Inspired to max by Mini
Sixty years on from his first trip in a Mini, Campbell Spray is inspired by meeting one of its new engineers as the iconic brand goes on an electric journey
Sometimes you just want to be inspired and when it happens it's a truly wonderful thing. Sixty years ago, the inventor father of a friend did that by taking me out in the new Mini. Last Tuesday, I was back in Britain and met another man, this time an Irishman half my age, who had such enthusiasm for life and cars that he could be the inspiration for a whole generation.
It is hard to believe that the Mini celebrates its 60th birthday later this year. My friend's father was what we call today an "early adopter". He was the first person to buy a Mini in our village and I remember the sheer thrill of being taken for a spin along the first few stretches of an unfinished motorway.
The almost go-kart-like experience of being whizzed along in a tiny car just inches from the ground has never left me and the Mini in all its different forms and developments remains one of my favourite vehicles. I owned one and fell in love in another.
So I was pretty excited to be visiting the central assembly facility for Mini at Plant Oxford, which is where William Morris started manufacturing car bodies in 1926. Now three shifts a day, five days a week of 3,000 or so "associates", as BMW calls its workers, and 430 robots turn out 1,000 cars a day and more than 220,000 a year. Each robot costs about £50,000, will work for 15 years and replaces seven people.
The technology, quality care and attention to detail was impressive. It only cemented my love for the car which was even more reinforced by then driving, with a few of my colleagues, three special 60th anniversary cars - two in the traditional British Racing Green - to Liverpool to catch the ferry back to Dublin Port.
Even the appalling traffic on M6 as we headed north couldn't dampen my enthusiasm, although it was deeply frustrating at times not to be able to have some long stretches of open road so the car could really take off.
The massive traffic jams and miles of bumper-to-bumper lorries did hit home about the size of the British economy and secondly the major problem the world has with such amounts of polluting vehicles out on our roads every day.
We faced into these jams after hearing about the production of the new electric Mini, which will begin to be assembled at Cowley's Plant Oxford later this year for first sales next March.
It sounds an exciting project. The extra weight of the batteries should give the car an even more stable and confident feel. Full details won't be announced until next month but first indications are a good drive with some innovatory dynamics, although range of less than 200km could be a factor. The inside room and comforts haven't been compromised by the battery.
One of the leaders on the electric mini project is James Redmond from Dundalk. To give him his full title, 35-year-old James is Product Integration Engineer responsible for the Mini BEV with the BMW Group, and he just exudes bright-eyed enthusiasm.
As a child, James loved to sketch, design and make things. He was always fascinated by nature, machines and generally how things worked. As he says himself, "a car to me quickly became the embodiment of most of these interests".
And this is where it gets interesting in a world where young people are eschewing apprenticeships and opting for universities and college, often unwisely.
Shunning his parents' ideas for him, James decided that getting his hands on the nuts and bolts of cars was a better fit at the time for him than university. After high school in 2001, he began an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic with a Renault dealership. Renault bothered him to his soul - "You saw a lot of stuff that was bad quality that trickled down throughout the ranges".
But strangely enough the French car maker's legendary then unreliability stood James in good stead. He quickly got his hands dirty and had to do so many jobs and fix a variety of problems that wouldn't have happened with other marques.
Four years later and with a Merit qualification in his overall pocket, he moved to a BMW dealership in Kells which he says was "an amazing place and greatly broadened my horizons" especially working for an owner who encouraged his development. While at a training course at Plant Oxford, he spoke to some mechanical engineers and soon found out that this was the path he wanted to follow.
Having completed his apprenticeship through Dundalk Institute of Technology, it seemed like the best place to begin and he started there in September 2009. "Eight years working as a mechanic along with my hobbies and interests had given me a very deep understanding of the core mechanical engineering subjects and this helped me to excel."
And without boasting, he matter of factly says that he held the highest grades throughout his time there and graduated from DKIT with 1:1 in his ordinary degree and won the President's Prize for student of the year as he had the highest grades in the college (89pc) average.
A "great lecturer" advised him to apply to Trinity College Dublin where he completed his honours degree and master's. And he even had time to make it on to the Colours Rowing Team which beat UCD on the Liffey in 2015.
He began with BMW in Oxford in October 2015, moved to Munich in March 2016 and spent time working in Powertrain Validation for BMW M.
Then three years ago this September, he began working in the development of the Mini E Project as Product Integrator for Engine Compartment. He returned to Oxford last October ahead of the first cars being built.
James says "this journey to date has been a case of dreaming about an idea, working hard and making it happen".
He added: "Watching the Mini E come to life through all stages of virtual design and validation, through individual hardware trials on parts to minor assemblies and on to full prototype builds to now see it camouflaged and driven by test departments all over the world, is deeply satisfying and fulfilling.
"The timing of the electric Mini is perfect. It still has all the Mini excitement but the delivery is so different."
You can't help but be enthused by James's passion and commitment and that doesn't stop at the factory floor. As he says, "training has also always played a huge part in my life".
This involved playing competitive badminton from childhood, long mountain walks with family and friends every weekend to lifting weights daily since his teens, rowing, and more recently running marathons for charity. And in November this year following the launch of the electric Mini, James will travel to Las Vegas to run the marathon there.
If you love Minis, a trip to Plant Oxford at Cowley is a real must and the tour is lots of fun and superbly informative.
Hopefully you will see James there and understand why apprenticeships and getting your hands dirty can be the real foundation of a massively successful career. It was great meeting him.
In fact my visit turned out to be a day to remember. Not only did I see Minis being built, talk to real Mini heads and drive a Mini, but we ended up in The Hard Day's Night hotel in Liverpool and visited the famous Cavern club. There was also a match in town. Poor old Barcelona.
What a day, what a night. You couldn't make it up but it's a great start to another 60 years of Minis.
Talking to Austin Behan, the man in charge of Mini in Ireland, I heard that half the people who buy Minis do so at the basic price, while the other 50pc head into the stratosphere with the option packs which can almost double the price. I'd go for the former, experience the fun, forget the fripperies.