Widely derided as a travesty of Issigonis’ original, but was the 1969 Clubman intended to be something more?
The Mini was wasn’t really styled as such – its body style simply a clothing for the technical package set out by its creators, with only the barest concession to style. Surprisingly, it worked, the car’s appearance proving relatively timeless, endearing and well proportioned. The problem was, it didn’t really lend itself to facelifting. By 1967, the Mini had yet to become legendary, to say nothing of iconic. It was just another product which had been on the marketplace for some time and would soon require more than the rather perfunctory nip and tuck it had just received.
Appointed head of the BMC car division in 1966, PSF chief, Joe Edwards quickly put into action a plan to revitalise both product and process. In 1967, he appointed former Ford designer and product planner, Roy Haynes. His brief, to revamp the existing range and plot a new family of cars to take the combined carmaker into the coming decade.
At his PSF styling studio, Heynes’ team mocked up proposals (dubbed ADO20) to produce an enlarged, more upmarket Mini, not only to replace the somewhat hidebound and chintzy Elf/ Hornet twins, whose modest sales hardly justified the investment in unique body pressings, but to future-proof the model for the 1970s.
In this, the Mini’s somewhat unusual method of body construction (with its external welded body seams) proved useful, allowing for new nose and tail sections to be simply grafted on to the existing centre section, albeit with decidedly mixed results along the way. However, in the summer of 1968, while Sir Alec was beavering away at his own first-principles Mini in his secretive Cowley skunkworks, Heynes’ stylists produced a neat looking hatchback version of the existing bodyshell, with a rounded, modestly extended tail section, in conjunction with a longer nose.
It seems in retrospect something of a missed opportunity not to have employed the Mini Traveller’s (4″) longer platform to obtain a more advantageous driving position and a little additional interior space, but the budget probably didn’t stretch far for such a marginally profitable model – one we must remember which wasn’t destined for a lengthy production life.
The completion of this seemingly well-considered and fully trimmed styling prototype however broadly coincided with the chaotic politics of the BMH/ Leyland merger, meaning that once the dust had settled, regardless of whether or not a comprehensive reworking of the Mini was still deemed necessary, there simply wasn’t the budget to execute it – with what was available being diverted with most urgency towards what became the Marina.
ADO20 nevertheless become an active programme, split between a series of modifications to the existing car, and the new, more upmarket model. In the former case, the Mark 3 Mini lost its sliding windows, and the doors received internal hinges. This in fact was not a new development, the Elf/ Hornet models having debuted both of these refinements in 1966 and ’68 respectively. Australian market Minis also had winding windows (with quarterlights) since 1965 – a further indictment against BMC’s budgetary control on such a cost-sensitive model line.
Technically, the Mark 3 reverted to the original rubber cone damping, replacing the heavier, costlier and more complex hydrolastic system. A more driver-friendly change however would be the rod-operated, remote gear linkage, replacing the giant wand with which non-Cooper Mini owners were forced to employ until then. Again however, this was merely a rationalisation of pre-existing hardware, hitherto denied.
Confronted with an even more limited budget for revisions than anticipated, Heynes (it seems)* was confined to alterations forward of the A-pillars. This involved lengthened front wings and bonnet, lending a more modernist, but less characterful profile. Front overhang was increased, which did at least have the positive knock-on effect of improving crushability and engine access (two factors the Mini’s éminence grise had been largely unconcerned with), but lacking the counterweight of the rear end revisions believed to have been intended for the car, resulted in a somewhat unhappy, unbalanced appearance.
In detail, the Clubman’s large round headlamps set into a broad horizontal grille proved something of a Roy Heynes trademark, lending a nagging suspicion that here was something of a one note author.
Inside, the instrument binnacle was now mounted atop the steering column directly in front of the driver and a three-spoke steering wheel added. Combined with plusher seating and a more generous standard of equipment, the Clubman was marketed as the Mini’s mature, more upmarket brother. Furthering this sense of hierarchical superiority was the model’s retention of hydrolastic suspension (until 1971), and the larger 998cc engine. (Upgraded to the 1098cc unit in 1975).
Launched alongside the revised Mark 3 in Autumn 1969, reaction to the Clubman was mixed, with few commentators viewing the styling changes as an improvement. But the buying public on the other hand seemed less troubled, quickly carving out a niche for itself, in particular the cheaper to insure 1275 GT model, which initially sat alongside the more powerful Cooper S, but as of 1971, replaced it entirely.
As the 1970s progressed, British Leyland, lacking a supermini to rival the likes of the Renault 5 or Ford Fiesta, attempted to pitch the Clubman Estate as a potential rival (at least to their beleaguered sales teams), a ploy which really fooled nobody. Production ceased in 1980, when BL introduced their own supermini, leaving the Mini in its original form to soldier on in managed decline – although the Clubman Estate continued until 1982. In total, over half a million Clubmans were built.
Largely derided as the inferior product of narrow minds, the Clubman as produced was probably neither what was intended or required, but the thinking behind it was intrinsically sound. Because in its narrow expediency one could read a certain pragmatism, one lacking elsewhere in the volume car division as Donald Stokes and his cohorts embarked on a vastly expensive road to nowhere.
With the passage of time (and we are talking 50 years now), the Mini Clubman has gained the respect and following which perhaps eluded it in life, leaving us to ponder alternative outcomes. Because despite their many shortcomings, by the close of the 1960s, Sir Alec Issigonis’ ADO-series of FWD car designs still had plenty of development life in them. That BLMC management chose to largely ignore this reality is entirely their failing.
*The true identity of the styling team responsible for the nose of the Clubman remains a source of mystery, with Oliver Winterbottom, late of Jaguar’s styling studio stating on record that it was in fact carried out by Jaguar stylists under Doug Thorpe at Radford.