Pocket rocket: the incredible staying power of the Mini

Ryan Borroff

Everyone loves the Mini. It’s a car that transcends automotive snobbery. Even people who normally wouldn’t be seen dead driving anything less prestigious than a Porsche are quite happy for dinner guests to see a Cooper S parked up next to their 911. Famous fans including Lilly Allen, Wayne Rooney, Britney Spears and Madonna have all owned them. When Twilight star Kristen Stewart was busted cheating on boyfriend Robert Pattinson, she was in her black Cooper.

So how do you explain the enduring appeal of this little car? It has certainly been on a long journey. This week Mini launches the Paceman, the seventh iteration in a line-up of cars “descended” from Alec Issigonis’ original quirky little BMC Mini, a car that became an icon and helped define sixties Britain. But the Paceman, a sporty, low-slung yet beefy SUV-coupe crossover is a far cry from the diminutive, perky original. Detractors say this new model, like some of its siblings, including the portly Clubvan, pushes the brand to the limits of credibility. But diversification and German-ownership don’t seem to have taken away from Mini’s quintessentially British image – quite the opposite. In a global car market that is declining, Mini has reported record sales for three years running.

In a year that marks 100 years of car production at the Cowley facility in Oxford – Minis have been built there since 1959 but the Morris Minor, which was also designed by Alec Issigonis, was built there too – BMW is expecting to sell more than 300,000 Minis, most of which will be the regular Hatch and Convertible but a significant number will be the decidedly maxi Mini Countryman.

The original was revolutionary. It was created in response to the post-Suez Crisis fuel rationing in the late 1950s, when a market for smaller, more economical cars appeared almost overnight. Issigonis created an affordable and economical car that boasted a revolutionary design – it was front-wheel drive and the engine was transversely mounted in order to fit into the tiny body; nothing short of genius in terms of packaging efficiency. It was also pixie-cute – not only did it have a “face”, it was forever smiling. With its democratic appeal, unique personality and cool, no nonsense styling, it captured the spirit of time. Twiggy, Mary Quant, Peter Sellers and the Beatles all jumped behind the wheel and a British automotive icon was born.

For 40 years, first under British Leyland then Rover, it barely changed. Nobody could work out how to replace it and it was instead superseded by the Mini Metro: a very different car. It wasn’t until BMW acquired the brand from Rover in 1994 that a modern-day Mini seemed achievable.

Sure, at least six of the eight Mini models in the current family line up have very little in common with the original Mini, and BMW’s audacious ability to expand the brand has been ruthlessly efficient. The irony can’t be lost on Munich that, when the original BMW Mini was penned by Issigoni, it was in response to the sales threat from German bubble cars.

When BMW took a look under the bonnet of the original Mini, there was plenty of room for improvement. “The old Mini was an icon of design, but it was not exactly the pinnacle of reliability,” says Jochen Goller, director at Mini UK. BMW shrewdly elected to cherry-pick the most distinctive elements of the original – low centre of gravity, short overhangs, distinctive grille and outsized speedo – and marry them to BMW’s famously top-notch technology and engineering.

Crucially, BMW was at pains to play the Britishness card, a vital factor in keeping continuity between the old and the new. That the car’s a British icon is something that has always appealed to British owners, but is even more exciting for drivers in the US, China and Japan. Nobody could have anticipated what a runaway success the new car would be in the US, in particular, a market where, as Goller puts it, “Anything less than five metres long isn’t a car”. But it was a hit. “British design is more highly valued overseas and underrated at home,” says Goller.

The modern Mini has achieved an enviable fan base and almost cult-like status. Every year, more than 30,000 fans gather for the biannual Mini United festival to show off their cars, race and watch the experts do crazy stunts. Iggy Pop was a headline music act at last year’s festival. Part of its appeal is its go-kart-like feel, and despite its increase in size the new car is still great fun to drive.

“In the 60s, after taking the hatch for a test drive, people would get out with a smile on their face,” says Goller. “It’s the same for the BMW Mini.”

For Mini obsessives, it’s often not about how many they own, it’s about how unique they can make them. People see their Minis as a reflection of themselves, giving them names and unique looks. The special and limited edition models are always a sell-out. Recent introductions include the London-focused Bayswater, Highgate and Baker Street models and the more luxurious Inspired by Goodwood.

Owners tend to go to town with official customisation options, including stripes, cheques or flags on the roof; mirror covers and roof boxes; bike racks… The list goes on. Some even add their own touches. One Russian owner turned hers into a science lab: pure white with UV lights, and she drives it wearing a lab coat. “We invented customisation,” says Goller, who says no two Minis are exactly the same.

Customisation has become a standard for many other “youthful” car brands, but none can rival Mini’s place in British hearts. And we may soon get to drive the most mini Mini yet, the 3+1 seater Rocketman. The concept is the best Mini design BMW has ever come up with, far closer to the diminutive classic model than anything now in production. I’m excited.