Discovering Western governments earned more from a gallon of petrol than they did, OPEC turned off the taps in the 1970s. British taxation hasn’t changed. We are now in another and more complicated oil crisis where a litre of petrol costs 42p to make. But 82p goes in fuel duty and VAT, so the imbalance remains. Prices are high and likely to remain so.
The first oil crisis was in 1956, when the Suez adventure led to bubble cars and inspired the Mini. Rumours have resurfaced about BMW going back to basics with a real mini, smaller than the premium-priced quirky, big Mini it has been making since 2001. As I speculated in The Sunday Times in 1991 this would not be easy. Well-intentioned safety laws might make it impossible, unless a great deal has been learned in the last twenty years about crash-engineering small cars.
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You can understand why Leonard Percy Lord (1896-1967, 1st Baron Lambury), the rough-tongued BMC executive prompted Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis (1906-1988) to create the shortest practical 4-seater of all time.
It is tempting to restore a Mark I Mini, not one of the later ones with wind-up windows and soft furnishings but a sliding-window one, with elbow room and huge door pockets. Even with an old engine, perhaps amended with fuel injection instead of a carburettor, it would use very little fuel. The old Mini was surely the most space-efficient car ever. BMC used to sell little wicker baskets, shaped as the vacant cavities, like the one under the rear seat in Gaydon’s cutaway. Of course early Minis were badly made; mine leaked terribly on account of the underbody seams facing the direction of travel, scooping up rainwater and soaking the carpets.
Never mind the charm, the astonishing cornering power, and the pert appearance a born-again Mini would be noisy without a lot of sound-deadening and not very quick. The driving position was truly awful. Issigonis believed it was good, keeping drivers alert and awake. Yet for sheer practicality the BMC Mini was, and remains, matchless. Four seats, generous legroom, a decent boot and large door pockets. Issy maintained one held the ingredients for perfect picnic cocktails – four bottle of gin and one of Vermouth. What more do you need?
Sunday Times 1991
Safety Laws Trap the Mini.
Well-meaning safety laws are making cars bigger than they need be and inhibiting improvements to one of Britain's best-loved cars. Rover cannot tamper with the design of the Mini, even to make it safer, without invoking rules which would reclassify it as a new model and subject to a fresh bout of crash-testing which it could not pass.
Instead, the car which provided economical transport to generations of British motorists, remains noisy unrefined and relatively expensive.
Sir Alec Issigonis's formula for the smallest car with four practical seats is as good now as it was when it came out thirty-two years ago. The Mini is ten feet long, four and a half feet tall and four and a half feet wide, on a wheelbase of exactly 80 inches. Eighty per cent of the space is given over to the occupants and their luggage, and the mechanical bits are squeezed into a compartment only two feet long.
Never was a car packaged better. The 120 inch long Mini remains the shortest realistic four seat car made; the Lancia Y10 is over a foot longer, the Metro more than a foot and a half, while the most recent Japanese city car the Mazda 121 is a giant of 150 inches.
The Mini already meets emission control laws and thanks to astute work by Rover technicians, fuel injection will be announced in October for the Mini Cooper. This will allow it a catalytic converter to comply with legislation due at the end of 1992. Yet the safety regulation hurdle remains.
Every major manufacturer in the world followed Issigonis's example, adopting front wheel drive and sideways-mounted engines, with an alacrity that surprised even him. Yet the Mini was almost allowed to wither on the bough; it was neither properly developed nor commercially exploited, and although Rover still makes 40,000 a year and production recently passed 5,250,000, it is now technically in arrears. At £5,395 for the basic model, and £6,470 for the plush Mayfair, it is a poor bargain.
Four seated people take up much the same space now as they did thirty years ago and the advantages of a small easily parked car remain convincing. The small-car market must expand as pressure on road space grows and demand for fuel economy increases. Yet it remains dominated by large super-minis, many of them oriental, and none a match for the Mini in compactness.
An old motor industry aphorism that mini cars generate mini profits inhibited European manufacturers. Certainly small cars cost almost as much to make as large cars; they are not made in small factories, by small numbers of people or cheap machines, and cost much the same in materials and energy.
Yet Mini sales remain healthy enough to sustain production, even though the car has not had a development programme such as the Volkswagen Beetle enjoyed. A strong demand remains for an updated 1990s Mini which retaining the 10 x 4.5 x 4.5 packaging, would be in a unique position in the second-car market, as well as providing the same entry-level motoring that the original did in 1959.
The Volkswagen, still being produced in Mexico after a production run of over 20 million, maintains the shape and size and broad specification of the car that Hitler sanctioned sixty years ago. The rear-engined air-cooled philosophy may be the same but there is not a single interchangeable component.
A 1990s Mini would keep Issigonis's ideals intact and would not need to be altered much beyond a quieter engine. Computer-aided design, which was not available to Issigonis who briefed his draughtsmen by means of free-hand sketches, could make the Mini lighter and keep it cheap. Perhaps the turned-out body seams could be smoothed off and the rear opened up to make a hatchback. But any important alteration would spring the trap of legislation which allows Rover to go on producing the old car, but prevents it being brought it up to date.
Minis have had the roof chopped off and been made into convertibles before, but it has taken thirty two years for one to be officially approved. Only 75 of the new Mini Cabriolets will be offered for sale at £12,250. If there is sufficient demand the manufacturer, LAMM Autohaus in Germany, could make more. Once the roof is removed the body needs reinforcement under the floor to make sure it does not sag in the middle.