A little over ten years ago BMW pulled the plug on the ‘English Patient’ known as Rover. The decision to purchase Rover did not serve either BMW or Rover well in the six years of BMW’s stewardship. It also brought about the eventual end of Bernd Pischetsreider’s career at BMW.

It seemed that BMW had purchased Rover based on emotion, rather than cold hard logic. Pischetreider is a noted Anglophile and thought the world of the Rover brand. Rover’s emblem, the Viking longboat, hinted at the shared historical ties between northern European countries. And Rover’s brand image had been very good up until it eliminated the Austin brand for its low priced entries. (And BMW’s purchase of Dixi in 1928, which license built Austin 7s, came full circle with the purchase of Rover.)

In addition BMW had hoped that the Rover brand could help preserve BMW’s independence. BMW feared being gobbled up by a bigger entity, and felt that annual production of two million units would guarantee it. Rover would have become a premium product that would appeal to the 80% of premium buyers that wouldn’t consider a BMW. (And that’s a dirty little secret– BMW’s brand image appeals to a smaller segment of the luxury market than say Mercedes or Lexus. The part we adore, a perceived luxurious sportiness, doesn’t have as wide of an appeal as luxury and comfort without sportiness.)

If BMW could have revived Rover and successfully sold it outside the UK, we wouldn’t be talking about front wheel drive BMWs today. But Rover was on its deathbed even before BMW purchased it. And in the end, a small, overlooked, archaic relic of a car, the Mini, may have been the best thing BMW could salvage from the purchase.

The iconic Mini first appeared in 1957. The work of Alec Issigonis, the Mini took the world by storm in the swinging sixties. It was a transformational automobile, full of innovative technical details, it’s only rival for size of impact in the automotive world is the Ford Model T (and no, the VW Beetle doesn’t even come close).

The odd thing was the Mini almost bombed. The styling was off putting to the generation that survived WW II. It took the serendipitous intervention of Princess Margaret and her husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, to popularize the car. Princess Margaret was a wildly popular figure to British baby boomers, and her appearances in the Mini gave Mini the cachet it needed to sell.

When BMW purchased Rover, the Mini brand was an afterthought at best. The car had been updated in its original format to its conclusion. To survive more stringent crash standards and demands for more creature comforts, the Mini was going to have to be completely redesigned. Rover, before BMW, had no money to effectively do that. But somewhere in BMW’s management team, the seed of a Mini rebirth was planted. It was truly an admired brand icon and that goodwill could be transferred to a new car as long as it could capture the magic of the old.

And the new Mini would have to sell in America. To make that happen, BMW would have to pull a rabbit from its hat and create an marketing campaign that would be the envy of corporations of every stripe – not just the automotive industry. And that’s just what BMW NA got when it selected Jack Pitney to head up that effort. If it wasn’t for Jack
Pitney, the MINI story might have finished in the same way as Rover.

We miss you Jack.