BMW to accelerate through Brexit crunch at electric Mini plant

German automaker BMW will move ahead with plans to produce an electric version of its iconic Mini at a factory in Oxford from November, despite potential post-Brexit chaos in importing key components from the Continent.

While the e-Mini will be put together at the Cowley site, which employs around 4,500 people and already builds the conventionally fuelled Mini, the drivetrain — a crucial part transferring power to the car's wheels — will still be imported from southern Germany.

That means any problems with shipping parts from the Continent after a possible no-deal Brexit on 31 October could impact BMW's ability to deliver the vehicle in large numbers. Company officials have previously hinted at plans to move some production of the conventional Mini to the Netherlands depending on the terms of Brexit, but for now executives are sticking with the e-Mini Oxford plan.

"The November start of production date [has] been in the plan for years and from long before the Brexit deadline reset, so this is no more than a coincidence," Graham Biggs, a UK-based BMW director, told POLITICO, adding that BMW would "have to work around" any potential disruption caused by a disorderly Brexit on 31 October.

The e-Mini is a key component of BMW's broader electric shift, which was recently ramped up to include at least 25 new models by 2023. Around 45,000 customers have registered interest in buying the car, according to Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, almost half of whom are in the UK. 

At present, BMW imports about €2bn worth of car parts into the U.K. from the EU every year to feed its production. In advance of the previously expected Brexit date of 29 March, BMW scheduled an annual maintenance shutdown to mitigate any expected disruption at major import terminals around 1 April, a feat it doesn't plan to repeat this time.

BMW Customs Manager Stephan Freismuth said earlier this year that stockpiling beyond just a few days would not be feasible either. "We are producing ‘just in time,’ and just in sequence,” Freismuth said.

BMW's outgoing CEO Harald Krüger has called for a meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss Brexit and to mitigate any risk, while his incoming replacement, Oliver Zipse, is a former plant manager in Oxford.

Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based automotive analyst, reckons BMW might benefit from any loss of value of the pound and if things get really bad, it may choose to start "clandestinely shifting more production to the EU" and maintain just a modest output in the UK to serve the local market.

"The problem for BMW is that [the Mini's] heritage and DNA belongs well and truly to the UK," said Schmidt. "So the option to up sticks and shift the facility to mainland Europe doesn't necessarily come into question."