Similar to the BMC 9X concept, the Mini Clubman was yet another attempt to update the design of the classic Mini without losing either its fundamental practicality or charm, starting out on paper as a smart and competitive hatchback that would have been well suited for the 1970s small car market, only for budget cuts and a lack of drive to push the model through to what it was fully capable of, leading to what is now considered a somewhat fondly remembered but mostly underdeveloped facelift.
The Clubman begins its story in 1967, when BMC Managing Director, Joe Edwards, attempted to address the many reasons as to why the British Motors Corporation or BMC was making such meagre profits in the face of such exponential sales, most notably with the cultural phenomenon that was the original Mini of 1959, a car that was selling in massive numbers across the globe, but was making a loss on every single example that left the forecourt due to competitive pricing and a somewhat inefficient production process.
To try and resolve this issue, Edwards enlisted the help of Ford Product Planner and Stylist, Roy Haynes, on October 19th, 1967, who had recently finished his work developing the Ford Cortina Mark II, followed by other Ford stylists Harris Mann and Paul Hughes, Haynes working out a plan to cut BMC’s model range down to five basic platforms and reduce the proliferation of badge-engineered models, his task, aside from developing new models, being to re-style existing cars, including the upcoming Austin Maxi, as well as a never-completed proposal to reface the Austin 1100 and 1300 ranges.
Most importantly, though, was the Mini, of which Haynes considered producing a re-styled model to replace the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet at the top end of the range, but with lower production costs, the Elf and Hornet having been produced at a rate of only 125 cars per week and were subtly different to the rest of the Mini range, the resulting car, which was given the development code ADO20, and eventually known as the Mini Clubman, having a longer nose in the same style as its bigger brother, the Austin Maxi, while attempts to introduce a revised rear end were blocked by the management, the interior of the car being the product of Paul Hughes, and saw the use of a three-spoke steering wheel that came straight from the Mark II Cortina, while the instrument binnacle would be an addition rolled out across both the Clubman and the regular Mini, replacing the original binnacle which was sourced from the Morris Minor, and would remain with the Mini until the end of its production in 2000.
Essentially, the Mini Clubman’s fundamental basis was more of a styling exercise rather than attempting to build upon the functionality of the original, the only benefit of the longer nose being to address notorious issues of poor engine access as found on the 1959 Mini, but as a downside made it aerodynamically inferior, the rationale of Haynes being that, by 1969, the Mini had been on the market for ten years and seen little to no changes, while during the same period, Ford had released both the Mark I and Mark II Cortina, the Anglia and its replacement, the Mark I Escort, thus meaning that, by the standards of the motor industry, the Mini was in desperate need of replacement, or, at the very least, a facelift, with Haynes and Hughes both considering incredibly radical ideas for the Clubman’s external appearance.
From the early concept drawings, much of the Clubman’s external appearance seemed to take leads from Australian and South African versions of the classic Mini, including wind up windows and external door hinges, while the bulbous rear end was an attempt to increase the bootspace of the car over the regular Mini, as per the likes of the outgoing Elf and Hornet, with further development of the concept heading towards the idea of a hatchback that adopted rear styling from the forthcoming Morris Marina Coupe, and the product was described as a ‘Family Three-Door Super’, the idea of a hatchback version of the Mini, if launched as early as 1968, making it potentially the first mass-production hatchback on the British car market, with potential sales opportunities internationally as competitors, such as the Fiat 127, wouldn’t appear until the 1970s.
Market forces were indeed in favour of this concept, as while the original Mini was seen initially as a quirky first car for new drivers that provided a simple means of road-going escapism, by the end of the 1960s the model had transformed into a viable second car for young families thanks to its mixture of economy, practicality and style, most buyer groups taking possession of the Mini being married couples, with the wife using the Mini for shopping and school runs, while the husband had their own company car, the Mini Clubman, had it come to fruition as a dedicated hatchback, only adding to this growing new appeal for the original Mini without incurring significant developmental costs for an entirely new model.
Unfortunately, the Mini Clubman was being developed at precisely the wrong time for the British Motor Industry, as on January 17th, 1968, the formal announcement of BMC merging with the Leyland Group was made, resulting in a major corporate reshuffle and turbulence within the expansive company as it brought together the various assets and management of each firm, the uneasy union of the two carmakers in May of the same year coinciding with an extremely costly decision by BMC to transfer all Mini assembly from the Cowley Plant in Oxford to the Longbridge factory in Birmingham, so as to make production room for the upcoming Austin Maxi, requiring a complete halt to Mini construction as all tooling and equipment was shipped over the course of several weeks, costing the business a fortune.
Within the wider management, BMC and Leyland’s administrative and executive staff were chopped and changed under the stipulations of the inharmonious merger deal, with the Mini’s original designer, Alec Issigonis, asking to be releived of the many executive responsibilities of his role as BMC’s Technical Director in order to devote himself full-time to more creative and forward-looking concepts of research and development, such as his own Mini replacement, the ill-fated 9X hatchback, while Joe Edwards would remain as Managing Director, and provide the British Leyland Board advice on long-term vehicle research projects in association with body styling, structure, trim and finish executive, Harry Barber, former-Assistant Managing Director of Pressed Steel Fisher, a brand new role of Director of Engineering being occupied by Charles Griffin, and was positioned above Edwards in the British Leyland corporate heirachy, being responsible for all aspects of the corporation’s product engineering work concerned with vehicle mechanical units such as engines, transmission and suspensions, with Griffin’s second, Deputy Director of Engineering Stanley Dews, supporting him in directing the various aspects of product engineering, with special responsibility for the administration of the department and its day-to-day operations.
However, even before British Leyland was formally established in May 1968, disharmony ruled within the executive ranks of the firm, as on April 11th of the same year, Joe Edwards resigned from his position due to the influx of Leyland executives whom he found difficult to work with, while, in October 1968, the company’s first chairman, former BMC Chief Executive, Sir George Harriman, was replaced by former Triumph chairman, Sir Donald Stokes, meaning that, within the course of six months, Haynes, who continued work on the Clubman project, had gone from answering to one executive team to an entirely new one with which he had no experience, the previous ethos of Harriman, who fully supported badge engineering as he considered some markets were more preferential to certain BMC brands over others, being superceeded by Stokes’ own view that badge-engineering had no valid place within the new British Leyland company, meaning the potential for the Clubman to occupy the upmarket Riley and Wolseley brands, or have different trim levels on Austin and Morris versions of the car, were ultimately dropped, followed by the management’s decision to move Haynes’ Styling Studio from Cowley to Longbridge, to which Haynes responded by resigning in February 1969.
Eventually, in May 1969, the first production Mini Clubman saloons were assembled, followed by the first estates in September, and finally a full launch in October 1969, the Mini marque essentially occupying its own place in the British Leyland product list as the use of Austin and Morris badges were abandoned, with the Clubman estate moving in to replace the original Mini Traveller and Countryman, the Clubman range also including the 1275GT, perhaps the most controversial Mini of them all, as it took the role of spiritually replacing the 55hp 998cc Mini Cooper, the 1275GT taking the single carburettor 1.2L engine from the best-selling Austin 1300 saloon and providing 59hp, allowing for superior acceleration to the previous 998cc Cooper, while also being combined with superior equipment, better 7.5inch brakes from the Cooper 1275S, and a single 1½-inch SU carburettor to replace the 998 Coopers twin 1¼-inch SU carburettors that tended to go out of tune if the car was driven hard, leading to many expensive warranty claims from owners who demanded their rectification.
The 1275GT was produced alongside the 1275S Cooper until July 1971, the reception to the discontinuation of this once Monte Carlo rally champion and hero of the Italian Job being of widespread condemnation, although in reality the Cooper had long lost its place in the racing spotlight to the likes of the Ford Escort RS1600, while through a £125 special tuning package provided by British Leyland themselves, the 1275GT could be given the performance of the 1275S, and comprised a polished cylinder head, an extra 1.5-inch SU carburettor, inlet manifold, air filters and distributor, boosting the speed of the car from 87 to 94mph, with a 0-60 mph time jump from 14.2 seconds to an impressive 10 seconds, noticeably better than the outgoing Mini Cooper, although in terms of appearance, while the Mini Cooper was understated in its appearance and easily mistaken for a regular Mini, the 1275GT was very much a product of its era, featuring 10inch Rostyle wheels and go-faster stripes along its sides.
In August 1971, the Mini Clubman went on sale in Australia, replacing the classic as the only version of the Mini available, with buyers on this market being given the choice of the Morris Mini Clubman 1100, which used a locally-made 1.1L engine, and the Clubman GT which had a 1275cc engine, both of these cars retaining hydrolastic suspension until April 1973, while from April 1972 the Morris brand was dropped in Australia and simply replaced with Leyland, thus making it the Leyland Mini Clubman, which, from the following year, were dubbed the plain Mini and Mini S.
In terms of overall popularity, the contentious Clubman’s most successful variant was the estate, as the new nose suited that model’s longer wheelbase better than the saloon’s stumpy body, while its split rear doors put up an impressive fight against the growing trend for hatchbacks due to the regular Clubman, based on British Leyland’s continued hesitancy towards this emerging market, being fitted with the same cramped boot as the original, the Clubman estate, in a manner similar to American station wagons like the Chevrolet Kingswood, being given fake wood trim along the side and rear doors, public opinion of the Mini Clubman overall being that it was a needless distraction from the 1959 classic, despite the fact that, even with its revised styling, the car successfully ironed out many of the faults of the original car, with the enlarged engine bay being a blessing for mechanics who had often complained about the cramped servicing conditions of the previous Mini model.
In 1976, the Clubman range received a facelift, with all variants sporting the same black grille, while the estate dispensed with its fake wood in favour of stick-on stripes, although in light of British Leyland’s bankruptcy the previous year, little major development could be achieved with the Clubman in order to fully realise the machine it was aiming to be, continued calls for the car to be fitted with a hatchback, as well as proposals to take several mechanical improvements from the Austin Allegro, such as a front-mounted radiator, electric fan and disc brakes, together with giving the estate the 1275cc A-Series engine, being dropped in favour of minor tinkering with the styling, meaning that, by the time of the facelift, the car was truly being swamped on the marketplace by the Fiat 127, the Renault 5 and the Ford Fiesta, hatchback models that were far younger and far more practical than either the Clubman or the original Mini.
In the end, though, after years of being largely dismissed by the motoring public, the Clubman attained the same stardom as the Mini Cooper Classic of the previous decade during 1978 and 1979, when a 1275GT, driven by Richard Longman, won the British Touring Car Championship, the car having been modified by his own Longman & Company tuning firm with financial backing from car dealer, Patrick Motors, Longman & Company entering and preparing 1275GTs to be driven by Longman himself and Alan Curnow, the former of whom took ten class wins in twelve races to secure the BTCC title, while the following year saw the 1275GTs having a clean sweep, with Longman taking ten wins and Curnow the other two, Longman winning the championship and the pair taking home the team prize.
Sadly, amid this last minute success, the continuing fiscal collapse of British Leyland meant the Mini Clubman, after eleven years in production, was facing its end under the sweeping reforms of then-new chairman, Sir Michael Edwardes, and in August 1980, the Clubman saloon was axed in favour of the brand new Austin Metro, although the estate would linger on as the 1000HL until 1982, after which the Austin Maestro would fill the gap of a small family hatchback in the product lineup, views at the time of the Clubman’s demise still being as polarising as they’d been upon its launch, with most, in spite of its functional improvements, considering it simply a Mini impersonator that only detracted from the success of the classic original, perhaps the most vocal detractor of the Clubman being Sir Alec Issigonis himself, who didn’t appreciate British Leyland’s botched attempt at replacing his magnum opus, as well as having continued misgivings as to the axing of his own, far more advanced 9X project during 1972.
Since the Clubman finally met its end in 1982, though, appreciation for this car has truly gathered pace, especially in the 1990s, where, thanks to its extra large engine bay, the model made a good frame onto which engine transplants could be performed, a mixture of rock-bottom values, together with an abundance of second-hand examples that could be cannibalised for spaces, meaning that, through the removal of the inner wings, larger engines and end-on five-speed gearboxes could be fitted, with popular powerplant transplants including the insertion of Vauxhall 16v 2-litre engines with iron blocks and alloy heads from the Vauxhall Calibra, or the all-alloy Honda VTEC and Rover K-Series engines, each of which could provide the tiny Clubman with up to 200hp, and set these humble family runabouts on a course for amateur racing success and cheap but cheerful boy racers.
Overall, the Mini Clubman was yet another victim of British Leyland’s disorganised development process, as while the turbulent merger of BMC and the Leyland Group was enough to disrupt any successful car’s design process, it was the hesitancy to invest in hatchback designs, combined with a general ambivalence by the management, that meant the model was cut short from being a great car that could have replaced the original Mini during the early 1970s, to instead being nothing more than a mediocre facelift that failed to reach a majority of the goals intended for it when the project began back in 1967.