The Mini at 60
Ego has a lot to answer for in the creation of the original Mini, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. For a car that proved to be as classless and free from chutzpah, its inception is a story worth recounting.
When the Suez Crisis caused petrol shortages in the UK and Europe in 1956, economy cars became hugely popular. Most of these small cars were compromised in one area or another to reach their target of fuel economy, so you could have four seats but woeful performance or a decent lick of pace but only two seats.
Leonard Lord, the aristocratic and equally autocratic head of the British Motor Corporation, thought his company could do a whole lot better. He was nothing if not ambitious either, as he set his team the challenge of designing a car that was compact, cheap to fuel, could seat four and used an existing BMC engine to keep costs down.
Step forward the equally singular character of Alec Issigonis. He had already led the design of the Morris Minor, so clearly understood small cars, but the Mini was an altogether tougher brief. Issigonis’ stroke of genius with the Mini was to mount the engine transversely across the bay rather then front to back as in most cars of the period. This meant the engine freed up more cabin space and it would drive the front wheels through a gearbox which shared the same oil pan as the motor, further saving on packaging.
As well as setting the template for almost every city car and supermini we know today, the Mini championed the simple two-box design. Most of its competitors were small saloons, like the Triumph Herald and Ford Anglia. Like teenagers in the 1950s who were dressed as younger versions of their parents, these cars were traditional in their approach. The Mini was a child of the rock ‘n’ roll era and took a totally different path.
Alec Issigonis, the creator of the Mini
Part of this dramatically different way of building a small car lay in the Mini’s suspension, which was the work of Dr Alex Moulton, later famous for his folding bicycle design. Using rubber cones instead of normal springs saved weight and space and endowed the Mini with amazing handling ability.
Even so, on its launch in 1959, the Mini was a slow seller to begin with. Sold as either an Austin Seven or Morris Mini Minor, buyers were cautious about such a radically different car. However, the dawn of the 1960s and its more open attitudes were perfectly timed with the Mini’s approach. When celebrities adopted it for the car’s lack of pretence, sales hit their stride and the Mini was the car to be seen in.
The Mini Cooper S took the rally world by storm... but not without controversy
When Mini launched the Cooper versions, it was also the car to use in competition. Tuned by John Cooper, who ran his own race car company in Surrey, his go-faster parts made the Mini a giant killer on the track and rally stages around the world. It won the famous Monte Carlo Rally and inadvertently garnered even more publicity when it was excluded from winning there in 1966. The French were not happy at being beaten on home turf, so an inconsequential technicality about how the headlights went from main beam to dipped was used to throw out the Mini’s win. The ensuing press coverage all over the world, including France, put the plucky little Mini on the front pages and brought far more acclaim than if it had simply been allowed the win fair and square.
By this stage, the Mini had also spawned a number of other variants to sit alongside the Cooper models. There was a van and pick-up for commercial users, while the Countryman was an estate model complete with wooden batons like those of the Morris Minor Traveller. The only difference was the wood on the Mini was not structural.
Another famous derivative arrived in 1964 in the shape of the boxy Moke. Intended for military use, the Army deemed it insufficient for off-road use, but 50,000 models found homes with civilians who loved its basic nature and undoubted practicality.
By the late 1960s, times were a-changing and so was the Mini with the Clubman model and its bluff-fronted styling. The 1275GT model tried to offer some solace to those missing the Cooper versions, but the Mini was now already 10-years old and had become a comfortable, cuddly part of the BMC, then British Leyland and finally Rover Group line-up.
The Last Edition Mini rolled off production lines in 2000
The axe finally fell in October 2000 after 5,387,862 Minis of all types had rolled off the line. This made it one of the longest-running and best-selling cars of all time and earned its place in many drivers’ affections. Today, the vintage Mini is now a sought-after classic in all its guises and enjoys a thriving scene for owners interested in restoration, racing or just polishing the paintwork.
Yet that wasn’t the end of the Mini story by a long shot. BMW may have sold Rover but they retained the rights to the Mini name and came up with their first retro-styled take on the car in 2000. Whether or not you agreed with this restart of the Mini name, the Frank Stephenson-styled car was a massive sales hit and it wasn’t long before a supercharged Cooper S model joined its ranks.
There have been some duds along the way to the current Mini’s popularity, and the less said about the infamous Clubdoor the better. However, the Mini name lives on and retains some of its legacy with the car still built in the UK. There’s a broad range of models now on offer with performance to suit all tastes and needs, just like when the car was launched 60 years ago. You can see them at the the Leasing.com London Motor and Tech Show which runs this weekend.