50 Years of The Mini

By Craig Watson

There have been countless books written about the Mini in its various forms, and there are two long-running English magazines dedicated to the car (and ourselves, of course). So, you would think that everything that can be said about the fourth-largest-selling car in history has already been said.

However, sometimes myths develop that are often repeated to the point of becoming the accepted fact. This is called authority by repetition. One problem we face with this magazine is that with so little official documentation around, particularly in Australia, it is very difficult to dispel some myths. Thanks to the memories of many of the people involved at the time, copies of period magazines including the BMC Rosette, and advertising material collected by the many enthusiasts that have helped out where possible, we are able to sort many facts from fiction.

One UK journalist who is determined to do the same for the Mini on a global scale, is Jon Pressnell. It is a huge job, and we hope that when completed his book proves to be the definitive reference on Mini production that he is aiming for. As soon as it is available we will have a review of it, and we hope to be selling it as well.

One of the greatest myths that abounds to this day is that the Mini was not profitable. While we are yet to prove conclusively that this is incorrect, there is plenty of evidence to support our belief that the Mini actually did make reasonable money – at least in Australia.

This misconception seems to have been born out of a report by Ford engineers soon after the release of the Mini, when they dismantled one base model and worked out the costs of the car if it was being built by Ford. Their conclusion was that if they were building the car, they would lose around £30 per vehicle.

However, the Mini was not built along the conventional methods, the base model sold in minimal numbers – with most buyers opting for at least the De Luxe version – and the original tooling costs were significantly reduced (per car built) by the sheer numbers produced.

As we have already shown, in Australia at least, the Mini, together with the Morris 1100, was largely responsible for the turn-around of BMC to a profitable organisation. In 1963/64 overall sales increased by 6%, while the net profit rose by 19% – to £1,616,172 compared with only £120,031 from two years previously. This simply doesn’t happen if one of your biggest-selling cars is losing money.

When Leyland went through its disastrous financial turmoil in the early 1970s (due in no part to sales or lack of profitability of the Mini), which resulted in the closing of the Zetland plant, the only vehicles to survive the rationalisation and move to Enfield were the Mini and the Moke.

In the early stages of merger talks between BMC and Leyland in the UK, BMC had the upper hand as the more profitable concern. By the end of the 1966-67 financial year, BMC recorded a loss of £4 million (from a profit of £16.3 million in 1964-65 according to Graham Robson in his book Mini – A Celebration), and the profitable Leyland was able to dictate the terms of the merger.

BMC’s losses in such a short time could be attributed to their purchase of Pressed Steel in 1965 and Jaguar (including Daimler, Coventry-Climax and Guy & Meadows) in 1966, rather than poor market performance from the Mini – which was selling well over 200,000 per annum and peaked at nearly 320,000 in 1971.

The One Millionth Mini was built in 1965, the two millionth in 1969, the third in 1972, the fourth in 1976 and the five millionth in February 1986. But these figures probably only relate to the UK, as we will explain, while the Mini was also assembled in many other countries.

Despite its phenomenal sales success the Mini almost floundered when it was new, due most significantly to the infamous water leaks in bad weather and, ironically, its exceptionally low price (£497 for the base model). The Mini broke the mould of the small cheap car being cramped and uncomfortable, with poor handling and no power – but it took a little time to be fully appreciated.

The Mini was not the first front-wheel-drive car, nor was it the smallest car. It wasn’t the first with rubber suspension, nor the first transverse-engined car. But it was the first car to combine all of these features, into one package, and to utilize the gearbox for the oil sump.

As Jack Daniels recalled in an interview in Thoroughbred & Classic Cars to celebrate the Mini’s 30th anniversary (September 1999), the Rzeppa constant-velocity joint was the key to the operational success of the Mini’s front-wheel-drive concept.

Although it was never designed specifically for motorsport, Mini’s handling – designed essentially with safety in mind – proved the ideal basis for a successful competition car. Its many achievements, from the racetrack to rallying, are legendary.

If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 19 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>26</plumshop> <plumshop>25</plumshop>

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