By James Wong
On a whim, I decided that I would visit the Mini factory at Oxfordshire. I wanted to see how German engineering blends with British manufacturing, a very interesting mix indeed and I must say a very successful collaboration. I love the old classic Mini; but the new one is also a great drivers’ car and worth every look.
I drove the R53 first, a poverty spec manual 2004 Mini One and I just enjoyed how much the car felt so willing and eager. I have no terrier dog references here as I haven’t got one before, but I can liken it to a telepathic response to the driver’s inputs. It’s very impressive, especially for a base spec Mini. In fact, when I drove the R56 Cooper S I felt it was a bit too grown up, sitting a bit higher and feeling just that bit more like a normal hatchback and less Mini. The JCW R56 is surely one of the strongest expressions yet of Mini’s modernity – powerful, exhilarating but perhaps less of an enjoyment that I would like. Nevertheless, with the launch of the Coupe and Countryman the line-up is truly enlarging to a whole new Mini future. I’m excited but uncertain at the same time.
I don’t have many pictures of the factory visit which is unfortunate. The factory does not allow any photography as there are some manufacturer sensitive information inside. I’ll try to recount my experience here as much as I can with words.
Entering the factory, it wasn’t that surprising to see that nearly everything is automated. The building of the car looked pre-programmed and easy – not like the built-to-spec attention that you may be led to believe. Every car goes through the same line although if I remember correctly the Coupe goes on a different one. The individual specifications are recognised by the machines and the parts already pre-ordered before the car actually reaches the assembly point. Everything follows the just-in-time philosophy adopted from the Japanese. Parts are constantly replenished whenever they are close to running out. The cars are in constant motion (except when they go for lunch, which is an awkward time when the whole line suddenly stops!) learnt from the days of Fordism. In fact, with everything so automated I was starting to think that maybe the Mini isn’t so special any more!
It is pretty awesome that BMW has used local suppliers for most of the car, so they come from all over the Midlands, which is the industrial heart of the UK. They’re also investing a few hundred million into the plant, which is great news for the UK’s automotive industry that is, ironically, back on its foot again and leading the economy to recovery while the financial services sector is floundering.
All in, it is easy to see the German way of doing things in the factory – it definitely isn’t the inefficient British factory that eventually led to the demise of brands like Rover (which is eventually sold to Chinese buyers). However, the Britishness is also kept within the car’s soul with the local suppliers and the workers who are all from the area. Oxford is as reliant on BMW for employment as much as the plant is reliant on the talent of the workforce. It’s a real win-win situation – question is, how far is Mini going to go with its diversification? With a pick-up now also rumoured, things are getting a bit out of hand nowadays. While modern Mini is a carefully cultivated brand thus far, I’d hate to see it become something that I won’t recognise anymore.
Anyway, that’s about as much as I can remember from the tour. If you have any questions, just leave a comment and I’ll try to answer!