Welcome to my two-part article celebrating 60 years of the mini, first here we will look at the creation of the mini, followed by it's years in the classic format. The next article will go on to look at the BMW era and the ownership prospect in modern times. Enjoy...
Alec Issigonis and his team created the first prototype Mini back in 1957, with production commencing in 1959. This answer to the oil crisis of the 50's would go on to set the standard layout for front-wheel drive hatchbacks, with even modern-day cars taking lessons and principles learned from the original Mini and its engineers.
The mini's blend of practicality, performance and charming looks meant it never looked out of place. Despite initial slow sales, the Mini soon caught on and sold in its millions. The Mini, alongside the Beetle stands as one of the automotive industries great leaps forward in design and engineering. The British icon has been exported to nearly every country in the world and was the go-to car for entire generations, particularly in the UK where it entertains a cult classic status.
The Mini has seen so many changes over the past 60 years that the current car is almost indistinguishable from the original. The latest car is now produced by German brand BMW as well as being around twice the weight, much larger in every dimension and placed in an entirely different sector when compared to the original. So how did this icon come to be? How has it changed over the years? And how does it stand up in the modern market?
How it came to be
The Mini was produced in part thanks to the Suez Crisis in 1956. Without going into detail, this crisis was essentially a war that caused shortages of oil supplies and rationing in the UK. This led to a drop in large car sales as the needs of motorists was forced towards smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. At the time, the only suitable small car available was the BMW bubble car, which, in all honesty, was fairly terrible and horribly impractical. The Fiat 500 launched in 1957, this car found much more success and went on to sell in huge numbers, particularly in its native Italy.
It was in this oil-short market that the British Motor Company and its president Leonard Lord saw their opportunity. They needed to quickly design and bring to market a small car, one that could provide good fuel efficiency but could also prove practical and usable every day. To this end, Alec Issignosis and his small team of no more than 10 engineers set about the task of designing a new small vehicle, with some difficult limitations. Lord decided that the car was to be no more than 10 feet in length, 6 feet of which had to be saved for passenger occupancy and the car had to use an existing production engine.
Alec and his team worked hard to quickly develop such a vehicle, based on his current work on a project labelled XC9003. The first prototype was available by July 1957, with Lord approving the car to go to production.
The team had used some simple but genius design features to ensure the Mini was as compact as possible. This included mounting the existing BMC 4-cylinder A-series engine transversely and mounting an engine oil-lubricated gearbox within the engines sump; this meant that the gearbox and engine took up minimal space, shortening the engine bay. The use of front-wheel drive also saved space thanks to the lack of extra drive shaft and differential. This process of transversely mounted engines on front-wheel drive vehicles is still used to this day.
The Mini's size was also helped by its innovative rubber cone suspension system. This new concept took up much less space compared to traditional springs, utilising the progressive-rate of the cones, this created a bumpier ride but decreased body roll. The new suspension system, together with the small lightweight wheels was responsible for the Mini's go-kart like handling.
There were other neat features too. The doors were made of a single skin with bracing on the inside that was used as an internal storage feature. This gave the doors extra rigidity without compromising passenger elbowroom, the same was done for the rear seats. The boot meanwhile was hinged at the bottom to allow longer loads to be carried, adding further practicality. The externally mounted hinges on the doors and boot lid allowed for quick and easy assembly of the cars, minimising build costs and complexity.
Climbing to the Top of the Pile
The Mini was launched in almost 100 countries across the globe in August 1959. The car had various nameplates, some Austin 850/ Austin Seven and some Morris Mini-Minor but underneath was exactly the same car.
The Mini, after slow initial, soon rose to fame through the 60's. The cars mixture of charming personality and excellent practicality (and fuel efficiency) made it a hit, especially in countries afflicted with oil shortages. The low price made it affordable to working class families, while it charming looks and excellent drive meant that people rich and poor went out and bought the Mini in their thousands. This cross-class ownership led to the Mini being labelled as the 'classless car', nobody would be embarrassed to be seen in a Mini.
The mini was further popularised through TV and film, famously appearing in the 1969 Italian Job film. The cars sales were sky rocketing but, due to the low sales price, BMC were not making much money on standard cars. Luckily, due to huge sales volumes and premium Cooper/ Cooper S models, the model line still make good profits. Ford famously bought and tore down a Mini, concluding that BMC must have been losing money on every car they sold, BMC disputed this.
The 'classic' Mini was produced in total for over 41 years, production finally coming to a halt in October 2000. By that time, the car had been through seven generations, under Morris, Austin, Rover and Mini nameplates. The Mini went through hundreds of revisions, updates and cost saving measures but always stuck true to its tiny car mantra. This meant the car retained its light weight and simplicity, even as the cars around it grew in size.
The Mini was initially available with an 848cc A-series engine, which matured and grew over time to produce more power and better performance. The 1275cc version was first introduced in 1964 for the Cooper S performance model, with this engine being a favourite ever since among Mini enthusiasts for its superior power and torque output. All engines provided the Mini with sufficient performance, even against rivals in its later years. A new A-Plus unit (developed for the Rover Metro) replaced the A-series engines from 1980, with fuel injection being introduced in the 90's.
Through the years, the Mini gained many variants that differed from the standard saloon model. Almost from launch, the car was available in pickup and van configurations, along with two-door estate models labelled Countryman or Traveller. The estate cars featured decorative ash wood trim along the rear body panels, leading to the car receiving the nickname woodie.
The Mini was also offered as a Clubman variant, available from 1969 to 1980. This car was similar in stature to the traditional saloon but featured a square front-end, utilising headlights and indicators from the Austin Maxi. The Clubman estate went on to replace the previous round-headlight Countryman and Traveller models, while a sporty 1275GT Clubman also appeared. The 1275GT was the only high performance mini available through the 70's as the Cooper S was discontinued. The Clubman and 1275GT models have since gained a large cult following thanks to their individual design.
By the 90's the Mini was starting to look and feel old-fashioned, with only nostalgia and the Mini's iconic styling still driving sales. Rover attempted a rebirth of the Mini in 1989 updating the car thoroughly and began offering more efficient and reliable fuel injected engines from around 1991. The news cars all featured bigger wheels and 1275cc engines to contend with more modern rivals. The car however was struggling to meet legislation and crash safety regulations due to its dated design and build methods. By 2000, the Mini was only selling in tiny numbers causing the already fledgling Rover to pull it from the market.
This was the end of the road for the classic Mini. But, little did we know, the Mini brand was only just getting started.
A Motorsport Icon
While the Mini was proving a huge sales success on its own merit, John Cooper had some ideas about how he could take the humble Mini and turn it into a giant killer. The Mini was actually already and quite by accident, designed as a competent handling car. The lightweight stiff body structure, sophisticated suspension and wheels at the very corners of the car made it incredibly nimble. John Cooper envisaged a great road, race and rally car and boy did he make a good job of it. He started by upping the ante of the standard model, with engine and chassis tweaks giving birth to performance road models.
The work then started with the Cooper and Cooper S road cars, already showing up more expensive and larger rivals for their power to weight ratio alongside seriously impressive handling. This was just the tip of the iceberg; BMC's motorsport team took the Cooper S road car and turned it into a rally monster. The car took victory at the Monte Carlo rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967 (also taking first, second and third in 1966 before being disqualified for a headlight dimming circuit), destroying the competition. The rally car was incredibly successful, also taking titles in the British, European and Finish Rally championships.
The car was not just successful on the dirt, also dominating the saloon car championships. Between 1961 and 1979, the Mini took five British saloon car titles and two European touring car championships, as well as six Australian touring car championship titles between 1962 and 1968. The car was placed up against much more powerful machinery but prevailed thanks to its ability through the corners. Even on the big circuits of America in the Trans Am series, the Mini pushed rivals and took podiums regularly through the late 1960's.
So, an icon on the road and on the track, the Mini had it all, going on to sell over 5 million units in the process. A seriously impressive feat of engineering and a car that captured the world's imagination for three decades.
Read on in my second article next week to see how the car changed after the BMW take over and the challenges of owning a Mini today.
Let me know your thoughts on the Mini down in the comments, I would love to hear some owners stories and any interesting facts I have missed...