Mini: The world’s favourite small car?

Published by Carl Wilson on

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Dyed-in-the-wool Mini fan, Ian Nicholls, looks at the object of his passions in an objective way, and questions its role as the world’s best small car…

You might be surprised by his findings…

From humble beginnings in 1959, Issi’s baby car mutated into a near-pastiche of itself…

It is automatic for dyed-in-the-wool Mini enthusiasts to assume Issigonis’ baby is the world’s favourite small car. But is it? An analysis of production figures can tell a different story. Lets start number crunching. Between 1959 and 2000, BMC and its antecedents produced 5,505,874 Minis. The success of the Mini in the Sixties resulted in other manufacturers investigating their own versions.

First off the mark, was Fiat with the 127 in 1971, quickly followed by the Renault 5 the following year. Fiat and Renault simultaneously came to the same conclusion – the Mini was too small and buyers wanted a larger car fitted with a hatchback (although this would come later to the Fiat 127). This new breed of small cars was dubbed the “supermini” by the media, even though many have argued the ADO16 was the first true super-mini. Fiat and Renault’s market research was spot on, and their timing impeccable. BMC and BL sold the Mini and ADO16 at a loss, and had neither the capital nor the will to fund the stunning Issigonis 9X project.

Therefore, the ageing Mini would have to solder on against more modern rivals. By the time BL’s own supermini, the miniMetro, arrived in 1980, Mini production stood at around 4.7 million. This figure from a 21-year production run and looked rather less impressive when compared with the impressive speed rival manufacturers were building their own superminis. Between 1971 and 1983, Fiat 127 production totalled 3,730,000 – a million more than the Mini achieved in its first 12 years.

However, it was the original Renault 5 of 1972 to 1985 that emerged as the King of the superminis. In the same time frame, Renault produced a stunning 5,471,709 Fives – more than the entire 41-year Mini production run!

In 1976, Ford joined the fray with the original Fiesta and the supermini game became very serious indeed. Between 1976 and 1989, Ford knocked out 4,928,163 Fiesta MkIs and MkIIs. Compare this with BL’s original Metro, which only acheived 1,592,599 between 1980 and 1990. Of more serious concern, is the way BL surrendered sales to its continental rivals throughout the Seventies – in a sector where BMC had been nigh-on unbeatable the previous decade.

If we take our baseline Mini production figure of 318,475 in 1971 (the most productive year in the life of the Mini), we can calculate how much ground was surrendered year-on-year as the Seventies wore on.

The Mini’s fall from grace
YearAnnual production lost compared with 1971
1972-11,538
1973-23,289
1974-63,139
1975-118,182
1976-114,900
1977-104,341
1978-121,676
1979-152,973
1980-168,408
Total-878,446

878,446 is a lot of lost sales, however one looks at it.

The Mini may have iconic status now, but BL failed to improve the car apart from the odd minor revision. Back in August 1979, AUTOCAR magazine’s Technical Editor, Michael Scarlett, called for a whole host of improvements to be made – at the time the Mini celebrated its 20th anniversary. Foremost of these requests was for a front mounted radiator with electric cooling fan.

It took until 1997 for this feature to appear.

In 1978 CAR magazine was more brutal, summing the Mini up as, “Decrepit and completely outdated.”

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Innocenti Mini showed that it was perfectly possible to add a hatchback to the original and give it a smart new set of clothes. It’s a shame BL couldn’t do the same – a real opportunity lost.

The Mini could have been fitted with disc brakes across the range from as early as 1963, but it took until 1984 for this to happen; too little too late. BL may have justified under-investment in the Mini because it was unprofitable, knowing the Metro was in the pipeline, but as the figures above suggest, BL surrendered ground to the superminis in an expanding small car market. This would have been okay, had the Metro had reclaimed the lost sales, but it did not…

Combined Mini and Metro production
YearAnnual production figure
1980183,021
1981235,731
1982230,963
1983230,719
1984185,955
1985209,640
1986192,266
1987198,495
1988181,275
1989179,749
1990155,650

The best years were 1981 to 1983, when the Mini and Metro sold only 20,000 less cars per annum than the Mini did in 1974. Afterwards, the cars went into a steep sales decline; and by the late Eighties, they were selling 20,000 less per annum, than the Mini in the late Seventies.

In defence of BL, in 1981-1983 the Mini and Metro sold in similar numbers to the Mini in 1963 to 1967, the heyday of the works Mini rally cars. But, the car market was much larger by this time. Between 1962 and 1977, annual Mini production exceeded 200,000; and between 1981 to 1983, and 1985, this figure was exceeded again by the Mini and Metro. After that, there was a steep decline and BL/Rover ceased to be a major player in a market in which it previously dominated.

The success of the Renault 5, Fiat 127 and Ford Fiesta show that there was a huge demand for superminis and BL did have the production capacity to compete – it simply did not have the right small car at the right time.

So in conclusion the top 3 small cars are

1. Renault 5
2. Mini
3. Ford Fiesta

In 2005 the supermini is the most popular type of new car. So, the MINI is not the world’s most popular small car in production numbers, but in iconic terms, and the public’s affection, it most certainly is. Have any of you out there heard of Ford Fiesta clubs or International Renault 5 meetings?

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Categories: Mini

Carl Wilson

You won't believe it, I'm native Scotsman. Enthusiast. Car lovers. Almost finished rebuilding my Reliant Saber 🔥

1 Comment

Best-selling cars in the UK 2020 · 29 December 2020 at 6:27 am

[…] you know that MINI is the best-selling car during 1959–2000. Were sold 5,505,874 […]

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