Original Mini was a Kiwi hit from the start
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The first New Zealand-assembled Minis were rolling out of two plants in Auckland and Petone exactly 60 years ago, in what was a rapid introduction of the then-revolutionary small car.
First launched in Britain in August 1959, the New Zealand Austin and Morris distributors immediately implemented a local assembly programme for the front wheel-driven baby. Tough import licence restrictions at the time meant the only way to achieve a good supply of cars was to build them locally and the first NZ Minis went on sale in February 1960.
In the 40-year time span of the original classic model, more than 60,000 New Zealanders would buy a new Mini.
Before World War II, NZ was the largest single export market for Austin and Morris and was still held in high esteem by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in the fifties and sixties - a valid reason for local assembly of the Mini to be implemented so promptly following the European introduction.
Right from the outset NZers were enthusiastic about the Mini, unlike the Australians who were doubtful about the car’s appeal. But when they saw the reception given by Kiwi buyers the mood changed.
John Evans from the assembly division of British Motor Corporation Australia came to Auckland to study the Kiwi method of assembling the Mini and the model went into production across the Tasman about a year after NZ. Original sales predictions soon had to be doubled to meet demand.
The initial shipments of completely knocked down (CKD) Minis arrived from the UK in packs of 48 and the NZ assemblers offered the car in either red, blue, mauve or white with silver grey vinyl trim and light grey headlining. Buyers didn’t care what colour they were, as long as they could buy one.
Local content included the radiator, ignition coil, spark plugs, battery, window glass, seat frames, headlining, interior trim, boot mat, paint and tyres. Later, locally made carpets replaced somewhat crude rubber floor matting. NZ had a thriving motor vehicle industry… that would disappear three decades later.
Morris versions were first built in Auckland’s Newmarket on the site where the Westfield shopping centre now stands and the Austin-badged Minis were assembled at the Associated Motor Industries Petone plant. Four years later Mini assembly transferred from Newmarket to Panmure and eventually other versions of the car were in build, including the Mini van, Mini ute, Clubman and Clubman GT.
The NZ Motor Corporation’s Nelson plant also assembled the Mini for a limited time, and between January 1960 and October 1976 a total of 58,793 Minis were made in NZ. Local Mini production ended in 1980, and small numbers of British built cars continued to arrive until the classic model ended its run in September 2000.
In a car-starved NZ of the sixties, there were nearly always more customers than vehicles. The late Bruce Carson, a Morris salesman of the day, said 3000 people came through the BMC Courtenay Place showroom in Wellington in the first four days of the Mini going on sale.
Austin and Morris were part of the BMC brand, which had huge coverage in NZ, with a dealer in virtually every moderately sized town.
Dominion Motors, the Morris distributor, told its dealers: “There is not the slightest doubt that the majority of people in this country are now referring to the ADO15 (the British project number for the car) as the ‘Mini Minor’ irrespective of whether they are talking about the Morris or Austin version.”
The distributor reckoned no new car had ever received such an enthusiastic reception from both public and press.
BMC sent a sectioned cutaway Mini to NZ for the 1960 launch, a clever exhibit revealing the inner workings of the car. It stayed in the country for several months, and later became an exhibit at the Science Museum in London.
In Auckland on launch day the weather was atrocious but 200 guests were treated to an evening function in the new Newmarket showroom, just a few hundred metres distant from the factory where the Morris Minis were being assembled. Department stores in central Auckland had Minis on show and there was no doubt the little car was the talk of the town.
The Christchurch dealer placed a Mini on a high platform decorated with shrubs and flowering plants, while another car, its front-end assembly removed, was placed upside down on a cradle.
Within two weeks of the car going on sale, local waiting lists were lengthy and delivery delays had already extended to eight months. Rival makes were surprised and Ford countered with its new-generation reverse-angle rear window Anglia. This went on sale in NZ just four days after the Mini but it was conventional and cost more, prompting Ford to later cut the Anglia price to closely match the Mini.
The Mini-Minor and Austin Seven name tags were abbreviated to simply Mini when the Morris and Austin brands later merged.
There was no doubt the Mini was not simply another new car model destined to help change the face of motoring - it was a sensation on wheels.