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The Story of the Mini - A Timeless British Classic

Posted by Gareth Dunne on

The Mini - Classic British Icon:

The Mini is a true classic British icon.  The original design broke the mould and revolutionised the motor industry.  It changed the way we look at the small cars and sent automotive designers back to the drawing board.  It was to become the best selling British car in history with over 5.3 million units sold over a 41 year production run. 

No other car has come close to achieving those figures.The Mini was simple, stylish and self confident.  Its clever use of space, compact design and excellent road handling ensured the it was to become a fun, affordable and perennial classic icon.  The Mini is the car that more than any other has changed the face of motoring forever.

 

 

The Need for Economy:

The Mini was conceived in response to a national crisis.  In 1950s Britain the motor industry was in a deep slump.  There was an oil embargo on the UK and motorists were subject to fuel rationing.  In these difficult times motorists began to turn to the ultra efficient and tiny "Bubble Cars" - which were largely imported from Germany.  They used motorcycle engines and were ultra-efficient.  They could deliver up to 40 miles per gallon of fuel.

 

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One of the more popular models was the Messerschmitt Kabinroller - produced by the German company Messerschmitt who are well known for their production of German World War II fighter planes.  The three wheeled "cabin scooter" was designed by the renowned aircraft engineer Fritz Fend.

- the Messerschmitt Kabinroller "Bubble Car"


Leonard Lord the chairman of the British Motor Corporation, (BMC), was appalled that the public had been backed into a position where they had to drive around in "these cheap, uncomfortable and unsafe micro vehicles".  Although these micro-cars were super efficient they were incredibly unsafe, very noisey and could seat only two people.  To understand how the British motor industry had arrived at this delicate point we need to take a quick look back at the "Suez Crisis".


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The Suez Fuel Crisis:

Back in 1955 two thirds of all Europe's oil supply passed through the Suez Canal as it made its way from the oil rich Middle East to the Mediterranean sea.  In 1956 the Egyptian president suddenly nationalised the canal and took control of the traffic that passed through it.  Four months later, Britain, France and Israel launched a military invasion of Egypt in an attempt to regain control. 

suez fuel crisis- The Suez Fuel Crisis

The western led invasion was opposed by both the United States and the U.S.S.R. and ultimately failed.  A Saudi led oil embargo quickly followed to punish the UK and France for their intervention in the area and this began what is known as the Suez Crisis.  As a result fuel rationing was introduced across Britain and motorists were allowed only 4 gallons of fuel per month.  A demand for a new more efficient and economical car was born.


The BMC Vision:

The British Motor Company was formed in 1952 when rival companies Austin and Morris agreed a merger.  BMC identified that the British public needed a real car that was affordable, economical and was comfortable to drive.  The new car had to be compact but at the same time be able to seat 4 people. Chairman Lord demanded that the dimensions of the car be no more than 10 foot long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high.  The car was to be fitted with a traditional four-stroke, four cylinder engine and was to have four wheels.  It was a tall order.


Alec Issigonis:

The Mini was a feat of genius design and the man who delivered was one Alec Issigonis.  The challenge he faced was immense.  He had to meet Lord's requirements to create a car that could comfortably seat 4 people but was no more than 10 feet long.  Issigonis was the very man for the job and came with a proven pedigree. 

- Alec Issigonis, Chief Designer of the Mini


He had previously worked on the design of the Morris Minor which proved to be a huge commercial success selling more than 1 million models.  Issigonis was a master of creating cars that were compact and handled well - two characteristics he would bring to the fold in creating the Mini.  He once famously said: "The public don't know what they want and it's my job to tell them."


The A-Team:

Issigonis began to assemble his team.  He was joined by Jack Daniels and Chris Kingham who were two extremely gifted engineers, four draftsmen and a brace of student engineers.  Accompanied by Jack Daniels, Issigonis and his team got to work.  It is rumoured that Issigonis sketched out the basic drawing for the mini on a table cloth and then later created the footprint image by sketching with chalk on the floor around four chairs. 

design of the mini car

His new design was as innovative as it was inspired.  Using a transverse engine, whereby the engine block is turned 90 degrees onto its side, the team were able to save on space and required just 18 inches for installation under the bonnet.  They employed front wheel drive which not only gave better handling but also eliminated the need to run a drive shaft the length of the car to power the rear wheels - saving on weight, space and cost.  The engine itself was four cylinder, water cooled and had a four speed transmission.

drawing of a mini car

They developed a unique transmission set up that saw it and the engine so closely paired that the two shared a common source of lubricating oil.  The engine had a capacity of 848cc and was capable of reaching a top speed of 72mph, (115kph).  It could run 36 miles to the gallon - almost matching the much smaller bubble cars.  It handled well and was incredibly fun to drive. 


The Green Light:

It was this remarkable road handling that would later attract John Cooper, car maker and auto-racing legend, to collaborate with mini.  In July 1957 BMC chairman Lord test drove the prototype Mini around the Longbridge complex.  Afterwards, Lord turned to Issigonis and ordered ‘build the bloody thing!’  

Classic blue mini car

 

The fruits of the project would ultimately be the dual creations of the 1960 Austin Seven Mini and the Morris Mini Minor.  These would be the worlds very first minis and were essentially identical except for some trim and badge details.  The reason for employing two names was to capitalise on consumer brand loyalty for what were once two competing British car manufacturers - Austin and Morris, but who were now operating as one under the BMC banner.


The Birth of the Mini - 1959:

The compact design of the engine and its components meant that 80% of the cars room was given over to passengers and their luggage.  The boot hinge was positioned on the underside of the car so it could be driven with the boot open - allowing the stowing of over sized objects.  Issigonis even managed to convince tyre manufacturer Dunlop to produce smaller ten inch wheels so that the wheel wells took up less space on the inside of the vehicle. 

- the Mini was to become a 1960's Style icon


He pushed the four wheels to the very corners of the vehicles to minimise their intrusion.  Rubber cones called "doughnuts" were used in place of standard suspension springs.  This saved on space but led to a stiff and bumpy ride.  The car went without a radio, window rollers and seat belts to save on weight.  But it did have an ashtray included as Issigonis was a keen chain smoker. 

Great attention was payed to the fine detail and every trick employed to deliver maximum capacity and storage in BMC's new car.  The first production models began to roll off the assembly line in early 1959 and a true icon of the swinging sixties had been born.  The Mark I Mini was unveiled to the press by BMC in August 1959 and production of the revolutionary compact car would run for 8 years until 1967. In its first year of production the Mini would overtake the Morris Minor as BMC’s bestseller.


The Public Are Bemused:

Although the genius of the Mini was clear to see to those in the motor industry, it took a little time for the British public to catch on.  The love affair would come but the Mark I was not a huge success overnight.  It was so small in comparison to the existing cars of the time that it was seen as tiny.  People couldn't fathom how a car so small could simply function as a real 4 seater saloon.  The spartan interior design and the budget price tag of just £500 convinced people that it just couldn't really be much good.

Mini advertising campaign- early Mini advertising campaign


Mini Mania Sweeps the Nation:

But as early adapters began to purchase the new model doubts began to disappear.  They soon discovered the cars excellent road handling and how easy it was to drive.  It all added up to an incredibly fun driving experience and the new little car began to make sense.  The good news and positive reactions began to spread through word of mouth.  BMC knew they were onto a winner.  They sold 116,000 units in 1960 and 157,000 in 1961. 

The mini was well on its way to becoming a cult classic.  It quickly became THE British car to be seen in and celebrities and film stars made it their car of choice.  The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Steve McQueen and Bridget Bardot all had minis.  So too had royalty - King Hussein of Jordan, Princess Grace of Monaco and Prince Charles were all proud owners.  The mini had broken the class barrier in one of the most class conscious societies in the world.  Rock stars, royalty and with a bargain basement price tag - everyone and anyone could now aspire to own a true British classic.   

- The 1960s Mini


Cooper Steps Aboard:

John Cooper owner of the Cooper Car Company and world renowned racing constructor could see great potential in the Mini as a racing vehicle.  Cooper came with great pedigree in the world of motor racing.  He was an innovative racing car designer who had achieved great success with his rear-engined chassis designs that went on to shape the sport at the highest levels from Indianapolis 500 to Formula One.

Issigonis saw the mini primarily as a car for everyday motoring while Cooper was inspired with its sporting potential, nimble maneuvering and handling capabilities.  Issigonis was initially reluctant about collaborating with Cooper to develop a sports model.  However Cooper was able to explain his vision to Issigonis and soon they would begin work on the new sports version of the mini -  Mini Cooper. 

Mini Cooper S- the Austin Mini Cooper S 1963


The Austin Mini Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper debuted in September 1961.  It was manufactured with an increased engine size of 997 cc.  The power output was ramped up to 55 bhp (41 kW) and it boasted a tuned engine, 7" disc brakes and double SU carburetors. It was designed to meet the criteria of a Group 2 rally car. 

A more powerful version called the "S" with a 1071 cc engine and larger disc brakes was developed and released a year later in 1963.  A number of additional models were also produced specifically for circuit racing and proved to be very successful.  In 1962 Rhodesian John Love won the British Saloon Car Championship driving a Mini Cooper.  Their modest appearance and underlying performance capabilities made them a popular choice as unmarked cars for the British and Australian police services. 


Monte Carlo Golden Years:

The Mini Cooper S experienced unprecedented success at the Monte Carlo Rally from 1964 to 1967.  Paddy Hopkirk took first place at the 1963/64 Monte Carlo winter rally out performing bigger more powerful cars on his way.  The car became a phenomenon over night as a giant killer.  A year later and in terrible weather conditions Timo Mäkinen repeated that success finishing in first place after thousands of kilometres and a multitude of non finishers.  The Mini's superior handling won the day. 

racing mini cars

The following year saw the spectacular result of a 1-2-3 for Mini as Timo Mäkinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Paddy Hopkirk finished first, second and third.  However a questionable decision saw the disqualification of all three cars for what was deemed a regulation failure on the cars lights.  The disappointment was short lived - well one year anyway - when the following year Rauno Aaltonen brought the Mini home in first place to the delight of motoring fans.  The authorities couldn't find anything wrong with the car this time around and the result stood.

The Mini's racing success was not confined to rally racing and it successfully won many road circuit titles throughout the 1960s.  It was the most successful racing car of the decade during the 60s.  It was the first car raced by a host of drivers who went on to have highly decorated careers in motor sport, including;  Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, James Hunt and John Surtees. 

Mini cooper competes at the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally- Mini Cooper competes at the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally


The Leyland Years - The Mini Clubman & 1275 GT:

In 1968 British Leyland took over BMC which had changed its name to British Motor Holdings.  Leyland were primarily a trucks and buses manufacturer at the time.  They wasted little time and in 1969 they gave the Mini a facelift.  The man in charge was stylist Roy Haynes who had previous success working for Ford.  Haynes had designed the 1966 Ford Cortina Mk II.  His new Mini creation was named the Mini Clubman - and it would become a cult classic.  It employed some of the features of the existing Austin Maxi but had a squarer profile.  The Clubman replaced the Countryman and Traveller.

A 1275 GT model was also designed and it replaced the 998cc Cooper.  In 1971 The Cooper S was also discontinued and this left the 1275 GT as the only remaining sports model and it remained in production for the rest of the decade.  The new GT model did not have the same performance capability of the Cooper S but it's appeal lay in the fact that it was cheaper to buy and run.  


- 1275 GT Mini

Leyland did continue to produce the classic 1959 original "Round Front" design in tandem with the two new models.  While the 1959 design was cheaper, the new models offered better crash safety and easier under bonnet access.  Both models enjoyed a long production run right up to 1980 when they were eventually replaced by the new Austin Metro hatchback.  The Clubman had enjoyed sales of over 470,000 units during this period while the 1275 GT sold in excess of 110,000.  

Interestingly, the production of the 1959 original continued for another 20 years right up until the year 2,000 - an incredible 41 year production run.  During the 1990s, Mini enthusiast clubs began to spring up across the nation organising social activities involving their favourite car. This thriving social scene soon spread worldwide, with Germany, home to so many successful cars brands, emerging as one of the most enthusiastic centres for Mini owners' clubs.


BMW Step In:

British Leyland, BL, had a troubled history with internal competition, strikes and rival production centres working against eachother.  Leyland lost so much money that the Government had to step in and nationalise it in 1975 to prevent it from going under.  Mini and Land Rover would be two of the few brands that would ultimately survive the Leyland downfall. 

In 1986 British Leyland was renamed as the Rover Group but the writing was on the wall and the German power house BMW took over the failing Rover Group in 1994. As the Independent reported at the time, "It will be remembered as the day when the sun finally set on the British motor industry".  BMW moved quickly to sell off the struggling Rover range towards the end of the decade but crucially they retained the Mini marque. 

Post 1994 Mini sales were in steady decline and it was clear it was living on borrowed time.  BMW however, kept it in production to ensure a seamless transition from the classic Mini to their new 'MINI'.  In October 1996 the final version of the original Mini emerged.  It was known as the Mk7 and was to continue in production into 2000 when the new MINI was set to take over.  The new MINI was to receive a powerful relaunch for the new millennium.  BMW were to give the British classic a new lease of life that would see the car thrive in the market right up to the present day.


BMW - "It's a Mini Adventure":

Introduced in 2001 the new hatchback MINI was the first model of the new generation.  BMW’s MINI was a premium priced car that was big on style, build quality and drivability.  It was available in three models Cooper, Cooper S and One.  All models since 2001 have been delivered in the following variants: One (entry-level), Cooper, Cooper S (sporty), and John Cooper Works (JCW). 

BMW Mini Cooper

The new BMW models were an immediate success.  The cars were bigger inside and out, managed to retain much of the original charm of the older models but were radically modernised to meet the needs of a new generation.  In 2010 the crossover model "The Countryman" was launched.  This latest addition to the family was the largest mini to date.  It was manufactured in Austria and came with four wheel drive capability.  Despite the reservations of many long standing Mini enthusiasts the new models proved to be major commercial success stories. 

In 2007 BMW sold its one millionth MINI and if sales remain strong the new MINI should outsell the old Mini sometime in the late 2030s.  These new cars retained the road handling capabilities of the originals but without the hard ride, noise and austere upright seating positions of before.  BMW applied their own unique inhouse styling and power house marketing campaigns.  They knew how to position the car as the new hip and cool car of the day. 

The advertising tagline "it's a mini adventure" proved hugely successful and even entered the common vernacular.  The Mini was thriving yet again partly thanks to the imaginative and creative work of its new owners but also because of the inherent and long standing characteristics created by a design team half a century before at the British Motor Corporation.

 - the Mini, a Timeless British Classic


The Mini - a British Cultural Icon:

Why was the original Mini so successful?  Why did it sell 5.3 million units and see a production run of 41 years?  Why did it become a cultural icon of the 1960s and beyond?  Ask any Mini enthusiast and they will tell you - the secret to the Mini's success lies in the fact that it was such great fun to drive, offered sports car type handling and was available at an affordable price to all.  The original Mini designed by Alec Issigonis was a true timeless British classic. 

During its long production run it may have undergone changes in name, engine upgrades and exterior detail but the fundamentals have remained the same.  Throughout the decades the mini has remained fundamentally unchanged in the areas that really drove its success - its unique character and clever compact lay out.  It revolutionised the small car and became the best-selling British car in history.  It really is the greatest British car of all time!

Are you a Mini fan? 
Visit our friends at Mini Mania and discover everything you need for your classic or modern Mini - components, gifts, advice and much more.

 

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7 comments

  • I’ve wanted a Mini as a daily driver since I first laid eyes on one.

    Arizona summers and the absence of A/C caused me to forget the idea…until, that is, the “new” Mini was introduced…at which time I bought a 2002 S and, not totally happy with HP and torque, I put a few* bucks under the hood, modified the suspension, added Wilwood brakes and came up with an honest 252 dyno’d HP (honest)!

    Oh, what fun.

    Tex Guthrie
    Scottsdale

    Actually, more than a few bucks
    Tex Guthrie on
  • Long live the classis minis , The new BMW versions are terrible sight on the road.

    New vs Old on
  • I own a ’63 Morris Mini and a ’63 Austin-Healey. The Mini is definitely more fun to drive.

    Olin Kane on
  • I wold like to say that I have owned a mini from 1970 and still own a mini now. My present mini is a Italian job and still going well. Long live mini.

    Tj on
  • Rock stars in minis?
    I’ve heard it all now

    the stig on

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