End of an era as Mini production is halted

The end of an era for British motoring came today when the last "classic" Mini rolled off Rover's production line in Longbridge.

The end of an era for British motoring came today when the last "classic" Mini rolled off Rover's production line in Longbridge.

But the car is not destined to disappear from the nation's roads for a few years yet. As well as a huge army of loyal drivers determined to preserve their cars as classics, an updated BMW model which is almost a foot longer than its tiny predecessor is due to be marketed.

Designers, engineers and those involved in getting the Mini on the road during its six decades as one of the world's berst-loved cars watched the final six cars roll of the line at the Birmingham plant. They said the occasion had left them with a mixture of happiness and regret.

Paddy Hopkirk, 67, who won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally in a Mini Cooper S, said: "Time marches on. I didn't think when I first came to Longbridge in 1963 that I would be here again in 2000 and the car actually still being produced. It was not a good seller when it was put on the market in 1959. But long term the Cooper put it on the map and it became the in car to have."

Mr Hopkirk, whose rally win involved a struggle through sub-zero temperatures as he raced from Minsk in Russia to Monte Carlo, thought the future looked bright for the new BMW Mini.

"I've seen it and driven it and I think it's a very good car. We mustn't forget that a lot of British engineering went into it and the handling is amazing," he said.

John Shepherd, 78, and Jack Daniels, 88, members of the production and design team who worked on the Mini under head designer Sir Alec Issigonis, paid tribute to their little car's durability.

Mr Shepherd, who worked at Longbridge for 27 years and was responsible for the body and structure, said: "I see today with sadness and pride. I was always sceptical but I could see its potential. I thought that we would never get away with putting on outside flanges.

"But it even grew on me. What made it a success was when we started making it in the rallies. It became a cult." Mr Daniels, the number one design and development engineer, who retired in 1977, said: "This is not the happiest day, it's the end of the vehicle but I have always realised for some time that it was inevitable. "We knew that the Mini had a finite life. But three to four years ago it was going to die but Rover, with due credit, managed to keep it going, but they can't go any further." Mr Daniels, who attributed the car's success to its handling and manoeuvrability, added that he was pleased that BMW had retained some of the features of the original design. With a wry smile, he said: "It's not a Mini, although there's a gist of the Mini which was very pleasing. There's something in the shape of the Mini, I can see some of mine in it."

The last car was driven out of the factory by 1960s singer and Mini owner Lulu.

MG Rover has unveiled its first Birmingham-produced Rover 75. Chief executive Kevin Howe said this signified a new era for Longbridge and the company. "After many months of unprecedented changes and uncertainty, we are not only producing the last Mini but the first Longbridge-made Rover 75 saloon on time to exacting quality standards. "We expect to reach full operating volume very shortly and by this time next year we will be producing eight models. It's the start of a new beginning for Longbridge." Bernard Ringham, 57, of Oldbury, West Midlands, who worked on the Mini for 24 years, said: "It's sad, but it's time to move forward. We've got to grasp the future. We've got new models like the Rover 75 and hopefully there will be other cars coming on stream." But he added that many workers at the plant were disappointed to see the Mini move to Cowley as they had thought a new facility built in Birmingham would allow them to make the a new model.