Friday, September 4, 2009

Mini love affair survives new models

I have very fond memories of my Mini K -- a version made for Australia with an 1100cc motor -- JR

SEX symbol, film star, industrial success story - the Mini occupies a special place in Britain's national consciousness.

As Lord Mandelson said yesterday: "British drivers have had a long love affair with the Mini and I'm sure that this will continue for years to come." Few people would argue with his words, prompted by news from BMW that two new models are to be built at the MINI plant in Oxford, west of London.

Of course, what he did not point out was that, like many of the great love affairs, it got off to a rocky start.

When the Mini was introduced in 1959, early sales were so disappointing that production might even have been halted. Somehow it caught on, though, and the car that was originally designed as a utility vehicle for the working classes became the runabout of choice for the smart set and an indelible symbol of the Swinging Sixties.

Who had a Mini? Who did not, more like. Peter Sellers had one, as did Princess Margaret, and the Beatles had one each (customised, of course). Jack Profumo used to drive around in a bright red one - unusual for a Government minister - and Christine Keeler claimed that she had sex with him in it, which was even more unusual.

When a Mini won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, its status as a motoring legend was assured and by the time the car appeared in The Italian Job, it had become a global superstar.

Now, 50 years later, our affair with the Mini is still going strong - although, as with any long-standing relationship, it is politic not to draw attention to the various changes that have taken place over the years, such as the new owner, the new design and that the name of one's true beloved is now written in capital letters.

But love is blind, especially if it means the best news for the British motor industry in years and the creation of up to 1000 jobs at MINI's Cowley plant, where 3700 workers are employed building three versions of the car. The two new models, one of them a coupe, will be unveiled at the Frankfurt motor show on September 15.

Even Alex Moulton - who designed the suspension of the original car half a century ago and who could be forgiven for regarding the BMW MINI with a certain coolness - welcomed the news. "I am delighted," he said, before going on to describe the current MINI as "well done and well executed ... in a German way".

What it does not have, however, is any of the technical innovation of the original, such as the transverse engine, the front-wheel drive and the rubber suspension, all designed to give maximum space inside. "I once drove a 1959 Mini to Brighton," said Christy Campbell, author of Mini: An Intimate Biography, "and it was absolutely wonderful ... incredibly simple and incredibly clever."

Although it was not a success at first, its fortunes changed when it was taken up by the likes of Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon. Soon everyone wanted one. "But it was not just pop stars who bought them, it was Tory ministers," Campbell said. "Ernest Marples (Minister of Transport) had a special one to carry his golf clubs. Princess Alexandra was pursued by the Daily Mail because they wanted to know what was inside her boot."

After production of the Mini classic ended, BMW brought out the MINI: bigger, sportier and absolutely nothing to do with the original. "They bought an English suit of clothes," said Campbell, "and re-manufactured it in a humourless, but efficient way."

Does it matter? "No," said Chas Hallett, editor of Autocar, the magazine that once named the original its Car of the Century. "The MINI has been an amazing sales success, even in the States, which is something the original never achieved. There is a sense of fun and verve about it."

Like the new versions of the Fiat 500 and the VW Beetle, nostalgia is an undoubted part of the appeal. "But nostalgia is never enough," Hallett said. "People would not buy it unless it was a thoroughly good product. And it is a good product.",25197,26025228-2703,00.html

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