The Mini Cooper of the 1960s quickly became an icon of British design. The diminutive car proved that great things could come in small packages, and, along with other classics like the Beetle, showed that small cars could be very, very cool.
Britishness has underpinned the MINI brand, helping it survive many bumps in the road. It sits proudly alongside bulldogs, cricket and mushy peas as being distinctly UK. MINIs with Union Jack roofs are exported worldwide. This little slice of UK pop design can be seen scooting around cities from Toronto to Tokyo.
In 1994 Germany's BMW bought Rover Group, which itself owned the MINI brand. The Munich-based mother company sought first to revive Rover, but, with little interest from UK car buyers, in 2000 sold the marque to Phoenix Consortium, in whose hands it finally disintegrated.
However, keen to create an iconic compact hatchback, the boffins at BMW had by 2000 created an all-new MINI, imbued with the parent firm's high standards and this time featuring rear-wheel drive.
The shiny new MINI was a huge success and it retained much of its British heritage by dint of being built in Cowley, Oxfordshire (as well as looking somewhat like the original).
Indeed, much of the car's marketability rode on its British roots. It seemed there was room for a cheeky, nippy British car in the hearts of many.
But since 2000 production of the MINI has begun to move abroad. Today, just 60% of MINIs are made in Cowley. The MINI Countryman, for instance, is made in plants all over the world – in Thailand, Malaysia, India, Brazil and Austria. However, this is largely to minimise the distance between factory and market – thereby cutting costs.
Moreover, the Hatch, Cabriolet, Clubman and Coupe models are still built a few miles from the dreamy spires of Oxford University. You can't get much more British than that. But the survival or Cowley may have more to do with the fact that the UK is still MINI’s biggest market, accounting for 20 per cent of global sales.
The truth is that many cars built in the UK actually use components that have been made or finished overseas, then imported for final assembly. These include brands like Aston Martin and Jaguar – and of course MINI. But this can be said of many cars made overseas, too. German firms like Mercedes, Volkswagen – and BMW – all have plants outside the Bundesrepulik. Despite this, however, they still retain their distinctly German image.
Although it may be unpalatable, there’s no reason to suggest MINI could not be built abroad and still keep its British character.
And then you’ve got everyone's favourite secession negotiation, Brexit. This may prove to be the real spanner in the John Cooper Works (sorry). BMW has already opened a plant in the Netherlands, ostensibly so production can be switched to an EU country should the Brexit talks fail, or leave the company in a position where it cannot use the UK as a key manufacturing hub.
But the German firm remains positive about keeping production in the UK.
Yet it insists it has "neither sought nor received" any assurances from the UK government that production will be unaffected by Brexit.
The good news is that BMW has recently decided to build its new electric MINI in Britain. The Cowley plant will begin production of the new model in 2019, although it should be noted that the electric motor will be made in Germany and shipped to these shores for final assembly. This may remind some of the MG – components made in China, with final assembly in Longbridge, Birmingham.
Of the 360,000 MINIs built each year, the majority still roll out of Oxford’s Cowley plant. Whether or not they keep on rolling depends not only on the suits in Munich, but on the exploits of politicians in Brussels and London.