BMW’s MINI Misadventure (Part One)

A retrospective on the difficult birth and growing pains of BMW’s precocious but troubled child.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the launch of the first BMW-era MINI, so it’s an appropriate time to look back over the company’s highs and lows, and to imagine how it might evolve in years to come.

The circumstances that led to BMW’s outright ownership of MINI were, to say the least, rather controversial. After struggling for six years to turn Rover into a viable and sustainable business, BMW threw in the towel in 2000, selling the Land Rover division to Ford and the Rover car business to the Phoenix consortium. Much has already been written about BMW’s management of Rover and I do not intend to revisit those arguments here. Suffice to say, it was a painful and challenging experience for the company, both in terms of outright cost and the management time and effort expended on a venture that was ultimately to fail.

The only significant assets BMW held onto in the fire sale was the MINI brand and Cowley manufacturing plant, later renamed MINI Oxford. The development of the first new-generation R50 MINI was largely completed and BMW saw it as a bright prospect, complementing its own range of cars with a small, but still premium, FWD hatchback. 

At the time, BMW was associated with traditional RWD architecture, which was widely perceived to be integral to the marque’s sporting identity. MINI allowed the company to hone its skills in FWD without the risk of tarnishing its storied reputation with its existing customer base. Retaining MINI was, however, a very controversial move, at least in the UK. Many observers characterised it as BMW running off with a treasured family heirloom following an acrimonious divorce from its noble but impoverished British spouse.

That said, any suggestion that BMW got MINI ‘on the cheap’ is simply not supported by the numbers, whether it be the investment BMW made in Rover over six years, including the very expensive development of the bespoke Rover 75, or the generous dowry BMW paid to the Phoenix consortium to take Rover off its hands, the latter allegedly in excess of £500m in the form of cash and an interest-free 49-year loan.

R50 Mini: Image: (c) topcarrating.com.

The R50 MINI hatch was launched in late 2000, barely six months after the Rover disposal. It was a neat and compact hatchback, cleverly reprising the style of the 1959 original. The new MINI perfectly captured the ‘Cool Britannia’ zeitgeist of the time with a huge range of personalisation options. The new dealerships had a neon-lit nightclub vibe, wholly unlike the rather clinical white and grey with hints of the brand signature colour that was the industry norm for car showrooms then and now.

The car was very well received in the UK motoring press, but there was already some grumbling from the below-the-line commentariat, still smarting from events earlier that year. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Phoenix Four were still being feted in the mainstream media as the saviour of plucky Rover from the clutches of evil BMW, with more than a hint of xenophobia.

Having taken the decision to sell MINI through a new dealership network, largely independent of BMW, the company was faced with the task of expanding MINI’s range to achieve the sales volumes that would support this network. This was problematic on two fronts: firstly, the historical baggage associated with the MINI name and secondly, BMW’s decision to adhere closely to the design cues of the original car for the R50. 

BMC XC9001 prototype. Source: (c) AROnline.co.uk

In truth, the 1959 Issigonis Mini wasn’t styled in a conventional sense, but merely wrapped in a body that enclosed the mechanical parts, passenger and luggage accommodation most efficiently within the ten-foot overall length limit stipulated by the designer.

Anyone familiar with Issigonis’ original proposals for larger BMC cars, the XC9001 and XC9002, which became the 1800 and 1100/1300 respectively, will appreciate the difficulty in scaling up the Mini’s unique style. Both these prototypes were rather ungainly, if resolutely functional. The 1800 remained so even in its final production form, while the 1100/1300 was rescued by Pininfarina’s excellent design work.

The R50 hatchback remained in production until 2006, being joined in 2004 by a cabriolet version. The exceptionally pretty R56 replacement was essentially a rebody of the existing mechanical package, with tidier detail styling. It was not until 2007 that a second model, the Clubman, was added to the range.

This was the first hard evidence of the limitations of the styling theme. The profile was elongated and rather van-like, an impression reinforced by the double “barn” doors at the rear. The single rear side passenger door was optimised for LHD markets, a fact quickly picked up by the motoring press and commentariat, some of whom even suggested this implied an anti-British bias! Overall, it looked slightly gauche, especially compared to its very pretty sister.

2010 saw the launch of the Countryman, a crossover-style vehicle with optional four-wheel drive. Its design was a straight enlargement of the hatchback, but with five doors. The increase in height gave it a rather slab-sided look, especially so in darker colours. The motoring press were generally positive, but not effusive.

This is where things begin to go awry. The Paceman was introduced in 2012. It was essentially a three-door Countryman, answering a question nobody had asked. In today’s parlance, it was a “Crossover Coupé”, a less practical but supposedly more attractive variant of the Countryman. Well, for my money, MINI scored one out of two in this regard. Worse, like the Countryman, the Paceman was built, not in Britain, but in Graz, Austria, by Magna Steyr, further inflaming grievances in the UK. The motoring press were bemused by the Paceman and certainly unenthusiastic. It died unmourned and unreplaced in 2016.

Mini Paceman. Source: (c) HonestJohn.co.uk

It is worthy of comment that, after the initial euphoria which greeted the launch of the R50 in 2000, MINI has enjoyed little of the cheerleading that the UK motoring press reserves for Jaguar Land-Rover, another foreign-owned UK motor manufacturer.

I’ve driven the Countryman and Paceman and found both to be rather disappointing. They had nothing of the charm of the hatch. Their interiors were dark and gloomy (although this may have been specific to the trim options chosen for the examples I drove) with some questionable ergonomic choices, particularly the very low-set central toggle switches. There was a surprising amount of road noise penetrating the cabin, possibly a product of their ‘All4’ drivetrains, and neither was much fun to drive.  Looks are, of course, subjective, but neither did much for me.

There followed the Coupé and Roadster in 2011 and 2012 respectively, both two-seater bustle-backed derivatives of the R56 hatchback. MINI was filling more perceived micro-niches in a largely futile attempt to drive up sales. The Coupé was notable mainly for its controversial baseball cap on backwards roofline. Both sold poorly and were discontinued in 2015.

In Part Two, we’ll cover developments in the years from 2014 to the present day, consider MINI’s current situation and imagine how its future might take shape.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

35 thoughts on “BMW’s MINI Misadventure (Part One)”

  1. The first time the original Issigonis Mini had any serious development money spent on it was when BMW reworked it for its last couple of years of life and things like transversely mounted radiators with electric fans were introduced.
    The R50 Mini was a strange mixture of fantastic and expenmsive chassis, horrible crap of an engine and an interior that was shoddily built from the cheapest materials. It was fun to drive despite nevertheless but it was expensive to make and didn’t earn BMW much money despite of its eye watering rip off prices. The R56 was significantly cheaper to make with a detuned chassis, infinitely better engine and better made but very kitsch interior.
    With their extremely lifestyle-oriented design approach, particularly in the interior of the car, they manoeuvred themselves in a difficult corner.

  2. Evolving a retro theme is among the most difficult tasks in automotive design – as proven not just by Mini, but Fiat’s 500 too, whose L, XL and X derivatives lit nobody’s fire. It’ll be interesting to see how the new New Nuova 500 fares later this year.

    Faint praise though it may be, but I’d argue that the best update of a retro design thus far was the second-generation VW Beetle. It didn’t dilute the (admittedly highly dubious) concept at the core of that model, but introduced significant stylistic alterations without any detriments in terms of coherence. Which isn’t to say it’s a design I find terribly appealing, but credit where it’s due – the designers in charge did fulfil a very difficult brief there!

    1. Good morning, Christopher. Regarding the new VW Beetle, I would agree, and go further to say that the second generation was a rather more faithful interpretation of the original, particularly with its more upright windscreen and distinct break where it meets the roof:

      The first generation was based on a simple “three arcs” concept (roofline, front and rear wings). This had the odd effect of making the driver look almost like he was sitting in the rear seat because he was so far away from the windscreen!

  3. Thank you Daniel. An appropriate time to revisit an interesting story; I’m looking forward to part 2. My personal feeling is that the R50 design was peak BMW Mini – I was disappointed that R56 was more grown up and serious and lost some of the original’s anarchic panache. So I was delighted when the Rocketman arrived and had that wonderful Mini character in spades – you will no doubt be covering in part 2.

    I still marvel at BMW’s turn-of-the-century trifecta with iconic British designs – the R50 Mini, L322 Rangie and the Series VII Phantom. To my mind none have been bettered since.

    1. Martin,

      I completely agree with you.

      What all these models have in common was that each one was developed with a very high level of autonomy (by the industry’s standards). R50, as its Rover development code would suggest, was mostly a British product, with some German input. Phantom (not ‘Phantom VII’, as everybody involved agreed it was better to not consider this a progression from the hopelessly outdated Phantom VI, but a new start) was created by a small, dedicated, international team – today, RR engineering is done by the same team as BMW’s 5 & 7 model ranges. L322 was created by a joint BMW-LR team, as explained here, with regards to the design process: https://auto-didakt.com/cars_blog_leser/land-rover-range-rover-l322-bmw-car-design-review-history-ian-cameron-don-wyatt-phil-simmons-alan-sheppard.html

      Back in those days, BMW simply was among the best managed companies in the business. The charismatic, non-interchangeable qualities of these products reflected that.

    2. Thanks, Martin. I absolutely agree: BMW really nailed it in capturing the marque DNA with those three cars, and you could probably add the Rover 75 to the list, despite subsequent events.

    3. I fully agree that the R50 was by far the best looking New Mini. It was also by far the best to drive, despite of its horrible engine and even if it had absurd functional faults like its front lights mounted to the huge clamshell bonnet that vibrated over bumps and even if its interior was incredibly badly made.

    4. I am another who thinks that the R50 was the best looking MINI – the packaging of the whole front-end around the engine and front suspension was genius, resulting in tiny overhangs. No doubt, changes in pedestrian impact regulations made it impossible to achieve the same on the R56. The latter looks like a work of art compared to the current swollen confection. Unusually, I am a fan of the R56 Clubman, even if is was daft in practical terms, and indeed would state it as being the best looking of that generation of MINIs.

      Looking forward to Part 2.

  4. Interesting story here; I wonder how it evolves.
    Looking at the R50 picture above I realized how I have almost forgotten what this car looked like – crisp and sharp, and more modern for my eyes than all its blobby successors.

    With Mini, we see two ways of how it’s difficult to develop a retro design with a strong theme: scaling it in size (or just adding two doors in the Mini’s case lately) and developing it over time. With the Fiat 500 we have already seen the first one as well (although I like the 500X quite a lot more than the Countryman), the second one we will have to judge soon, as Christopher mentions.

    Maybe the difficulties encountered here are not even an issue for retro designs only. Other iconic cars have also proven to be almost irreplaceable in a proper fashion – think Twingo or Ka.

    1. I also quite like the 500X and always thought that, shorn of its crossover addenda, would have made a good modern-day replacement for the 600.

    2. I found too the 500X quite intriguing and also a potentially competent, likeable C-segment car. Fiat not brimming with confidence in midsize cars probably suggested packaging the 500X as a niche retro crossover rather than launching it into an increasingly fractured segment.

  5. I never liked a single one of these MINIs. Leaving aside the complete paucity of innovation compared to the original, I just don’t think the basic shape works with modern bloated dimensions. The rear of the R50 is too angular, whereas the original was rounded and pert. A colleague had one and found it shockingly unreliable for a German car.

    I had a chance to reappraise the design of the last Beetle in the metal whilst on holiday recently and agree it’s the most successful of the two modern Beetles. The original seemed to be aiming for some sort of Bauhaus purity look, but just came off as ungainly. The second one with its flattened roof and body-coloured dashboard has a nice Californian surfer vibe.

    However, to my eyes, the Fiat 500 is the king of all these retro designs. I hated it when it first arrived, but it looks evergreen now. The proportions are so right. Unlike the MINI it doesn’t look like a smaller car that’s been inflated.

    1. Totally agree with you. Fiat 500 (and Alpine 110, btw) are good examples of successful yes even tasteful retro design. The MINI (all new variants) are more like a caricature of the original. This also applies to the dash, of course. I vividly remember the study they did with tea bags in the glove compartment and Top Gear’s (specifically Jeremy’s) reaction – tasteless but also priceless.
      The unreliability you mention (I think it was mostly due to the chain tensioner) is not that untypical for German cars, this is more myth than truth. One example among too many, the chain tensioner (again!) in the VW 1.4 engines.

  6. I have to take issue with Dave’s assertion that the interior of the R50 MINI was “shoddily built from the cheapest materials”. I would really like to hear that argument expanded upon and explained, because that has not been anything like my experience at all. I regularly drive a 2006 R50 Cooper, which is a well maintained, but hardly cosseted example, which through no fault of its owners takes something of a hammering on West Cork’s often somewhat rugrous road surfaces.

    I would agree that some of the plastics used are not from the top drawer and are of a similar tacky aesthetic to that of contemporary BMWs. I also would suggest that the design, placing or functionality of the stalks and toggle switches are a little contrived, but in the twelve years this example has been in the family, nothing has broken or fallen off. Everything still works as intended. Indeed, apart from the rear parcel shelf, which is a shoddy piece of work, I would go as far as to say the cabin still feels substantial and well assembled.

    I would also add my voice in favour of the R56 Clubman. I like its almost wilful oddness.

    1. That was certainly my impression when I recently looked at a 2003 R50 MINI One owned by an acquaintance of mine, admittedly a very well cared for example. Some of the interior retro touches now seem a bit overdone, but everything still worked perfectly and the car shows no signs of wear and tear after 60k miles. The primrose yellow paint still has a deep, lustrous shine, not at all bad for a 17 year old car.

    2. I ran a very early R50 for some years. It got a new gearbox at some point (at BMW’s expense), the plastics were quite flimsy, the driver’s seat would occasionally rattle a bit and the power steering pump was noisy, but it felt well screwed together overall. My partner’s R56 convertible was more troublesome, certainly as far as the turbocharged engine is concerned.

    3. When my wife needed a new car we had several looks at severyl R50s from the start of production.
      The big oval rim of the door trim was made from the cheapest possible plastic and it used exposed screws, something absent from quality interiors since the mid-Seventies. The biggest disappointment was the carpet which was made from thin felt and whose pre-formed shape only randomly followed the contour of the floor, creating hollow bulges that could be easily indented with a hand or finger. Around the rear seat base the carpet looked like it was thrown in instead of properly fitted. This would have been a disappointment in a car in the Aygo’s price range but regarding the R50’s ambitious pricing once you added your chili/pepper/sugar packs it was simply unacceptable.
      We bought a Golf Mk4 instead for roughly the same money.

  7. For me, BMW Mini’s worst plan happened around 2010, when their marketing arm from America challenged Porsche for a race at Road Atlanta (initially), in a great attempt to beat the 911 (claiming that those models were historical rivals on the racetracks, or atleast had the same potential) and gain all of the internet glory. They made some material mocking Porsche, and rented planes to fly over their US headquarters to keep taunting them with . Porsche backed off, forseeing how all of this would be worthless since they had the upper hand in terms of performance and how all of that didn’t traslate to their message of heritage and challenge in racing. Mini kept pushing, and even Hyundai got interested (for pitching theis Genesis). Eventually, things cooled off, but the race still happened, at Road Atlanta… in an autocross track made inside of its parking lot. Even with Mini pulling some tricks, the base-model 911 still won, leaving some people embarassed.

    The worst parts were that: First, it all was that Mini was very serious about the race, and forgot the fun part of it. Not many tricks or stunts, or comedy during the race.
    Second, the new (at the time) head of the company, Jim McDowell, was the ex-head of Porsche in America. He should have known how to do something interesting.

    I’m not sure if I can call it a PR disaster, it might have gathered plenty of new views and specially enthusiasts talking about it, but in the end it was just… unpleasant.

  8. very interesting article, perhaps it was a mistake not to create special corners inside BMW dealerships and focus on a single model. In my opinion the ugliest mini of all is the 5-door.
    I find the second Beetle very nice, unfortunately it´s too big for a fun car. spero poi che lancino una 500 5p sull´attuale base 208 c3 opel corsa.

    1. Don’t you think the 208 base is a bit large for a 500? What they should rather do in my opinion is to finally present a decent Punto successor (with 5 doors, of course). It all went downhill since the Tipo 188 facelift in 2003. Something as crisp and well-balanced as the original 188 would be nice – without front grille, please! And could you add an asymmetrical badge as well?

    2. … And the 500 should stay 3 door, even for me as someone who usually likes doors, 5 doors just look wrong on a Mini or 500.

    3. Hi Marco,

      I think I’ve mentioned this before, the new Twingo is supposed to be neo-retro, maybe in a lighter form ?
      In general it seems to me French manufacturers are not very keen on neo-retro, Citroen never made a new 2CV in the same vein as the new Beetle or Fiat 500, DS isn’t interested in a reinterpretation of the namesake car. However, even though they never embraced this concept it seems to me that lately they’re starting to use past design clues and specific, older cars for inspiration: see the new 208 owing a lot to the 205, the e-Legend concept-car using the 504 coupé as a template, the C-Experience concept using some Citroen CX clues, the upcoming new Citroen C4’s designers openly admitting that the GS was in their minds (but I’am sure it’ll be a very vague reference, nothing like a neo-retro exercise)

      So yes, nothing like the VW, the Fiat or a Mustang. It’s almost like they’d find vulgar to copy outright a model that existed. At least that’s the impression I got over the years. But it’s not necessarily a French thing per se because in this 2013 interview, LVDA, who is Dutch and head of Renault Design, explains why he wasn’t very interested on neo-retro himself and why he changed his mind for the new Twingo. It’s in French so Google translate needed for some of you 😉

      http://www.autonews.fr/dossier/la-future-twingo-s-inspirera-de-la-r5-50307

    4. ……so it’s usually subtle (?) details like the old and the new 208’s C-pillar referencing the 3dr 205, the new Twingo’s “wide” rear wings and tail lights being a nod to the R5 Turbo, the new 508’s boot lid sculpting reminiscent of the odd lid of the 504, the 3 “claws” that we find at the rear of all new Peugeot’s referencing the 3 tail lights of the 504 Coupé, the first and second generation Citroen C3’s DLO inspired by the 2CV, the upcoming new Peugeot logo inspired by an old logo (just the lion’s face now!)

    5. I think that’s a point – referencing some ideas or concepts of older cars, but putting them in a modern frame, so it’s not retro. It’s hard to tell where’s the border, however. Probably it’s about copying a whole car versus copying features. The C3 you mention, for example, has the rounded DLO and roof of the 2CV, but refrains from presenting googly eyes, detached front wings or covered rear wheels. Or the C6 with its CX DLO and rear windscreen, but a resolutely modern front end and quite different proportions.

    6. i don´t know if you know this also http://www.davidobendorfer.com/projectF600.html thanks for the interview you posted, in my opinion the last twingo was a flop starting from the name, the first series twingo was fantastic, the second one was banal and this one a bad copy of the 500. twingo is an iconic name, why do you have to mix two things. r5 and twingo?

  9. Probably coming in Part two – but I’m absolutely stumped by the design of the 5 door (non Clubman).

    The 3 door (R50, R56 etc) has lovely frameless windows, like a sports-car, coupé or 90s/00s Subaru, yet the 5 door has these dead-flat channelled sections around the windows that look almost as if they were TIG welded on from ally box section bought at B&Q by the youngest apprentice.

    They don’t really follow the roofline properly and just look so half-baked.
    Considering the doors on the Countryman are neat, curved, understated and fit the body contours properly I’m at a total loss as to what happened.

    It looks like you’re driving an aluminum garden greenhouse.

    https://cdn2.carbuyer.co.uk/sites/carbuyer_d7/files/styles/16x9_720/public/2019/02/4-dsc_1523.jpg?itok=OVvTFUyO

  10. An excellent summary of the first part of the MINI saga. It has turned out to be a niche product here.

    My only experience of driving the R50 was when my friend came up to town to have his 2007 BMW 335i serviced. He had brought his wife, and the dealer dutifully gave them a Mini to putter around in to go shopping for the day. So pitiful did he find it that he sought me out at work, invited me for lunch and insisted I have a drive. I’m not tall, he’s not tall, both well under six feet and his wife might make five foot three.

    So I dutifully took the wheel after lunch and he picked a rather long route for a test drive. His wife soon began complaining about being very uncomfortable in the back seat. I couldn’t work out the execrable controls or decipher the overstyled round instrumental gubbins down by my right knee. The car had a ride that was hard and choppy, the A-pillar got in the way of visibility just tootling along, and all together it was torture. Just ask the wife. She insisted we terminate the drive and take me back to work. At once. So I perhaps only got about ten miles in. It was enough.

    Pert to look at from the outside. Sum up? Useless, the price beyond aspirational. As we say over here: Now tell us how you really feel!

  11. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for this very interesting article. I’ve never seen the black and red 5dr prototype before.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, NRJ. AROnline.co.uk is a great resource for information on BMC and it’s successor companies, as well as Ford Europe, Chrysler Europe and a couple of other smaller manufacturers.

  12. Cannot help but wonder whether BMW without Rover (or in some other circumstances a partnership between BMW and Rover as opposed to the former taking over the latter) would have been able to produce an equivalent of the BMW MINI, either under its own name or as an Isetta and manage to achieve relatively similar levels of success as the BMW Mini.

    The above comes to mind on the basis that outside of the retro styling of the original and factory in Oxford, there appears to be very little contribution from Rover on the BMW MINI, with the majority coming from BMW as well as from Chrysler via the Tritec engine.

    Have also heard conflicting rumors whether the original BMW MINI was capable of spawning a 5-door variant or not, though before BMW dumped Rover some consideration was reputedly given to having the BMW MINI form the basis of a Rover badged variant below the Rover R30.

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