THE MINI MAG. Volume 2 No.5
  May 2000

Vol.2 Home Page | Index Page

From The Production Line.
With Nairn Hindaugh.
Nairn worked for BMC in the 60’s. Here is another article from his memorabilia.

The Mini takes on the Beetle!

We all know the merits of our Minis, but how did they compare with their competition? Why did people choose a Mini over say, a VW or a Hillman Imp in the early days, and later in favour of Corollas and Datsun 1000s? In the first of an occasional series, we look at its arch rival (and biggest selling car in history) the VW Beetle.

The Beetle story is well known, having started out as a simple 'People's Car' in the 1930s designed by Ferdinand Porsche. After the war, it was resurrected (with help from the British Army!) and progressively improved over the years. A brilliant advertising campaign put the car well and truly on the map in the US, where Americans were tiring of the 'fins and chrome' period. In Australia, the car made a name for itself as being a rugged little no-nonsense car, and it filled the first two palces in the 1955 Redex Trial. When BMC released the Mini on the Australian market in 1961, the VW was the best selling 4-cylinder car on the market, and was actually outselling Falcon at one stage. BMC had an uphill battle on its hands to try and convince people that this diminutive car with tiny 10" wheels and high revving engine could stand up to an established car with big wheels, slow revving motor and a tough reputation. I think the Mini carved its own niche in that market, appealing to those who wanted something that was fun to drive round corners, was cute, and small. (The VW is over a metre longer.) Wheels magazine did a comparison story in July 1961. While commenting on the incredible differences in philosophy of layout, such as air-cooled rear engine against front wheel drive transverse, water cooled, they also noted that there was a large price difference between them. The VW was 970, while the 850 was 775. (For those born yesterday, that's \$1940 against $1550, a near 25% difference.) They also judged both cars to have one thing in common - a lack of good looks! Well, beauty is in the eye etc, but they reckoned that both of them were engineers' cars, so looks were never uppermost. The ugliest new vehicles to sit on the showroom floor. Practical, yes, but ugly, too.

The VW scored much better than the 850 on quality of finish, such as paintwork, and to the fittings such as floor mats, carpet on the bulkhead, pushbutton door handles etc, compared to the Mini's cheaper finish. Remember that this was a really early production 850 they're talking about; things did improve as production got underway. Also, the VW had a locking boot and bonnet, whereas we all know the Mini never received a bonnet lock in its entire 19 year history in Australia.

The Mini started to score with more comfortable seats, more room inside, but lost out on the lack of a heater, and wind-up windows. Having a fuel gauge also helped the Mini. They also thought it was an infinitely easier car to drive, and of course the handling came in for heaps of praise. They reckoned the 850 was much easier to drive in a hurry, and unbeatable on wet or greasy roads.

Having rack and pinion steering in the Mini made it superb in their eyes, being light and easy to handle, particularly for parking. The VW was seen as being positively vintage in this respect. They were impressed, however with the VW's all-synchro box, compared with the pudding stirrer on the Mini, with no synchro on first. Both cars came in for criticism for their brakes. Noise? Yes, well you didn't have to strain your ears to hear road rumble in either of them.

Having bigger windows on the Mini helped the visibility ratings, and so did luggage space (!) with all the room inside the car. Running costs were about 25% cheaper for the Mini, with petrol and tyre costs. I always remember VW advertisements saying their bigger wheels meant that they didn't revolve nearly as far as a Mini's, so didn't need replacing as often.

The summary as far as they were concerned were that the cars weren't in the same class. They said that for the extra money the VW you got more performance, better finish and more human comforts. However, the Mini being so new, it had to prove itself, but they were under no illusions that the car wouldn't sell outstandingly well. They reckoned that it would not be a serious sales threat to the VW, but both cars were excellent machines.

Australia was perhaps the first country where the Volkswagen Beetle sales started to flag, because by 1967 they closed their huge factory at Clayton in Melbourne, and started to just assemble CKD packs. By 1967 of course, the Mini was just getting into its stride continuing to blitz the local market, having been improved out of all sight. All the quality control problems had been addressed, the interior fittings were much better, and we had wind-up windows at last! VW did try to counter the price difference with a standard model in 1963, but it was really too austere to make much of an impact. In a now amusing confidential booklet written in 1963 for BMC salesmen (no sales ladies in those far-off days) they pointed out some of the 850's selling features over the VW 1200. The Mini still had a price advantage of \$272 over the deluxe Beetle and $36 over the standard. A few quotes:

"Performance: The Morris 850 with its front-wheel-drive, handles like a sports car, corners though they're not there. The big power output 850cc engine develops over 30% more horsepower for its size than the VW 1200, giving amazing performance and top gear flexibility."

"Safety: More than 36% greater all-round glass area in Morris 850 for safer and easier driving. The Morris 850 front windscreen alone is 45% larger than VW 1200, with bigger windscreen wipers as well."

"Remember also that Morris 850 travelled 6,500 miles around Australia over rocks and corrugations, averaging 50 mph, at less than a penny a mile."

The Mini evidently used less fuel, as one road tester of the day used to put cars through the same course. He got 52.3 mpg from the 850 and 45.1 out of a standard Beetle. Interesting fact on weight distribution: the Mini had 62% of the weight over its driving wheels, whereas the VW had 61%. Another sales feature for the 850 was the starter button on the floor, compared to the VW's key-turn start. BMC reckoned the "separate shrouded starter switch on the floor permits easy starting yet avoids accidental use". They also said the sliding windows allowed a greater variety of adjustment to give draught free ventilation, and of course, more storage space. It's not recorded what they said four years later when the Mini DeLuxe sported key-turn start and wind-ups like the Beetle and everything else. The Beetle also had an automatic choke, whereas the 850 boasted "Choke positions under full control of the driver - simple and reliable". There is a suburban myth about the lady driver who used to pull her Mini's choke right out and hang her handbag on it.........

On the race track, the Mini and VW sometimes fought it out, particularly at the Armstrong 500 events at Phillip Island in 1962 and Bathurst the following year. At Phillip Island, the rally experience of the VWs played its part, as the track was breaking up, becoming an obstacle course by the end of the day. Three VWs took on five twin-carb 850 Sports (which were now legal), an NSU Prinz, a Ford Anglia, and four Triumph Heralds. After a day-long struggle, a VW came in about a lap and a half ahead of a Mini, but it's interesting to note that this Mini beat a Valiant, Citroen, Morris Major and a heap of others.