Bigger, better – British? BMW takes on a classic as latest incarnation of Mini is unveiled

Sean O’Grady charts its ageless appeal – and compares the new model to its illustrious (but less profitable) predecessors

The Mini was always a paradoxical little car. When it was originally, originally launched, in 1959, its then makers, the British Motor Corporation (RIP), had in mind a car for the masses – cheap, economical and surprisingly spacious.

A few years before Doctor Who’s Tardis was invented, this was a real-world machine that was much bigger on the inside than it seemed on the outside. To achieve this, the car’s genius designer, Alec Issigonis, turned the engine through 90 degrees to make for a shorter bonnet and had the front wheels drive it (removing the need for a transmission). A miracle of engineering, and, as has been well noted, a package that was copied by all major car-makers around the world. By the late 1960s, Issigonis’s brilliant sketches were being compared to those of da Vinci.

Socially, it transformed lives. Here was a “proper” car that could take you on holiday, even abroad, as readily as to the shops. It promoted mobility; it was fun to drive; it liberated the young from parental supervision, shall we say; in The Italian Job and the Monte Carlo rally it boosted national pride. I ran one for 13 years and never tired of it. Driving in traffic, finding the gaps and exploiting them, turned a bore into a sport. Like its bigger brother, the Austin/Morris 1100, it enhanced the national standard of living. It was “our” version of motoring for all, comparable to the Model T Ford and the VW Beetle.

Commercially, it was a disaster. When the cost-controllers at Ford took one apart, they could not understand how BMC made money on it. “Mini cars make mini profits,” they concluded, correctly. And because the 5 million Minis produced made probably only a few hundred thousand pounds in profits, the marque was never invested in properly, and was eventually overtaken by rivals with fresher takes on the theme – especially the hatchback. There were many reasons for the failure of BMC/British Leyland/MG Rover, but the lack of profitability in their best-selling product was a big one.

Enter BMW, which ditched most of the Rover Group it bought in the 1990s but kept the rights to the Mini name, plus the ex-Morris Motors plant at Cowley, Oxford, that had made some of them. In 2001, BMW brought out a “new” Mini that was really anything but – bigger, inefficient in its use of space and loaded with marketing-driven luxuries and fripperies where Issigonis’s original had been spartan (no radio; heater at extra cost; sliding windows only). The second version was accompanied by an even more bloated effort, a small SUV badged “Mini Countryman” (made in Austria of all places).

The latest incarnation, unveiled in Oxford yesterday, is a further development of the styling cues – big headlamps, oversized speedometer, two-tone paint, “Cooper” stripes and the like. If all that sounds unkind, it is not meant to. The old one was well past its prime by 1980, selling mostly as a curiosity, especially to Japan. The new one excels where the old one stumbled. From personal experience of both, I can say that the new Mini will al  ways start in the rain, it will not break down with anything like the frequency of the old one, and will not dissolve into rust. It is faster, safer and more comfortable but still fun and charming – and returns fuel economy that approaches the originals. The performance versions are swifter than Aston Martins, Jaguars and Ferraris were in the salad days of the original “classic” Mini (and not far off today’s supercars).

The contemporary Mini, let us be clear, is a very classy, superbly built small BMW. It has none of the social mission of the original, and none of its revolutionary appeal. However, it has been a huge success, has saved car-making in the heart of England, and provided jobs that might easily have disappeared. It is exported to more places than the old one, and, I presume, is a profitable undertaking. In its own small way, it is helping to “ rebalance” the economy as everyone wants – less financial engineering and more of the real thing.

A friend told me a story the other day. Their son asked his dad what this funny little car he had spotted might be. It was “like a Mini, but much smaller”. He meant, of course, one of the originals. Because of its tendency to rust, and the fact the last one was made 13 years ago, the “classic” Mini, once part of the national street furniture like pillar boxes or red phone kiosks, is rapidly receding into history. The new car is better in almost every way. Yet, rusty, unreliable and unsafe as it was, I still miss my 1982 Austin Mini City E, and would rather have it back than a new Mini John Cooper Works GP (from £28,795). There’s my mini paradox.

Video: Celebrities attend the launch of the new Mini  

Suggested Topics
News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people
News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

    £40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

    Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

    Design Technology Teacher

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

    Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes