The Mini

During the 1950s North America experienced unprecedented economic growth but on the other side of the pond, in Europe, things were a lot different: they were trying to rebuild the continent from the ashes of WWII, and the economic situation was awful.

1948 Citroen 2 CV. One step above the Amish buggy.

For those fortunate enough to afford a new car, the options were not thrilling at all, the European auto industry focused on awkward, uncomfortable, and underpowered small cars; in most cases, those cars could barely fit two adults inside.

VW Beetle assembly line, 1948

The French had the Citroen 2CV, the Italians had the FIAT Cinquecento, the Brits had the Morris Minor, and the Germans had (the best of the bunch in my opinion) the VW Beetle.

The head of the British Motor Company, Sir Leonard Lord simply despised all the small European economy cars and he set for himself the noble mission to clean the streets of them.

In 1955 Sir Lord assigned the chief designer of Morris (British Motors was born when Morris and Austin merged, in 1952), Alec Issigonis, to come up with ideas for a modern economy car.

This new concept should comfortably fit 4 adults and be small enough to be contained in a box measuring 3.0×1.2×1.2 meters or 10x4x4 feet. The car also should have a good acceleration and decent handling. Not an easy task at all but Mr. Issigonis was the right person for the job, after all, he was the designer of the Morris Minor, an astounding success in the UK and Europe.

An engineering masterpiece.

Every challenge presented by this new project was faced with ingenuity. The BMC team was not just creating a new economy car, they were creating a game-changer for the whole industry.

Body and powertrain.

The chosen design was a two-door hatchback, and even before the first line was drawn, they knew the car would be a front-wheel drive, with a transverse engine.

The “east-west” engine configuration wasn’t anything new at the time but the Mini was the first mass-production, commercial success car to use it. In the decades that followed, every car maker in the world adopted this configuration to provide more interior room and comfort for the occupants. There is a good chance the car sitting on your driveway right now has a transverse engine.

Sir Lord had put the team in a very tight situation (literally), with only a 1.2-meter width, there wasn’t enough space to place engine and transmission side-by-side. To solve that problem, Mr. Issigonis came up with a very clever idea: to install the transmission right underneath the motor, bolted straight to the engine block, having both systems sharing the same lubricant oil.

The team picked an “of-the-shelf” BMC engine, with the following specs: 4 cylinders, liquid-cooled, with 950cc and 37 HP. The basic transmission was a 4-speed manual unit.

Suspension

To improve driveability, the axles were pushed as close as possible to the edges of the car (the longer wheelbase, the better the car will maneuver) and the traditional leaf/coil springs were replaced by compact rubber cones dampers, designed by Dr. Alex Moulton. This space-saving design also featured rising progressive-rate springing of the cones and provided some natural damping.

This revolutionary system provided not only the space-saving dampers the team was looking for but more importantly, it gave the car the famous go-kart-like handling that would be so much appreciated at the race tracks around the world.

To complete the package, the team approved the 10 inches steel wheels. Since such small rims were never used before, the BMC closed a deal with Dunlop to provide tires for the car.

The 950cc, 37 HP engine provided an unexpected performance to the little car; with only 585 kg (1,290 lbs) the Mini could easily reach a max speed of 150 Km/h (94 miles/h), The speed plus the superb handling made the Mini a fun machine to drive, there are many stories about BMC test drivers embarrassing cars like Jaguar and Aston Martin at the test track.

This kind of performance wasn’t meant for an economy car, and the team was forced to tame the little beast: the engine was downsized to 850cc, bringing the top speed down to 120 Km/m (75 miles/h), still pretty good for a small car.

The car was announced to the public on August 26, 1959, and BMC had 2,000 units ready to hit the showrooms. It was sold under BMC’s two main brand names: Austin and Morris. The Austin version is called “Seven” and Morris is “Mini-Minor”. In the USA, France, and Australia t was named Austin 850 and Morris 850, and in Italy, it was sold under the brand Innocenti.

The car was an instant hit: roomy interior, modern design, impressive performance, and affordability, the customers around the world just fell in love with the Mini.

The Mini Cooper.

The Mini (or the Seven) was born with a reputation: usually, an automaker is forced to increase the size of the engine to improve a shameful performance of a product, but in the Mini’s case, it was the other way around.

At the time of the car’s debut, there was talking among the engineers about bringing the 950cc engine back for a possible “GT” version of the Mini, but Mr. Issigonis was totally against it, he had a mission to create a new concept for the economy car market and the mission was accomplished with flying colours and that was it. There was no “racing’ involved at the beginning of the project.

But there was no way to hide the car’s performance capabilities, as soon as the Mini hit the streets, some customers were already racing it, (either legally or illegally).

John Cooper, with his Formula Junior, powered by a motorcycle engine.

It didn’t take long for the Mini to catch the attention of a very special guy, Mr. John Cooper, one of the co-founders of Cooper Car Company. This little shop became famous right after WWII, for building simple, inexpensive single-seat racers for privateers, often from surplus military hardware. Those cars were extremely successful and in high demand.

By the mid-50s, Cooper develop a rear-engine Formula car that had a much better weight distribution, balance, and handling than the typical front-engine cars of the time.

By the end of the 1950s, Cooper cars completely dominated the race tracks around Europe, forcing the other builders to adopt the rear-engine configuration. John was even invited to show his car in the USA and soon the F-Indy teams started switching to the new concept.

John Cooper didn’t exactly create the rear/mid-engine design, but he was responsible to make it a winner feature that become the standard in motor racing car manufacture.

Cooper immediately saw in the new Mini a future winner in the motorsports, and he knew Mr. Issigonis wasn’t very sympathetic to the idea, but he had an advantage: the two engineers were good friends. After some conversation, Cooper got the green light to make the little grocery-getter a real race car.

The engine grew in size to 997cc with a stroker kit, and the Cooper team extracted every drop of power out of it with a more aggressive camshaft, ported cylinder head, and twin carburetors, resulting in 55HP.

The Mini Cooper, equipped with the iconic “Minilite” mag rims.

The suspension was reworked and received front disc brakes. This new performance-oriented car was called Mini-Cooper (either Morris or Austin) and hit the showrooms in September 1961.

In the years that followed, Cooper created the “S” version, first for competition only and later for street use, with engines as big as 1275cc and 75 HP.

The Mini-Cooper dominated Monte-Carlo Rally in the 60s. The tiny British car won in 1964, and again in 1965, driven by the legendary Scandinavian duo Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen.

For 1966, the Mini-Coopers finished the rally in a smashing 1-2-3 position, but unfortunately, the organizers had imposed a draconian new rule for that year, stating the cars must be 100% factory original.

One of the disqualified Minis. Monte Carlo, 1966.

The Automobile Club de Monaco was firmly decided to put an end to the British winning streak. After the end of the rally, the technicians spent more than 18 hours, dismantling the cars, measuring and checking every single part. Everything seemed fine when they finally found something wrong: the original headlight bulbs had been replaced with a more powerful one, and that was enough to disqualify all three winners Mini Coopers. The drivers, the team managers, and the fans were furious, they vehemently protested against the judge’s decision and even the press joined them putting as much pressure as possible to reverse the decision, but it was all in vain.

The stolen victory in 1966 was just a small setback, in the next year, Rauno Aaltonen, driving for the British Motor Company official team, brought the Mini-Cooper once again to the highest place on the podium.

The winner of the 1967 Mont Carlo Rally.

During the 1960s, the Mini also won the 100 Lakes Rally in Finland three times, the Circuit of Ireland three times, and the Rally Poland twice. There is no doubt that rally competition contributed immensely to the Mini’s popularity.

A pop culture classic.

Paul McCartney in his 1969 Mini

Much more than a little monster at the race track and rally, the Mini became the standard of what a small, economy car should be, no more cramped, underpowered, and ugly cars for the younger buyers. If they were looking for something modern and exciting, they found it.

Soon the Mini became one of the symbols of the 1960s, adopted not only by the average first buyers but also by cool and hip people.

During its existence, the Mini changed very little and every update, (mostly cosmetic changes) was marked in the most traditional British way possible, with the “Mk” letters, just like Spitfires and Jaguars.

Mk I: From 1959 to 1967.

During the production of the first generation, BMC increased the Mini’s family with the addition of a station wagon, a panel van, and a pick-up.

Aiming at the North American market, the Mini got an optional 4-speed automatic transmission in 1965, this model became known as Mini-Matic.

During this time, production was based in UK and Australia.

Mk II: From 1967 to 1970

A restored 1969 Chilean Mini, with fiberglass body.

Only cosmetic changes here, but the success of the Mini made BMC install production lines in Spain, Belgium, New Zeeland, Portugal, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Malaysia, and Chile. The Chilean Mini has an interesting characteristic: its body is made of fibreglass.

Mk III: From 1969 to 1974

The history of the British auto industry is a history of never-ending mergings, sellings, and acquisitions, in 1968, British Motor merged with Leyland Motors to become British-Leyland. For the Mk III, the new company adopted concealed door hinges and the annoying sliding windows were replaced by regulator-operated ones.

In 1969 “Mini” became a brand of its own, but still under the British -Leyland umbrella, replacing Morris and Austin name tags. Also in the same year, the Mini Clubman was revealed, it was intended to be a bigger and more practical version of the regular Mini.

Mk IV: From 1976 to 2000.

1976 Mini GT.

By the time the Mk IV was released, in 1976, the Mini was already showing its age. It was a revolutionary car in 1959, but almost 20 years without major updates, made it unfit to compete with modern small cars like Renault 5, VW Polo, and Ford Fiesta, just to name a few. It was still part of the 10 best-selling cars in the UK but sales were slipping. In 1977, the Mini lost a very important market when the USA stopped importing the car, thanks to a more strict emissions regulation.

1981 Austin Metro

Around this time, after a restructuring process (which included a government bailout), Leyland Motors became Rover Group. The customers were expecting the new company would finally give them a replacement for the Mini but what they got instead was the Metro, released in 1980 and sold under Austin, MG, and Rover brands. The Metro was unveiled during tough times, the UK was facing one of the worst economic crises in its history and the Rover Group, desperate for money, decided to use the Mini’s drivetrain and suspension in the new car, which was not very well received by the customers.

2000 Mini Cooper S

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Mini experienced a shifting in its purpose, it was going from a mass-production economy car to a fashionable, retro-cool icon, but that wasn’t enough to keep the Rover Group afloat. In 1994, BMW bought the company’s assets from the British Aerospace Engineering (I know it is hard to keep track but before BMW, Rover Group was bought by an aircraft company).

BMW and Rover kept the “classic” Mini in production for as long as they could but selling “collectible items” not always pay the bills. The last Mini rolled out of the assembly line on October 4th, 2000. A total of 5,387,862 cars had been manufactured, nearly 1.6 million of which were sold in the UK.

BMW sold all the companies that came with Rover Group: MG and Rover were sold to a new British consortium, and Land Rover was sold to Ford. The Germans only kept the Mini brand.

The old and the new.

Also in 2000, BMW unveiled their retro-inspired, modern version of the Mini, called R-50, or simply “Mini”, keeping the legend alive ever since.

Much more than a cool car.

Austin Mini assembly line, circa 1960.

Since a worn-out, 1960s Mini beat me on a highway race, (I was driving a 4 litre, V6 Ford Ranger) back in 2003, this tiny little car has intrigued me. I knew I had to write about it but for some reason I kept postponing the task, perhaps because the Mini had beat me in more ways than just one (irresponsible) race, let me explain: In 1999, a panel of renowned automotive journalists elected the Mini as the second most influential car in history, second only to the Ford Model T. For me, it was a blow, being a hardcore fan of the VW Beetle, I just couldn’t believe my car lost to the Mini, after all, it was in production for much longer (65 years vs 41 years), and sold a lot more cars (21,529,464 vs 5,387,863), but after a while, I understood the reason, although the Beetle had a more successful career, we can hardly see any trace of its engineering in modern cars, (besides the flat-four Subaru engine), on the other hand hand, the basic concept of the Mini, hatchback style unibody and the transverse four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, became the standard for the whole auto industry, and as far as I can see, this concept will only die when the carmakers stop producing internal combustion engines.

Published by Rubens Junior

Passionate about classic cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and watches.

4 thoughts on “The Mini

  1. I was amazed at this as the humble little car has so much interest after all these years. I am so glad I have one & the icing on the cake it’s a 64 Morris Cooper S built in the year of Paddy Hopkirk’s win, I’ll treasure for my lifetime.

    Like

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