Thursday, 29 December 2011

Mini - Missed The Boat at 30


Instead of selling on its virtue, the Mini was sold on price, so it never generated the money it deserved. It never brought in enough to finance its development and replacement, and Leonard Lord and his colleagues set off the disastrous train of events that led to the collapse of British Leyland and virtually the entire British motor industry. The car that should have sold at a premium gave rise instead to the motor industry aphorism that Mini cars make mini profits.
Prescient or what? That was from The Sunday Times of 27 August, 1989 amidst a welter of nostalgia surrounding the Mini's 30th birthday that only showed what a flop the car really was. Instead of celebrating 30 years leading the world in small car design, we were gazing wistfully at an antique, a car that was a pioneering starting-point, and never should have continued in production for three decades virtually unchanged. Over the same time-span, practically every component of the Volkswagen Beetle was altered. Only the brilliant original concept remained; details were amended and refined continuously.

It was not until BMW inherited the Mini’s principles and sold it at a premium price that it became a success. The first Mini had charm. When I drove one in 1959 I was amazed. (Above; the first Mini made at Cowley, 8 May 1959) No small car had ever been like this. Back to The Sunday Times of 30 years later:

The Mini's catalogue of failure leaves us with a car 30 years out of date in style, merit, and profitability. It was badly made and wrongly priced at the start, never earned enough money to keep its lead, and remains a monument to a management that never realised how distinguished it was.

(1963 Super de luxe Mini - with extra bumper bits)
There is scant cause to celebrate one of the greatest missed opportunities in automotive history, or praise a car that is slow, noisy, less safe than it ought to be, and dying on its feet save for a shrinking number of customers.

Like steam buffs hankering after the Flying Scotsman, they are out of touch with the real world. Fast, lively, well-made and reliable cars overtook the Mini almost as soon as it had shown, before the end of the 1950s, how small cars would be designed for the rest of the century and beyond.


The origins of the Mini are well-known. Sir Alec Issigonis (above), a gifted freehand artist of a designer who knew from his own experience of lightweight hill-climb specials how a good car ought to feel and handle, first drew up the Morris Minor. It was a bit radical for the old guard of motor industry grandees, but they took a risk and made it.

(Above: Issy's sketch-pad. He drew one on a table-cloth for me. Stupidly I never kept it)
They did not make it as Issigonis wanted to make it; they used an old pre-war side-valve engine, so it was never exactly nimble, but they gave "Issy" as he was known, his head in other areas such as the body shell and the torsion-bar suspension, - very avant-garde for 1948. The Minor was an instant favourite, and the later Minor 1000 remains a sought-after car to this day.

(Minis won the Monte. Issigonis was as astonished as anybody)
The Mini-Minor as it was known at first, was more radical still. Front wheel drive remained a novelty in the Fifties. Citro├źn used it, but they were considered very eccentric by the bluff Yorkshireman who ran the British Motor Corporation (BMC), Leonard (later Sir Leonard) Lord.

The transverse engine (above) was even more unorthodox. A couple of brave pioneers had tried it in the cold dawn of motoring, but no serious designer had entertained it as a means of squeezing the mechanical parts of a car into as small a compass as possible, to leave more room for the occupants.

Yet Lord acknowledged that the recipe, together with small wheels and rubber springs developed with the help of Issy's friend Alex Moulton from Bradford-on-Avon, had merit. He signed the Mini off for production, and it was launched upon a startled world on 26 August 1959.

Lord was only interested in competing with Ford, so the Mini was priced against Ford's cheapest car, the Popular. The fact that its technology was of the Sixties, while the Ford's origins lay well back in the Thirties was beside the point. The Mini's price was £496 against the Popular's £419.


It ought to have been £100 dearer on account not only of its novelty, but also for its interior spaciousness (see above), and its splendid handling, which enabled it to run rings round everything else on the road. It was quick, chic, economical, roomy, and took the market by storm.

It leaked of course. Early Mini carpets quickly became sodden because the seams in the welded floor faced the wrong way, scooping up rain water as the car went along. The gearbox and cooling systems were continual sources of trouble. But there were no fundamental shortcomings except perhaps mixing the gearbox oil and the engine oil in the same sump, giving rise to lubrication problems.


(Minis at Silverstone, 1965, somewhat demurely driven - they usually had smoke coming from the front wheels)
Rival designs quickly discarded this feature, for within a very short time Mini imitators appeared on the market. The pattern of small cars changed from rear-engined and rear drive like the VW Beetle, the Fiat 650 and the Renault 750, to front-engined and front wheel drive. Convention was stood on its head, and soon VW, Renault, Fiat, Peugeot, and the mighty General Motors and Ford would follow suit. From being thoroughly unconventional, transverse-engine, front-drive cars became the norm, not just for small cars, but for medium and large cars.

(1965 variant, the Mini Moke)
Lord and his board never realised the revolution they had wrought. They were more afraid that customers would be put off by the small wheels and the slab-sided appearance and turned-out body seams. Lacking the vision of Issigonis, they felt the Mini would only have merit if it was cheap.

The result was that they under-priced the most brilliant small car of all time. Instead of selling on its virtue, it was sold on price, so it never generated the money it deserved. It never brought in enough to finance its development and replacement, and Lord and his colleagues set off the disastrous train of events that led to the collapse of British Leyland and virtually the entire British motor industry.


(Final fling. One of a late series of Minis harking back to the Mini-skirted 1960s)
The car that should have sold at a premium gave rise instead to the motor industry aphorism that Mini cars make mini profits.

Classless, trend-setting, and sufficiently agile to give a good account of itself in all forms of motor sport from the Monte Carlo Rally to production car racing, the Mini should have been a financial as well as a technical success. It was marketed mistakenly as cheap and cheerful, instead of the clever new concept that it really was.


(BMW reinterprets the Mini. The Mayfair 50)
Mini ownership by the trendy Peter Sellars and Lord Snowdon was regarded with polite interest, instead of demonstrating that here was a car so good that price was not a critical ingredient in its choice.

In due course, the Metro was a worthy development of the Mini; few small cars make such good use of space, or offer so much of it for the money. Alas, it was late by 10 years or more, and when it did come, it still used (and still uses) the out of date Mini engine and gearbox because there was no money available for a new one.

When the replacement Metro arrives in a year or two, it will have a new engine. But now it has to hold its head above a flood of Mini rivals from Japan, Korea, and the rest of a world. They have followed where Issigonis led, but where an indifferent and lacklustre BMC feared to tread.

(And BMW succeeded. With hindsight I was being too kind to the Metro. Hopes for it were high in 1989)

1 comment:

  1. Yet another British motor industry story of what could have been. If only, if only... but it was probably doomed from the start in a way, if the management didn't believe in it enough to price it as it should've been. The Ford stripdown of the Mini comes to mind - where they judged BMC couldn't possibly be making any money on it... and so it proved, alas.

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