Had the privilege of a trip around the Mini factory at Oxford yesterday, where a cornucopia of these desirable runabouts was being created - in a surprisingly quiet atmosphere for a car factory.
Some 70 per cent of them are exported, this former Rover/Austin Rover/British Leyland/BMC/Morris factory not seeing success on this scale since the heyday of the original Mini and the Morris 1100 in the mid-1960s. Our tour of the paint shop revealed the intriguing fact that in 1998 it was re-equipped and modernised to accommodate models as large as the Range Rover.
The first new model to go through it was the Rover 75 - which was moved to Longbridge post-BMW - but BMW’s plan was to integrate the Oxford plant (or Cowley, as it used to be known), Longbridge (originally to have built the new Mini) and Solihull so that the outputs of each could be managed against the rise and fall of each model’s lifecycle in the least profit-damaging way.
BMW is a master of industrial manipulation of this kind, the production management of its network of German factories one of the keys to its success. Having bought Rover’s still extensive string of factories in 1994, it must have seen scope to achieve the same results.
In fact, a fair chunk of that network survives today, and includes the Swindon panel pressing plant - formerly Pressed Steel Fisher - which remains with BMW to stamp panels for the Mini - and the Hams Hall engine plant near Birmingham, fresh-built by BMW in 2001, which was supposed to have supplied four cylinder engines for Minis, BMWs and Rovers. Instead, Peugeot takes the engines that Rover would have used. All of which is a reminder of how far BMW got with its reconstruction of the Rover Group before boardroom bust-ups, a falling share price, wrangles over government subsidies, slow sales and a poor press caused it to pull the pin.
But I occasionally allow myself to speculate on what would have happened had BMW managed to face down than huge pressure - it certainly tried - and launched the Mini as a Rover Group product.
I suspect it might not have done quite as well as it has, but certainly well enough to have saved BMW’s English Patient. Which means that by now, we would not only be able to buy the now infamous new medium car, but also the Rover 75’s replacement, an Austin Healey 3000 successor out of Spartanburg in the US, new MGs, possibly a Riley and even a modern Frog-eyed Sprite, not to mention assortments of Land Rovers. It could have been a great empire.