Mini fans fear the end of the road

Click to follow
QUESTION marks once again accompany the future of the Mini, which celebrates its 35th birthday today. The official line is that Rover, now part of BMW, will continue to build the car while demand is there. Senior sources in the company are not so sure. 'I doubt if it will see its 40th birthday,' one said.

Garel Rhys, motor industry professor at Cardiff Business School, said the decision will depend on 'how the Bavarian bean counters feel'. He said it was reprieved in the 1980s only because the Metro, which was to replace it, failed to live up to expectations, so there was spare production capacity at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham. 'They can keep making it as long as it doesn't get in the way of another car,' he said.

'Rover has been wrestling with the dilemma of what to do with the Mini,' said Rob Golding, an analyst with SG Warburg who has written a book about the car. 'Options include scrapping it, sub-contracting it to a small-scale manufacturer, selling the tooling to a low-cost manufacturer or setting up a joint venture with a contract assembler. The heart says keep the Mini going, but in the end it will be a hard business decision.'

However, industry experts say the Mini could have one practical advantage: it keeps a toehold in the smallest 'micro' segment of the market, which could grow fast as urban congestion increases.

Mini-borne crowds will converge on Silverstone today for the birthday party. A German Mini club has hired a P&O ferry to bring 500 cars from the Continent, while two racing versions have been shipped in from Japan, which is now the biggest market for the car.

The British Motor Corporation launched the first Mini as the Austin Se7en (sic) and the Morris Mini-Minor in August 1959, at pounds 496 19s 2d. It was a response to the bubble cars which, BMC head Sir Leonard Lord believed, should be driven from the streets.

It was designed by Alec Issigonis and was remarkable both for its handling and interior space.

It has been declared the best car ever built, but has never been the most profitable. BMC did not know, until Ford told it, that it was making the car at a loss: it did not have the cost-analysis systems the American companies used.

Production to the end of last year was almost 5.3 million. However, this is modest compared with the 21 million Volkswagen Beetles built - Beetles are still assembled in Mexico.