belong to people too young to remember the passionate demise of MG Rover or the original Mini ever being sold as a new car. It's a terrific car to drive, with handling that, even today, is nigh on imposible to better. It has a huge following of enthusiastic owners, many of whom give their cars a name. Controversial, maybe. But a classic? Yes. Hands-down.
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