Big Is Good. If It’s Small

As the advertising gurus working on behalf of Mitre 10 Mega are keen to remind us, big is good. And in many aspects of life, the grand certainly does tend to eclipse the diminutive. Not too many headlines are made about people celebrating small lottery wins, Hollywood blockbusters are rarely made about the lives of small-time celebrities and in the entire history of the internet the number of spam e-mails featuring promises of a reduced gentleman’s department totals precisely zero.

So you would imagine the boys and girls at Audi would have been delighted this week when the 10,000,000th example of the 80/A4 model rolled off the production line at their Ingolstadt plant. But seeing as the celebration largely consisted of making a grunt from the shop floor hold up a hastily assembled sign up in front of the vehicle which took them through the milestone – which, despite being the sporty S4 version, was essentially no different to any of the others – it seems not.

A sign of the times

I would like to think that thanks to their inherently sensible Teutonic nature, the four-ringed wonders had actually worked out that their ‘achievement’ was really nothing much to shout about; after all, despite some badge familiarity, they hadn’t made ten million of the same car.

Any claim that the current S4 is in some way linked to the original 80 which clunked and whirred its way out of the factory in 1966 is nothing short of ridiculous. The performance, safety and comfort are so many leagues apart, that the only real connection between the two is that they perform the same basic function. And that is like BAE Systems celebrating a billion Challenger Tanks because they’ve counted all the horses and elephants that served as heavy weaponry in wars before technology came along.

Yet over the years manufacturers have proved that if you manage to make a car which is just that little bit special, there is absolutely no need to make any changes at all to keep sales figures healthy. Even if the car you’ve made is complete rubbish to start with.

The Volkswagen Beetle sold over 21 million examples and become the darling of people who like to spend their spare time combining a complete disregard for mechanical ability with delusions of being a hippie. Just about everything you could care to mention about the Beetle is, in some way, incredibly awful. The handling is woeful; it’s crude, noisy, and uncomfortable and has performance that didn’t really set the world alight in 1945, let alone 2003 when someone finally had the sense to kill it once and for all.

A sign of the timeless

But much as I loathe the Beetle for what it is, I admire it for what it has achieved. Despite the myriad of faults, flaws and technical abominations, it has an almost magical aura that ensures people cannot approach it without a sense of peace and love, man.

Yet there is a car that has managed to foster an equally fanatical cult following and show a similar disdain for evolution, but also be free of the Beetle’s dynamic shortcomings; the Mini.

In terms of sales figures, the Mini can’t hold a candle to the Beetle – or even the various incarnations of mid sized Audi’s that Gunther and his sign were celebrating this week – but as a car it is quite simply unsurpassed in the balance it managed to achieve by being both technically brilliant and rammed full of charisma simultaneously. While the Beetle’s charm is largely limited to the moments when it’s stationary, Alec Issigonis’ masterstroke only really comes to life once you got behind the wheel.

Sure it’s a cutesy little thing to look at, but point it at a twisty road and a whole new animal comes to life – even in the most basic of formats a Mini will delight you in its terrier-esque ability to hustle along, chase down and terrorise bigger, more cumbersome vehicles. It’s an intoxicating experience even today, which is incredible for a car that first saw the light of day 14 years before colour television was introduced to New Zealand.

By selling a mere 5 million examples, the Mini could easily be considered a trifle in a world that has seen 35 million Corollas pass through Toyota’s various showrooms. Yet as anyone who has ever driven one will testify, it may be a small car but absolutely none has ever been bigger.

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