The MINI Plant Tour is an incredible experience for anyone with an interest in MINIs. It's absolutely a must for any owner. The tour was put on a brief hiatus as the plant retooled for the cabrio but is again open for business as of just a few weeks ago. The tour has become so popular since that I was told it's booked solid until June! So if you're planning a trip to the UK and want to experience it first hand I'd recommend giving a call or sending them asap. You can find out more in this recent article: MINI Plant Tours.
The tour started with a look at the final production stage of the MINI. We first saw cars coming off the line and progressively went backwards in the life of the cars. We were able to see the “associates” (MINI-speak for plant worker) fitting the final trim to the interior of the cars.
The Cabrio had just started going down the line last Tuesday and the first customer cars were be produced Thursday. I was able to check many out in various stages of completion. The roof comes in crated and pre-assembled for installation. It's made by a company called Oasys right in the UK.
A handful of associates seemed to be having quite an intensive discussion about one silver Cooper Cabrio going down the assembly line right at the point there the roof is raised. I could be wrong but I thought I heard some German accents mixed in with some English ones during this exchange – something I found throughout the Plant visit.
While I did manage to see about every Cooper Cabrio color variation I didn't see any MCS convertibles going down the assembly line. However from what I gathered final production test vehicles should soon be on the roads so they should be in the factory in the not too distant future.
The parts for the cars are delivered in what are essentially crates and then installed into each MINI as they pass down the line. Every MINI gets a print out of it's full spec telling each associate what are the appropriate options for each car. In the case of larger items like wheels they travel in a separate line and meet up with their appropriate car at the time of installation. Really quite an intricate process that is amazing to watch.
The MINI is such an individual car that production tends to be quite unique. For instance the dash is brought in completely assembled with all the appropriate options. MINI found early on it would be nearly impossible to create it on the line since there are over 4 million possible configurations (on the dash alone!).
Quality control at the plant is rigorous and taken very seriously. 10% of all cars are tested every day and those results are scrutinized to find out if there are any issues with the production process or parts going into the cars.
There was both a Red Cabrio and a Silver hatchback in the quality control area. They had been pulled off the line to assess the overall workmanship and quality of the components. They were located in a walled off area just beyond the final assembly point. There were graphs and charts of all kinds showing data associated with what seemed to be weekly and daily production. They also had taken photos of past problem areas and posted them on the walls for examples to compare to. It was all fairly obvious stuff like (gaps between interior pieces for example) but it was really nice to see that level of detail achieved in a sub 20k car.
The US cars were very easily recognized as they are the only ones with the front and rear side reflectors and turn signals. I happened to notice one particular US bound Red/White MCS that was specced without any options whatsoever. I happen to take particular notice of the interior being fitted and the doors bring installed. Whoever the eventual owner of this MINI would be (for that matter all MINIs) happy to note that the associate doing the work was particularly careful with the installation of the interior trimming. It was really something to watch because while it could be considered a monotonous task they all took their time and seemed to be paying close attention to detail.
MINI has also made quite a few production and spec Improvements over three years. The MINI production and interior fittings (as many of us with early cars may realize) has been an evolving process. For instance the heat shield was recently altered to eliminate a faint rattle sound that seemed to be coming from deep within the dash. What they found was as the car heated up it the shield expanded and allowed it to waver very slightly. This created what sounded like a small rattle at certain times. A slight angle change to the bend of the heat shield has since cured this issue. From an owners point of view it's really nice to know that MINI is constantly finding ways to improve the production process and as a result the cars.
Speaking with an employee who had had 15 MINIs in three years as corporate cars he completely agreed. He said new cars have many unseen improvements that in sum make the newer MINIs feel just slightly more solid. It's something that anyone who has a 2001/2002 feels when the drive a new MINI.
Those that I spoke with in the know at the plant had no news on a new windshield coming to alleviate the cracking and pitting issues many of us have experienced. That being said they wouldn't really know until the design had been completed and the production about the start.
According to several long time employees I spoke with, associates have generally found BMW to be very committed to them and the plant as a whole. This is something that they hadn't always seen with previous owners of the plant. Further they are excited by the committment, product, and attention to quality. I was told also that they seem to really take pride in the product and are very excited and proud at the overall success it has achieved. Again all good things to hear from an owners point of view. Of course this point was also obvious when you look at the number of new MINIs in the car parks surrounding the plant.
The plant at Oxford once employed over 28,000 locals in it's heyday and parts of it are over 100 years old. It's manufactured everything from Rolls Royce to the BMW engineered Rover 75 in the late 90's. Even though it's a shadow of it former self at around 4000 employees, the surrounding area seems to take quite a bit of pride in the fact that the MINI is made locally.
That being said, according to a source at the plant one of the hardest things for MINI is finding enough qualified people in the surrounding area to actually work there. Apparently unemployment is rather low right now in some parts of Oxfordshire and finding skilled workers isn't as easy as one would think.
In the second portion of the tour we saw MINI's being welded and riveted together. While less exciting than the final production stages it did offer an interesting glimpse into what's underneath it all. The Cabrio for example has three millimeter thick lower side frames (located just below the doors) as oppose to approximately one millimeter for the standard 3 door MINI. I actually could see and feel the difference as they had both models with no interior or exterior fittings in the front of this portion of the plant available for hands on inspection.
Here's a few miscellaneous observations form the tour:
- The average car take 24 hours to produce – unless there's a roof decal. In that case it take much longer to make sure the roof fully cures and dries.
- The tour guides were very consious of who is in the plant. We even had to wear tape over all rings to reduce the possibility of any scratches.
- My lord Electric Blue Cooper's must be very popular in other parts of the world – I saw a ton of them during my tour.
Unfortunately MINI doesn't allow cameras into the tour other than the welcome center. While I could have easily snuck some pics with my trusty Pentax Optio S4 I wanted to fully respect our hosts and abide by their wishes. However I did manage to snap some shots of the exterior and welcome center. You can check them out here.
The MINI plant tour is simply a must for any MINI enthusiast. It not only has made me look at MINIs a little differently but also made me understand more fully what goes into the production process of our cars. It's highly recommended to anyone living in the UK or traveling there in the near future.