Richard Lofthouse considers the importance of the car making industry to the University.

When the Olympic torch comes to Oxford in July, it will dwell fractionally longer at the MINI factory in Cowley than at the Iffley running track, iconic site of middle-distance running and Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile.

That state of affairs reflects not just the relative importance of German, Munich-headquartered BMW, an official Olympic sponsor and owner of MINI (uppercased as a brand to distinguish it from the original Mini launched in 1959), but the transformation of Oxford city’s broader economy in light of the roaring success of MINI, whose production at Cowley began on April 26, 2001.

It’s not just a workforce of 3700, and the way all those salaries play into the local property market, but the overall atmosphere of prosperity, which has been barely dented by the downturn. Prosperity indirectly supports the University by making Oxford a strong city. If that sounds vague, try the alternatives. Yale is a famous instance of a university that for much of the 1980s and 90s struggled to secure the safety of its students because of the collapse of the manufacturing base of its surrounding city, New Haven, Connecticut.

But the connection between car making and the University is also much more direct. It’s a matter of gown and not just town. William Morris was born in 1877, he started in bicycles, then opened a garage in Longwall Street, and thence to Cowley. Rapid expansion after the First World War led to such enormous personal wealth that he was the most celebrated industrialist of his generation. During the 1930s, he single-handedly transformed the finances of the University at a precarious moment, subsequently endowing a whole college, three years after he was raised to the peerage as Lord Nuffield.

The Mini occupied Nuffield’s twilight years, and he died in 1963 when the car was just four years old. By then, Morris Motors had long since merged with Austin Motor Company, with a new holding company, British Motor Corporation. These were years of decline, disguised as consolidation. By 1968, when Mini production had switched to the Longbridge plant in Birmingham after a run of about 600,000 cars at Cowley, almost every British car brand had sheltered under the umbrella of British Leyland. The Mini is a case study in success and failure. It leaked in the footwells but its fiercely independent designer, Sir Alec Issigonis, refused to change its design one jot. Meanwhile, poor business planning meant that every car was calculated by rival Ford to have realised a loss of £30. The money men who succeeded Nuffield didn’t do their sums correctly, and they didn’t take account of the marketing budget, for instance, which epitomised Britain at a moment when it was switching away from wartime austerity to a more carefree spirit.

One of the engineers at the 1959 launch of the Mini, the late Roy Davies, recounts: “I was in the press tent [at the (then) Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment in Chertsey, Surrey]. You had to hover in case anyone had any questions. This chap walked up to the bar and said to the barman, ‘I’ll have a half.’ The chap behind him said, ‘Don’t you realise you’re not paying for this stuff, old boy?’ He said, ‘Well, in that case I’ll have a double whisky.’”

When BMW bought the Rover Group in 1994, it was a trauma of misunderstandings and cultural difference, but a logical outcome. Strong companies buy weak companies, and by then, Rover was weak. Seven years later, BMW launched a new MINI and it has been a remarkable success story ever since, with nearly two million cars already produced in Cowley.

More than one hundred deliveries of sub-assemblies and parts are delivered to plant Oxford daily, explains Wayne Morse, a spokesman for the factory. Some of these are from local companies that can deliver very quickly on demand. Meanwhile, pressed panels arrive from a separate plant in Swindon and engines from Hams Hall, near Birmingham. But there is a still broader web of commerce that spreads out from OX4 6NL. Take Douglas Ligertwood, the founder of Oxford Crash Repairs on the adjacent Horspath Industrial Estate. He runs a highly successful body shop, adjacent to which is Mark Purcell Limited, Purcell being a BMW specialist, ex-BMW, whose colleague John Blake is ex-MINI. They live and breathe BMWs, and MINIs, and they have made their livelihoods from fixing them outside the official channel of the dealership networks.

Oxford is lucky to have MINI. Had the project gone to the Longbridge plant, Cowley would have been stuck with the Rover 75 on borrowed time. As it was, February 2005 saw an extra £100 million investment by BMW in Cowley and the end of the line for Rover 75 production at Longbridge. MG Rover went into administration a few months short of its 100th birthday and 4500 people were made redundant.

Back in 2001 no one knew whether the new MINI would be a success. But as its Moroccan-born designer Frank Stephenson, puts it so neatly, “Somehow it hit the nail on the head. It looks good. It does what it looks like.” And then there was the business case. Because it had a substance and quality that no small car had previously had, BMW were able to position MINI in the global marketplace as a premium product with a profitable price tag. This was the only real point of departure from the original formula.

Here we are in the MINI plant. A big buzzer went off ten minutes ago, all the lights went out and the production line stopped moving. There are five minutes left to take photos of Hannah Crowder, 24, the fourth generation of a local family to work at Cowley. She’s a Capacity Planner for Physical Logistics.

“We move parts,” she says jocularly. But it’s more complex than that. Extensive customisation options mean that no two MINIs are the same. Every part has to find its way ‘trackside’ (a trade term for the moving belt that synchronises with the assembly line) at the exact moment when it is required. 640 of 800 cars made daily are for export, and the pepper white (its officially designated colour) Cooper hatch in front of us is destined for China.

The current head of the BMW MINI plant, Jürgen Hedrich, sits on the board of Saïd Business School. The Vice-Chancellor has toured Cowley and drives a German car. The University engineering department has contact with BMW. Some Oxford students have done projects at the MINI site. But there is still a gulf separating the University from car making, a tale of two Oxfords. Hannah’s father crossed that divide in 1987 when he moved from car making to a job as an IT manager in the University’s Department of Pharmacology, where he still works. How are the cultures different? Hannah says, “The University is a bit more relaxed – not as process-led.” Then she corrects herself unconsciously, “I like the way that the German culture works.”

The twenty-minute tea break is about to end, but almost all the line workers are already here. All the ghosts of the past have been banished, except that the day we take photos coincides with a Union row over tea breaks. It is also the case that not many students who have lived ‘in’ or just ‘off’ the Cowley Road have been out to OX4 6NL. Ever fewer Oxonian graduates go into manufacturing. It’s fallen from 9.4 per cent in 1974 to 5 per cent in 2003, partly reflecting a national decline in that sector. At the latest estimate, just 100 students a year went into Engineering and Manufacturing out of a student body of 11,752.

As this issue of Oxford Today has noted, the University has filed a record number of commercial patents (p8). Meanwhile, Tim Woolmer’s re-configuring of the electric motor appears to be a highly significant automotive advance. The University that once disputed the value of engineering and campaigned not to have a railway station may live at arm’s length from Cowley, but all the same the car trade matters to it. Next time you drive up the M40 why not come off at Lewknor turn and amble along the pretty B480, taking in the very different skyline that greets you on the edge of Cowley? It’s the other Oxford in our midst.