To Denmark by mini: driving the 10 millionth mini Lego model

10 Millionth Mini to Lego House

The ten millionth mini arrives at Lego House

To mark a milestone, we go to the Great Brit Dog built in a similar spirit of inventive, fun design

So here we are, then. About 60 years after visionary auto designer and all-round car hero Sir Alec Issigonis decided it would be a very smart idea to mount a four-cylinder engine transversely into the nose of his new compact, fuel-efficient city car, photographer Luke Lacy, and I find myself looking – somewhat apprehensively, I might add – the bright green example of this car is a modern-day descendant.

The car in question is a mini. Of course it is. How can it be anything else? And this mini isn't just any mini, either: this 10 millionth mini built from the now defunct British Motor Corporation launched the genre-defining, complete original in 1959. In particular, it's a limited-run 189bhp Cooper s in the 60 Years Edition, which seems pretty handy considering it also happens to be the 10 millionth mini. Did I mention that in the 10 millionth mini? This is the 10 millionth mini. Can you see the stickers on the car? Hard to miss, right?

Anyway, back in 1959 the MINI brand didn't officially exist in its own right, the BMK marketing Issigonis is a revolutionary model under its Austin and Morris brands like the Seven and Mini Minor respectively. It has been known by several names since the mini-brand itself was already passed from keeper to keeper before finally finding its current home at BMW in the late 1990s.

But a mini-story that has been told 10 million times. Both Lacey and I had not yet arrived by car at the South West London road test base for what could be described, politely, as 'very cold' on a November morning for history class. No, our task is different. Epic European trip. One thing to do - everything is going according to plan - to pay homage to what is an iconic car, with an iconic brand in an iconic year.

The plan is simple: take the mini to Monaco and follow the route of the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. Actually, no, it's not. I'm just kidding. It's a good trip, which no doubt will be, also a bit, well, predictable, and for this trip, we wanted to do something a little different. A little off the wall. So instead of crossing the channel and immediately making a desperate dash south for the invitingly warm climate of the French Riviera, we'll continue east before undercutting a little to the left and heading north. Quite a long way north.

Our location is in the small town of Billund in Denmark, the home of another company whose focus on compact, original design and an inherent sense of humor and character has seen it become a much-loved household name in its own right – just like a mini. That the Lego company, a well-known manufacturer of brick-based self-assembly toys, whose forms are only limited by the breadth of your imagination. Considering it's been around since 1932, I bet you've probably heard of it.

The plan was to drive from London to the Lego house in Billund to look at its creations and photo shoot, then turn around and drive back to London again - all within three days. Taking two overnight breaks in the German city of Bremen into account, Google Maps puts our trip at just over 1500 miles in total. That's a hell of a long way to go in any vehicle, let alone a mini-car that doesn't always deserve praise for a soothing, comforting ride. Perhaps you can see where that aforementioned concerns might be.

But with the Eurotunnel train, click on we must; which is exactly what we do when the tiny back seats were folded up to make room for Lacy's vast collection of camera equipment. Funny, this process provides a rather bitter reminder that although the mini has grown over the years, its basic design has remained pretty much the same. Its transverse engine layout allows the wheels to be positioned towards its extremities, which in turn frees up cabin space for passengers - as long as the load remains fairly small.

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Today, the end result may not be as groundbreakingly effective as it was in 1959. Increasingly strict security requirements and increased customer appetites for how many bells and whistles have made them appropriate bits to bloat in size and take up a lot of space (you didn't even get straps on the original), but the overall plan remains unmistakably mini. That's the price of progress, I guess.

However, the jump down to Folkestone and Calais via the Eurotunnel is quite painless. Impressively supportive mini child seats - upholstered here in attractive special edition brown leather - do well to ward off any pain, while seat heaters quickly neutralize winter's chill.

Complaints at the moment are very limited, too. The firm-edged ride hasn't proven to be problematic yet, though I haven't quite warmed up to the seven-speed dual-clutch yet. It can be a little too slow thinking, shy when I would prefer a quick lower for a quick maneuver. Given the choice, I would go for the standard six-speed manual without thinking about it. But virtually all of the trips we have yet to come – and much of that on potentially congested motorways and autobahns – I'm nonetheless grateful for the dual-clutch gearbox's ease of use. Like my left leg.

After all, we clear the vast, relatively lackluster farming plains of northern France and Belgium, and were soon advancing on the German frontier from the Netherlands. A quick driver change just before we crossed over to Germany puts Lacy at the wheel and gives me a much needed rest, right to heaven time to open and spin one of the heaviest floods I think I've ever seen. Thankfully, the mini remains steadfastly unflummoxed all the way to our hotel in Bremen, but the rain scuppers any attempt to make the most of the autobahn restrictions.

By the time we wake up in the cold, gray dawn of the second day of our journey, the rain has picked up. Except briefly with the Autobahnpolizei, this allows for rapid progress to be made in Denmark. The mini 2.0-liter four-pot proves to be powerful enough not to be rudely shown on the autobahn and it won't get too strong in the ear when cruising at speeds between 100 mph and 130 mph, either.

After about four hours on the road, we roll into Billund and arrive at the Lego house. Despite coming up somewhat unexpectedly, the all-charming Lacey manages to chat his way into the mini-parking lot on the tarmac over a few latches in front of the building and a chance encounter with Trine Nissen - head of communications for Lego House - leads to a fascinating and highly entertaining, impromptu tour of the this Mecca is not enough for all things.

In addition to an impressive set of Lego-based designs (the tree of creativity' highlight, made up of over six million pieces and standing 15 meters tall), Nissen sheds light on how the Lego company became the global success it is today.

Not surprisingly, company founder Ole Kirk Christiansen's decision to introduce interlocking plastic building bricks alongside the company's existing wooden toy line-up plays a key role. However, these original bricks are hollow, which limits their structural integrity and versatility. A solution was soon found, although like all great projects to be fixed, it was delightfully simple: a series of cylindrical reinforcing tubes was added to the interior with each new brick. Lego is a patented concept, and the rest, as they say, is history. And with photos in the bag, so too is our time in Billund.

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Back in Bremen, we wake up on the third and final day of our journey to find a thick, liquid fog swept across the city like a ghostly curtain. The weather once again seems to be doing its best to work against us. On the Autobahn, visibility is virtually non-existent, and we have limited ourselves to a more conservative pace. However, the mini takes will get the job done.

As we press on through the haze and cross into the wonderfully sunny Netherlands, leisurely back to Calais and back to the UK, I can't help but be amused by the similarities between Issigonis and Christiansen. Both men were pioneers of their kind, and teams of smart people whose respective creations continued to inspire leagues of imitators. Whether they would have succeeded in real life, I don't know; but, of course, there is some degree of mutual respect for the simple engineering and thoughtful design that helped drive the success of the other's brainchild.

During our time at Billund, Nissen noted that six identical 2x4 Lego bricks could be combined to create 915,103,765 different permutations. Obviously the mini can't take on so many forms, but that doesn't mean it hasn't sprouted permutations of its own over the course of its 60 year life. In 2019 alone, we have mini-club, countryman and convertible models, and likes coupe and than in recent years. We can have fast Minis, too, as can the little ones who have become motorsport icons (Monte Carlo Rally, who?).

Over time, however, both companies will face even greater changes, driven in no small part by shifting environmental concerns. The long-awaited mini-electric will appear early next year as one answer and Lego will have to come to terms with the possibility that the non-degradable plastic on which so many of its products are made may well fall out of fashion.

That said, it doesn't look like both companies don't have the form to come up with clever, often beautifully simple solutions to complex problems. Given the inherent creativity that led them to success, I'm sure both will be around for some time.

How to build your own mini

Lego has partnered with a number of car manufacturers over the years to launch bricks based on ideas from some of its most famous models and the mini is no exception.

Under its Expert series creator, LEGO launched it on the Mini Cooper Mk7 – a car that, when production ceased in 2000, represented the end of the line for the original Mini. This model is made up of 1077 parts and is finished in British Racing Green. Its hood is raised to reveal a detailed engine and the seats have been made to look like they were finished in patchwork-style upholstery. It even came with a picnic basket - not unlike the original car.

Today, under its Speed ​​of Champions series, Lego has recreated the Monte Carlo Rally-winning 1967 Mini Cooper S as well as the 2018 Mini John Cooper Rally Buggy works. Both are included in one 481-set.

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