A grand farewell to a British icon
The Mini, a boxy pup of a car that wowed the Beatles and came to symbolize the swinging '60s, entered automotive history when the last of its 41-year pedigree -- No. 5,387,862 -- rolled off the production line Wednesday. Conceived as a thrifty "people's car" during a 1950s fuel crisis, the 10-foot-long Mini earned the devotion of legions of British baby boomers eager to flaunt their individuality. John Lennon drove a psychedelic red, white and green Mini, fashion designer Mary Quant produced a customized model, and Michael Caine used one to heist gold bullion in "The Italian Job." "In the '60s it was the thing to be seen in. From the village midwife to the celebrity, it was the car to have. It still is," said shop assistant Trina Davies, who with her husband owns four of the cars. Produced in nearly 140 different models, the Mini outlasted several corporate owners before ending its days at the MG Rover Group's Longbridge factory in Birmingham, England. MG Rover has retooled its plant to build a luxury sedan, the Rover 75, and Germany's BMW will introduce a completely new version of the Mini next year at its factory in nearby Oxford. But it's the classic Mini that endures as an automotive icon. Turkish-born Alec Issigonis designed the car for what was then the British Motor Corp. after Britain's involvement in the 1956 Suez crisis triggered fears of an oil shortage and the government had begun rationing gasoline. Issigonis, who was later knighted for his efforts, developed a practical subcompact that could hold four people and their luggage and sold for as little as $725. Introduced in 1959, the Mini sold poorly until such celebrities as Peter Sellers, who customized his Mini with wicker trim, began to give the car an unexpected cachet. With its zippy handling and quirky lines, the Mini soon appealed to Britons regardless of social class. "It doesn't matter whether you're a dustman or a doctor, the chances are you've driven or ridden in one," said Mini owner David Hollis, 37, of Amblecote in central England. "It's cheeky, it's cute, and it just puts a big smile on everybody's face," said Hollis, who compared driving a Mini to handling a go-cart. The car's speed earned it three Monte Carlo Rally championships, and at least one version has topped 165 miles per hour. Mini enthusiasts have included Steve McQueen, former Monkee Mike Nesmith, model Twiggy, Princess Grace of Monaco, and even Princess Diana, who drove a version of the Mini -- the Mini-Metro -- before she married Prince Charles. Famed 1960s pop singer Lulu rode in the last version of the car as it emerged from the Longbridge factory. The Mini enjoyed a new wave of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, this time in Japan. "My overall sense today is that I'm very proud that we've got a car that has lasted as a British icon," Hollis said. "All the same, I'm sad to see the last one come off the line." The Mini might have expired sooner had Bayerische Motoren Werke AG not bought the Rover Group from British Aerospace in 1994. Reluctant to make the investment necessary to make the Mini comply with increasingly stringent European Union standards for auto safety and emissions, British Aerospace planned to phase out the car by 1996, until BMW stepped in, said MG Rover spokesman Gordon Poynter. "BMW made a decision to put money in to keep it legal for another three or four years until they could build a new small car that they wanted to call the Mini," Poynter said. Mini owners meet regularly to swap parts and stage rallies, and fans of the car have formed clubs from Belgium to Australia to Arizona.
Written By: BRUCE STANLEY, Associated Press
Article Date: Oct 05, 2000
Article Date: Oct 05, 2000