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Mini to the Max

How BMW reversed the super-size trend with its lovable Mini Cooper
By Paul A. Eisenstein | From 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.

Issigonis was only 37 when he drafted the blueprint for his first small car, a striking two-seat concept that eventually evolved into the Morris Minor in 1948. When Morris merged with Austin in 1952, he left, but returned in 1955 as the chief engineer of the automaker that had become known as BMC. Yet Issigonis certainly didn't fit the stereotype. Engineers live in a world of numbers, he saw mathematics as "the enemy of every truly creative man." His was the temperament of a designer, and BMC Chairman Lord challenged Issigonis to prove just how creative he could be when, shortly after the Suez fiasco, plans were laid out for a four-seater that would be even smaller than the Minor.

It didn't take a mathematician to realize that Issigonis had a tough equation to solve. He needed to squeeze power train, passengers and cargo into a box measuring just 10 by 4 by 4 feet. Yet within six months, he had a concept vehicle and two running prototypes. The first Mini rolled off the assembly line in 1959—lightning fast for an industry that even today can take more than five years to go from concept to customer.

Issigonis's solution took some major technical innovations. Perhaps the most critical piece was the transverse—or sideways—mounted engine, its gearbox squeezed into the oil sump. At 10 inches, the wheels weren't much bigger than those on a child's pedal car. The dashboard was a Spartan affair, with a couple gauges and switches. The starter button was squeezed into an open spot on the floor. But by making careful use of every inch of available space, Issigonis had crafted an almost cavernous passenger compartment, an amazing 80 percent of Mini's total package devoted to people and luggage. All that for a base price of just under $800, not much more than Henry Ford had commanded for his Model T a half century earlier.

Actually, the name Mini had only minor meaning when the little car first hit the market. The car rolled out under a variety of brand names, including Austin Seven, Austin 850, Morris 850 and the Morris Mini-Minor. Yet it was the Mini moniker that best captured the design and resonated with the public. Within a year, the automaker had sold 100,000 under the various badges. In 1961, sales doubled. The Mini was the darling of the hip set, with a list of celebrity owners that included Peter Ustinov and Peter Sellers. Queen Elizabeth II appeared behind the wheel of one. The car was as much the star as anyone acting in the original version of The Italian Job. (The new Mini made it back for the remake, once again crashing down Rome's Spanish Steps.) Mini even influenced the fashion-world designer Mary Quant, who drafted the influential and long-lasting miniskirt.

The original Mini didn't have quite the staying power of Quant's creation, but it came close. Over the years, the Mini resurfaced in countless forms—the original remaining in production virtually unchanged for four decades. There were the Mini Moke, the Riley Elf the Countryman, and the Innocenti, to name just a few of the spin-offs. Some of the most sought-after versions bore the name Cooper, after the British race driver John Cooper, who incredibly found a way to make the Mini a success on the track, squeezing in a bigger engine, better brakes and a beefier suspension. The Mini Cooper was feared on the rally circuit and actually captured titles at Monte Carlo in 1964, '65 and '67.

Eventually even the most brilliant designs grow weary, however, and what was left of the struggling BMC simply didn't have the money needed to modernize the little car. Total sales of 5.3 million and Autocar magazine's Car of the Century award notwithstanding, the Mini was ready to retire. The good news was that BMW had purchased BMC's successor, the Rover Group. Though the Germans eventually sold off most of the operation, they had a keen eye for what to keep.

It's only the first day of autumn, but a cold and dreary fog has settled in over Minneapolis as we set off in the predawn chill. A couple hours and 100 miles later, however, the sky has opened and warming rays shine down from the clear blue as we roll back the top on our new Mini Convertible.

The trees along the northern Mississippi River floodplain have already begun donning their autumn colors. Farmers are busy harvesting grain from the last ripe fields, even as schoolchildren gather in knots waiting for their morning bus ride. Young and old alike seem to pause as we drive by on narrow country roads paralleling the great waterway. They pause and point, smiles spreading across their faces as one. Something about a Mini inevitably draws this reaction. It's hard to say whether it's the car's rarity, its unabashed cuteness or the way it just seems to deliver precisely what it promises. Whatever the reason, it has scored a direct hit.

During the Mini's first go-round, from 1960 to 1967, Americans didn't quite get the odd little car. They bought a grand total of only 10,000 classic Minis. Only a handful of folks, like Andy Austin, even noticed when the automaker abandoned the market, unable to meet toughening government regulations. This time, Mini stands up surprisingly well to all the emissions and crash standards, though it can take a leap of faith to accept that idea.

"People always ask me, 'Aren't you afraid of getting squished?' And I say, 'No.' I can get out of the way—quickly. And I don't have to use five gallons of gas to make a move out of trouble," Kendra Clark says with a laugh. She's one of the 36,000 American motorists who bought a new Mini last year. Those numbers would be even bigger, insists marketing chief Pitney, were production capacity at the plant in Oxford, England, greater.

It was a conscious decision to maintain production level just short of demand. Company officials know full well that fashion-driven products have a notoriously short half-life. Volkswagen's New Beetle springs to mind. So does Chrysler's PT Cruiser. They topped the charts one year, then quickly fell from grace.

To maintain momentum, Mini offers a seemingly endless variety of options, allowing buyers to customize each car to taste. More than half opt for two-tone or roofs decaled with the likes of the British Union Jack. Meanwhile, well aware of the formula that kept the Mini Classic alive so long, planners have rolled out an array of variants. The new Mini launched in two forms: Cooper and sportier Cooper S. A rally-ready John Cooper Works followed, and for 2005 comes the Mini Convertible.

It took some creative engineering to come up with a fold-down top that maintains Mini's distinctive roofline. It's a one-button, electrically operated affair that fully retracts in just 15 seconds. And if you prefer, its hard-shell front section can retract like an oversized sunroof, an effective compromise when you're traveling fast down the freeway.

The ragtop is expected to account for about a quarter of Mini's global sales, but in the United States, which boasts the biggest market for convertibles overall, the new model should generate a third of Mini's American volume this year. Other surprises loom. "Mini will get additional body styles. We can't wait," divulges Panke. Exactly what's in store, no one is saying, though don't expect Mini panel trucks or SUVs. A four-door, using the redesigned platform, is reportedly under development and set for launch later in the decade. BMW has a microsized car of its own coming to the United States around 2007, and Panke has declared that Mini cannot encroach on the territory of that new and larger 1 Series. So Gert Hildebrand, the British brand's design director, faces a challenge that Issigonis might have appreciated. "It's like mathematics," he says, cryptically. "The more restrictive the formula, the more creative you must be."

There's good reason why automakers have long hesitated to enter the mini and microcar markets. U.S. car buyers traditionally link size with price, and with rare exception, the smaller the vehicle, the smaller the premium it commands. Most small-car buyers "are simply looking for the small price tag," stresses George Peterson, president of the California consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. Entry-level cars like the Ford Focus or Chevrolet Cavalier almost never make money, but Mini shows that plenty of American motorists are "willing to pay a premium for the right small car." But what about two minicars or three?

The competition has been enviously eyeing Mini's success, and now a number of manufacturers are getting ready to test the waters on their own. Pontiac plans to debut its pocket-sized Solstice roadster next year. DaimlerChrysler is readying the American launch of its Smart brand, while Asian brands Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi are looking to weigh in. "Mini has encouraged us all to pursue this segment," acknowledges Dan Werbin, the head of U.S. operations for Volvo Cars. Volvo recently unveiled the unusual 3CC, a tiny, teardrop-shaped three-seater that hints at the direction the Swedish automaker might take.

Of course, too many new entries might crowd the market, but no doubt the market is primed. The steady run-up in oil prices over the last year has helped manufacturers make a better business case. Few expect the SUV to go away soon, but fuel efficiency is a greater concern than it's been in 20 years. Even if most Americans believe bigger is better, growing numbers prefer to think small... or in this case, Mini.

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an automobile magazine on the Internet at