Sputnik Falls, MINI rises.
It seemed for a time that it would simply go on indefinitely, but in 2000, after 41 years, time’s irresistible march finally caught up and Sputnik came home. The last years of Mini production saw it become something of a tribute act, with a bewildering array of special editions being offered, (mainly for Japanese consumption) culminating in the wide-tracked Cooper Sport 500, an example of which being the very last Mini built, leaving the Longbridge tracks on October 4th that year.
The advent of the new millennium was greeted with lurid fireworks along the Thames and thousands queuing to be underwhelmed by Mr. Mandelson’s Millennium Experience in Greenwich, but it wasn’t just Mini that sputtered and popped that year, so too the unhappy BMW-Rover alliance. Unravelling for some time, the Vierzylinder officially announced plans to sell the troubled carmaker, with MG and Rover brands offloaded to the so-called Phoenix Consortium, along with a goodwill cheque and a ‘don’t darken our door again‘ invocation, by late Spring.
While the demise of the much-loved Mini elicited a tremendous outpouring of nostalgia, the same could not be said when Escort production ceased that summer (after 32 years). By then, Ford’s C-sector stalwart had become a hallowed out shadow of its former swaggering self, eclipsed by its radical and immeasurably superior successor. Creating further faultlines was Dearborn’s announcement of the cessation of car production at Ford’s sprawling Dagenham plant (opened in 1931) in East London. The final car – a red Fiesta, was built in 2002.
Also making his departure (aged 84) was Major Ivan Hurst, the former British army officer and engineer who oversaw the resumption of car production at the Volkswagen plant at Wolfsburg in the aftermath of hostilities 1945. Without his stalwart efforts the Wolfsburg plant’s potential might never have been realised. One Anglo-German alliance that did work out, Wolfsburg authorities naming a local road, Major Hirst Straße in his honour.
New cars there were aplenty as well. Alfa Romeo debuted the 147 that summer, a suave, stylish, upmarket C-segment offering, replacing the well regarded, if somewhat frangible 145/146 models. Technically similar to the mid-range 156, employing a good deal of shared hardware, the 147 brought much of the 156’s virtues and overall appeal to a smaller, more youthful, yet still mature package. Unfortunately, it also came with a similar array of weaknesses. Nevertheless, it garnered the Euro-COTY trophy the following year, and sold steadily, with perhaps the best balance between verve and practicality ever offered by the Biscione in the sector.
Billed as the Young Recreation Vehicle, the Daihatsu YRV was introduced to slightly raised eyebrows, not simply because of the rather contrived name, but also owing to its appearance, which was part hatchback, part MPV – odd looking by 2000 standards, not so much now. Distinguished by a double wedge beltline, courtesy of the sideglass outline slashes, the YRV cut a bit of a dash – if only a bit. Powered by a Toyota-sourced 1.3 litre engine with 83 bhp – a 130 bhp turbocharged variant was also offered, which undoubtedly concentrated minds. Not a huge success outside of Japan, but being a Daihatsu, probably a thoroughly decent little brick to knock about in.
Osaka to Minato, where Honda eschewed the over-familiar conformity of its outgoing Civic for a (briefly) less familiar one – a reinvented, cab-forward design. A determinedly mainstream C-segment fighter, the sixth generation Civic came as a somewhat upright and almost Minivan-esque five door, or a (slightly) more rakish 3-door. More Eurocentric than of yore, this generation of Civic was something of a breakthrough model saleswise, earning a fine reputation, to drive, to live with, if not necessarily to behold. The Civic R model however became something of a minor post-millennial legend, but the entire range was quickly eclipsed by its science-fiction-inspired successor.
Minato to Hamamatsu: Suzuki introduced the Ignis (dubbed Swift in its native Japan), a supermini-sized MPV-esque hatchback in the YRV vein. Quite a neat looking device and something of a proto-compact crossover in style, like most Suzuki offerings, it was resolutely conventional from a technical perspective, but well engineered, reliable, and not without charm; if perhaps like its fellow Japanese offerings, ultimately not a car to inspire a tremendous longing at ten paces. Its 1.3 litre engine developed a healthy 83 bhp, and combined with light weight, the Ignis might not have lived up to its name, but was a decent performer nonetheless. Three and five door versions were offered. Shortlived, it was replaced by a visually similar, but considerably improved 1.5 litre model in 2003.
The 1997 Lotus Elise was a lifesaver for the Norfolk-based specialist carmaker. Arriving at a time when sportscars were once again good business, the Elise’s combination of comely looks, performance and superb dynamics made it a nailed-on classic in the making. But for those who wanted more power and track-focused dynamics enter the 2000 Exige, a heavily revised fixed-head version of the Elise body, but with an overt track-car focus.
With little pretension towards comfort or compliance (yet despite this surprisingly supple – they know their stuff at Hethel), the breathed-upon 1.8 litre K-Series engine lent the Exige strong top end power, a collossal aural assault and possibly the most sensual pleasure it is possible to derive in a clothed, semi-recumbent position. As a day to day proposition, only BDSM adherents need apply, but as a means of banishing ennui, the Exige was unrivalled.
Well, perhaps not, for there are those for whom an Exige isn’t nearly elemental enough. Fortunately for them, Hethel offered the 340R. First shown as a concept in 1998, the 340R was basically an Elise platform clothed in most rudimentary fashion, making as few concessions to road legality as possible. 340 were built, all pre-ordered, spending their lives carving track apexes and doubtlessly placing large grins on their owners’ faces – if not their passengers’.
While Lotus was getting with the post-millennial zeitgeist, Morgan appeared trapped in period drama. However, by the turn of the millennium, the carmaker had belatedly awoken, preparing a car which was as up to date beneath the skin as it cleaved to tradition above. The Aero 8’s advanced bonded and riveted aluminium chassis design was the brainchild of former Jaguar engineering chief, turned academic, Professor Jim Randle, originally intended for use in Lea Francis’ stillborn 30/230 model.
This lightweight and immensely strong design was adapted for use by Morgan, firstly for their racing programme, but also the production car, which was developed under the supervision of veteran engineer, Chris Lawrence, with a (somewhat questionable) body design, allegedly by Charles Morgan. Powered by a 4.4 litre BMW V8, the Aero 8 came with the performance, road manners (and crash performance) a traditional Morgan owner could only dream of – the resultant car immeasurably better than it looked.
With the original Mini gone to commune with its beatified creator, BMW officially introduced its New MINI at the close of 2000, before going on sale the following Spring. A finely realised pastiche, the design married retro with modernity in a very pleasing manner, maintaining the original’s pertness, if not proportions.
As much a packaging miracle as Issi’s ’59 car, the wizardry seemingly taking place beneath the bonnet, rather than inside the snug and rather overstyled cabin in this instance. But it was all good fun and with a range of models, engines (1.4 and 1.6 Tritec units), not to mention a world of personalisation options to agonise over, MINI was greeted with rapture by legions of devoted new owners and aficionados.
Traditionalists and engineering purists might have been horrified, but there can be no doubting that BMW pitched millennial MINI to market perfection. New Labour, new MINI – it all amounted to a similarly Cool Britannia flavoured Alco-pop. Hangovers optional.
Read more on the class of 2000 here