Motoring: Five million previous owners

The Mini is 40 this year - and shows no sign of slowing down. By Michael Booth
Princess Margaret and I have precious little in common. She is the sister of the Queen of England; I am not. I like lager; Margaret is, of course, a bitter woman. But one thing Mags and I, as well as 5.3 million others (including The Beatles, David Bowie, Clint Eastwood and Enzo Ferrari) do share is that we have both, at one time in our lives, owned a Mini.

Wait a minute, 5.3 million can't be right - hasn't everyone owned a Mini? Alec Issigonis's timeless, miraculous concept ("If it wasn't so ugly I'd shoot myself," was Ferrari's verdict) has a ubiquity on our streets that remains undiminished. To celebrate its latest anniversary the Design Museum in London is holding a three-month exhibition entitled Mini: 40 Years of a Design Icon.

As well as extensive Miniphernalia and BMC archive material, the exhibition includes Minis decorated to designs by Kate Moss, Paul Smith and David Bowie (above, left to right). Paul Smith's multi-coloured barcode Mini has already been produced in a limited run of 1,800 with 1,500 of them predictably going to Japan. Kate Moss's web design (inspired, apparently, by her pet tarantula), and David Bowie's iconic chrome-plated creation ("The viewer's own image becomes the immediate interface," explains Dave), remain one-offs.

"The main reason the Mini has lasted so long is its strength of personality," explains Mini brand manager Patrick Fleming. "Many cars try and do a lot of things averagely, but Issigonis decided he was going to do a small number of things exceptionally well. He was hell bent on getting as functional a car as possible in as small a space as possible." Fleming is in charge of both the current car's production and the highly sensitive introduction of an all-new Mini (above, far right). "I can't say very much about the new car. It will be slightly larger, but will have the same superb handling, throttle response and steering. Of course Mini enthusiasts would hate it if we changed a thing - we feel we've been pretty true to the spirit of the old car." If you ask me the new design looks fairly gruesome. "The photographs don't do it justice," responds Fleming. "And don't forget the old car was a total shock when it was launched."

Sales of the Mini (conceived during the Suez crisis as a rival to the bubble car) didn't pick up until two years into production when cars were given to style leaders like The Beatles, and Issigonis was seen chauffeuring the Queen around Hyde Park. Almost overnight the Mini became a Sixties fashion icon, a position consolidated when Formula I team boss John Cooper spotted the Mini's potential as a competition car and the all-conquering Mini Cooper was born.

Though sales have been in decline for 28 years, since a peak of 320,000 sold in 1971, Rover still shifts 15,000 Minis annually with prices from pounds 9,500 (which would have bought you 19 of them back in '59). But Rover has far loftier ambitions for the new car. "We could keep plugging along at 15,000 units," says Fleming, "but we're keen to take the new car to a far bigger audience. The Mini brand name has a tremendous power and we want to tap into that".

`Mini: 40 Years of a Design Icon', the Design Museum, London, 0171-378 6055, until 9 May