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A MINI miracle in Oxford

PUBLISHED: 10:10 29 April 2013 | UPDATED: 10:10 29 April 2013

Production line at The Oxford MINI Plant

Production line at The Oxford MINI Plant

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Nicky Godding interviews Frank Bachmann, Managing Director at the Oxford MINI Plant, as Oxford celebrates 100 years of car manufacturing

In 1913 the first Bullnose Morris Oxford was built at Morris Motors Limited, Cowley.

Forty years later, in the mid 1950s, a young engineer called Alec Issigonis (British, but of Greek descent) who had joined Morris Motors in 1936, designed a car the like of which had never been seen before. Launched by Morris in 1959 the Mini was an almost instant hit.

One hundred years later and cars are still rolling off the production line, which is now dedicated solely to producing a new generation of Minis.

Alec Issigonis was knighted for his achievements. William Morris, the founder of Morris Motors Ltd (not to be confused with the other William Morris of textile and wallpaper fame) went on to become Lord Nuffield, and is also remembered as a great philanthropist and founder of the Nuffield Foundation and Nuffield College, Oxford. His legacy, the Oxford plant is still, over fifty years’ later the heart of Mini production, though since 1994 it has been owned by BMW which knows a thing or two about great cars. Today, the almost 4000 Oxford employees produce five models on the same flexible manufacturing line: The Hatch, Clubman, Convertible, Coupe and Roadster. While the 172-acre Oxford plant is where the bodies are put together and painted, and final assembly takes place, it’s part of a ‘production triangle’ where the new Mini engines are made at Hams Hall in Birmingham and the body pressings and sub assemblies in Swindon.

Since production of the new generation BMW-designed Mini (which goes under the brand of ‘MINI’ in capital letters) started in 2001, more than two million have rolled off the production line. The man responsible for all this is Frank Bachmann, who took over as Managing Director of the Mini Plant Oxford and Swindon last October.

Frank was born in 1961 in Bonn, Germany of Swiss parents. After a completing a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe he became a trainee at BMW’s biggest production facility at Dingolfing, Eastern Bavaria, going overseas for part of his training.

After spending three months with BMW in the United States Frank returned to Dingolfing, and to 5am shifts. “We started early because a lot of workers were also farmers and needed to get out on their land after work.”

From Dingolfing to Rosslyn, BMW’s massive South African production facility and back to Germany, then from 2001 periodically to Oxford where for five years Frank was involved in the preparation and development of the second generation of the new Mini, before he left Oxford to take responsibility for BMW’s worldwide assembly network and planning, this time travelling from Europe to China, South Africa and Mexico. “It was a fascinating time and I experienced a lot of different cultures.” However, his heart had been lost to Oxford because last September when Frank-Peter Arndt, at the time BMW’s board member responsible for worldwide production, asked if he would be interested in running Mini production in the UK, he jumped at the opportunity. For Frank, it was his dream job. “My Christmas and Easter had come on the same day.”

Frank’s family, however, remain in Germany. “It’s difficult, my son is still doing his A-levels. I commute back every three weeks or so, combining it with regular business trips, but my family is used to how I work and in fact we all spent this Easter together in the UK, where the weather was better than in Bavaria.” Frank is also hoping to persuade his son to come to the UK to do a degree at Oxford Brookes University.

So, what are the biggest challenges of running the Oxford Mini Plant? “It’s not the hugeness that makes it challenging, the teams here are excellent. It’s more about understanding cultural differences. In Germany tasks are approached directly. You say what has to be done and get direct feedback. My impression of England is that feedback is more cautious and careful; it’s a kind of friendly politeness that I need to understand to interpret correctly. The US and the UK are similar but in the US you need to be more diplomatic. China, on the other hand, is completely different. There you must gain acceptance of the people, but when you have it they follow you unquestionably and without challenge. That’s OK unless you are not clear about where you want to go, then it can be quite worrying.”

I have wondered why Britain, which doesn’t actually own any sizeable car manufacturing companies any more, is so successful at building and exporting cars for others. Frank thinks it’s because of our history. One of the main issues why cars like the Mini, Rolls Royce (also owned by BMW), Jaguar (Tata Motor Company of India) and Bentley (snapped up by Volkswagon) are still made in England is their iconic designs which have stood the test of time, and our strong automotive heritage. “For us, Oxford is the heart of Mini as much as Munich is the heart of BMW. I could not imagine the Mini coming from anywhere else,” said Frank.

He goes on: “Logistically it is a challenge, you are right. We are sitting on an island with 80 per cent of what we make being exported to other countries (and we are now in 107 markets worldwide), but the UK is still our second biggest market behind the US. Whoever would have expected ten years ago or so that the car the size of a Mini would be successful in the United States? There it’s considered quirky and unique. It can also be one of the most energy-efficient, ‘green’ cars on the market – an increasingly important issue in some of the US’s West Coast cities in particular.”

If you want a Mini that exceeds all the requirements for CO2 emissions, you can have one. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to. The John Cooper Works, which Frank drives, is the racing version of the car, though it’s still low CO2 emissions when compared to the competition.

With all this celebration of the Mini it’s evident that Frank loves the car as much as his job, but it’s important to remember that the car being produced today is not the same one driven by Michael Caine in the 1969 classic film, The Italian Job. You couldn’t put the classic Issigonis-designed Mini on the road now, and probably a good thing too. They were very small and too easy to drive badly. I speak from personal experience as I’ve got history with the classic Mini. I learned to drive in one, passed my test in another, caused damage to my mother’s soon after when I got up close and personal with the main school gates at Shrewsbury School while living at home. On moving to the Cotswolds, I inadvertently parked my last one in a ditch on a country lane near Bibury. However, I love Minis and would buy another tomorrow – and drive it better too.

Today’s Mini draws on the legacy of its classic predecessor in the body style and driving instruments (the big centre dials are still there), wrapped up in a state of the art car with all the safety features and gadgets that customers expect today.

Apparently purchasers can also individualise their car. According to Frank, any colour, trim, equipment or body style can be incorporated into the final car. “No-one needs have the same car, that’s what makes a Mini special.”

This customisation means that fifty per cent of Mini parts are sourced within the UK because customers can change their minds about what they want up until seven days before the car is produced. This must be a headache for those running the production line? If every car is different, surely it’s stop-start all day? Not so, according to Frank. “We organise our workforce so that line associates focus on what they have to do. Today the line operation is 50 per cent brainwork and 50 per cent physical work.”

This makes working on a car production line sound more interesting than I had imagined, and BMW has made a long-term commitment to the Oxford Mini Plant, which is very good news for Oxfordshire’s economy and future workforce. In 2011/2 the German manufacturer announced that it would invest three quarters of a billion pounds in the UK production triangle. Additionally, investment in people is also a priority; “We have 136 apprentices working in the production triangle and will take 45 more on board over the next months,” explains Frank. “But it’s also about providing young people with the right skills. In November last year, as a result of BMW’s commitment to training at Oxford, I was privileged to be able to open our own apprentices workshop here on site that has state of the art equipment on which they can learn. We will offer a high level tailor-made qualification and can train people in the OEM skills we need.”

Having travelled the world, Frank’s two favourite places are Germany, where his family lives, and England. “They are both safe places with great cultures. I’ve spent some time in unsafe places such as Mexico and South Africa and if safety wasn’t an issue then South Africa is the most fantastic country in the world. I had two phases there, in 1982 under deep Apartheid and in 1991 after Nelson Mandela had been freed, there was hope there then that is now more difficult to find.”

With his family in Germany, how does Frank spend his downtime in the UK? “I’ve only been here a few months so I’m still working a lot at the moment but as well as driving my John Cooper Works convertible, I love riding motorbikes. After a stressful week, a ride through the Alps, or the Black Forest is perfect on my BMW R 1200 GS, so this year I’m planning on discovering Britain that way too.”

Frank, just remember, as they said in The Italian Job: “In this country they drive on the wrong side of the road.” n

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