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A birthday - and a cautionary tale

MarinaST 26th August 2019

Macdroitwich contributor and boiler expert MARINAST throws a spanner in the 60th birthday bash works

This week (Monday 26th actually) sees the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Mini. To many car enthusiasts the Mini is a thing of wonder and a glorious high point in the history of the UK car industry. But there is a dark side to its existence, it’s something that has nagged at me for many years and it is this:

The Mini killed the company.

Of course it took many decades for the poison that was Al Greeks great design to finally kill of the whole of the firm, but it sowed the seeds for so much that would hamper and plague future generations of vehicles that it’s existence, to my eyes, is toxic.

Setting a fixed selling price on a car during development months before release is never a wise move, the simple truth is the Mini never really made any money for BMC or BL, except maybe from the mid 1970s onwards once the tooling costs had been paid off. But even then it was so labour intensive to make, any savings could have simply been eaten up by wage increases.

Ford even stripped a Mini and deduced that BMC could not make a profit from the cost of its component parts and labour to screw them all together. From the lessons learnt they went on to develop a certain car called the Fiesta, so what do they know?

Another Achilles heel for the company was the engine and gearbox combination it used, something that would have a knock on effect for decades to come.

While passable for a car the size and weight of the Mini, the power train package was on the limit in the ADO16 and ADO67. While Ford and Vauxhall could launch new products with more power and displacement, BMC and later BL were stuck with an upper ceiling on the transverse gearbox unit, the foundations of which were set in stone in 1959. It hampered products like the Maxi, stopped the ADO16 being more of a challenger to the Cortina and later Escort and forced the Allegro and Metro to be limited in their market segments. ADO67 of course had the E Series but the same engineering doctrine used developing that was carried over from the Mini with predictable results.

Many state the fact the gearbox shares oil with the engine is the weak point, it is not if the thing is serviced regularly. The problem was the gearbox internals were squeezed together very tightly and the result being it was not strong enough to cope with power needed to shift ever heavier cars needing ever more power. The A Series is renowned for its ability to squeeze high amounts of power from such a small unit, yet the ADO67 only used the twin carb A Series in one model, the Innocenti Regent. Domestic models were probably never allowed near a tuned unit for fear of gearbox warranty claims.

An early warning shot that the Mini might prove to be a problem concerned water leaks on early models, the solution was relatively easy for BMC to sort but it showed that the company had taken its eye off the ball on a simple item during development. This was a one off but Issigonis was to have another scare on the ADO17 when early development cars suffered serious front suspension problems just before launch. It was caught, thankfully in time, but it highlights the issue BMC had with developing new models under Issigonis. Mistakes could be made due to his authoritarian way of managing project engineering.

Also, oddly, apart from a very brief period it never used any of Sir Alex Moultons wet suspension systems, never used Hydragas and the company therefore had to use a unique suspension system just for a single model without benefiting others with economies of scale through shared components. Moulton had a Mini personally fitted with Hydragas and he loved it, a shame. Another was that it used 10” wheels and tyres, no other product in the company did, until 13” items finally found their way to the Clubman in the mid 1970s.

Post Mini, its success perhaps gained Issigonis far too much influence at the company, his design practices were not conducive to developing simple products or new products quickly. It bred contempt within and sadly that forced the company into drastic action later on.

He might have been appalled when Stokes showed him the Marina but it was a product the company was forced into making to survive directly by the level of influence he had been given the previous years.

The later 9X is a great what if, it was supposed to be cheaper to build and better packaged than the Mini but it’s engine was too advanced for the company to get totally reliable. Issigonis was by then left on his own within the company, it featured radical prototype concepts such as a generator using magnets in the camshaft drive belt to generate current and around 30% less parts to reduce cost.

Yet nearly every component was unique to the vehicle, Issigonis claimed he had learnt his lesson from the mistakes he had made with the Mini on the 9X, thankfully Stokes and Co. could see he had in fact learnt everything and precisely nothing.

So this evening raise a glass to the Mini, wish it a happy 60th birthday, but do think about it’s long term impact on the company that made it.

Fantastic economy (but not for BMC?)




MG analysis: Where has it all gone RIGHT for MG Motor UK?

John Sandie 5th September 2019

Macdroitwich news hound, blogger and floppy-trousered Buckfast enthusiast JOHN SANDIE presents his latest MG ponderings

Lacklustre sales, missed targets on sales and dealer network expansion, a marketing team who presided over debacle after debacle after debacle... My two reports analysing MG's performance for the previous versions of the Macdroitwich blog told a very similar story about the brand's UK performance in 2014 and 2016.

The narrative in 2019 is very different...