Motoring: The Mini still has a role in Rover's future

The Mini nowadays is old and inadequate, but it soldiers on because of the world's nostalgic view of anything British and ancient

THIS YEAR, the Mini, Rover's greatest-ever car (and probably Britain's all-time best) turns 40. This year, if we believe what we've been reading and hearing, Rover may cease to exist as a car-maker. It's not exactly the commemorative gift that the Mini's creator, the late Sir Alec Issigonis, would have wished for.

Then again, neither would Sir Alec have wished his younger cousin such a wretched time over the past week or so. Bernd Pischetsrieder was BMW's chairman until eight days ago. I once asked Pischetsrieder what he remembered of his cousin (his grandmother and Sir Alec's mother were sisters).

"I remember he took me through a disgustingly dirty British car factory," he told me. "I vowed at the time that I didn't want to work in the car business."

Now, finally, Pischetsrieder has got his wish.

In some ways, the Mini encompasses many of Rover's biggest problems. It's made at Longbridge, Rover's largest and now, as it always has been, its most controversial factory. It was a radical new design when it was first launched, begetting the trend to small, front-wheel-drive, transverse- engined cars - now these things are the industry norm. Yet it was never a greatly profitable model.

Radical Rovers have a history of winning praise, but not bringing in many pounds. Nowadays, however, the Mini is very old and very inadequate. It soldiers on because of the world's nostalgic view of anything British and ancient. Had the Mini been American, it would have died in about 1963. (Mind you, had the Mini been American, it also would have had a V8 engine and been 20ft long.)

The Mini is also a strong reminder of just how trend-setting Rover - or BMC, as it was known at the time - was, back in the Fifties and Sixties. Can you imagine Rover nowadays setting the template for future car design and innovation? It would be just as inconceivable as Austin Reed going Cool Britannia.

Rover's brief, from BMW, is now to make stately, conservative, genteel motor cars for conservative, genteel people. There is nothing wrong with this future direction, and it ties in precisely with Germany's general view of Britain's motor industry as Museum Motors Plc.

Or rather, Museum Motors Aktiengesellschaft - because apart from Jaguar, Aston Martin and Lotus, the Germans own every great British motoring brand (Rover, Austin, Morris, MG, Mini, Land Rover, Range Rover, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and many more). Somehow, though, it felt a bit better when Alec Issigonis's cousin was in charge of most of these firms.

I am very sad that Pischetsrieder has gone. He was charming, friendly, helpful and a thoroughly decent chap. He chain-smoked Marlboros, cracked lots of jokes and never acted self-importantly in any way. He always tagged himself as a Bavarian rather than a German. "Munich is closer to Milan than to Berlin," was one of his favourite sayings.

He was also a romantic, which is probably not exactly an ideal quality for the boss of a booming multinational car company.

His public pronouncements on reviving Riley as a brand name were as eccentric as they were misguided. Riley is about as relevant to anyone, in 1999, as mangles and co-respondent shoes.

Yet Pischetsrieder clearly had a fine business mind to balance his Anglophile eccentricities. He outmanoeuvred the VW boss Ferdinand Piech - the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche (who said the car business isn't a family affair?) - to buy Rolls-Royce. He set up a successful plant in low-cost South Carolina and oversaw a wave of brilliant BMW cars.

Pischetsrieder used these skills to help make BMW arguably the strongest car brand in the world, after Mercedes-Benz.

His decision to buy Rover may also be vindicated, in the long term. BMW shareholders must realise that, however much they hate to admit it, they need Rover. If Rover goes, it takes BMW - or at least, an independent BMW - with it. The Bavarian manufacturer would be a motoring minnow again, and would soon be snapped up by General Motors or Ford or VW or Fiat.

Besides, some good news may be just around the corner. The new Mini is just over a year away from market. Its job, at least in part, is to save Britain's biggest car-maker. If successful, its legacy may well be even greater than that of its predecessor.

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