Honoring the Fathers of MINI on Father’s Day

While we’re celebrating our fathers, it seems fair to pay homage to the fathers of Mini (and MINI).

Herbert Austin

Herbert Austin, circa 1905.

Herbert Austin, circa 1905.

Austin was really smart and tired of working for other people. You can read about this in more detail in From Tin to Rust, A History of Longbridge. He found some land, started a business, and four months later he produced his first car, giving birth to his automotive empire at what would become known as Longbridge. Longbridge would become the birthplace of Mini and served as its home until it was unceremoniously ripped at the seams (a tale you can read about in The Last Flight of Phoenix).

It was Austin’s innovative small engine design that boosted his car’s popularity in the 1930s, a time when cars were taxed on engine size. However, his competitor, Morris, was hot on his heels and eventually gained an advantage during World War II.

He died of a heart attack in 1941, missing the production of the millionth Austin five years later – no small feat of sales for a guy who started with next to nothing. If it weren’t for Austin, we wouldn’t have Longbridge. There are a lot of places in Mini history but none quite as sacred as this.

William Morris

Morris was an Austin competitor. He had built a formidable business at Cowley and much later partnered with an American company that specialized in pressed steel to efficiently create car bodies, including those for the Mini, across the street at his newly built Swindon plant.

Morris eventually lost his shares in Pressed Steel by court order, a big to-do you can read about in The History of Pressed Steel and Swindon. While the totality of Morris’ automotive endeavors and the impact they had on Mini could fill an encyclopedia, among his greatest contributions to the brand is certainly Leonard Lord.

William Morris (Lord Nuffield), left, and Sir Leonard Lord, right. Courtesy of aronline.co.uk

William Morris (Lord Nuffield), left, and Sir Leonard Lord, right. Courtesy of aronline.co.uk

Morris (who became Lord Nuffield) enjoyed such contention with Leonard Lord that the pair split ways. Leonard Lord landed with Austin. After Austin’s passing, Lord found himself holding the reins. He lured Issigonis to join him, shortly before the Suez crisis brought the economy and the fuel industry to its knees.

As the economy tumbled, it was Leonard Lord who issued the edict to Issigonis to stop the presses, focus on a small and efficient car, and make it snappy.

Sir Alec Issigonis

Issigonis had been with Morris until 1952, so Leonard Lord certainly knew what he was capable of. Sir Alec spent some time working on a new sports car for Alvis until Lord brought him on board.

There are a lot of wise men behind the scenes who can be said to have played a paternal role but none of them deserve the title of Father of Minis like Issigonis. For it was his creativity and ingenuity that poured out onto that napkin and became one of the most famous doodles in human history.

Mini Sketch Napkin Issigonis

Simple design for the Mini, first sketched on a napkin by Issigonis.

And many others

There are countless other men (and women, but it’s Father’s Day) who have poured their heart and soul into this car. There are people who toiled on assembly lines in outdated factories, who saw this little car through times of economic upheaval, who continued to rivet and bolt and drill while worried about unionization and contracts and their kids’ dental bills.

They rejoiced when mighty BMW took over and the future looked bright but they worried about their jobs being taken by robots. Rumors swirled as BMW sought buyers for Longbridge. Assembly workers, engineers, painters, the people who snap on the trim and line up the windows. They all stood on rocky soil as BMW sold their livelihood to four men for £10.

The workers at Longbridge breathed a sigh of relief when they were allowed to see through the last of the Minis and to produce the early MINI prototypes. And then they waved goodbye as decades of history were swept away to Oxford, where future MINIs would be produced by BMW.

I have no statistics and no way of knowing how many people from Longbridge followed MINI to Oxford but certainly a fair number stayed, only to lose it all – their jobs and their pensions – just five short years later. (You can read the full story of the Phoenix Four years at Longbridge here.)

When thinking about those who have fathered Mini (and MINI), the hands that made it can’t be overlooked.

The First R50 body at Longbridge in 1999. One of these, in really bad condition, was recently discovered.

The First R50 body at Longbridge in 1999. One of these, in really bad condition, was recently discovered.

Jim McDowell

For all that Mini was in Europe, for everything it gave to British culture and the icon it became of flirty fun in a new modern era, it gave nothing to America. It simply wasn’t allowed to come here.

But the new MINI did.

There have been some amazing men (and women, of course) behind the scenes who have shared their heart and soul with MINI in America. Their exclusion from the list is not a slight. The Estimable Former Chief Motorer is included not because he was at the helm but because he seemed to be one with the ship.

It is not the natural order of the universe that you ever meet or befriend the man in charge of the company that made your car (forgive the simplification of titles here). You simply don’t buy a car and anticipate ever knowing that man’s name, let alone going on a road trip with him and being shot at by his water pistol as he galloped off with that trademark laugh.

Rather, you picture a man in a tie so tight it could choke his unborn children, sitting at a desk with one of those brass lamps with the green glass shade, Montblanc pen nestled in its marble stand, shuffling paper and screaming into phones saying things like, “Burns, I want those sales figures immediately and confirm my time at the club for racquetball with the Congressman.”

Jim McDowell was never that guy. He seemed to share the MINI ideal. They were one and the same.

When I met my first MINI, I thought the same thing most of you did. Well, here’s something different. It’s fun. It gets the job done but it’s got a heart, a soul, it makes me laugh and smile. There are unexpected things under the surface.

The day I met Jim McDowell, he was wearing a tie-dye shirt and the broadest of smiles. He had a warm demeanor and a hearty hand-shake and he approached every person the same way. He struck me as someone with boundless enthusiasm for what he was doing and who he was with, a genuine sense of curiosity and adventure, and a spontaneous streak.

PhillyMINI with Jim McDowell 2014

PhillyMINI with Jim McDowell in Buffalo during MTTS 2014.

You simply can’t separate MINI in America from Jim McDowell. In no way does this diminish the contributions of the amazing people who worked with and after him. But it seems obvious to me that qualities he shared with us trickled down into the marketing, into the experiences we shared, and into how we perceived the brand and our cars at that time.

So Happy Father’s Day to all of these men who have played a fatherly role to the mighty MINI and to all of the men out there who have adopted a MINI of their own to cherish.