The beloved Mini has turned 50. Launched by the now-defunct British Motor Corp. in 1959, this quirky little car has gone through several owners and various iterations from the early Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor to vans, station wagons, and convertibles. Immortalized after its starring role in the 1969 film The Italian Job, the Mini has long been a cult favorite. "The size and shape of the vehicle have given it an iconic following, combined with the fact that it's not perceived to be a mainstream vehicle," says Jeff Schuster, executive director of forecasting for JD Power & Associates (MHP).
A British legend that fell on hard times for decades, the car has become an international success since German auto giant BMW (BMWG.DE) took over the brand in 1994. BMW relaunched the car in Europe in 2001, a year before bringing it to the U.S., keeping the classic design of the original but increasing the size and improving the technology. The car is now sold in 62 countries at an average price of $20,000.
The revival of the car—whose name was changed in 2001 to MINI—was one of the best relaunches ever in brand history, says Christopher Wünsche, managing director in the Munich office of branding consultancy Interbrand. "BMW brought together the myth and the history of the brand and built a cutting-edge, technologically leading car which was boosted by the reliability of German engineering," he says.
Just six years after the MINI was rolled out in the U.S., the market is now the brand's biggest, accounting for 23% of 232,425 sold worldwide in 2008. That compares favorably with other high-profile revivals of classic cars. Italian automaker Fiat (FIA.MI), whose diminutive 500 (Cinquecento) first came out in 1957 and appeared in countless Italian films, relaunched the car to great acclaim last year. The new $15,000 version sold about 185,000 units in 2008—an impressive start, but less than the MINI. The reintroduction of the beloved 70-year-old Volkswagen (VOWG.DE) Beetle in 1998 was met with rave reviews and a big jump in sales, but enthusiasm didn't last: VW sold only about 55,000 of the new "bugs," which start at $18,000, around the world last year.
BMW's MINI may have done better because of its hard-core loyalists. Devotees publish blogs and a handful of monthly magazines in the car's honor, and there are more than 450 groups on Facebook dedicated to the car. All told, more than 166,400 fans are registered on the MINI's Facebook fan page.
Such adoration wasn't the case when the first Minis were built in 1959. The first two models, known as the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor, were so basic that customers couldn't relate. Measuring just 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 10 feet long (1.23 x 1.23 x 3 meters), the car had no radio, no heater, and only three instruments on its dashboard—a speedometer, odometer, and gas gauge. The doors opened with ropes. The minimalism didn't appeal to affluent customers, but the $700 price tag was still too high for young buyers. Only 20,000 units were built the first year.
In 1960 the Mini's designer, Sir Alec Issigonis, managed to get Queen Elizabeth to take a ride in the vehicle. The resulting press attracted London's in crowd, and sales jumped to 116,000 units that year. By the mid-1960s, the Beatles were driving Minis, and mania had set in. "Mini was always very modern and an instrument of self-expression," says Interbrand's Wünsche. "It says: 'I'm young at heart, unconventional, and ahead of the times.'"
By the '70s, though, Mini sales began to fall, and regular production ceased in the 1980s, though the brand's owner by that time, Rover Group, continued to produce special editions until 2000. Rover was taken over by BMW in 1994, and seven years later, BMW made auto history with the MINI's reintroduction.
The next transformation for the MINI may be to become an eco-friendly vehicle. BMW is testing electric prototypes and says it will make a decision next year whether or not to go ahead. From its roots as a cheap and fuel-efficient car in the 1950s to potentially a 21st-century green machine, the Mini has come a long way.
Check out our slideshow displaying the many incarnations of the Mini, from its inception in 1959 to the latest 2009 model.