BMW's assembly line in Oxford has just produced its 1.5 millionth Mini. Can Detroit do the same?

The Detroit automakers often complain that no one wants small cars. However, news out of BMW this week makes a persuasive argument that if they can build one, folks will buy it.

Since BMW revived the Mini brand in 2001,1.5 million of the sporty subcompacts have rolled off the assembly lineat the company’s facility in Oxford, U.K. Sales of the car have been rising in every market, and the Mini is now sold in 80 countries.

If those stats don’t turn heads, how about this: The lowest end Mini starts at $20,000! Surely the suits in Detroit can get fired up about that.

The BMW Group has invested more than $610 million in the Oxford assembly plant since 2001, and a further $160 million in plants in nearby Hams Hall and Swindon, which produce engines and stampings, respectively, for the Mini. All totalled, BMW employs more than 7,000 people in the U.K. and its activities account for around 1 percent of the country’s GDP.

Coincidentally, the Mini marked its 50th anniversary in May. When the original vehicle is included, total global sales for the brand amount to 6.8 million cars since 1959.

The Oxford facility now assembles some 240,000 Minis per year. The assembly line was recently extended to accommodate just-in-sequence delivery areas that bring greater flexibility and efficiency.

There are 372 different interior trim and 319 different exterior options for the Mini. Allowing for all variant possibilities, it is theoretically possible to produce 15 quadrillion different Mini variants.

The allocation of a vehicle to a specific customer order first takes place at the start of final assembly. Painted bodies are considered logistically as an internal component supplied from within the plant. They are kept in temporary storage and channeled into the assembly process as soon as there is an order for one. A vehicle identification number is allocated to an order relatively late in the process, which allows for customer changes to be implemented until shortly before the start of assembly.

Fifteen main modules are delivered just-in-sequence to the assembly line. These modules include the engines, the complete front module with headlights, bumpers and cooling systems, the integrated door module, seats and cockpit.

During final assembly, the doors are first detached and moved to a separate assembly line, before returning to the car to be reattached at the end of the assembly process. Associates mount as many as 2,000 components on each Mini, depending on the options ordered. Using special handling equipment, even heavy components can be lifted easily and rotated up to 90 degrees. Precise, torque-controlled electric screwdrivers ensure quality and reduce the noise level in the assembly hall.

Numerous quality tests are integrated into the assembly process. Associates are equipped with portable, wireless handheld computers, which identify each vehicle by scanning its VIN. The computer then prescribes specific tests for that vehicle.

You can read more about BMW’s UK production facilitieshere.