Small Car, Big Dreams: The Mini

It’s no understatement to say the the Mini changed the face of British – and worldwide – motoring – forever.

Life was starting to get back to some semblance of normality in the immediate post-war decade of the 1950s. Britain was starting to flourish again fuelled by a Bulldog spirit and a billion cups of tea but thanks to the Suez Crisis, petrol was again rationed, sales of large cars died away and demand for smaller, more economical cars grew.

The Germans were getting it partly right with the – awful to drive, highly questionable safety record but 40+mpg – Heinkel Kabine,BMW Isetta andMesserschmitt Kabineroller but Leonard Lord, chairman of the British Motor Company hated these cars with a passion.

‘God damn these bloody awful bubble cars. We must drive them off the streets by designing a proper small car.’
Leonard Lord, Chairman, BMC

And design a ‘proper small car’ they did.

mini-badge

Mini Badge © GmanViz

By March 1957 and because of the fuel shortage, there was an urgency within BMC to turn out a small city car and a team led by designer Alec Issigonis had developed a prototype for a model code-named ADO15 (Amalgamated Drawing Office, Project #15).

The Guv’nor

Alec Issigonis, or to give him his full title Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis CBE, FRS, RDI was born in 1906 in the Greek port town of Smyrna (now Ízmir, Turkey). His grandfather acquired British nationality after working on the British-built Smyrna-Aydin Railway in the 1830s and citizenship was passed to Alec’s father. On his death in 1922, Alec and his mother moved to the UK after evacuation to Malta during the Greco-Turkish War.

He studied Engineering at Battersea Polytechnic and went to work first for Humber, then Austin and after that, Morris Motors. Morris and Austin merged in 1952 to form the British Motor Company and despite a brief stint at Alvis Cars, the rest, they say….

Revolutionise the Car Industry They Said…

His own research suggested that to produce a market leader and not just a facsimile of what had come before, his thinking needed to be nothing short of revolutionary. The car should be no more than 10 feet long and just over four feet wide but one of the fundamental issues with a car that small was where to put the engine and the gearbox.

With time running out, Issigonis made a quick decision to mount the gearbox under the engine and it was one that literally and metaphorically broke the mould. A transverse-engine – either to prevent icing of the carburettor or to enable smaller transfer gears to be fitted dependent on the story you believe – small, 10-in wheels and a space-efficient, fully independent rubber-cone suspension (designed by Alex Moulton) was the way forward.

A little over two years later, the car was launched as both the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven and over the years it became known only by one name – Mini. It was light, it was spacious, it was tiny, it was easy to fix, it was fuel-efficient and it was cheap. It was perfect.

Little did Issigonis and his team know it then, but the Mini became the benchmark for virtually every small, front-wheel drive car produced in the next 50 years.

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Mini © Luigi

The car regarded as ‘the first Mini’ rolled off the production line at BMC’s Austin facility at the famous Longbridge plant in Birmingham in April 1959. It was Old English White and the registration plate was 621 AOK and over the next 41 years until production stopped in October 2000, almost 5.4m Minis were made and sold.

Naturally over the years there have been hundreds of different models, configurations, upgrades and design changes but the fundamentals have remained exactly the same – a small city car that can be parked easily, is fuel-efficient and is cheap to run and repair. The final car out of the factory in 2000 didn’t look that different to the first, 41 years earlier.

mini-speed

Mini © SantiMB.Photos

Unbeatable Minis

In the early 1960s, the British were at the forefront of the burgeoning motor racing scene and John Cooper, designer of F1 and rally cars and owner of the Cooper Car Company came together with Issigonis’ team in 1961 to create the world-famous Mini Cooper. It came with uprated front disc brakes, a 1.0-litre engine, double carburettor and  two years later an ‘S’ version was released that went on to win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967.

Interestingly, Minis placed one, two and three in 1966 but were controversially disqualified for this – they used a variable resistance headlamp dimming circuit in place of a dual-filament lamp. We’re not sure what that means either…

Corporate Minis

Fast-forward to the 1990s and BMW were looking to expand their range – and reach – with additions including SUVs and small compact cars and they bought the Rover Group from British Aerospace for £800m. Even with the German manufacturers’ financial muscle they couldn’t make Rover turn a profit and the business went bankrupt (costing BMW a reported 15bn Deutschmarks; approx. £4.4bn.)

But, and this is a big but – they kept hold of the Mini marque and went to work. After a prolonged design process where they selected from 15 full-sized design studies, the one from legendary American auto designer Frank Stephenson (Ferrari F430 and McLaren MP4-12C) from BMW Designworks in California was chosen.

Even though the BMW bosses insisted that the new model must feature iconic BMW characteristics such as rear-wheel drive, Stephenson was well aware of the car’s heritage.

‘We wanted the first impression when you walk up to the car to be ‘it could only be a Mini’. Frank Stephenson

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Mini Cooper D © The NRMA

The first tranche of new Minis were named the One, Cooper, Cooper S and JCW (John Cooper Works) with varying levels of trim and power output and in 2005, a convertible was launched with a fully-automatic roof, rare for such a small car. Three years later, the Clubman estate was released and three years after that, the first crossover SUV, the Countryman hit the forecourts.

Coupé, Roadster and Paceman versions followed and to date, over 1.5m Minis have been sold around the world.

 

MINI Coupé Concept (08/2009)

Mini Coupé Concept © John C Bullas

Oddly, while his name will go down in the pantheon of motoring greats for his ground-breaking work on the Mini, he was most proud of his work on the Morris Minor suggesting that it ticked all the boxes for modern motoring – luxury, convenience and price – while the Mini was a spartan, stripped-out, cheap way of getting around.

He retired from the motor industry in 1971 and died at home in Edgbaston, Birmingham in 1988. Nicknamed by his cohorts as ‘the Greek God’, Sir Alec created not just a car but a standard for what came after.

The Mini may not carry the prestige of other 1960s British motoring icons such as the Jaguar E-Type or the Aston Martin DB5 but what it did was to redefine an entire industry. You didn’t need a fire-breathing engine or extreme styling or a huge price tag to sell lots of cars. You needed a piece of paper, a pencil and a gap in the market to fill. The Mini filled it then and it continues to fill it now.

Let’s leave the last word to the man himself:

‘The public don’t know what they want; it’s my job to tell them.’ Alec Issigonis, Designer, the Mini