COWLEY, England – Due to the popularity of the Mini, BMW is saying that it might need to expand production at its plant near Oxford. According to the Financial Times, the plant at Cowley builds 240,000 cars a year, and could be expanded to 260,000 to 300,000. But it might be easier, BMW says, to expand the production at BMW’s Leipzig plant.
The expansion elsewhere poses danger for the Mini brand. The Mini is all about British-ness, and Oxford. Mini was, before it was a BMW Mini, a Morris Mini, named after that bicycle-maker W.R. Morris. (Actually there were dozens of different models over the years.) Morris had a bicycle shop at 48 High Street; the first bicycle he sold was to the vicar of St. Clement’s. In James Morris’ fine history of Oxford, she writes that the first backer of the company was the Earl of Macclesfield, an undergraduate customer. (Pictured here, the Mini that belonged to Paul McCartney, at the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.)
Certainly, Mini, with its success and BMW backing, could easily sell cars made elsewhere. BMW makes excellent cars. But part of the mystique of a brand is where it is made. Some brands, over time, gain reputations in different markets and plants, but that takes time to build the identity beyond its place of origin.
GM made many mistakes with its former Saab brand; one of the most destructive was when it decided that the automobiles did not need to be made in Sweden, and could be made elsewhere in Europe. Badge engineering is fine for American cars brands, as it has been part of the way brands have evolved here. But the Saab was specifically sold because it was quirky and Scandinavian.
But back to Mini, which proved that completely dead brands can be brought back.
No, it won’t hurt to make a few Minis elsewhere, but you do it with great risk, especially at a sensitive time when companies like Cadbury’s are shutting down factories. Better a risk not to take. Europeans might not mind it, but the British market will, and so will the U.S.