At Adrian Flux, we’re crazy about classics, which is why we got in touch with Giles Chapman, author of Mini: 60 Years, to find out more about one of our favourite classic marques. In this blog, Chapman writes about some of the Mini’s highlights over the past 60 years, from its inception by Alec Issigonis to the premium car it’s now become.
The Mini: where it all began
When the first Mini burst into the limelight on 26 August 1959, nobody could dispute that it had a cherubic and loveable charm. But that’s not what its dogmatic designer wanted to hear. The car he formulated from scratch in under three years could carry four adults within the smallest dimensions possible to allow tolerable comfort, and whisk them along while squeezing more than 40 miles from a gallon of petrol. For Alec Issigonis, it was simply the purist result of an intellectual engineering challenge.
Issigonis was already an acknowledged bright spark in the generally lacklustre British car industry when he was asked, in 1956, to create the ultimate economy car for the British Motor Corporation. Flimsy and dangerous three-wheeler ‘bubble cars’ were rapidly gaining popularity, especially in the teeth of the Suez Crisis when shortages of fuel led to panic over petrol supplies. The Mini had to crush their rise. Issigonis, already the designer of the Morris Minor, agreed only on the basis that he had total creative control, and rather amazingly his request was granted. For his head was full of novel ideas, and they would often spill out on to the back of cigarette packets and dinner table napkins.
He viewed the 10ft-long car as a totally integrated package, and decided that front-wheel drive with the 848cc four-cylinder engine positioned across the front of the car, instead of in-line longitudinally, would maximise the passenger space.
The gearbox, meanwhile, was tucked under the power unit, actually inside the oil sump. Power reached each front wheel via specially-designed constant-velocity joints that Issigonis adapted from a war-time submarine ball-joint design.
So far, so radical, but Issigonis had only just started. To ensure that cabin space wasn’t gobbled up with a bulky, traditional suspension system, he designed his own using compact rubber cones together with unusually dainty 10in-diameter wheels.
From concept to fun and affordable runaround
With a starting price of £496, the near identical Mini twins of Austin Seven or Morris Mini-Minor were among the very cheapest new cars on the market. No surprise, then, that the roomy interior was basic; a single instrument on a parcel shelf, rather than a dashboard, kept the driver informed, and there were pull-cords instead of internal door handles, and sliding windows. But the Mini offered two facets that were unheard-of in an ultra-economy car. Thanks to its front-wheel drive, it was both safe and huge fun at the same time. The fact its wheels were at its extreme corners gave it the limpet-like roadholding of a go-kart, and because of this – and despite meagre power, top speed and acceleration times – it felt vivid. Whether tackling twisty country roads or threading through city streets, these Minis were thrillingly agile.
Mind you, the Mini was wanting in a few small areas. Early cars let in quite a lot of rainwater, and because Issigonis abhorred listening to the radio, there was nowhere to install one. Another big issue was that price; because it was set so low to tempt buyers to this radical little machine, BMC found it hard to make any money on it.
Indeed, the only way to generate profits from Issigonis’s magic was to broaden the appeal of the Mini itself. So the standard cars were joined by a fancy Deluxe and then an even more elaborate Super version, together with vans, pick-ups and estate cars.
The Mini Cooper and its time in the spotlight
The most exciting upgrade, however, came from outside the company. Formula 1 team owner John Cooper calculated that the Mini’s superlative road manners were crying out for more power and, despite Issigonis’s early scepticism, he worked over the car with a tuned engine, extra carburetor and miniature disc front brakes. In 1961 the legendary Mini Cooper was born. It became an extraordinarily capable and successful competition car on tarmac circuits and, especially in later 100mph Cooper S guise, punishing rally courses. Cooper victories on the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967 were the stuff of legend… as was the 1966 ‘win’ cruelly snatched away from the car on the basis of a headlight that didn’t quite meet the regulations…
The vehicle itself was a phenomenon. But the Cooper, in particular, assured the Mini a place in wider British culture. The beautiful people of Swinging London wanted Minis because they were the quickest way to zip around town, with Lord Snowdon – a personal friend of Issigonis’s – trending particularly strongly. Other celebrities and all of the individual Beatles (even John Lennon, who didn’t actually have a driving licence) bought them too, and a boutique industry mushroomed in Mini customising, with wide wheels, snarling exhaust systems, blacked-out windows, hi-fi systems, cocktail cabinets, Rolls-Royce-type leather seats, full-length sunroofs and even custom-made hatchback conversions making the cost of the basic car almost irrelevant. Hollywood stars Steve McQueen and James Garner had their own special cars, and at a total cost of £3760 in 1967 Mike Nesmith of The Monkees pop group spent more than anyone else on his.
To crown it all, the 1969 film The Italian Job made the Mini Cooper a movie star in its own right.
What seems astonishing, though, is that the famous dalliance with Michael Caine came 10 years into the Mini’s life. The original car would be on sale – yes, really – for another 31 years. From a highpoint in annual sales of 318,000, there was a gradual decline yet always, somehow, just enough demand to keep it in showrooms. A micro-boom in popularity in Japan in the 1980s finally made the Mini a profitable car for its often-troubled manufacturer. Along the way came dozens of natty limited editions, including variations designed by British fashion titans from Mary Quant to Paul Smith, that tended to be instant sell-outs. It picked up a catalytic converter, fuel injection and a driver’s airbag to just about stay abreast of modern motoring needs.
The changing face of the Mini
Indeed, although the 1980s Austin Mini-Metro could have been considered a long overdue replacement, the original Mini outlasted it by four years! Only in the mid 1990s did work finally begin on a Mini for the modern world. And when the BMW-financed car was launched in 2001 it was a very different kettle of fish – an up-to-date fun car, vaguely Mini-shaped, aimed at wealthy urban couples rather than hard-up suburban dads.
Of course this new MINI – BMW insisted on the all-capitals – has become a cult car all of its own, and a key upholder of British car-making tradition. It’s changed continuously beneath its exaggeratedly retro panels, now even with an electric drivetrain, where the old car was utterly frozen in time until the very last of the 5,387,062 rolled out of its Longbridge home. But owners of the original have always hated the new one. Too big and fancy, they claim, and a betrayal of Issigonis’s purist thinking. Owners of the new MINI, meanwhile, just enjoy it as the premium product it now is… largely unaware its 1959 ancestor is the most influential (and best-selling) single car Britain has ever produced.
Throughout six decades, Minis have been some of the most charismatic cars you can buy. The driving experience has always been joyful – scintillating even – whether the power on offer is minimal or mighty. A lot of people need to own a small car, but almost everyone who actively enjoys getting behind the wheel wants to own a Mini.
Images credit to: Giles Chapman Library