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Mini to the Max

How BMW reversed the super-size trend with its lovable Mini Cooper
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005

When you collect your paycheck from the Ford Motor Co., it's usually a good idea to be driving one of your employer's products. Andy Austin is a loyal corporate citizen, with a Ford Explorer he shares with his wife, Ginny, parked in the garage. But if there's ever a squabble in their suburban Detroit home, it's likely over who gets to take the other car to work.

"I learned to drive in a '62 Mini," says the 54-year-old engineer, with a wistful smile slowly spreading across his face. "I loved it then, and I've loved it ever since." In fact, you'll find a classic 1964 Mini parked alongside the Explorer, but the prize in the family's personal fleet is the yellow-and-white, two-tone 2002 Mini that is Austin's daily driver. At 6-foot-4, it might be hard to imagine him squeezing in—along with his 6-foot daughter snug in the back seat, but "I take it everywhere," he boasts, even on vacation trips down to Washington, D.C.

Austin is admittedly out of sync in a country that normally equates bigger with better—big homes, big yards, big meals, Big Gulps and, of course, absolutely massive automobiles. SUVs so huge you need a rope, crampons and a mountain guide to climb behind the wheel. Bottled oxygen is an option.

So there were plenty of folks who thought Jack Pitney was stretching his toe off the deep end a few years back when he announced plans to switch jobs at BMW. Oh, it was a promotion, all right. Pitney had done his penance as the company's manager of corporate communications for North America. In 2001, he was taking the chance to serve as the marketing chief in the United States for a new brand of automobile. His old job might have been in PR, but it was for one of the market's most successful marques. His new job put him in charge of a nameplate that virtually no one in the United States had ever heard of: the Mini. Those who had could only scratch their heads and wonder about the wisdom of trying to sell a car that was so small, it would nearly squeeze into the cargo compartment of BMW's bulky X5 SUV.

"If we'd listened to the market research, we'd have never done the Mini," Pitney admits with a mixture of pride and dismay. Few folks think he's crazy anymore, well, maybe crazy like a fox. Mini is one of the few recent certifiable hits in the U.S. market. While it seems to run counter to conventional wisdom, the little British brand has connected so well with American motorists with good reason. And the way things are going, Mini just might blaze a path for a new generation of small cars that could extend their appeal to even the most affluent of U.S. motorists.

Spend a little time outside North America and you'll quickly discover that the United States is an automotive island, its big SUVs and gas-guzzling V-8s as distinctively quirky as Australia's wombats and kangaroos. Even in the most affluent extremes of the European and Japanese markets, the automotive industry is moving in a different direction, points out Helmut Panke, the chief executive officer of BMW AG. European buyers are steadily abandoning the automaker's big 7 Series in favor of smaller, yet equally well-equipped models like the 5 Series—and even the automaker's pint-sized new 1 Series.

Get stuck in traffic on the Parisian Peripherique, or try to park in Rome, and you quickly understand why. In a growing number of countries, large cars also carry hefty tax burdens. And with fuel at $5 a gallon or more, it's easy to understand why a British motorist might want to downsize.

Pint-size sedans, coupes and sports cars have been around since the auto industry's earliest days, but they began appearing in earnest in the years following the Second World War. Even Messerschmitt, better known for its fearsome fighter, tried its hand with a bubble-canopied one-seater that many still—mistakenly—believe utilized parts left over from the war. A large number of so-called bubble cars hit the pavement, offering vast glass panoramas to overcome the claustrophobic feeling one would get inside, yet no vehicle has had more of an influence on the sub-subcompacts of today than the little British Mini.

In the 1920s and '30s, countless carmakers had popped up across the English landscape. By the '50s, a sizable number were consolidated into the British Motor Corp. Its chairman, Leonard Lord, was increasingly aware that the vehicles crossing the Channel from Italy and Germany were threatening to carve up his once-closed market. Then came the Suez Crisis of 1956 and an ensuing oil boycott from the Arab world. British motorists suddenly faced their first petrol rationing in a decade.

The unlikely savior of the British auto industry was Alec Issigonis. The typical automotive engineer was drawn to cars from his first memories, but not Issigonis. In fact, he didn't see a car until he was 12. Born to a family of British expatriate boilermakers in what today is the Aegean port of Izmir, Turkey, in 1906, Issigonis spent the First World War under house arrest. But at 16, he went to England to study at Battersea Polytechnic, and was soon working in the British motor industry.

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