Mini: Room for five in the back.

The drive to automotive

In keeping with GKN’s history of innovation and re-invention, the 1960s witnessed a hugely significant move into the automotive industry – which would lead to today’s position at the forefront of the automotive components industry.

In 1966, Raymond Brookes – who had become chairman of GKN the previous year – completed the takeover of the Birfield automotive components group. Birfield’s main business was propshafts, but within its portfolio were two companies making constant velocity joints (CVJs): Hardy Spicer in the UK, and Uni-Cardan, based in West Germany but with interests in France and Italy.

Constant velocity joint

CVJs were revolutionising the motor industry, enabling the new generation of front-wheel drive cars – including the iconic Mini. As a result, GKN’s automotive business emerged for the first time as a major force in the group, accounting for approximately one-third of sales by the end of the 1960s.

But most of these sales were to the UK motor industry, which limped into the 1970s, bedevilled by strikes and falling competitiveness. The years 1973/74 were a nightmare, with the first oil price shock quadrupling oil prices while a three-day working week was introduced in Britain to save power when the miners went on strike.

As GKN’s UK businesses struggled, Uni-Cardan – in which the group took majority control in 1971 – kept the company afloat. Nevertheless, in 1980 the group made the first loss in its history.

GKN fought through the downturn, laying down foundations for fresh growth: opening plants in the US, expanding in Europe and, crucially, forging close links with all of Japan’s leading vehicle makers.

A wave of global investments followed: in Brazil, Mexico, India, Australia, South Africa, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and, in 1989, China – as the driveline business created a global network and cemented its market leadership.

Small car, big stars

Mini and Sixties fashion

The Mini was an icon of the Swinging Sixties. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison of The Beatles all owned Minis and a famously psychedelic one appeared in their Magical Mystery Tour movie. Many other 1960s stars drove Minis, including Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, Marianne Faithfull, Steve McQueen and even Enzo Ferrari. In 1969, the Mini was arguably the star of The Italian Job featuring Michael Caine. Away from the world of celebrity, the Mini was a successful rally car and is famed for its pioneering use of CVJs and front wheel drive. A total of 5.4 million Minis were made between 1959 and 2000.


1961 Yuri Gagarin first man in space

1969 First moon landing

1970 Jumbo jet made maiden commercial flight

Music: 1960
Beatlemania swept the world – changing music history and driving crowds wild
Other sources of information
The Mini (Channel 4)
The National Motor Museum Beaulieu
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